WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic teaching may view politics as “a central element in building up the kingdom of God” and a “deeply moral” vocation, as San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert W. McElroy described it, but politicians acknowledged at an April 28 forum that that can be a punishing standard.

In the fifth public forum of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, Bishop McElroy laid out a theological basis for viewing politics as, “one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good in humility and love,” as Pope Francis said in September.

In practice, that can be more of a lofty ideal than the reality, said other participants in the forum.


Former Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, now county executive in Erie, Pa., former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, and Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-N.C., each described being alienated by their parties when they held to policy positions that grew out of their shared Catholic faith.

Jones, a one-time Democrat who changed parties in 1994 and a former Southern Baptist who became Catholic as an adult, told of the political repercussions he’s felt since he changed his mind about supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Jones acknowledged he was passed over for a plum committee chairmanship that would normally have gone to him, and he’s currently facing a tough primary election challenge.

“They’ve spent $1.2 million to try to take me out in the primary,” he said.

A recent article about the primary in the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper cited Jones’ conservative credentials but noted that the 10-term member of Congress “also has become known in recent years for his willingness to break from his party leaders.” Among those breaks, it cited his support for a Wall Street reform bill, his opposition to a Bush-administration secret surveillance program and his outspokenness about the misinformation that led him to originally support the Iraq War

Dahlkemper served one term in Congress, defeating a 14-year incumbent in 2007. She said that as a pro-life Democrat she found that often, “it didn’t matter where I stood on anything else.” While on many other issues she was in complete agreement with the Democratic Party, her pro-life stance stood out as a threat both to fellow members of her party and to Republicans, she said.

Bishop McElroy noted that “party pressures can distort legislators’ very comprehension of the common good, because of the immensely powerful human instinct that we all have to convince ourselves that what is the best option for us is really the most moral option also.”

Steele, who formerly headed the Republican National Committee, said he struggled to get his party to accept some of his faith-based beliefs, such as his opposition to the death penalty, which led him to recommend against an execution on which he was asked to weigh in by Maryland’s then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Though his recommendation was overruled and Maryland held its first execution in 33 years in 1994, Steele said the experience taught him that even when his views are rejected, “you have to be in that space to make that argument.”

Another panelist, Mike McCurry, White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton, is now a political strategist and a professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. He said the partisan divide in the country is bigger than ever, though “the agendas are unclear. I’m not sure what they’re fighting for.”

“You’ve got to stand for something, to make clear what your party believes,” he said.

Panelist Mark McKinnon, also a political consultant and founder of No Labels, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bipartisanship and civil discourse, said said he believes much of the partisan hostility in Washington comes from the members of Congress having no relationships across party and ideological lines. McKinnon was a Democrat who helped elect former Texas Gov. Ann Richards before he became a Republican, working on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

He and McCurry talked about some recent ideas to try to attack that problem, including a “no fundraising zone,” a two-hour period one day a month when members of Congress are told they shouldn’t spend the time trying to raise money, and instead are expected to seek out another member they don’t know and get acquainted.

Jones weighed in later saying he thinks the “biggest problem in Washington is money” and its influence on how members of Congress behave. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, arrived late to the program, but she agreed with Jones’ points on money.

She bemoaned the “large amounts of money associated with certain positions” and the fundraising systems that rely upon positions from the extremes of either party.

“The greatest corrosive force in politics today is campaign financing,” Kaptur said.

Bishop McElroy, in his opening remarks, touched further on the distortions that can come from systems that place partisan politics above other considerations:

“Party structures can at times deliberately call upon legislators to place partisan loyalties above the common good in the hope of attaining partisan advantage,” he said.

He added that the current structure of American political parties “bisects the common good.”

The Republican Party “better reflects the commitment to protect unborn life, reject euthanasia and promote religious liberty,” Bishop McElroy said. “The Democratic Party witnesses more effectively to Catholic teaching on the issues of poverty and inequality, immigration reform, restorative justice and the environment. On the critical question of family life, each party reflects certain key elements of the core common good.”

Meanwhile, he added, on issues including global poverty and warfare, “neither party embodies even an acceptable threshold commitment to achieving the Catholic vision of justice and peace in the world.”