Wednesday, September 17, 2008

48 Days

With a day under seven weeks to go 'til the general election, today's New York Times examines the impact of voting-season episcopal pronouncements on the Catholic electorate... using Joe Biden's birthplace as its case-in-point...
Until recently, Matthew Figured, a Sunday school teacher at the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church here [in Scranton], could not decide which candidate to vote for in the presidential election.

He had watched progressive Catholics work with the Democratic Party over the last four years to remind the faithful of the party’s support for Catholic teaching on the Iraq war, immigration, health care and even reducing abortion rates.

But then his local bishop plunged into the fray, barring Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, from receiving communion in the area because of his support for abortion rights.

Finally, bishops around the country scolded another prominent Catholic Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, for publicly contradicting the church’s teachings on abortion, some discouraging parishioners from voting for politicians who hold such views.

Now Mr. Figured thinks he will vote for the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona. “People should straighten out their religious beliefs before they start making political decisions,” Mr. Figured, 22, said on his way into Sunday Mass....

Once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, Catholics have emerged as a pivotal swing vote in recent presidential races. Evenly divided in a New York Times-CBS News poll over the summer, Catholics make up about a quarter of the national electorate and about a third in the pivotal battleground states of Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. “Whoever wins the Catholic vote will generally win our state and, most of the time, the nation,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

And Scranton, a city dominated by the kind of white working-class Catholics who have often defected from the Democrats in presidential elections, is a focus of special attention this year. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who generally underperformed with Catholics in the Democratic primary, lost the surrounding Lackawanna County by a margin of three-to-one to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has family in the area. Now, the Obama campaign often highlights Mr. Biden’s local roots — he was baptized and spent his early years in Scranton — in a bid for Pennsylvania voters.

Dozens of interviews with Catholics in Scranton underscored the political tumult in the parish pews. At Holy Rosary’s packed morning Masses on Sunday in working-class North Scranton and the Pennsylvania Polka Festival downtown that afternoon, many Clinton supporters said they were planning to vote for Mr. Obama, some saying they sided with their labor unions instead of the church and others repeating liberal arguments about church doctrine broader than abortion.

“I think that one of the teachings of God is to take care of the less fortunate,” said Susan Tighe, an insurance lawyer who identified herself as “a folk Catholic, from the guitar-strumming social-justice side” of the church.

But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of “the life issue.”...

One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. “Are they going to make it the Black House?” Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)

Mr. Madonna, the political scientist, said of the Catholic vote in white, working-class Scranton, “This is a tough area for Obama and some of it is race.”...

Former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a director of Catholic outreach for the McCain campaign, said the meetings Mr. McCain has held with bishops around the country were “strictly ceremonial.” But the campaign welcomed the bishops’ comments about the Democrats and abortion, Mr. Keating said, as “statements of affectionate support” for Mr. McCain.

Both sides say that Mr. Obama has a broader grass-roots turnout operation than Mr. McCain. In Pennsylvania, the campaign has trained organizers to talk about Catholic doctrine on abortion and other issues, held about two dozen “brunch for Barack” events after Sunday Mass and organized what the campaign calls “nun banks” to call lists of Catholic voters.
Speaking of the aforementioned "teaching moments," hours before Hurricane Ike hit his western Louisiana diocese, Bishop Glen John Provost of Lake Charles sent up a statement of his own motivated, he said, by questions from members of his fold "who are confused by glib citations of patristic authorities" in light of "high-profile press given to arguments concerning when human life begins."

No names were cited... but, well, it's fairly easy to deduce.

Meanwhile, on the very un-swing turf of Mormon country, Utah's bishop-at-large took up the cause of common ground at a Salt Lake Rotary lunch:
[Bishop John Wester] said he would be careful not to speak to any specific issue but to share ideas for what it takes to find common ground.

In order to do so effectively, people must first know their own truth and what items are "non-negotiables. I need to know what I believe in and what I really hold dear," he said. Honesty is a prerequisite, and those who seek the common good have to be genuine about who they are, no matter the venue or the audience.

