If you’re a Catholic who is hesitant about getting involved in the political process on behalf of the church and advocating for public policies consistent with church teaching, Anthony Picarello Jr. has some advice for you: “Don’t be afraid.”
Parishes, church organizations and their representatives generally are not allowed to support or oppose political candidates or parties. But they can share the principles of Catholic social teaching, talk about issues and support specific ballot measures.
Opponents of the church’s public policy involvement may claim it is overstepping its bounds, but “don’t believe it,” said Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who spoke recently at Our Lady of Grace in Edina.
It amounts to a way of trying to intimidate the church “in order to deter the effective preaching on the issues,” he said as part of a Nov. 5 panel on “Catholics in the Public Square.” “For the other side to win, they just need to scare you to self censor. Don’t be deterred from what you can do within the limits of the law.”
The event, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life and attended by about 225 people, came as Americans are preparing for elections next fall, when they also will vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would preserve the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Other panel members were Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, who spoke on what it means to be a Catholic in the public square, and Angela Pfister, assistant director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, who talked about engaging today’s culture beyond the voting booth.
Picarello, who will become associate general secretary for policy and advocacy of the USCCB at the end of the year, focused his talk on religious liberty, a topic that has been getting a lot of attention recently from the U.S. bishops and Pope Benedict XVI.
The bishops recently formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in response to government policies promoting contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage that pose threats to religious liberty. The pope, in an address earlier this year to the Vatican diplomatic corps, identified religious freedom as the “first of human rights.”
Religious liberty is fundamental to the church’s participation in the public square, Picarello said, and for protecting the church’s right to speak and minister effectively on a wide range of issues.
He cited recent assaults on religious freedom, including the lack of adequate conscience protections in the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ regulations that would mandate the coverage of contraception and sterilization in all private health insurance plans, an Alabama immigration law that threatens to punish those who help undocumented immigrants, and state laws redefining marriage that have only nominal religious freedom protections.
When religious liberty isn’t protected, there can be ripple effects, Picarello said, such as lawsuits filed against the church and Catholic-affiliated agencies being forced to end certain programs and benefits to remain faithful to church teaching. In those cases, church agencies will struggle, he said, and services to Catholics and non-Catholics alike are affected.
“I think right now we’re facing a situation where, more and more, the freedom of the church to be itself is under threat,” Picarello said.
Healthy ‘human ecology’
Adkins, from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said individual Catholics — who don’t face the same restrictions Catholic organizations do — must be engaged in the political process, and he spoke about the need for a proper “human ecology” in which Catholics see themselves as “stewards of the vineyard of the Lord.”
Defending life is crucial to any thriving ecosystem, he said, and Catholics need to promote a culture of life that opposes abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, wars against civilians and the death penalty, and that also promotes traditional marriage and family life as the cornerstones of society. Catholics are also called to work for policies that promote human flourishing and the common good in areas such as education, health care, the economy, environment and immigration, he said.
Every person in the church, not only bishops, are responsible for promoting just, civic laws that contribute to a healthy human ecology, Adkins said.
Catholics must take the time to inform themselves on public policy issues and form their consciences based on what Catholic social teachings, not political parties, have to say about issues, he said.
“If we could mobilize just 5 percent of the Catholic people in Minnesota — around 50,000 — we could shape political policy rather than have it shape us,” Adkins said. “But we have to stop being slaves to the political parties. We have to transform parties and not let them transform us.”
Pfister of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture said Catholics must engage the culture beyond the voting booth through prayer, education and outreach.
The most effective method of outreach, she said, is personal witness and living the faith in our day-to-day lives. But it’s also important to engage the marketplace by writing opinion pieces for local media, using social media, patronizing films with good messages and even considering a run for political office.
“We need to be creative and not afraid,” Pfister said.
Staying informed, involved
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