Party Politics and the Body of Christ

Tom ChapmanMy doctor was smiling as I woke up from the anesthesia. “You must have a very interesting job, Tom,” my doctor said. “You help people with the formation of their conscience and encourage them to take action? Very interesting.”

I finally realized I must have been giving part of a “Faithful Citizenship” presentation in my sleep. As a state Catholic Conference director, that says something about my interest in the subject!

Every election cycle brings many requests from parishes for presentations about “Faithful Citizenship” and what the Catholic bishops have to say about our political activity as laypeople.

Catholics who take the time to attend these presentations often identify strongly with a particular political party. So one of the first things I do is ask attendees to put aside their political party, and take on their identity as a member of the Body of Christ. We discuss political issues and the principles of our social teaching as Catholics first.

It’s essential we do so. Political party talking points are just that. They are shorthand sound bites designed to inflame the base and drive people to one side or the other of an issue.

On the other hand, God speaking to us through Scripture gives us some pretty clear direction: “You shall not kill.” We are to “bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, and to set the downtrodden free.” Our cause, as Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship says, “is the defense of human life and dignity.”

The principles of Catholic social teaching – dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity – frame how the Church considers specific issues and invite reflection on the best specific response.

Some are fearful about what this fall’s presidential general election will mean for our country. But what a critical time it is to consider why and how our Catholic faith is calling us to get involved in politics, discuss the very real challenges we have in society, and figure out what we can do to meet those challenges. The message of the Church is needed now more than ever.

Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word. We can be the ones who help others inform their conscience, find their voice, and take their faith everywhere, even the voting booth. Maybe even talking in our sleep!

Tom Chapman is Executive Director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.


Go Deeper!

For more on forming our consciences, see this handout in English and Spanish. Visit www.FaithfulCitizenship.org for additional helpful resources, including Part I and Part II summary of the bishops’ statement, homily helps and announcements, lesson plans, and more.

10 Tips on Dialogue from Pope Francis: A Challenge to Families…and Candidates?

amoris-fb-meme-5-4In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis calls dialogue “essential” for family life.   His guidelines on dialogue are easily applicable to civil society as well.

Can you imagine how this election cycle might be different if we challenged ourselves, candidates, political parties, commentators, ourselves, and others to follow Pope Francis’ advice?

  1. Recognize the real “importance” and dignity of the other person. Recognize others’ right “to think as they do and to be happy.”  Pope Francis challenges us to acknowledge the values of the other’s “deepest concerns” and what he or she is try to say (no. 138).
  2. Try to understand where the other person is coming from: his or her pain, disappointments, fear, anger, hopes, and dreams (no. 137).
  3. Put yourself in the other’s “shoes”; try to “peer” into his or her heart. This is the starting point for dialogue (no. 138).
  4. Be ready to “listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say.”  Dialogue requires the “self-discipline” of waiting until someone is finished speaking before responding.  And, it means truly listening to what someone else is saying—not planning a comeback before the other person has even finished speaking (no. 137).
  5. “Keep an open mind.” We need not stick to our own “limited ideas and opinions,” but we must “be prepared to change or expand them.” Our goal is “synthesis” that enriches everyone involved in the dialogue.  We don’t seek unity in diversity, Pope Francis says, but rather “reconciled diversity” (no. 139).
  6. Our goal is to advance the common good. Respect and appreciation for the “other” are necessary prerequisites (no. 139).
  7. Try not to offend, and don’t vent. We must choose our words carefully, be sensitive to how others feel, and never seek to inflict hurt. We must also avoid a “patronizing” tone, which “only serves to hurt, ridicule, accuse and offend others” (no. 139).
  8. Love everyone. “Love,” Pope Francis writes, “surmounts even the worst barriers.”  When we come from a place of love, we can better understand others (no. 140).
  9. Base positions on beliefs and values, not on the desire to “win” an argument or be “proved right” (no. 140).
  10. Pray! True dialogue, Pope Francis reminds us, “can only be the fruit of an interior richness” nourished by our quiet time with God through reading, reflection, prayer, and “openness to the world around us” (no. 141).

These are challenging words from Pope Francis.  How might our own families be different if we took his words to heart? Our parishes?  Our neighborhoods? Ourselves? Our society? The current election cycle?

Pope Francis’ vision is a vision of joy-filled love. Let’s share it!Rauh headshot

Jill Rauh is assistant director for education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


Go Deeper!

Get more tips and resources on dialogue from the WeAreSaltAndLight.org page on Encounter.

