Sunday, June 22, 2008

Activism a Catholic Virtue?

Theologian Georgia Masters Keightley believes the way Catholics live out their faith obligations to social activism ought first to be by creating neighborhood food pantries and participating in town council elections.After she was elected mayor of her hometown of Crawford, Neb., in 2002, Keightley said, she changed her tune about political activism from what she stressed as a professor at Trinity College in Washington.

In three years as mayor -- effectively the primary municipal employee of the rural, 1,100-person town -- Keightley said she saw how small steps can make all the difference in helping people in need. For instance, the simple act of moving a food pantry to a less conspicuous location was a way of protecting the dignity of needy people who previously had to line up on Main Street in Crawford, she explained.

Now back in the Washington area, but not teaching, Keightley said her emphasis in the classroom today would be much less about obligations to participate in national politics. Instead, she would emphasize applying the church's principles of social responsibility at the local level, "where you can really make a difference.

"Yet the kind of political involvement by Catholics that has been making national news in the last few months has been more of the highly partisan national variety, after two prominent priests and a Catholic law professor became publicly enmeshed in this year's presidential campaigns.

These stories received wide national attention beginning in May:
-- Chicago pastor Father Michael Pfleger was asked by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago to take a two-week leave from St. Sabina's Parish after he mocked Sen. Hillary Clinton in a sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, where Sen. Barack Obama used to belong. At the time of the sermon, the senators from New York and Illinois, respectively, were in contention for the Democratic presidential nomination and the priest's words received wide play, especially on the Internet. Obama, who formally resigned his membership in the church in May, is now his party's presumptive nominee.
-- A priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Msgr. Jim Lisante, a regular commentator on some network television programs, apologized after criticism of his invocation at a Republican Party dinner in which he endorsed Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
-- Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and former dean of the law school at The Catholic University of America in Washington, recounted being refused Communion by a priest who excoriated him from the pulpit at the same Mass for his endorsement of Obama. Kmiec, a renowned opponent of abortion, was criticized for endorsing Obama, who supports legal abortion. In his endorsement Kmiec made clear he and the candidate disagree on abortion, but said he sees Obama as willing to work toward reducing the number of abortions.

Questions about whether those types of actions are appropriate by the church's standards and what an individual Catholic's role ought to be in the political world are what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops attempts to answer in its regular public statements on political responsibility.

The bishops' most recent statement, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," notes that "in the Catholic tradition responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation."

Read it all here.

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