(RNS) – The Catholic Church is the only major denomination with nearly the same number of Republicans and Democrats in a unique position to respond to today’s toxic policies.
According to a 2018 report from Pew Research Center“Approximately the same proportion of Catholic registered voters have identified with or turned to the Democratic and Republican parties in recent years (47% vs. 46%).”
Granted, the church itself is plagued by divisions and scandals and may not seem the best solution to America’s political conflicts. On the other hand, the Church teaches that there is strength in weakness, especially when that weakness teaches the Church’s humility. Furthermore, the best way to overcome divisions in the Church can be to help heal divisions in the nation.
There are at least four possible Catholic strategies that could help reduce the country’s divisions.
The first is to educate both Catholics and others about Catholic social education, which Catholic universities have been trying to do for decades. Catholic social teaching does not fit easily into the platform of a party. Democrats reject the doctrine of abortion, while Republicans denigrate the role they play in the state’s response to social and economic problems. Anyone who accepts all Catholic social teaching is not at home in any party; This challenges both Catholic Republicans and Democrats.
Catholic social teaching also has the advantage that it is usually expressed in general values, principles and goals and not in specific programs. It leaves open the question of how these goals can best be achieved, what must be determined by experts and politicians. This lack of specificity enables flexibility and finding solutions through negotiations and compromises.
For many years, the entirety of Catholic social teaching has been at the heart of the political strategy of the Catholic bishops in the United States. For Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, advocating a “consistent ethics of life”, colloquially known as a “seamless garment,” meant protecting life from the womb to the grave. He was concerned about the care of mothers and children after childbirth through health care, day care, education and work, as well as ending the abortion.
This was also the approach the US bishops took every four years in their “Faithful Citizenship”. Explanation, published the year before the presidential election and sometimes, albeit selectively, quoted by candidates and elected officials.
On the other hand, Catholic social teaching has often been called the Church’s best kept secret. Senator John Kerry, who ran as president in 2004, admitted to me that he hadn’t even heard of “Faithful Citizenship” until after the election.
The chance to use Faithful Citizenship as a binding document suffered a blow at the US bishops meeting in Baltimore last November when they voted to highlight abortion as an “outstanding” political issue for Catholics. Democrats will see this as a tendency toward the Republican Party. However, most of the rest of the document is in line with the Democratic agenda, which has traditionally agreed to the statement.
As an alternative to “Faithful Citizenship”, the Church could try to create a unit around Pope Francis’ social teaching that most Catholics admire and like, and that has struck a deep chord outside the Church. Partisanship, however, has even affected Catholics’ attitude towards the Pope and his teaching – the Church believes that 55% of Catholic Republicans are too liberal for Francis Pew Research Center, Only 37 percent of Catholic Republicans believe that Pope Francis is a major change for the better, compared to 71 percent of Catholic Democrats.
Obviously the times are over when the debate could be ended simply by saying: “The Church teaches …”. It’s hard enough to get people to listen. But getting people to accept the teachings of the Church has always been a tough struggle. The Church shouldn’t stop preaching Catholic social teaching just because it is difficult.
A second way to capitalize on the division of the two Church parties is to bring Democrats and Republicans together to discuss their differences.
Catholic Republicans and Democrats are shared equally on issues such as global warming, immigration and helping the poor as a whole. But the church has decades of experience in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, and perhaps similar processes could be used to bridge the gap between Catholics in different parties.
It would be a major challenge to prevent these meetings from becoming noisy games. Experienced moderators would be necessary. The average pastor would not want to have a political fight in the parish hall. Seminarians and pastors must be trained to promote conversation and dialogue between Catholics on church and political issues. This is easier if the pastor approaches these situations without the attitude that “Father knows best”. Again, that doesn’t mean the church shouldn’t try just because it’s difficult.
Otherwise, as the old saw says: “You will know from your love that you are Christian, but you will know from your struggles that you are Catholic.”
The third Catholic approach to our partisan division is more humble and limited. No more than a dozen people, equally Republicans and Democrats, would be invited here to break bread together. Eating together is an old Christian tradition. The conversation would be kept away from partisan issues. Rather, they could share their beliefs on topics such as:
- What does my belief mean for me and my family?
- When and where do I feel closest to God?
- What is my favorite Gospel passage?
- How do I live the command of Jesus to love God and neighbor?
- How does my belief shape my view of the world?
The purpose of this exchange is not to change the minds of others. it is not to be scored. It’s more about seeing other people and Christians, even if I don’t agree with them politically at all.
I would like to fly on the wall with two Republican and two Democratic Catholic politicians moderated by their local bishop. Here the role of the bishop would not be as a teacher, but as a moderator and listener. But no bishop is needed. The assembler could be a priest or a respected layperson.
A final strategy to overcome toxic partisanship would be for Catholic Republicans and Democrats to work together on charitable projects. While they may not agree on the role of government in helping the poor, there should be little disagreement about how to care for the hungry, sick and poor.
The Church has always been heavily involved in Catholic charities at diocesan and parish levels. Working together to help the poor through banks, shelters, and organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society promotes respect and friendship that goes beyond partisan politics. In addition to the good, you get to know your employees and the poor as people and not as caricatures.
I am sure there are other strategies that Catholics could use to try to fill the guerrilla gap. The Pope has proposed adding ecological sins to the catechism. Perhaps he should add toxic political rhetoric and political lies to the list of sins.
As the largest church with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, Catholics have a special obligation to try before it is too late. It would be good for the country and good for the church.
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