Church voice seeks ear in public square

By 
  • April 20, 2011
A broad spectrum of Canadian churches have published election guides for voters heading to the polls on May 2. Both the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities have published guides. Human beings can’t choose to be political. We’re born that way. Politics is how we act together and human beings are fundamentally social.

“The political community and public authority are based on human nature,” said the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). “And therefore they need belong to an order established by God. Nevertheless, the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.”

Those free decisions are supposed to bring us closer to justice, according to Pope Benedict XVI.

“Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics,” the Pope wrote in the 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est. “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life. Its origin and its goal are found in justice.”

It’s not just Catholics who know politics is important, and why. A broad spectrum of Canadian churches have offered guidance during this election campaign. The Anglican Church of Canada, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have all issued election guides. They range from a page-and-a-half letter from Anglican Primate Archbishop Fred Hiltz to 27 pages of instruction and suggestion from the United Church’s general council.

Churches don’t tell their faithful which party or candidate to vote for. And no church should wish to substitute it’s judgment for individual conscience in the voting booth. But there are lots of reasons why churches should contribute to public debate on political issues, said St. Francis Xavier University professor James Bickerton.

“There is a place (for churches) in the public square, and it’s as part of civil society,” Bickerton said by phone from Antigonish, N.S. “It’s as part of those crucial mediating institutions between the individual and the state. The thing about democracy is that the individual is not left alone to face the state — which was the situation in those totalitarian and communist societies, where all civil society organizations were controlled by the state.”

Election analysis by churches is valuable because it isn’t aimed at pushing one party or issue, said Bickerton. The take on politics tends to be more serious and objective than partisan tweets and Facebook posts, and are more reliable than party platforms designed as part of an election advertising campaign.

“It is a shortcoming in what the parties tend to focus on, which is much more leadership personalities, political scandals and so on,” said Bickerton. “More and more we’re going to have to rely on other sources for solid information and analysis than political parties.”

The church election guides don’t explicitly name issues in order of importance. The CCCB guide “Making our Voices Heard” (available at www.cccb.ca), comes closest, reminding Catholics that the right to life from conception to natural death is a precondition for any just political order.

The election guide from Catholic Charities of the archdiocese of Toronto makes the same point.

“Freedom means promotion of human life and dignity at all stages,” says the 2011 guide, “Counting On Your Vote!” (www.catholiccharitiestor.org).

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada takes up abortion, palliative care and assisted suicide in its 22-page election guide, “A Call to Prayer for Canada” (www.theefc.ca).

Every one of the Christian election guides names poverty as a prominent, urgent and critical issue.

“With 4.3 million Canadians living in poverty and 150,000 people homeless, we urgently call on all parties to commit to establishing a poverty-reduction fund, a long-term housing strategy, social security initiatives and increased child tax credits,” writes Hiltz in his April 8 letter to Anglicans.

The Canadian Council of Churches calls poverty “the number one issue during this election.”

Poverty comes up over and over in the Catholic Charities guide as it calls for a housing and homelessness strategy, care for seniors, food security policies, even health care.

The environment also gets attention in all the election guides.

“Our world is in crisis. Human-induced climate change and conflicts over oil are killing people and the planet,” says the United Church of Canada’s “Federal Election Kit 2011” (www.united-church.ca).

The Evangelical Fellowship applies its reading of Genesis to the issue.

“Humans were not created separate from the physical creation. Rather, we are part of it,” says the EFC guide.

The CCCB names nine  ways in which a government should work to protect the environment, including “honouring international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Human trafficking, prisons and restorative justice, a better relationship with native people, nuclear weapons, peace in the Middle East and immigration and refugee policy all get multiple mentions in the church guides.

The Lutherans remind the faithful that “governments alone do not solve the problems of the world.” The Lutheran bishops urge people “to look for opportunities to address these matters in the local context.”

The churches put serious thought — theological and otherwise — into any statement about politics, said Canadian Council of Churches general secretary Karen Hamilton.

“It comes not only from the depths of our faith traditions, but also comes from positions of expertise,” she said. “We speak to the items we have not only carried close to our hearts but also have expertise in. We do these things because they’re right.”

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