This is the second article in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the California Catholic Conference.
After more than two decades as executive director of the California Catholic Conference, I thank God for the privilege of allowing me to play a part in bringing Catholic values to the public square.
These values were summarized beautifully by Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est: “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”
As John Paul II, Benedict and, now Francis have told us, Catholics are called to be a political voice for the common good and the infinite worth of every human being – especially those who are poor, struggling or marginalized.
That is the mission of the laity. Bishops offer moral guidance and prayerful support, but the laity take the lead.
Thus, the most important role of the Conference is to empower the Catholic laity to speak up for human life, human dignity and the common good. Catholics comprise nearly 30 percent of California’s population. When we raise our voices together, we make a difference.
The Catholic Conference facilitates this by working with elected officials
and government entities on a set of priorities established by the bishops of the state. Those priorities are: respect for life, economic, environmental and social justice, education, family life, faith in the public square, immigration and restorative justice.
The reach is vast.
Through lobbying and engagement – both with professional lobbyists and our grassroots, email-based Catholic Legislative Network – we work to protect life from conception to natural death and foster a good society.
Simultaneously, we support ways to lift people from poverty through fair labor practices, just tax systems and basic social services.
We endeavor to bring restoration and healing to a broken criminal justice system that is overly focused on punishment.
The Conference supports policies to uplift families and marriages as the core of a healthy society. We advocate for a well-functioning education system that benefits all children – in public school and in our own Catholic education system.
In short, whatever directly touches the lives of the children of God in California concerns the Conference.
We do not have unlimited resources, however, and we don’t contribute to candidates or make endorsements, but we can raise a voice for life and dignity through our work.
Our values transcend partisan divides. Catholic social teaching does not fit into any party platform. The common good requires us to bridge differences and appeal to our common humanity.
The Church brings more than moral principles to its advocacy. We bring the lived experience of working in the world as Christ’s hands and feet. Our parishes, schools, Catholic Charities, Catholic health care, lay associations and other social ministries serve millions of poor and marginalized people of all faiths. We help raise their voice – the “encounter” that Pope Francis has emphasized throughout his papacy. We bring their concerns to the most powerful people in Sacramento and D.C.
Yet our efforts are increasingly challenged by special interest groups whose voices are magnified by funding and a partisan supermajority in an ever more culturally and politically progressive state.
Still, Deus Caritas Est urges us to continue our mission, acknowledging that politics “can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.”
Importantly, we are not just called to be prophetic in the public square but to change the world for the good.
We must push against a culture that has replaced commitment to the common good with a myopic focus on individual rights. We see this in the expression “I personally believe that abortion is wrong, but I don’t have the right to impose my beliefs on others.” A belief ceases to be “personal” when it harms someone. Laws exist to protect vulnerable people from the consequences on another’s choices.
At the same time, we uphold conscience rights for those whose beliefs may be unpopular but inflict no harm on others. For instance, just as doctors cannot be required to participate in the execution of convicts, healthcare workers and hospitals should not be required to participate in the killing of unborn children or physician-assisted suicide.
The Conference also works in a variety of pastoral areas: Our initiative “Caring for the Whole Person,” for instance, enables parishioners to help the seriously ill and dying feel loved, worthy and cared for when they are at their most vulnerable. The Bishops have, over the last few years, publicly addressed mental health, racism, Native American and environmental concerns.
In addition to advocacy on restorative justice, with the help of a CCHD grant administered by the Conference, we have worked with California dioceses to open new avenues of restoration and healing for those caught in the criminal justice system. We do this together by working with victim groups, by reaching out to the grieving and hurt and by working to recruit chaplains for the incarcerated.
An initiative against racism launched last year, with listening sessions that are leading to actions for racial reconciliation and justice in arch/dioceses around the state.
Pope Francis said it well in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium:
“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”
As Deus Caritas Est assures us, “in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.” Emphasis on the “will do what we can.”