A poll came out the other day that got a great deal of attention in the popular media, mainly because it surveyed people’s odd views on the President’s religion. But that’s not the reason I found the poll to be of such interest. After all, only one person’s opinion really matters about our religious beliefs and practices, and we’ll find that out at our particular judgment.
What I found interesting is a result that was deeper in the poll result, past the sensational headlines. If you read deeper into the report, you’ll find a disturbing result when people were asked if churches should express views on political matters or keep silent. 52% of Americans said churches should not speak up about such matters, and only 37% of Catholics think the Church should be speaking out. Church attendance matters here — 54% of Americans who attend weekly approve of churches speaking out, while only 31% of those who seldom or never attend church approve.
I sent this poll result around in my daily e-mailing, and a friend sent back an interesting comment that I thought was worthy of further reflection:
I think if one equates “church” with “clergy,” what you are seeing reflected is a very traditional American distaste for “political ministers.” The Catholic Church teaches that it is the laity who are to take the initiative in the political arena, but the hierarchy does not always trust in and rely on the laity to do so. If the bishops put more energy into molding an informed and articulate body of lay leaders, they may find that these people are more persuasive than they can be simply because lay people are talking to lay people.
There are several things about this comment that are very important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a parish to give a talk about public policy matters, especially in places with active pro-life committees of diligent laypeople, only to hear some variation on this: “Why doesn’t the Church/the bishops/our pastor/the Pope say more about this?”
My answer to that usually is to note several things. As Catholics, we are bound to accept the teachings of our Church as given to us by our Holy Father, bishops and priests. We don’t live in the “Church of What’s Happening Now”, in which we make up dogma as we go along, to suit our passing fancies.
But at the same time, we laypeople have got to stop looking over our shoulder at Father and expecting him to do all the heavy lifting. The leadership of the Church hierarchy is indispensable, but it’s our special role in life to be the principal advocates and architects for a just society. Here’s what Pope Benedict has said about that:
The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew…. The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity… The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility. (Deus Caritas Est 28-29).
Having said that, another point from my friend’s comment should also be emphasized. If our Church leaders want laypeople to take on their role as leaders in establishing and creating a just society, they have to empower and trust us to do so. We can’t do anything unless our Church leaders — our bishops and priests — support structures like local parish pro-life committees, social justice committees or Knights of Columbus councils, which are are crucial in this regard. We need them to promote initiatives like our state-wide Catholic Advocacy Network, as well as other efforts to educate and mobilize the laity. Our Family Life/Respect Life Office has lots of resources for people to use in their advocacy, as do the various offices of the U.S. Bishops Conference. Thank God, so many of our clergy are doing this, but there’s always more that can be done — if they let us.
Building a just society is an increasing challenge in our time. The multitude of threats to human life, to families, and to social justice keep on accumulating. It’s us to the Church — primarily us, the laity — to rise to this challenge.