Neither political party aligned with bishops, speaker says
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - One-issue politics? Choosing one political party over another?
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
USCCB official Dan Misleh chats with Mercy Sister Jeanne Christensen at the June 8 workshop on "Faithful Citizenship," the U.S. bishops' statement on the 2004 election.
The U.S. bishops are not guilty, and the evidence of that is clear in "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," said an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"There are few candidates and no political parties that agree with the U.S. bishops totally," said Dan Misleh, director of diocesan relations for the USCCB's Department of Social Development and World Peace.
"It would damage our integrity to side with one (political party) or the other," he said. Misleh spoke at a daylong forum June 8 at Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, north, that was co-sponsored by the Diocesan Peace and Justice Office and the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee at the request of Bishop Raymond J. Boland.
Before dozens of pastors, pastoral administrators and lay parish leaders, Misleh said that defending life and human dignity from conception to natural death "is the starting point" for the Catholic moral framework that the bishops seek to bring to the political arena.
And he didn't duck when Precious Blood Father Dennis Schaab, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Warrensburg, asked the $64,000 question: "How do you preach this when half of your people are Republicans and half of them are Democrats?"
Misleh's response: Don't pick out any one or two issues to preach about. Preach instead about the moral framework that permeates the bishops' document and will lead voters to ask the right questions.
"If you speak about one issue, you'll alienate half your congregation," he said. "It's important to speak on a range of issues. Think of giving them the whole basket instead of just one egg."
Misleh said, "Our power in the Catholic community is that we have a moral framework. This moral framework doesn't fit well into (political concepts of) left and right. We are called to evaluate politicians not by what they say, but by how well they defend life and human dignity."
The bishops' goal in issuing "Faithful Citizenship" is to "help people make sense out of all these issues," he said.
"We have to bring our values, our moral underpinnings to the political arena," Misleh said.
The bishops, however, did not issue the document in order to form a "Catholic voting block."
"I don't think they could do that if they wanted to," Misleh said. "The Catholic community is incredibly diverse. We are 65 million people in 195 dioceses and 19,000 parishes. We are farmworkers and CEOs. Many decisions in the public arena involve prudential judgments. In many of those judgments, people of good will can and do disagree. But if we ever get our act together, we could be dangerous."
One clear goal of the document is to educate Catholic voters about the church's rich treasure of social teachings and to motivate more Catholics to vote, Misleh said.
"Voter turnout is so low," he said. "We don't think we have any influence, any power. Most of us don't have the kind of money to influence the political process. We delegate everything to legislators because we believe these issues are too complex, so we just give up."
But, Misleh said, "Faithful Citizenship" urges Catholics to put their faith in action by becoming engaged in politics.
"What do we do when one-fifth of our preschool children are growing up in poverty, and 40 million people lack access to health care in our country? That is a scandal," he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is that both major political parties have appealed to self-interest and lost the sense of the common good.
"We have to move beyond our narrow self-interest," Misleh said. "And we begin with the human person. All life is precious and it must be defended from conception to natural death."
Misleh asked pastors for the issues that concern their parishioners. They answered with abortion, the death penalty, the war in Iraq, national security, and the fear of the loss of their jobs.
All of those issues and more are addressed in "Faithful Citizenship," Misleh said.
For example, Misleh said that 55 percent of the families in the United States have no capital assets other than, perhaps, the home they live in.
"They live from paycheck to paycheck," he said. "Some of them have more debt than they have income. But who do they blame for being in such dire straits? Most of them aren't going to say the wealthy have too much wealth."
The bishops, however, question the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many, Misleh said.
"Ten percent of the families in this country control 70 percent of the wealth," he said. "The 400 richest people in this country have a combined net worth of $1 trillion. That is more than the gross domestic product of China, the world's most populous country," Misleh said.
"There are structural problems in this country that create this gap," he said. "How do we redistribute that wealth so we have a more just society? Those are the kinds of things Catholic social teaching tries to address."
Misleh said that "we don't believe in 'trickle-down' economics, nor do we believe that government is the answer to everything."
"We do believe that we are a community that should try to solve our problems together," he said.
"We're not talking about great, big, grandiose issues here. We're talking about issues that affect people's lives," he said. "We're trying to show them what true security is."
Misleh said the Catholic community also has a powerful binding sacrament - the Holy Eucharist.
"The Eucharist for me is where social justice begins," he said. "Our sacraments have to be more than ceremonies. They have to call us to be better people."