The Pilgrim Community's Independent Voice

Contemporary Catholics find it difficult to articulate the relationship between their faith and their political commitments. When it comes to the traditional left-right spectrum, the body of social teaching developed by the church on the death penalty, abortion, the economy, the family, welfare and nuclear weapons is a notoriously poor fit. Catholic teaching seems to be all over the political map. This appearance, however, is not a matter of incoherence, but a reflection of the ambition of the Catholic tradition to reconfigure political maps.

The combination of the two-party system, popular primaries for party nominations and winner-take-all electoral districts means that political action is defined in left-right, Democratic-Republican terms. If one opts for the Democratic candidate (in most elections), one violates commitment to the gift of life. If one opts Republican (again, in most elections), one commits a similar violation. Third parties are ineffectual.


So Catholics must admit that we have here no true home, but we are pilgrims in America or, like the prophets in Israel, dissident loyalists. Our loyalty to the United States and its political system is limited and conditional. (This is, of course, a normative, not a descriptive statement. The deepest dilemma of Catholicism in America is that in fact, Catholics are very, very comfortable with things as they are.)

Three Ways to Be a Pilgrim Community

To refuse partisan politics, however, does not eliminate strategies for responding to the dilemma presented by the challenges of American public life. There are three ways for the church to be a pilgrim community: the witness of faithful living, building institutions of civil society and political action.

1. Faithful witness means to live one’s life and to form one’s Catholic community to live in such a way as to witness that life is a gift, not an achievement. It is to live in a way that challenges the comfortable complacencies and persistent evils of American life.

2. Building institutions of civil society means to create and maintain the neighborhoods, unions, clubs and associations, volunteer organizations and parishes that nourish civic identity and connect one person to another.

3. Political action refers to voting, lobbying and demonstrating that push the policies of government away from prestige and power and toward justice and the common good.

These three forms of pilgrim community are demanding. But there is no need for everyone to be an expert or an activist in all things, especially given limitations of time and knowledge. Specialization is permitted and necessary. Some will focus attention and energy on abortion politics, others on crime, others on building neighborhood community, still others on health care or Social Security. To say this, however, is not to suggest that activists in one area may ignore the interconnectedness of issues.

Rather, the rule is to respect the work and commitments of activists in each area and to resist the temptation to think that my issue must be the most important. This rule applies to Catholic institutions as well. No parish, for example, can be fully engaged in all arenas. Parishes with different ethnic, age or income profiles may well emphasize different ministries. Political action coexists with and draws energy from worship, feeding the poor, caring for the sick and educating youth. But every parish should monitor some areas of political life. Different parishes properly take on different issuessome working very hard for Right-to-Life, others advocating criminal justice reform, still others building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Catholic political action at its best does not take the path of partisan politics, but the way of an independent voice addressing specific issues regardless of their place on the partisan landscape. (To say this is not to condemn partisan politicians, but those who travel that path have a very difficult time avoiding permanent moral compromise.) The independent path takes positions on social controversies all across the political spectrum, but not arbitrarily or haphazardly. Rather, it stresses the underlying connections between issues thatthough considered opposites in conventional politicsare very much linked in Catholic social thought.

The politics of a pilgrim community is open to cooperating with groups on some issues that it opposes on others, as long as it resists the temptation to protect temporary alliances by keeping silent on matters of disagreement. It can, for example, work with the National Organization of Women on expanding access to health care for single mothers, even while strongly disagreeing with that group’s support for abortion. It can work with the Christian Coalition on efforts to strengthen American families, even while speaking out against the group’s positions on national defense or welfare policy. That is, Catholics can make political compromises without making moral compromises. A Catholic legislator who opposes the death penalty can legitimately join forces with another legislator who favors it, if both agree on a moratorium on executions.

An Illustration: Poverty

How might this general approach to being neither left nor right work in practice? The facts of poverty are familiar: in a time of unparalleled prosperity, more than one of every ten Americans lives below the poverty line, which is itself exceptionally stingy. Thirty-five million poor persons equal twice the population of New York.

Poverty falls disproportionately on women and children, on racial minorities and on residents of rural communities and central cities. The causes of poverty are deeply in dispute: racism, sexism, early sexual activity, violence, drugs, individual bad choices, economic inequality, a changing economy, ineffective schools, the breakdown of the family. There is no single causeand therefore no single solution.

All are plausible; all have a role. Addressing poverty requires all three dimensions of a properly Catholic response: (1) witness, (2) building civil society and (3) participation in shaping effective government programs. Addressing poverty’s many causes takes us across left-right lines, across government and religious lines, thus contradicting the frequent tendency to exalt one of the three dimensions at the expense of the others.