Deep listening to the views and feelings of others is also required, he said, looking to see another "as he or she really is and not as we assume them to be or as we think they are." Driving on I-15, the bishop said he has often found himself judging the motives of people who cut him off in traffic, only to observe that others are doing the same.

One man who passed him, ready to give an obscene gesture, changed his demeanor once he noticed the bishop's collar, and instead, he sheepishly smiled and waved. "We have to be who we are and treat people honestly and genuinely."

Taking risks and being willing to trust those with whom one disagrees enough to find a common solution is necessary, as is an element of hope, he said, quoting a favored maxim: "Two men lived behind bars. One saw mud, and the other saw stars."

Spending the time it takes to understand what common ground can be found and admitting that "no one group or person has a monopoly on the truth" may be the most difficult steps for those who are seeking to find workable solutions, he said. "We have to be willing to see the truth as it exists in other places," rather than simply relying on tradition or past intransigence.

A presumption that others seeking dialogue are acting in good faith unless proven otherwise means "not ascribing motives to people" that are not born out in fact. That includes putting the best possible construction on another's point of view, rather than seeking for a weakness to exploit. "What is persuasive about what is being said. I need to allow myself to hear that and then respond."

Finally, those looking for common ground must not make the assumption that those who disagree with them are diametrically opposed. There may be small points or nuances that allow for some agreement that can be overlooked if each viewpoint isn't examined carefully, he said.

Despite a common belief in Jesus Christ, factions within the Catholic Church create polarity between those on the far left and the far right, he said, noting an initiative to find common ground among them begun in 1996 by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago met with resistance in some circles. Still, the initiative goes forward.

"We need God's grace, and we have to ask for God's help," he said. "We can't do it alone." He noted the examples set by Pope John Paul II and by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, with whom he had lunch a few months after arriving in Utah. "He truly sought to work together with others for the common good."

He lauded Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose staff contacted him upon learning that Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., had cancer. "They called me and asked me to say a Mass for Ted Kennedy," which he did in a gathering that included several local business people and politicians.

The bishop said he was shocked when Hatch called him later that day to thank him, noting he was impressed by "the friendship and support between the two of them, though they are political rivals."
The USCCB's lead point-man on immigration, Wester led the bishops' push last week for an end to the raids on undocumented workers taking place around the country; in a January lecture on the topic, the Levada firstborn said that "as an immigrant church" even today, Stateside Catholicism remains "Immigrants R Us."

Elsewhere around the globe -- where it isn't campaign season -- the Nigerian bishops closed their plenary last week with a call for the nation's government to take "urgent" action on the country's socio-economic difficulties, highlighting "constant power failure, armed robbery, kidnappings [and] neglect of the agricultural sector" as aspects of particular concern.

And Down Under in Oz, the bench sought to call attention to "the challenge of affluence and poverty" beneath the Southern Cross:
Australia is a rich country in many ways. It has experienced spectacular economic growth and prosperity in recent years, and increasingly our international economic status has become a symbol of our national identity. Yet in Australia there are many who are wealthy, but live in spiritual poverty, and there are those who have been bypassed by the economic growth and live in material poverty.

The challenge that Jesus presented to the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark (10:17–22) is the same we face in Australia today. Will we use our great wealth for the benefit of all and particularly for those who have been denied the benefits of prosperity? Will we act on the challenge Jesus offers, or will we too go away shocked at the challenge before us?...

In 1992, towards the end of the last global recession, the Catholic Bishops of Australia warned of higher levels of serious poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and of the emergence of an underclass of gravely disadvantaged people. Now, the Bishops are renewing that call for justice for those afflicted by poverty in our affluent society. Some who are particularly vulnerable include Indigenous families and communities, single-parent families, low-paid workers, refugees and people who are homeless.

It is important that together we face the reality of poverty in Australia and seek ways to address it, however difficult that may be at a personal or societal level. As individual citizens, as families, parishes and as local communities, we can take the initiative to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need and be enriched by what follows. For in welcoming the poor, the outcast and the stranger in need, we welcome the living Christ, our God and our Creator into our hearts and our lives.
And back here at home, the cry of the poor was sounded yesterday on Capitol Hill.

The common thread all these share? The dignity of the human person... and the teaching of Christ.