Wednesday, October 22, 2014


   It could be claimed that ‘preferential option for the poor’ is a consistent dogma for Catholic Social Teaching since the beginning, (Rerum Novarum, 1891) but concern for the poor is quite different than the ‘preferential option.’

   Jesuit economist Perry Roets, S.J. wrote in 1991 that his mentor, renowned economist Bernard Dempsey, S.J., would have had trouble accepting the radical ‘preferential option’ dogma.  Roets described Dempsey who died a couple of years before Vatican II:

Dempsey never really understood the powerlessness of ordinary people forced to remain poor for extended periods.  …It would be interesting to see Dempsey wrestle with the emphasis given recently by both the Church and his own Society of Jesus to this  ‘preferential option for the poor.’                                                                                                      (Roets, Perry J. The Economic Ideas of Bernard W. Dempsey, S.J., Marquette University Press, 1991, p. 38)

Bill Brennan, S.J. (1920 – 2014) lived “Preferential Option for the Poor.”

He is pictured here holding a cross at an S.O.A. protest at Fort Benning, GA.  The cross bears the name of Luis Espinal, S.J. martyred in Bolivia. 

But even more than fifty years after Vatican II Thomas Massaro , S.J. cautions:

In one sense, the notion of the preferential option for the poor is relatively new to Catholic social teaching, as this phrase appeared in no papal social encyclical until 1987 and in no official Church documents at all until 1979.                                                                     (Boston College C21 Resources, Fall 2014, p.32)

Massaro is referring to the John Paul II Encyclical of 1987 Solicitudo Rei and the Latin American Bishops (C.E.L.A.M.) document for the Puebla Mexico conferences in 1979.  Massaro fails to recognize the revolutionary document that first officially expresses the Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ The document from the 1968 C.E.L.A.M. conference in Medellin states:

El particular mandato del Senior de ‘evangelizar a los pobres’ debe llevarnos a una distribucion de los esfuerzos y del personel Apostolic que de preferencia efectiva al los sectores mas pobres y necesitados y a los segregados por cualquier causa, alentandoy y accelerando las iniciativas y studios que con ese fin ya se hacen. Translation: The specific command of the Lord to bring ‘the Good News’ to the poor ought to raise us to use our forces and our Church personnel to give effective preference to those most poor and segregated for whatever reason, raising and accelerating those initiatives and investigations which actualize the           ‘Good News.’ (Documentos Finales de Medellin, 1968, XIV, 3.2, p.176)

This is a value statement that challenges the modern guide of political policy ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ The ‘greatest good’ should include all people, and let us first consider the poor who have nothing. The statement goes beyond       Vatican II’s concern for the poor and moves us to a revolutionary criterion.  

   The Bishops of Latin America witnessed poverty caused by political and economic structures.   With reference to Jesus who denounced the poverty caused by Imperial Rome, the Medellin Bishops declared that poverty was not of God and that the Reign of God was present only in so far as justice for the poor prevailed.

   Francis, the first American Pope, emphasized ‘preferential option for the poor’ in his message, The Joy of the Gospel. Francis quotes John Paul II:

          Without the preferential option for the poor, ‘the proclamation of      The Gospel which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being        misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us        in today’s society of mass communications.’ #199

Francis continues following the lead of Medellin: ‘The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.’ #202  The Apostolic exhortation Joy of the Gospel resurrects Jesus’ claim to radically overthrow oppression by insisting that ‘the last shall be first’ and preaching this ‘Good News’ to the poor.

   Pope Francis has witnessed the political and structural suppression of the poor in Latin America and pleads for preferential solidarity with them.  It is not just the poor of Buenos Aires or Chicago or London; what about Africa and Asia?   Roman Catholic Social Teaching has had a global range, but especially since the 21st Ecumenical Council of Vatican II.  Francis’ message is political and crafted for the Faith community; it is not designed for isolated individual choices. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Working Catholic By Bill Droel

Image result for Public domain images Saint Francis          Relevant Saint? 

