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Take part in civic, social, political arena, conference speakers encourage Catholics

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Catholic San Francisco) - Catholics should take part in the political and social arenas and employ Church social teachings as their guide more than look to Church leaders, much less to partisan campaigns, for easy answers to hard choices.

That was an underlying message of “Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” a conference that drew about 170 parish leaders and teachers to St. Mary’s Cathedral April 3. In a presidential election year where issues of economic justice and the sanctity of life are at stake, the event was designed to remind Catholics that their faith demands active public participation and that social charity must rule political choices.

Keynote speaker Joan Rosenhauer, director of the Office of Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave a detailed look at Church documents supporting Catholic social teaching. She urged the participants to become familiar with such documents as Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

“Benedict says the Church must not take it upon itself to bring about the most just society possible,” she said. “The Church should form consciences and stimulate insight into the requirements of justice.” Catholic leaders should guide the faithful to this source material and urge each person to act independently but on the basis of a firm understanding of Catholic values. Social charity is the pre - eminent value and also is expressed as “avoiding evil and doing good,” she said.

Goodness has no higher limit, she said, but evil has clear boundaries. Types of behavior that are considered improper under any circumstances include abortion, human cloning, euthanasia, human embryonic stem - cell research, torture, racism and targeting civilians in war. Actions that are clearly to the good include delivering nutrition and health care and promoting peace.

“One of the most important things we can do is share these basic themes,” she said. “The fact that people don’t know these basic themes means they can’t look at issues through the values of their faith.”

On avoiding endorsements of candidates

Church leaders should avoid endorsing issues or candidates, even when pressed by parishioners who are anxious for guidance, she said.

“One thing they may say is, ‘The Church up the street, they endorse candidates. Why doesn’t the Catholic Church?’“ Rosenhauer said. “We want to be able to maintain the integrity of our teaching. If we endorse a candidate people would assume we endorse things. We don’t, because there is almost never a situation where a candidate is consistent with the Church’s position across the board.”

Rosenhauer added, “Don’t expect the bishops to tell you what to do. That’s not their role.”

Catholic citizenship is a process and is not defined by an election calendar, Rosenhauer said. “We have to remember that if we stay involved after the election is over and try to shape the decisions we have made we can be true to our values and convictions over time,” she said.

Wide-ranging questions

Three Archdiocese of San Francisco leaders followed Rosenhauer’s talk with a panel discussion: Msgr. Robert McElroy, pastor at St. Gregory in San Mateo; Jesuit Father George Schultze, an adjunct faculty member at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park; and George Wesolek, director of the archdiocesan Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns.

The three responded to audience questions. The questions concerned such matters as homosexuality and abortion and reflected a struggle over how to choose sides when a candidate might hold some Catholic values but not others. Should a single overriding issue determine a vote? Is abortion always the primary deciding factor? Are some intrinsic evils, such as abortion, graver than others, such as racism?

In an interview after the conference, Msgr. McElroy said that although many acts are intrinsically evil, abortion is the pre - eminent moral issue in public policy. He cited three reasons: the direct taking of life itself, the direct involvement of a person in the act and “the gravity of the moral evil in the tens of millions of abortions that have taken place since Roe v. Wade.” Father Schultze also underlined the gravity of abortion’s toll. “I want to make clear that if there are 40 million people who have lost their lives, what do we say to God and what do we say to the 40 million?” he asked conference participants.

Rosenhauer said the abortion question is the classic one facing the Catholic voter. But, she said, leaders must resist the temptation to give a simple answer.

“Nobody ever said it was going to be easy to be an adult Catholic. Read the document, and then struggle with it and make your decision,” she said. “We will almost always have to make imperfect choices in the voting booth.”

Voting by values

Wesolek said Catholic voters grounded in the values of their faith could be a formidable force on both the political left and right.

“If Catholics really were involved with their party and they carried with them their values, then there would be a different kind of Democratic Party and I think a different kind of Republican Party,” Wesolek said in an interview after the conference.

“If we just take the abortion issue, Republicans are generally pro life and Democrats are pro abortion,” he said. “On that issue if Catholics had brought their values, just because of their numbers and leadership, you would have a Democratic Party that would at least be neutral on the issue, or at least allow some diversity. On the other side, if Catholic Republicans would really work in their party there would be a different attitude toward the poor.”

(Papal, conciliar and episcopal documents on Catholic social teaching are available from the USCCB by calling (800) 235-8722. Two short publications, “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions” and “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility” summarize the teaching. More information is available at


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.



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