Call it perplexing. As the primary and general elections approach, many Catholics will try to match their faith with an American political system that doesn’t have a party fully in line with Church teaching.
We don’t have to stop belonging to political parties, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson wrote in a recent column in the St. Louis Review. But “if there’s a conflict between the Gospel and our political party, our deepest loyalties need to become clear.”
When there’s a conflict, he offered three options: leave the party; stay and push for change within the party; or create an alternative that’s more acceptable.
Deacon Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, said some legislators from both parties express frustration that they feel compelled to vote along a party line even when it is contrary to their faith.
As Catholics, Deacon Lee said, “We should offer encouragement for those who wish to stay within political institutions, the Democrat or Republican party, and provide education on what the Church teaches.”
The Church’s teaching on different moral problems, he said, carries different weights, with bans on abortion and euthanasia and, to a slightly lesser degree, capital punishment “quite clear.” Teaching on immigration and other issues is also clear though there can be some differences in policy, he said.
“If people don’t stay within political institutions, then who’s left to reform from within?” Deacon Lee asked. “The biggest problem is for pro-life Democrats. They’re basically told by other Democrats they can’t be a good Democrat. And they’re told by others they can’t be a good Catholic. I think it’s unfair. It’s unnecessary to guilt people and tell them they have to leave. But it’s a long-term struggle for anyone who’s working within the Democratic party for reform.”
‘Everybody has worth’
Former State Rep. Ed Schieffer, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Troy, was elected to the Missouri House in 2006 and served his Lincoln County district as a Democrat for eight years. He lives on his family’s farm and spent 30 years as a teacher, real estate broker and instructor.
Among the bills Schieffer sponsored were attempts to raise the fiscal year cap on the tax credit for donations to food pantries and to bring awareness to mental health issues. He also sponsored bills on helping veterans, improving health care and protecting consumers.
He has deep ties to the Catholic Church. He taught at the former St. Mary’s Academy high school in O’Fallon, and his brother-in-law is a Franciscan priest. He had an anti-abortion voting record and said pro-life means “total life, not just conception of life. You have to help the woman who chooses to have the baby, educate the baby and have good health care for that mother and child.”
“Everybody has worth,” he said, because they’re made in the image of God. He places a priority on education, having also taught in the St. Louis and Normandy school districts, and urges Missourians to reinvest vocational education.
He said his faith guided his voting as a legislator. “We can’t be afraid to help people more, whether you call yourself a Democrat or a Republican. And I don’t see how we can say we are pro-life if we don’t protect people from the day of conception until the day of natural death.”
Former state Sen. Kevin Engler, a Republican and member of St. Joseph Parish in Farmington, is the St. Francois County clerk and a veteran of 16 years in the Missouri House and Senate. He said he tried to share the concerns of the people of his district, one of the reasons why for the most part he supported legislation backed by labor and worked with Democrats on that and other issues.
Among the bills he sponsored was legislation that extended the expiration date of tax credits for donations to pregnancy resource centers; raising the MO HealthNet asset limits for disabled persons; and establishing the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Act.
Engler said he used to have a lot of Democratic colleagues who voted anti-abortion like him but now “there’s hardly any, because you can’t hardly be pro-life in the Democratic party.”
He said he considered Gospel values in his decision-making.
People who are turned off by and ignore politics “should accept what they get,” Engler said. “Unless you’re part of the solution, you don’t need to be complaining about the problem.”
People today have the time to complain but don’t have the time to do anything about it, he said. “We are called, just like you’re called in the faith, you’re called to be good citizens and make the world a better place. And part of that is through public service.”
The common good
Deacon Tyler McClay, executive director and general counsel of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said the Church stands for the unborn, for social services for people who are poor, for human dignity. He cited Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress in 2015 in which the Pope told them they are called to defend and preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, “the chief aim of all politics.”
Legislative activity is always based on the care of the people, Pope Francis said. “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”
The common good becomes lost in the value placed on individual liberty, McClay said. Radical liberation — “leave me alone,” “I’m not my brother’s keeper” or “My body, my choice” — is “where we’ve gone off the rails,” he said, because it excludes others and loses the ability to come together for the common good.
Amy Blouin, founder and director of the Missouri Budget Project, said that the public health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19 shows that “you’d think that now more than ever we would be able to overcome individualistic thinking and think more about community, what’s the common good for people.”
Most lawmakers and Missourians, she said, are in the middle on policy issues, and could agree, but the people on the extremes, perhaps because of term limits, “are pressuring folks in each party to toe the line rather than act independently. That’s something I’ve seen growing ever since we implemented term limits because you don’t have the independent nature of lawmakers who are around for a while, who develop relationships with other lawmakers in the capitol and want to work together to come up with bipartisan solutions.”
Archbishop Carlson wrote that change can happen. He called for prayers for renewal and determination and creativity to find other options to the political scene.
>> “Civilize It”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a year-long initiative last November that invites Catholics to model civility, love for neighbor and respectful dialogue. “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate” asks Catholics to pledge civility in their families, communities and parishes, and call on others to do the same.
The initiative is built on the recognition that every person — even those with whom we disagree — is a beloved child of God who possesses inherent dignity. Civilize It is promotes its effort as an invitation to “imitate the example of Jesus in our daily lives, including in our encounters with one another through civil dialogue.”
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, of Venice, and chairman of the U.S bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said conversation in the public square is all too often filled with personal attacks and words that assume the worst about those with whom we disagree. “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate” is a call for Catholics to honor the human dignity of each person they encounter, whether it is online, at the dinner table, or in the pews next to them, he said.
Civilize It is being offered in concert with a wider ecumenical effort, Golden Rule 2020.
More information on the bishops’ initiative as well as promotional materials, resources and other tools may be found on CivilizeIt.org.
Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.
As Pope Francis reminds us, “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good… . I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 205). The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation. As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts. We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a civilization of truth and love.
• The Missouri Catholic Conference is the public policy agency of the Catholic Church in Missouri. The conference promotes the common good by advocating for public policy that upholds the sanctity and dignity of all human life. Join the Missouri Catholic Advocacy Network at mocatholic.org.
• The Archdiocese of St. Louis: Faithful Citizenship page includes resources on important election topics and a link to “Viewing election issues through a lens of faith” booklet, based on columns written by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson in 2016. www.archstl.org/faithful-citizenship.