   October is a great month for saints: St. Therese Lisieux (the Little Flower), St. Boniface, St. Damien of Hawaii, St. Teresa Avila, St. Luke, St. Jean de Brebeuf of Canada, St. John Paul II and several more. And October is also the month for the second most popular Christian ever, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). But is St. Francis relevant?

No, not unless the goal is for young adults to quit their jobs, abandon their cell phones, roam about begging and maybe repairing a church building here or there. All the while dressed in a long hooded jacket.

Wait a minute: young adults do wear hoodies. Back in the old days a hoodie was called a capuche. St. Francis never picked a standard color, sometimes appearing in black or dark green. He didn’t intend to establish a uniform for his friends and he hardly was making a fashion statement, even a counter-cultural one. Eventually one group among his followers picked a standard color that reminded people of coffee mixed with foaming cream. That type of coffee, now popular with young adults, was called cappuccino. Thus, that group of followers were then and now called the Capuchins.

St. Francis never did anything; he never launched a project; he had no four step program. Instead, he spent his career extending gestures. And for some reason, the young adults of his time thought he was interesting. So much so that hundreds joined him, creating the Francis movement.

His gesture toward the latest innovation in town summarizes all his others. You see, before the 13th century few people needed any time-keeping device other than direct observation of the sun. But when the mercantile economy emerged in Europe, people wanted to keep appointments. So a clock tower was installed in the public square. St. Francis turned his back to the clock to remind people that a life fixated on clocks (be they now a cell phone app) and tight schedules and transactions is not ultimately satisfying.

It was the same message he tried to impart by disrobing in front of a church tribunal that was mediating a dispute between St. Francis and his father, a prominent clothier. St. Francis took off all his clothes. Fashion, ornaments, car accessories, and mansions are all ultimately unsatisfying.

St. Francis once made a courageous anti-war gesture. It was during the Crusades. He and a friend decided to walk across enemy lines and meet with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. In a surprising return gesture, the sultan conversed with St. Francis during an entire week. The gesture did not dissuade the so-called Christians from continuing their wrong-headed attacks. But once again, many young adults saw an alternative to senseless war.

Young adults today are understandably disenchanted. Star athletes betray their profession by abusing other people and by cheating in the very nature of competition. Prominent business leaders engage in pseudo-commerce, peddling products that are unhealthy and some that don’t even exist. Bishops cover-up the egregious behavior of some employees. Politicians needlessly stoke resentment and racism.

To be disenchanted means to be away from the magic. Who wouldn’t be jaded when it comes to the magical or miraculous in daily life? Disenchantment is a fixed by-product of modern life. People assume that modern culture will provide meaning, but in its drive for efficiency our culture must dispel enchantment. We are left with, at best, an upbeat and vacuously positive approach to life, otherwise known as self-help.

Science and technology and individuality are gifts that come wrapped within the modern and they are to be cherished. But we need also to be caught up or taken up or drawn in. Enchantment means to be aware of the alluring and mysterious; to be awake to hues, shades, dialect, mood and gaps in sequence. Enchantment is outside of clock time. It is a belief that the so-called past is existentially present and that the current moment has a future.

St. Francis was enchanting to many young adults. We need him today.

Bill Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


    Joanne and I recently made a presentation to a local Protestant Church looking for renewed support for Voces de la Frontera’s Sanctuary Movement.  

    We are working with the possibility of moving someone – or a family into Sanctuary in response to Congress’ and the President’s unwillingness to act.

   It seemed out of context but a question was raised about Voces’ support for immigrant workers in the recent Palermo Pizza strike.  The best response was given by a congregation member, a professor of history at Marquette University, who noted the importance of protests in U.S. American history.  He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example.  A neighboring Protestant church was remembered as being part of the Underground Railroad before the U.S. Civil War. Coincidently the homily for the liturgy which preceded the discussion emphasized the Christian tradition of challenging authority.  
   Of course the Church agreed to support us, but the discussion triggered some thoughts on Faith and about Faith in action.

   Despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church in Milwaukee refused to support the immigrant workers at Palermo, it could be argued that the right to protest – the right to strike is basic to Catholic Social Teaching, but this was not always the case.  What changed? 

  The first American Pope, Francis, in his proclamation The Joy of the Gospel cites the need to properly explain the ‘deposit of faith.’ Changes in the doctrine of Catholic Social Teaching could provide a model.  Francis quotes John XXIII from his opening remarks for the Second Vatican Council, “The deposit of the faith is one thing  … the way it is expressed is another.” (The Joy of the Gospel, IV, para. 41)  Let us remember that explaining Faith is the role of theology. 

   What is the ‘deposit of faith?’  Leo XIII in 1899 wrote an Encyclical – a letter to Cardinal Gibbons – called ‘Americanism.’  Leo feared heresy in the U.S. Church.  Pope Leo quoted Vatican Council I, (Const. de Fid.  Cath., c. iv).  Among Leo’s problems with the U.S. were 1890’s labor protests – e.g. the Pullman strike and the demonstration in Washington of Coxey’s Army. (Documents of American Catholic History, Ed. John Tracy Ellis, Bruce Publishing, Milwaukee, WI, 1956, p.524)

          The doctrine of faith which God has revealed is not proposed like a    theory of philosophy which is to be elaborated by the human      understanding, but as a divine deposit delivered to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly declared … That sense of sacred dogmas is to be faithfully kept which Holy Mother Church has once declared, and is not to be departed from under the specious context of more profound understanding. (Leo XIII, Encyclical on Americanism, Jan. 22, 1899)

‘Deposit of faith’ appears to be a particularly Roman Catholic term but could be related to 2 Timothy 1-14 but that is more than a stretch.  The Roman Catholic ‘deposit of faith’ would include the social encyclicals.  Note that Francis’ view and John XXIII’s understanding of the ‘deposit of faith’ is quite different than that of Leo XIII.

   Let’s look at perhaps one of the most important changes in Catholic Social Teaching, the doctrine on the right to strike.  Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno establishes the notion of a state governed by “corporate economics” and proclaims: (1931)

Strikes and lockouts are forbidden. If the contending parties cannot come to an agreement, public authority intervenes.      (Q.A. #94)

 More than 30 years later Vatican II – Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) changes the teaching:  

Even in present day circumstances, however, the strike can still be necessary, though ultimate, means for the defense of workers own rights and fulfillment of their just demands.  (G.S. #68) 

Before Vatican II, U.S. ‘labor priests’ such as John Ryan also stated that strikes were legitimate as a last resort.  (The Church and Labor, J.A. Ryan and J. Husslein, N.Y., The McMillan Co. 1920, p. 287 and p. 298.)
   The Vatican II pronouncement was significant in that it indicated a break with the corporate economics of the past.  Instead of viewing society as a body where parts are significant but need to be controlled by the head, the church recognized labor unions as independent. 

Vatican II Gaudium et Spes went further.

Hence the workers themselves should have a share also in controlling these institutions, (labor unions} either in person or freely elected delegates. (G.S. #68)

This statement indicated that the fascist style ‘corporate economics’ of Portugal, Austria and Spain considered ideal before W.W. II were no longer acceptable.

   The political acumen of John XXIII made the change possible.  He was not locked into dogma but considered the common good of all people as his criterion.  For John XXIII peace depended on justice.  The reasonable course of action was first of all to respect the freedom of people to determine their own mode of existence.  Subsequent Popes have emphasized the rights of workers in the realm of economics but have created a wall of hostility between dogma and politics.  The refusal of the Milwaukee Archdiocese to support the immigrant workers at Palermo indicates that the money of wealthy donors and the convenient cover of dogma have had a blinding effect. 