Catholics must do more than rail against these causes. The Gospel urges Catholics, as individuals and as faith communities, to demonstrate to fellow citizens the possibility of a different way of living.

Charity is primary in this way of life, the familiar works of mercy that follow from Matthew 25donation of time and money and talent to the vulnerable: the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned. Catholics who wish to avoid the traps of left and right might revive the tithe, committing 10 percent of their incomes (and of parish incomes) to meeting human needs and building institutions of civil society.

New practices of personal and family life also witness to a form of life different from the culture of power and superabundance (Pope John Paul II’s phrase) that helps to keep people poor. Catholic families witness against poverty’s causes by refusing to submit to the economy’s ethic of consumption, by refusing to submit to the culture of newer and larger and by rejecting the ethic that only success matters.

Because racism, sexual promiscuity and family violence are also causes of poverty, faithful living beyond left and right means witnessing to racial harmony, sexual restraint and nonviolence in personal life. How grandly countercultural would it be, what a gloriously dissident community would it create, if Catholics preached and practiced sexual intimacy only within marriage and proclaimed the message that service to outcasts and forgiveness of sinnerseven drug addicts, thieves and murderersare the most distinctive and radical commandments that Christ left his disciples? It is tragically evident how far Catholics are from such a witness.


Civil Society

The Catholic Church is uniquely positioned among American churches to fight poverty by repairing the shattered institutions of civil society. Catholics know how to build institutions.

In all regions of the United States, Catholics operate schools, food pantries, child care agencies and social services (600 hospitals, 500 health centers, 1,000 nursing homes, 1,500 Catholic Charities agencies). Like it or notand all Catholics hate it from time to timewe are an institutional church, an abundant endowment for attacking poverty’s causes and consequences.

Catholic institutions are not, of course, the only or even the primary institutions of civil society. Thousands of religious congregations, neighborhood associations, fraternal orders and voluntary associations populate the national landscape. These connect citizens with one another, establish habits of mutual responsibility, keep us from bowling alone. Catholic institutions by themselves cannot end poverty or create a just society, but they can cooperate with their Protestant, Jewish and nonsectarian counterparts and with government to do so. To be Catholic is to make common cause with all religious faiths and all political movements when their commitments to justice, human dignity and the common good intersect.

Responding to poverty requires cooperation and mutual challenge between government, religious and civic institutions. Therefore, Catholics should be prepared to work with President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, as Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan advocated in a recent issue of America (4/9). That initiative cannot substitute for the federal government’s anti-poverty responsibilities. But it is an important recognition of what Catholics have known all alongCatholic Charities works in ways and places that public assistance cannot work. Other church and civic associations should be invited to join the work.

Public Policy

There are some things that government does best, things that churches cannot do. Thomas Massaro, S.J., and Mary Jo Bane described many of these things in the context of next year’s reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform law (Am., 3/12).

Government can enforce fair labor and working conditions; therefore, Catholics should be political advocates for laws that protect labor-union organizing and that guarantee fair wages. Indeed, Catholics should be in the forefront advocating a national living income through a combination of a high minimum wage and a generous earned income tax credit.

Government can tax its citizens and write checks that provide a decent income for those unable to support themselves. Therefore a just government response to poverty requires a strong policy of income support to single-parent families, the elderly, the disabled and those temporarily unable to work.

Government has the rightful monopoly on force; therefore, the police and courts are responsible for ensuring safe neighborhoods and streets, because high levels of crime and drugs in a community block the exits from poverty. Only government can enforce laws to curb the number of handguns in circulation.

A lasting monogamous marriage is the surest prevention of poverty for the vast majority of persons. Government cannot create solid, two-parent families. Remember, however, that government issues licences for marriage. Divorces simply must be more difficult to obtain, particularly when there are children involved. Instituting mandatory waiting periods, counseling and divorce settlements that favor children are reasonable measures.

Government also can assist low-income families to make a good life and to resist the cultural forces at work against the family. Examples are such measures as vouchers and tax credits for school choice, guaranteed health insurance, laws that protect children from obscenity and violence in entertainment and the Internet and generous child deductions on income taxes.


This list is not a full account of what government, Catholic institutions and individual Catholics can do to heal the scar of poverty. They illustrate, however, the rich resources in Catholic thought and creative Catholic strategies (witness, civil society and politics) for being political without succumbing to the left-right partisan traps of American public life. Catholic social teaching does not wander all over the ideological landscape; it redraws the map.

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