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Ten Maxims Catholics Need to Know to Change the Culture

By Deal W. Hudson
January 14th, 2014
Catholic Online (

Last week I was asked by a Legatus group in Phoenix to address the issue of how Catholics impact and change the culture.  I offered this list of ten "maxims" about political participation, the place where Catholic influence in the culture has needed serious attention for a long time.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Last week I was asked by a Legatus group in Phoenix to address the issue of how Catholics impact and change the culture.  I offered this list of ten "maxims" about political participation, the place where Catholic influence in the culture has needed serious attention for a long time.

As long as a majority of Catholics in the U.S. Congress are pro-abortion, as they have been for decades, Catholics are allowing an ongoing scandal to mislead not only Catholics but all Americans as they observe the outcome of legislation. 

If Catholics in the Congress had been faithful, there would have been no Obamacare, or, at least, a new health program without federally funded abortion.

1. Promote Mass attendance: All the exit polling since the late 50s shows that Mass-attending Catholics, not just self-identified Catholics, are most likely to vote for socially conservative candidates, i.e., those who oppose gay marriage, oppose abortion, oppose euthanasia, support the military, espouse traditional values, support fiscal responsibility, oppose the growth of federal power, and look upon the United States as an "exceptional" nation. The lower Mass attendance drops, the less likely Catholic voters will oppose the cultural norms that will shape the minds and hearts of present and future generations.

2. Maximize the likely: Outreach to Catholic voters should focus on maximizing the identification, education, recruiting, and actual voting of Mass-attending Catholics.  Effort spent going after other groups is a waste of time and resources.  Self-identified Catholics vote with the general population, and various Catholic ethnic groups will only embrace social conservatism after a long term effort of evangelization and education.

3. No Catholic language: Most Catholic politicians and activists sound like Evangelicals.  That's not meant as a criticism of Evangelicals but a criticism of Catholics who do not bring the concepts and diction of their own faith into the public square.  It's also a criticism of Catholics who think they have to sound like an Evangelical preacher to gain a following or create applause. Catholics speaking on politics need to develop their own effective political language and their own powerful, persuasive rhetorical models.

4. Dealing with the Bishops: The Church teaches that the Catholic layperson has a specific obligation to participate in politics, to be political all the way to the grassroots.  Our clergy and religious have an obligation to vote but do not have the same obligation to engage politics in a partisan manner. Catholics make the mistake of asking for permission to create groups or support candidates, when asking permission is not required.  Our clergy teach us the moral/social principles upon which our participation is based, but they cannot, and should not, become obstacles to lay participation in politics.  (The only exception is in the case of ex-communication when a politician is "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin," such as abortion; see Canon 915.)

5. Lists not fury: Too many Catholics confuse public complaining with political participation. They spend their time making impassioned comments at political rallies, or in religious meetings, about the state of the culture and the need to change our political leadership. None of these impromptu speeches gain any votes because they are "preaching to the choir." The fury, however, can be an effective starting point of genuine political outreach, which includes list-building, volunteer recruitment, volunteer and voter education, door-knocks, messaging through media, and get-out-the-vote programs.

6. Catholics play dirty: One of the hardest lessons to learn, and accept, is that Catholics in politics will play dirty.  By that, I mean they will lie about the faith, misrepresent its teaching, ignore its non-negotiable moral principles, distort the views of pro-lifers and other socially conservative Catholics, and claim papal or episcopal support for policies that have no papal or episcopal support. Lay Catholics, sadly, are not the only Catholics who lie in politics. The responsibility we have is to challenge those lies in a timely manner and keep them from becoming embedded in the public consciousness.

7. Politics is passion: Catholics will have noticed that the candidate who tells the truth is not necessarily the candidate who wins. That's because political outcomes are not determined by who tells the truth but who stirs the passions of the most voters.  Voters vote first and foremost for the candidate they "like," who they are "favorable" toward. Politicians and their supporters who do not get this are beaten from the start. Of course, Catholics should support a politician who tells the truth about human existence, but they should also either recruit likable candidates or convince the grouchy ones they need to smile more and frown less.

8. Take sentimentality seriously: Catholics, for good reasons, are a sentimental tribe.  Any acquaintance with the last two hundred years of Catholicism in America will appreciate the hardships of generation after generation of Catholic immigrants.  And before that, the America of the Founders was not at all hospitable to Catholics, an anti-Catholic attitude that was still evident in the 1960 presidential election.  This fact makes the passionate nature of politics even greater among Catholic voters. Candidates and activists need to tread carefully, and, most of all, know who they are talking to when they talk to Catholics.

9. Master the symbols: Catholics, as liturgical worshippers, are naturally alert and vulnerable to the power of imagery and symbols. For example, I was told some years ago "never wear French cuffs when you speak to Catholic voters."  Good advice, such symbols only remind voters - even if they wear French cuffs themselves - of the Protestant elites who looked down upon their Irish, Italian, or Slavic grandparents. You will not believe the pains taken by candidates to have "collars" or "habits" behind them during their stump speeches. This is why it's a rare Evangelical, political consultant who can successfully manage Catholic outreach. 

10. Happy warriors win: Politicians are in sales. Voters are the buyers. When you are selling you don't browbeat the buyer, you don't sadden the buyer, you don't demean the buyer.  No, you befriend the buyer, meet his or her eye with a smile, learn his or her name, shake hands warmly, and talk about how buying your product will make life better.  In short, you are a person they like and trust who they can believe in.  Anger, condemnation, self-righteousness, such attitudes and tones of voice may delight a small percentage of angry, condemning, and self-righteous voters, but it won't win an election. 

Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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