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A rich contribution to political conversation

It would be easy to relegate the latest publication on voter responsibility to the growing stack of documents issued every four years by the U.S. bishops. An unmistakable air of obligation and predictability surrounds the project.

The latest effort, however, “Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium,” takes on an unusual significance in an era when the political conversation has been ambushed by endless rounds of loud but largely irrelevant TV gab, when international treaties become the hostages of partisan wrangling and when the really important questions remain somewhere behind the set, waiting for a brief moment in the spotlight.

Enter the nation’s bishops. Predictably, the right to life issue tops the list. This will not -- and should not -- disappear as a top concern for the culture and, particularly, Catholics. The hope is that the bishops have learned from the past that their political strategy on the issue has been seriously flawed, costing them enormously and delivering very little.

Beyond the abortion issue, however, the bishops are faithful to the continuum of life issues, to the principle of the consistent ethic, and here is where they make the richest contribution to the nation’s politics.

If people are numb to the shrill sameness of the abortion debate, they certainly need to be awakened to other issues on the bishops’ social agenda.

Among 10 questions for prospective officeholders, the bishops note the “scandal of a quarter of our preschoolers living in poverty in the richest nation on earth”; “the tragedy of 35,000 children dying every day of the consequences of hunger, debt and lack of development around the world”; the “continuing prejudice, bias and discrimination” as well as “hostility toward immigrants and refugees”; the growing numbers of families and individuals without affordable and accessible health care; and the need to offer families “real choices and financial resources to obtain quality education and decent housing.”

“As bishops, we do not seek the formation of a religious voting block, nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates,” they wrote. “We hope voters will examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance.”

In another section, they advocate debt relief and other steps to alleviate global poverty. They emphasize basic human rights as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, urge more support of the United Nations, greater protection for refugees and more generous policies toward immigrants. And they seek a kind of international peacekeeping that would not rely on war making.

This is not one of those religious voter guides -- with a tick list of positions and how candidates voted on them -- that is really a thinly disguised partisan endorsement.

If used properly, the bishops’ admonition on political involvement could be a valuable tool in fostering sound political discussion at the parish level or among high school and college students. The document is available on the web at www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp

These are the issues that should engage our energies.

For too long, Catholic involvement in politics -- at least in the popular perception -- has been defined by the abortion debate and a flawed strategy that has done little to persuade anyone, including Catholics. Not only has the strategy been unpersuasive, it has helped to elect candidates who have worked diligently to undermine most of the other elements of the bishops’ social agenda. Many of those candidates have taken advantage of valuable opportunities to have their photos taken with smiling cardinals and bishops.

In the run up to the 2000 elections, the Catholic community can demonstrate that it is interested in more than one issue. There are no perfect candidates or parties, as the bishops note. But Catholics can contribute richly to the process by following the bishops’ lead, which cuts deeply across the current contentment by drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the homeless and the vulnerable. Raising those issues in an informed way would provide a welcome jolt of reality to the currently inane American political conversation.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999