   This article only considered one dramatic change in the social encyclicals, but there were others as well.  Changes in Catholic Social Teaching were based on a consideration of the common good and a reasonable response to the times.  Dogma was at best secondary.  As Benevolent Dictator, Pope Francis, using the social encyclicals as a model, could quickly change the Church to be inclusive and practical.   

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Working Catholic: Urban Revival and Suburban Poverty

The N.Y. Times recently reported that the population of downtown Kansas City, Missouri has increased 50% over the last dozen-plus years. Entertainment venues, restaurants, the arts, higher education and office firms have likewise invested in downtown. Urban planners and developers there predict downtown residents will double within a few years. Kansas City is just one example of a remarkable trend.

This trend of urban revival was first pointed out to me in the early 1980s when Ed Marciniak (1917-2004), legendary Catholic labor leader and urban character, suggested we go for a walk around Chicago’s South Loop. “The Loop [Chicago’s term for downtown] is gradually expanding and repopulating,” he mentioned as we set out.

These strolls continued over many months to include Little Italy, East Humboldt Park, Cabrini-Green, Chinatown and more. We went to many delis for lunch; chatted with contractors; made appointments with officials, school principals, pastors, community activists, real estate agents and executives. We read hundreds of neighborhood newspapers—both current issues and library collections.

“This is something like gentrification,” Marciniak observed, “but different too.” When we reflected on and then published our findings, we called the phenomenon the new inner city. The trend, we noted, contained opportunity in general. But we also said it contained difficulties for the poor.

The current recession put the trend into a freezer. A booming real estate market peaked in early 2006, but then in December 2008 and following real estate experienced its biggest drop in U.S. history. Now, however, there is a qualified recovery. And thus, the N.Y. Times reporter in Kansas City is the latest of several writers who are resuming the walks Marciniak and I made in the 1980s.

Gentrification is a simplistic term for the changes, writes Alan Ehrenhalt in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (Alfred Knopf, 2012). “A better term is demographic inversion,” something not specific to one factor or another. It is rather “the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.” Ehrenhalt’s examples in Chicago include the South Loop/University Village, Logan Square and a thorough case study of Sheffield/DePaul University.

The current recession did not really alter this trend, says Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs (Penguin Press, 2013). It is the result of lifestyle changes, immigration patterns, global economic factors and more. The appeal of suburban life might persist, Gallagher writes, but the suburban locales of the 1950s to 1970s are passé.

Cautions are in order.

#1. Not all cities will succeed in revitalizing, explains Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City (Penguin Press, 2011). “Human capital, far more that physical infrastructure” or other components, is the key. It is not primarily a matter of financing a new hockey facility or offering tax incentives to 20 riverside restaurants or putting 15 art studios in abandoned warehouses or bringing back streetcars. Cities attract and retain people rich in human capital (immigrants and young professionals) by facilitating “face-to-face relationships” in colleges, workplaces and sidewalk cafes. Not all cities have enough social opportunity and thus not all will enjoy a rebirth.

#2. These positive trends accelerate the isolation of the poor, making it exponentially more difficult for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Plus, as a subsequent column will detail, an area’s new inner city parallels its aging, poorer first ring of suburbs.

Marciniak and I were disappointed that with an entrepreneurial exception or two the parishes situated in the path of an expanding inner city were pulling the plug, particularly on their grammar schools. So-called pastoral planning seemed limited to the physical status of church buildings and the availability of a priest for that parish. Has the strategic plan of city churches changed much since 1980?  

To be continued…

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Working Catholic by Bill Droel: "The New Suburban Poverty"

The very idea of a suburb in the United States has long been promoted as a safe, affordable family-friendly place; that is, as an alternative to a less-desirable, polluted, somewhat dangerous urban neighborhood, and one dense with rental units. Historically in Europe and Africa a suburb is usually the opposite. There the upwardly mobile live in the city and the working poor live in a city’s outer ring.

