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Faith impacts political choices, lecturer says

Kathleen McDonnell | Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Catholics need to connect their education with Church principles and apply this to life situations, said John Carr, director of the department of social development and world peace, the national public policy agent of the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops.

Carr, the featured speaker in the “Faithful Citizenship: Religion and Politics in 2006” lecture, drew more than 50 students and faculty members to the Eck Center Auditorium Tuesday night for the second part of the Center for Social Concerns’ “Democracy Matters: An Interdisciplinary Study of the Mid-Term Elections” series.

Carr challenged students to engage themselves in politics and to do so while carefully considering Catholic social teaching.

Recounting his youth in a “mixed marriage” household, -that is, as the son of a fiercely Republican mother and fiercely Democratic father – Carr said neither party aligns perfectly with Catholic teaching.

“I learned at an early age that as Catholics, we can express our values in different ways, in different parties,” Carr said. “When people talk about the [singular] Catholic vote, I assume they don’t know many Catholics.”

With questions of morality and ethics at the heart of current political debate, Carr said both the positive implications, as politics sheds light on the Catholic agenda, and negative implications, as politicians use the focus for shallow purposes.

Religion in politics, he said, is not about politicians promoting their religious life to gain popularity, be it recounting altar boy memories or stories of a born-again awakening. Faith plays a vital role in that it defines the goals for which we strive.

“We bring a set of ideas – 150 years of Catholic social teaching in seven key themes,” he said. “We’re not free to forget about poverty, to forget about those in need, just because they’re not on the network news. Our church has been called a lot of things, but it has never been called trendy. We were globalized before globalization was cool. We have leaders. Think of John Paul II. Why did the world stop for four days after his death? We have leaders willing to put our Catholic ideals into action.”

To place Catholic ideals into action, though, Carr warned that American culture must first change drastically. Polls show Americans have lost confidence in government and even in their own values. Carr explains this loss of moral center as “individualism run amok”- that is, both parties placing selfish concerns above those of their neighbors.

“Very often conservatism trumps compassion,” he said. “It seems to say that we’re all on our own, that we must foremost fend for our own needs. At the same time, liberalism is often about lifestyle individuals – choice and freedom of that choice becomes the ultimate goal. Most Democrats fight harder for National Public Radio than for assistance to the poor.”

According to Carr, politics cannot prevail on isolated issues. Carr said he believes the U.S. culture devalued human life, a view he said was exemplified by support for abortion and stem cell research.

While Carr offered a general call of Catholics to political activism, three students spoke after him advocating a particular political party as the best representation of Catholic dogma.

Senior Scott Wagner spoke on behalf of libertarianism. He argued that while social justice is important, it is best proliferated by individuals and not by relying on government support. Christ did not demand that the Roman government provide for the poor, he said, but instead instructed the public to take social justice into its own hands.

Junior Megan Hawley argued that the Democratic Party offers the greatest assistance to those most in need and thus makes the greatest showing of Christian love.

“We’re all here at Notre Dame, and that says something about our background, our family, the privileges we have,” she said. “That is not true of everyone – not everyone in America had the same opportunities we did – hard work is not the only reason we are here. That is what people need to think about when trying to figure out how to help others.”

Junior Matt Smith said the hierarchy of issues is why Catholics need to vote Republican. The five non-negotiable issues of abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, human cloning and gay marriage are governed by natural laws, and to advocate another position is contrary to supporting life, Smith said.

Yet the overriding theme of Tuesday’s lecture remained a call for student involvement, regardless of anyone’s political party affiliation.

Some people use the first amendment separation of church and state to suggest the Church’s involvement in politics is as a danger to both faith and politics. Carr, however, feels just the opposite – the first amendment gives the Church every right to be involved in public life, he said. As such, he said every Catholic has an obligation to do so, especially those here at Notre Dame.

“No student blessed with access to this education should ever say that politics isn’t my thing, it isn’t my job,” Carr said.

Contact Kathleen McDonnell at kmcdonn3@nd.edu