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February 17, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 7

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"I was struck by the sense that this has really gotten ugly."

William Dinges, a Catholic University of America associate professor of Religious Studies,
who interviewed diocesan social action directors around the country about their experiences this past election cycle


Bishops' "Faithful Citizenship" undermined by conservative groups

By Joe Feuerherd

Diocesan social action directors charged with taking the church's election-year message to the faithful were harassed from below and, in some cases, subverted from above.

Harassment came from parish- and diocesan-based conservatives who viewed a second term for George W. Bush as a secular second coming; the subversion from some bishops and clergy who placed the "five nonnegotiable issues" promoted by a conservative Catholic group (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and gay marriage) over the teaching promoted by the U.S. bishops.

Every four years, the bishops, through their administrative board, release a statement outlining their views on current issues through the lens of Catholic social teaching. No candidates are endorsed or parties supported.

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In October 2003, the administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released "Faithful Citizenship," an 8,000-word statement on church social teaching, which declared that "as Catholics, we are not free to abandon unborn children because they are seen as unwanted or inconvenient; to turn our backs on immigrants because they lack the proper documents; to create and then destroy human lives in a quest for medical advances or profit; to turn away from poor women and children because they lack economic or political power; or to ignore sick people because they have no insurance. Nor can we neglect international responsibilities in the aftermath of war because resources are scarce. Catholic teaching requires us to speak up for the voiceless and to act in accord with universal moral values."

The document provided a set of 10 questions Catholics should consider before entering the voting booth and offered a set of principles drawn from Catholic social teaching. The bishops promised an extensive diocesan-based effort to promote "Faithful Citizenship" -- brochures summarizing the statement, videos explaining Catholic social teaching, and a Web site providing "liturgical and homily ideas, education materials and lesson plans for various age groups, and information on conducting nonpartisan voter registration and education programs."

So far so good.

Then, in early 2004, an El Cajon, Calif.-based conservative group, "Catholic Answers," published its "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," a 2,500-word pamphlet that urged Catholics to vote based on the "five nonnegotiable issues." Said the pamphlet, "It is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions, and no candidate who really wants to advance the common good will support any action contrary to the nonnegotiable principles involved in these issues."

Pamphlets in parking lots
In the outreach effort that ensued, the diocesan social action directors were blindsided. Millions of copies of the "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" were distributed in church parking lots and foyers and inserted in parish bulletins. Catholic Answers took out a full-page ad in USA Today, and proponents of the nonnegotiables disrupted efforts to promote the bishops' official view of the 2004 election. It was political hardball, with some social action directors subject to e-mail campaigns in which chanceries were flooded with correspondence questioning their orthodoxy and commitment to church teaching.

"As a person who gave numerous presentations on 'Faithful Citizenship' before the election in November, I ran into significant resistance from self-described pro-life Catholics at nearly every talk," a social action director told me recently. "In fact, through forwarded e-mail to the [chancery], we learned that I had been targeted by a coterie of these folks because they (correctly) presumed that I would be advocating a consistent ethic of life approach to evaluating candidates and issues, rather than advocating 'authentic Catholic teaching' that labels abortion as the single most important issue."

In this case, diocesan officials stood firm. Parishes were instructed to use Faithful Citizenship and those of the state Catholic conference, and not the Catholic Answers Voter's Guide. Nonetheless, "we were inundated with the [Catholic Answers] voting guide," reports the social action director.

The experience of this social action director was the norm in this election cycle, reports Catholic University of America associate professor of Religious Studies William Dinges. For a paper he is presenting at the Feb. 18-23 meeting of diocesan social action workers, Dinges interviewed 22 diocesan social action directors around the country. He described his findings at a Feb. 16 presentation at the university.

Dinges said he was surprised "by the number of people who told me that they have 'never seen the conflict this bad before.' " There is little civility when conservative activists challenge diocesan workers presenting the teaching of the bishops. "I was struck by the sense that this has really gotten ugly," said Dinges.

So who are the conservative activists? Dinges places them in five groups: Catholic traditionalists, conservatives and neoconservatives, the "radicalized element" of the antiabortion movement, Republican political partisans and "evangelicalized Catholics." Though there was clearly some organized effort to disrupt and disparage the church's official outreach, most of agitation was caused, said Dinges, by individuals acting in small groups, frequently with the support of conservative parish clergy who showed little fear of contravening diocesan guidance on election-year activities.

Further, said Dinges, in some dioceses the activists "were emboldened by the actions of some bishops," particularly in dioceses where bishops threatened to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians. In some cases, chastened by the hostility diocesan presenters received at Faithful Citizenship education efforts, bishops simply cancelled additional sessions, leaving the Catholic take on the election to the Catholic Answers crowd.

Anything new here?
Is there anything new here? Dinges thinks so. In the immediate post-Vatican II era, he noted, disputes between liberal and conservative Catholics centered largely on intra-church issues, such as liturgical practices. Today's tug-of-war is focused on the "broader culture wars in American society" and liberal Catholics and their conservative brethren are no longer even "pulling on the same rope."

Said Dinges, "We do not even know how to talk to each other -- to have responsible adult conversations -- in areas where there is serious disagreement." The structures that are supposed to facilitate communication within the church, says Dinges, are "dysfunctional."

Dinges is to present his paper at the social action meeting on Feb. 19. The title of the gathering: "The Church in the Modern World: Founded on Truth, Built on Justice, Animated by Love."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@ncronline.org

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