Real estate developers marketed the U.S. notion of suburb even before the Civil War, explains Elaine Lewinnek in The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford University Press, 2014). At first, the ideal suburb was an area just outside the center city. A neighborhood like Bridgeport in Chicago (home to our White Sox) was a suburb until its 1889 annexation into the city. Riverside, Illinois, was likely the first planned suburb in the country; designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1868. Riverside is 14 miles from Chicago’s Loop, among the first ring of suburbs. A suburban population boom occurred in the years after World War II into the 1970s. World War II also accelerated black migration from the South to Northern cities. In those years, Lewinnek concludes, the promotion of suburbs “merged with ideas about class and race.”

Now the pattern is reversed. Suburbs, writes Mike Gecan in After America’s Mid-Life Crisis (MIT Press, 2009), are “no longer young, no longer trendy, no longer the place to be, no longer without apparent limitations or constraints.” In fact, the number of suburban poor has increased by over twice the number of urban poor within the past 15 years. The median age in all those first ring suburbs (with some exceptions, notably among those that developed prior to World War II) has increased—in some places slowly, other places quite noticeably.

With an increased senior citizen population and with a low attraction rate for young professionals the first-ring suburbs have a “pattern of development [that] doesn’t yield enough tax revenue to pay for the infrastructure needed to support” their current residents, says Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs (Penguin Press, 2013). Add to this picture fragmented local governments, a wholesale restructuring and relocation of job opportunities, changed immigration patterns, global economic factors and more. The appeal of suburban life might persist for some people, Gallagher writes, but the suburban locales of the 1950s to 1970s are passé. Those who presume an idyllic suburbia now look at places “located so far from [the city] that they are not really a suburb of anything.” And those exurbs are hardly immune from new realities.

The first ring suburbs and maybe more so those in so-called collar counties are, says Gecan, in the throes of a “midlife crisis.” Though some remain in denial about this fact, it is “better to face reality,” he advises.

How?  For starters, realize that prosperity is not caused by hardware. Therefore renovating a suburban train station or, heaven forbid, opening an even bigger mall will alone not address the situation.  Likewise demographic trends do not cause poverty. Both prosperity and poverty are a function of political (in the wide sense of the word) and cultural decisions. To be continued…

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (, 
a newsletter about faith and work.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Where are we?   

                                                       THE WASTE LAND

   If there were water                                           

And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine grass
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Part V, 1922


We are the hollow men                   
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
                                                          Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!

Our dried voices, when
           We whisper together  
           Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass
          Or rats’ feet over broken glass
                       In our dry cellar

T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men, 1925.

                            Drawings by Elizabeth Snowden, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Mysticism – Fundamentalism and the Search for a Moral Guideline

   How can society make the best political choices?  The search for a proper moral guide is a constant throughout history.  Let us borrow and work with some ideas from E. Gilson, Joseph Campbell and T.S. Eliot.

   When there is a breakdown in philosophy – e.g. realism in whatever form is considered inadequate- then we resort to mysticism and fundamentalism deprived of experience and rational analysis.  The mysticism and fundamentalism serve as a support, if considered needed, for the moralism of survival of the fittest economics or the moralism of those opposed.  Gilson considers the collapse of Thomism in the 14th century and the enlightenment epoch as examples.  (Gilson, Etienne, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Charles Scribners. New York, 1950.)  David Hume’s separation of ‘is’ from ‘ought’ still affects our moral considerations.  With Hume we have the danger of The Waste Land (T.S. Eliot poem) of morality without principle perpetuated by Hollow Men (another T.S. Eliot poem).  Joseph Campbell establishes the importance of myth. (The Power of Myth, 1988)  It’s not all about reason; the collapse of myth as well as reason clearly leaves us as ‘hollow men’ in Eliot’s ‘Waste Land.’  Benevolent dictator, Pope Francis, recognizes the desert or The Waste Land.  He proclaims:

In some places a spiritual ‘desertification’ has evidently come about, as the result of some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots.(Evangelii Gaudium,2013)

   An example of fundamentalism and mysticism:  The Milwaukee New Sanctuary Movement of Voces de la Frontera sponsors a prayer vigil once a month.  We pray for immigration reform and for the families affected.  Our evangelical allies insist that a personal encounter with Jesus fortifies us in our struggle.  But who is this Jesus we encounter but our own creation.  Of course the Jesus we personally create and encounter is for immigration reform, but what else does he advocate?  Pope Francis, with a hollow sound, recognizing the gains of evangelicos in Latin America, suggests the personal encounter with Jesus. 

