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WASHINGTON LETTER Jan-2-2004 (820 words) Backgrounder. xxxn
Looking at politics through the lens of faith in election year 2004

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As a new presidential election year begins, politicians of all ideological stripes have their eyes firmly fixed on the big prize.

But what do the U.S. Catholic bishops see as the necessary focus for the 2004 elections, as the campaign officially kicks off Jan. 19 with the Iowa caucuses?

"As Catholics, the election and the policy choices that follow it call us to recommit ourselves to carry the values of the Gospel and church teaching into the public square," the bishops' Administrative Committee said in "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility."

"As citizens and residents of the United States, we have the duty to participate now and in the future in the debates and choices over the values, vision and leaders that will guide our nation," the bishops added in the 8,500-word document designed to offer a blueprint for electoral decisions based on Catholic social teaching.

A similar document has been issued before every presidential election for the last 28 years.

But this year, the bishops hope that the ideas in "Faithful Citizenship" will make new inroads at the parish level, reaching more Catholics in the pews through special resource kits, workshops for priests and deacons and more local sponsorship of nonpartisan candidate forums and voter registration drives.

The resource kit -- to be mailed to all U.S. parishes at the end of January -- is made up of more than a dozen elements and "designed for parish committees or personnel already in existence," according to Joan Rosenhauer, coordinator of the faithful citizenship program for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "That makes it easier for parishes to weave this into" their day-to-day activities, she added.

Included are planning ideas for parish staffs and parish councils, a family guide to faithful citizenship, suggestions for youth ministers, ideas for social concerns and pro-life committees, tips for conducting candidate forums, bulletin quotes and clip art, and ideas for Catholic school principals and teachers, as well as directors of religious education and catechists.

Additional resources -- including lesson plans for various age groups, homily notes and other materials -- will be available on the Internet at www.usccb.org/faithfulcitizenship and will be updated as the year goes on with new ideas and success stories from parishes, Rosenhauer said.

The aim is to provide American Catholics with "a basic education about Catholic social teaching" so that voters may draw on those teachings in making decisions about particular candidates and policy positions, she added.

As approved by the 47-member Administrative Committee, "Faithful Citizenship" reviews the basic themes of Catholic social teaching -- life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and caring for God's creation -- then looks at some specific policy decisions facing the United States today.

The bishops condemn abortion, euthanasia, cloning, the death penalty and the intentional targeting of civilians in war or terrorist attacks. They call for the protection of marriage as a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman, a living wage for all workers, affordable and accessible health care and increased child tax credits that are fully refundable.

On the international front, the document urges more generous U.S. policies toward immigrants and refugees; action to reverse the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; "consistent political and financial support" for the United Nations and other international bodies; and efforts to "humanize globalization" and address its negative consequences.

"Building peace, combating poverty and despair, and protecting freedom and human rights are not only moral imperatives; they are wise national priorities," the bishops said. "Given its enormous power and influence in world affairs, the United States has a special responsibility to ensure that it is a force for justice and peace beyond its borders."

Rosenhauer noted that the bishops clearly state in the document that "we do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates."

"We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on a full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance," they said.

"Faithful citizenship is not just about voting," Rosenhauer said. "It's not like it all leads up to November and then we forget about it for another four years."

Catholics "have to stay involved and shape the issues in an ongoing way," she added.

Or, as Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., USCCB president, says in a letter to pastors and parish leaders that will go out with the resource kits: "In the political arena, our society makes fundamental decisions about life and death, war and peace, and how the 'least among us' will fare in a complex world. As Catholics, we should see these choices through the lens of our faith."


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