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Column: Catholics need to be agents of change within both parties


by Archnishop Joseph F. Naumann

My first visit to Kansas City occurred in early 1972 when I was just beginning my theological studies in the seminary.

I came to participate in an interdenominational gathering of seminarians that was part of a larger conference sponsored by Clergy Against the War.

I became aware of this meeting through my participation in the New Democratic Coalition. The New Democratic Coalition was a group of activists that were attempting to bring about “progressive” reform within the Democratic Party.

At the Kansas City conference, I shook hands with Sen. George McGovern, who addressed our gathering. For our younger readers, George McGovern became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. He endured one of the worst defeats in American presidential election history, carrying only two states.

Why recount this ancient personal, political history? I am not encouraging our seminarians to imitate my example. However, I am grateful that I grew up in a family where the discussion of key social issues of the day was a regular part of our dinner table conversations. I was encouraged as a young person to take seriously my civic responsibilities and to attempt to apply the principles of my Catholic faith to the choices that I made as a voter.

As a priest, I have always considered myself politically to be an independent. At times, I have declared party affiliation in order to be able to vote in primary elections. For instance, when I lived for many years in the city of St. Louis, not to vote in the Democratic primary was to be disenfranchised, because usually there were no viable Republican candidates in the general election.

One of the features that makes our American form of a democratically elected representative government unique is our so-called two party system. Of course, we are not limited to two parties. Yet, throughout most of our history two parties have dominated the political process.

As a consequence of this two-party system, social changes only become wellintegrated into society when both political parties embrace them. For instance, after the 1960s, both political parties opposed racial segregation. The landmark civil rights legislation of that era was passed by a coalition that included both Democrats and Republicans.

This is an important reality. In order to achieve lasting social reform today on key moral issues like abortion, the definition of marriage, and the preservation of religious liberty, we must work to build a bipartisan coalition. Just as today, it is inconceivable that a racist would receive the nomination of either political party, so we must strive for a similar bipartisan consensus on the sanctity of human life, the definition of marriage, and protection of religious liberty. This summer’s Democratic National Convention revealed how far we are currently from such a broad, bipartisan consensus. The Democratic platform had initially eliminated the mention of God. When this omission came to light and ignited a political firestorm, God was placed back in the platform by a controversial voice vote on the convention floor. Sadly, a large number of delegates booed the adoption of the amendment.

Unfortunately, the debate over the inclusion of God was reflective of the current administration’s policies aimed at diminishing religious liberty and conscience rights for people of faith. The fact that the mention of God was a point of controversy for the delegates revealed the strength of a secularist ideology, within party leadership, that wishes to marginalize the role of religion in the public square.

Even more troubling was the further radicalization of the Democratic platform regarding abortion. For decades, the official position of the Democratic Party has been to support legalized abortion in every circumstance. In the past, the platform language, at least, indicated that it was the party’s hope to make abortion “rare.” The word “rare” was eliminated from this year’s platform language regarding abortion.

This year for the first time, the Democratic Party platform supported the redefinition of marriage, corresponding with President Obama’s recent change of position on this issue. The societal implications of this shift are huge. Our country is already suffering from a general weakening of family life. Confusion about the very nature of marriage and its impact on the rearing of children is troubling. Recently, a major study conducted at the University of Texas provides additional evidence of the many emotional and psychological risks to children raised by same-sex couples.

While many “Catholics” (e.g., Vice President Biden, HHS Secretary Sebelius, Rep. Pelosi, and Caroline Kennedy) addressed the Democratic National Convention, all of them dissent from the church’s fundamental moral teachings on the sanctity of life and the definition of marriage.

As Catholics, it is important to remember that our eternal salvation is not to be found in either political party. Both political parties and every candidate are imperfect. Our allegiance to Jesus and his church must supersede loyalties to political parties.

Should Catholics abandon the Democratic Party in light of its positions on the most morally significant public policy issues of our day? I do not believe so. While it is prudent for priests to be political independents, the same is not necessarily true for Catholic laity.

First of all, to achieve lasting social change on key moral issues, we need to build a coalition of bipartisan support. Secondly, the two major political parties determine our choice of candidates. To abandon party affiliations completely means to allow others to limit our political choices.

However, Catholics need to be agents of change within the Democrat and Republican parties. In both parties, Catholics must place their faith first by working within their respective party for change and reform. Our loyalty, as Catholics, must be to moral truth above political affiliation.

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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