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. (ibid)

  Forget research on the historical Jesus – we can easily create him in our own minds.

   The Waste Land is always a problem, but I argue that we are experiencing the Waste Land as much, or more so than at any time in history.  Bill Droel says that the Roman Catholic Bishops should not present opinions on political candidates at the present time. (previous blog -9-7-2014) I agree.  The Roman Catholic hierarchy is stuck on their fundamentalist views of abortion, contraception, gay marriage, etc.  Good politics depend on compromise and do not spring from rigid fundamentalism or mysticism. 

   Economists Krugman and Reich extricate themselves from the enlightenment economics inspired by David Hume by insisting on a moral dimension of economics that makes sense.  We can debate what makes sense, but an agreement on the ‘common good’ seems possible to me … except if we insist on absolute certainty and therefore are locked into a rigid fundamentalist or mystical belief.  The impending Vatican synod on the family will not establish reason as the rule and make a nuanced explanation of the Natural Law – realistic philosophy has been abandoned even by those claiming to be from the tradition of Thomism.

   What 'makes sense' was considered key to natural law theory by John XXIII.  In his encyclical Pacem in Terris  he quoted Thomas Aquinas, “Human reason is the norm of the human will…” (Part I, #18)  A problem for natural law theory is that derivatives of ‘natural law’ are considered absolute ‘law’ by those who attribute to ‘natural law’ mandates that were considered reasonable at a previous time in history, but are no longer viable.  Such a claim reduces these projected derivatives of the 'Natural Law' which could be bad law, but in fundamentalist belief should be followed.  We then have erroneous natural law placed above civil law.  The Roman Catholic pedophile crisis was partially the result of popes, bishops and priests believing that they were above civil law with a reference to higher natural law circumscribed by even higher Divine Law.  They also sometimes use the mystical approach and refer to Divine law not backed by reason.  Divine Law establishes the need for priests and the sacraments for salvation.  Reason itself cannot be blamed for improper use or mistakes of the past and changes in society.  Perhaps the struggle with contradictions in the rigid church philosophical and theological position, with open debate, can result in positive moral development for the Roman Catholic Church with a return to realism. 

   A way back to realism for the Roman Catholic Church would be a return to Catholic Social Teaching on labor.  The Encyclicals are based on the 'moderate realism' of Thomas Aquinas.  Over the years the Encyclicals adjusted to the times.  A 1950’s Thomism would not work.  It would only fortify philosophical fundamentalism.  What is needed is a philosophy of moderate realism with no absolutes, supported by a theology in awe of being which respects and reveres all creation including human reason and myth as myth.  Rabbi M. Maimonides (1135 – 1204) refused to define God even though it meant that some considered him to be an atheist.   Instead of seeking Roman Catholic identity in fundamentalist beliefs such as anti- gay marriage, anti- contraception and anti- abortion, Church officials could look to the adjusted and adjustable moderate realism of the Encyclicals on labor.  John Paul II wrote that the Encyclicals on labor were part of the 'new evangelization.'  Of course supporting labor would go against the wealthy supporters of the Church.

   We cannot extricate ourselves from the enlightenment and its slavish reliance on statistics without recognizing a place for myth in moral decisions.   While the correct policy or decision may be influenced by myth – stories – conscience, but reason must have the final say. The question is:  does the policy make sense in reference to the common good?

