April 7, 2017
It is almost impossible to escape the acrimony in politics today, as our country has become more divided along party lines and ideologies. Huge issues, such as respect for life, immigration, health care and the environment, dominate the news, and the ability to converse civilly on these subjects, or even to discern the facts, has become much more challenging.
“The whole election season produced a lot of emotion and anxiety, regardless of one’s personal political party preference,” said Sean Muldoon a parishioner at St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory. “Where elections generally settle the issue and people begin to move forward, we did not experience that in 2016-17.”
“I have seen and heard people promoting an environment of hate, exclusiveness of diversity, and decreasing environments that are supportive of marginalized people,” added Sherrie Rollins, another St. Stephen parishioner. “This goes against the very values of Catholic justice teachings.”
In response, Muldoon, Rollins, Jennifer Crowe and other parishioners at St. Stephen have started a new ministry called Faithful Citizenship. It is based on the document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” released and updated every four years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is intended to be a guide for Catholics as they engage in the political system and public policy debates.
“Our group members who know our faith as a place to seek refuge, comfort, knowledge, support and guidance came together after Jennifer initiated contact with our pastor, Father Pat Kibby,” said Muldoon. “Simple church connections brought the rest of us to this place.”
Crowe had been alarmed by the tone of the election and the damaging divisions that were quickly developing between friends, family members and groups in the community. Although she had not been politically active in the past, she began to digest news from a variety of sources, rather than accept the partisan “spin” that both sides were delivering.
Part of this deeper research led into the Church’s social justice teaching. She found the bishops’ document useful in giving her the foundation for processing the news in a way consistent with the Gospel.
“This document surprised me,” Crowe said. “Because the U.S. bishops and the pope are clear: we have a duty to get involved in the political process.”
The new ministry will have a threefold mission: encourage people to get informed about the issues in a balanced way; delve into the connection between the Church teachings and the issues; and give people opportunities to take action.
The ministry’s organizers have different histories when it comes to being politically active, though they do share a passionate interest in social justice, and the desire to bring others along as they learn about the issues and find ways to actively and effectively address them.
“Prior to this year, I’d never been in a protest or called my senators,” Crowe said. “I was checked out because the problems were too big and I wasn’t sure it would make a difference. I’ve protested, called and written to senators this year and I had a realization that action helps the person doing it. It counters feelings of despair and helplessness. Seeing the number of people engaged in the issues, I do believe it can make a difference.”
The regular updating of the bishops’ document allows Catholics to track the “hot button” issues of the day. Currently, St. Stephen’s Faithful Citizenship group is focusing its efforts on the plight of refugees and immigrants and the maelstrom around affordable health care. “Central to all the hot button issues is the sense by those concerned that respect and dignity of and for life in all its many forms are threatened, at-risk,” said Muldoon. “While immigration and refugees, health care and the environment are currently ‘in the press,’ there has long been a long list of issues in our country and world that are crying out for attention and action.”
Muldoon hopes these contemporary, thought-provoking issues will become the catalyst for St. Stephen parishioners to take notice and choose to get involved. “The beauty of our choice to follow the guide of the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship is that while our actions are stimulated by current issues, our purpose should always be driven by the social justice teaching and actions of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Although the new ministry’s process for approaching policy is a work in progress, strategies are developing. To better inform people on the refugee and immigration issue, Rollins has proposed bringing in staff from Catholic Charites who work with the immigrant population, followed by an immigration lawyer who can explain the details of immigration law.
Crowe believes that the ministry’s initial efforts may not be perfect, but that there is a “sense of urgency” due to the accelerated pace of policy development on the national level. “With any issue, the first piece is knowledge,” Crowe said. “We’ll have events to inform about the four themes of Catholic social justice and how they relate to an issue. For instance, we might think about how the travel ban and refugee crisis is related to the Church’s teaching on the common good and solidarity.”
Regardless of the topic, Muldoon defines the ministry’s framework as providing a safe place to gather, opportunities to discern knowledge individually and with others, and individual and or group action.
“The process will be shorter or longer based on the depth of the issue, its history for our individual members, our past experiences or lack thereof with the issues or the systems where change may need to happen, and whether we are alone addressing the issue or joining other groups in our community seeking similar change,” Muldoon said.
Crowe acknowledges the challenge of keeping their personal agendas and opinions out of this “conversation.” It is not their intent to instruct people how to think or what to do about a particular policy or legislative bill. Their goal is to keep the tone constructive and respectful throughout the process, fostering discussions that are centered on issues, rather than political parties or individual politicians.
“That’s why the ‘Forming Consciences’ document will be central,” she said. “We can share the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the Church’s stance on issues and then offer opportunities to get involved. Each person must make their own decisions, to form their own consciences and then choose the issues they will act on.”
“It is not our purpose to suggest that a person vote one way or another; it is eventually up to them,” echoed Rollins. “Hearing another viewpoint can be helpful in forming our conscience. I know for me that some of my views have changed with learning more about Catholic social justice. Our hope is that they will look to the USCCB to be an informed voter.”
According to Muldoon, the underpinning of this ministry’s work, and ultimately actions, is a reflection of the shared, core, Catholic values of life, dignity and respect. “I absolutely believe and hope we can engage and recruit people who have many frames of reference to the issues we seek to understand, and address as many, if not more ideas of how best to act,” said Muldoon. “To use a ‘party politics reference,’ we believe that liberals and conservatives all have valid experiences, ideas, passions, commitments to make the world a better place and we hope our group is a place for lively discussion about how best to get there.”
Faithful Citizenship’s meetings and workshops are free and open to parishioners and the general public. For more information, visit St. Stephen Faithful Citizenship Facebook page or connect with the group on Instagram, at @faithful citizenship, or Twitter, at @faithfulctznshp.