Being “Sheep” Who Hear Jesus’ Voice

7-342-Catholics-Care-Catholics-Vote-1In yesterday’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus called us to be “sheep” who hear: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” (10:27-28). Are you a sheep who hears Jesus’ voice?

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops emphasize the importance of hearing God’s voice—in particular, “the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil” (no. 17).

Another name for this voice is “conscience”—our “most secret core and sanctuary” where we are “alone with God, whose voice echoes” in our depths, revealing “that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 16).

Each one of us has this “secret core and sanctuary” where we can hear God’s voice. Yet, as all of us who are still on the path to sainthood can attest, “hearing” doesn’t usually come naturally—it’s something we work at for our entire lives.

When we have important decisions to make, such as deciding which candidates, policies, or platforms we should best support as Catholics and U.S. citizens, forming our consciences becomes all the more important—especially during an election season when candidates, parties, and super PACs spend millions trying to convince us that their side is right.

So how can we be sheep who hear?

First, in Faithful Citizenship, the bishops encourage us to begin with a sincere desire to embrace goodness and truth (no. 18).  We don’t engage in conscience formation simply to reaffirm or justify a conclusion we’ve already reached.

Second, we are called to study Sacred Scripture and the moral and social teachings of the Church.

Third, we must carefully examine facts and background information about various choices before us.

Finally (and really, throughout), we must pray and reflect, seeking to discern God’s will.

Conscience formation is a lot of work—but it’s a must for anyone serious about trying to hear and follow Jesus’ voice.

So let’s get to it.


Go Deeper!

Learn how Catholics across the country are putting their faith into action through civic engagement with Success Stories from WeAreSaltandLight.org.

For more on conscience formation, check out the Conscience Formation Bulletin Insert and Homily Suggestions for April 17, 2016.

Africa: A Tale of Two Elections

Hilbert headshotLast week the world witnessed two important elections that demonstrate Africa’s struggle to instate and protect the rule of law and accountable democratic governance. The recent elections in Nigeria and the upcoming process in Burundi are a study in contrasts.

On May 29 Nigeria inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the first time in Nigeria’s 55 year history that it had conducted a peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one ruling party to another. The 2015 elections were peaceful and relatively free of fraud despite the real fear of post-election violence. Throughout the election, the Church in Nigeria was a constant voice for the common good. Church leaders met with both Presidential candidates to urge them to conduct a free and fair election.

President Buhari faces a host of serious challenges. The terrorist-insurgent group Boko Haram continues to attack mosques, villages and towns in the northeast of the country despite some recent successful operations by the Nigerian military and neighboring countries. Oil revenue makes up 53% of Nigeria’s federal budget and the fall in the price of oil has forced the government to make drastic budget cuts. The country ranks an abysmal 136 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. And although Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, 62.6% of its population lives in poverty. Life expectancy is only 52 years. Despite these challenges, the election gives Nigerians renewed hopes for positive change.

The successful elections in Nigeria contrast sharply with recent events in Burundi. For ten years Burundi has lived in relative peace under a democratically elected government, a unified national military, and a new constitution that provides for majority rule (demanded by the majority Hutu population) with solid safeguards against repression of the minority Tutsi ethnic population.

Recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified repression of political opposition leaders, independent radio stations and the press. He has created and armed a political youth group that attacks political opposition members, resulting in about 100,000 people fleeing the country. In 2014 the Parliament foiled the President’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. This year the President announced his candidacy for a third term arguing that the parliament had elected him in 2005 for his first term and not the people. Demonstrations and riots broke out, leading to 20 deaths. Tensions led to a failed coup d’état against the President in May.

Throughout the past year Church leaders have spoken out repeatedly to oppose a third term an action that would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace accord that brought an end to the bloody civil war. After the coup attempt, the Church urged an end to the violence and the start of political negotiations to end the impasse. When the President launched his bid for a third term, the Church called for the elections to be postponed until peace was restored, radio and media outlets were reopened, and all civil and political rights were restored. The government has failed to reinstate the rule of law, prompting the Church to withdraw its clergy from the election monitoring teams and the local electoral committees.

In response, the government did not renew the tenure of a Catholic priest who was the head of the country’s national human rights commission. On May 31 the Archbishop of Bujumbura, the capital, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. The Church now seems under attack because of its opposition to the President’s actions.

In April, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Church in Burundi and another letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice to urge the United States to support the positions that the Church in Burundi had taken to restore stability to the country.

The tale of two elections in Nigeria and Burundi demonstrates the challenges of fostering unity among diverse ethnicities and religious communities, building stable democratic governments, and establishing the rule of law. In both cases, the Church played a prominent role in lifting up the common good. The Church can be proud of its work to ensure fair elections.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.