   The official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church have avoided Biblical fundamentalism since the Galileo debacle, but philosophical fundamentalism on the 'natural law' now emerges as a serious problem.   Will the Church Hierarchy resort to a renewed desperate grab at biblical fundamentalism?  But there is hope.  The Hebrew people came out of the desert with the law of love and common sense guides for life.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Working Catholic by Bill Droel

Bill Droel is editor of INITIATIVES, a newsletter about faith and work.

Misguided Voters’ Guide

Our U.S. Catholic bishops periodically issue a voters’ guide; most recently in the form of a 36-page booklet, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Its next edition is scheduled for Fall 2015—in time for the presidential campaign. In light of themes stressed by Pope Francis the U.S. bishops will edit the guide to give more prominence to the “option for the poor and vulnerable.”
As long as editing is in process, I make this suggestion: Drop the project. No one is waiting to read what bishops think about politics. Citizens who carry their Catholicism into the voting booth already know how they determine their candidates. Further, bishops’ credibility is unfortunately so low these days that their effective witness can only be humble service, not public statements.
There is also some evidence that young adults become further disaffected from the church when bishops and clergy wade into politics. One’s general ideology or politics (liberal or conservative) seems to drive one’s attraction to or neglect of regular worship, write sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace (Simon & Schuster, 2010). The evidence, at least tentatively, says religious formation does not per se determine political temperament. It is the other way around. Conservatives worship at a higher rate than liberals.
Now for step two in Putnam and Campbell’s argument. Young adults perceive religious leaders who assert themselves in public as conservative—even though Catholic bishops sometimes advocate for liberal policies like immigration reform. Young adults are not in the main conservative, which to them also means intolerant. Thus, they are turned off by religious leaders who get political. “Mixing God and Caesar is bad for both” religion and politics, Putnam and Campbell conclude.  
The bishops, of course, will ignore my suggestion. Their guidance to voters, as “Forming Consciences” says, is not just another opinion. As “the Church’s teachers,” the bishops feel obliged to speak regardless of the reception. Besides, the bureaucratic wheel is in motion and a revised voters’ guide must appear.
OK, here’s another suggestion: Quit telling Catholics to vote for individual candidates based on their positions as they affect “human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace.” The bishops want voters “to see beyond party politics…and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation.”
We have an adage in my Chicago neighborhood: “Punch the ticket.” It means, vote the party’s slate of candidates. In Catholicism this is called the principle of subsidiarity. The idea is that a middle-range of smaller institutions, including precincts, can buffer individual families from the mega-forces of business and the State. These institutions have been in decline since about 1960. (See again Robert Putnam’s research.) Parishes, ethnic clubs, unions, school associations and the like are nowadays nearly powerless to help ordinary families with health care, legal troubles, job assistance, child rearing issues and the like. Meanwhile the mega-institutions grow more unaccountable and the culture grows increasingly individualistic.
One result is relegation of political parties to event planners. They are little more than entities that throw a convention in one or another city every four years. Candidates count on their party for very little and if elected are accountable only to themselves and the donors who gave specifically to their campaign. Legislation moves slowly, if at all, because legislative leaders have no clout on so-called party members. Ideologues emerge and command disproportionate power because they do not depend on any party’s machine. Compromise is scorned. In telling Catholics to vote for individuals our bishops are further eroding the milieu of mediating structures that were once so promoted by and beneficial to U.S. Catholicism.
The bishops don’t want to say “punch the ticket” because they rightly object to those Democratic candidates (and some Republicans) who favor unrestricted access to abortion and because they object to Republicans who, contrary to Catholic values, support the death penalty, oppose labor unions, impede immigration reform and more. 
The laity need support and guidance as they make decisions in their province of citizenship. A voters’ guide is the wrong tool. For starters our bishops might volunteer to be election judges come November 2016. It would be humble witness to those who enter the polling station.                                                                                                                    

To contact Bill Droel:  write to PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629.