Stephen Kent

The findings of a national study on the relation of faith and political views appear innocuous on the surface. But a drawback to such surveys is that they advance the idea of splitting that which is inseparable, often found useful to those in politics who want to split the Catholic vote to achieve their ends.

The Public Religion Research Institute surveyed a cross section of Americans but did a subset to obtain the opinions of Catholics.

Some 60 percent of Catholics surveyed said they would prefer the church to focus its public policy statements “more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.”

Strong support for social justice issues is admirable. What is disturbing about the survey results is the disintegration of faith beliefs. All beliefs stem from the basic belief in the dignity and worth of each human being. Support for one does not have to be done at the expense of the other. They are integrated, they are inseparable.

The survey question would be similar to asking airline passengers, “Should our maintenance department focus more on the wings or the engine?” The either-or choice does not make for a successful flight.

Too often, right-to-life and social justice issues, to their detriment, are associated with American political parties or political philosophy (conservative or liberal), left wing or right wing.

Our beliefs, if properly and effectively presented, should appeal to those favoring less government as well as those seeking a larger government presence.

“Many priests are comfortable delivering a countercultural message on life issues because they are perceived as black/white issues,” said Meghan Clark, assistant professor of theology and religious studies in moral theology at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y.

She is also a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

While there is no doubt about church teaching on abortion, social teachings are less well understood, Clark said.

It may also be a matter of comfort level. People are uncomfortable with hearing about a wrong they are able to right. They do not wish to hear about a wrong that could have a direct and immediate impact in their lives.

When it comes to abortion, about the best we can do now is to keep the issue alive in the forefront of the public but with little expectation of an immediate result such as a change in the Constitution. Matters such as the economy, poverty and/or racial issues can be more readily addressed.

Surveys are fine, if they are understood to be a prioritization for an action plan at a specific point in time. But the risk is that at a quick glance they imply an either-or situation.

The solution is not to diminish the importance of abortion but to increase the catechesis and evangelization about social justice issues. They are not optional in the Christian faith life.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at