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Colorado Gov. talks to College Democrats

Jenn Metz | Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Key issues in national politics – like abortion, gay rights and war – pose challenges to Catholics in office who must find a way to reconcile the doctrine of their religion with their party’s stance.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Catholic Democrat, spoke to the Notre Dame College Democrats Tuesday night about that challenge, reflecting on his personal experience as a Catholic missionary in Africa, a district attorney in Denver and as governor.

Spencer Howard, president of the College Democrats, introduced the governor to the students gathered in the Hospitality Room in Reckers, who asked Ritter questions about the relationship between his faith and his politics.

Selling the Democratic platform to Catholics, Ritter said, is not just about hot-button issues like abortion.

“You can’t isolate it, you can’t focus on one thing,” he said.

However, as a pro-life Democrat, Ritter said he finds himself in a difficult position regarding his “Catholic faith and political dilemmas.”

“It’s a high-wire act to navigate,” he said, and Catholic politicians have struggled with “tortured logic” on some issues.

Other issues, however, are more straightforward, he said.

Catholic ideology, Ritter said, teaches stewardship of the environment.

Ritter is one of the panelists in Wednesday’s Notre Dame Forum on Sustainability. As governor, he passed 20 pieces of clean energy legislation and doubled his state’s renewable energy standard.

“Our relationship to the earth and being part of a created world,” he said, influenced these policies. “Climate change really is a moral dilemma.”

Ritter recently took a trip to the Arctic, where he “saw the science” and the physical evidence of climate change, the effects of which will be felt most by the poor, he said, especially those who live in coastal areas.

Ritter used his experience in Africa to discuss how to wrestle with another Catholic teaching in politics -social justice.

“We, as a country, have a moral imperative to help other people in the world,” he said.

He said he believes people experience callings, and something that has always been important to him is “having some quiet in your life to hear the calling.”

He and his wife together felt a strong pull to go to Africa as Catholic missionaries with their young son over a decade ago with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate for three years.

While working in a nutrition education program, Ritter saw first hand the devastation of the AIDS epidemic ravaging Sub-Saharan Africa. He and his wife began teaching AIDS prevention, including the use of condoms, “even though it was against Church doctrine,” he said.

“Finding out how to navigate those issues, as a Catholic, is hard,” Ritter said.

There is a difference between rhetoric and “making a meaningful difference,” on the social justice front, he said, when the discussion turned to immigration.

“Catholic social justice teaching should teach us to have a soft heart for the people,” he said.

The importance of social justice cannot be emphasized on a purely domestic or purely international level, Ritter said. “It’s not one versus the other. We must act globally as a country.”

Ritter took time to speak individually with most of the students in attendance after the one-hour discussion.