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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 57-69
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Catholics as Citizens: Pastoral Challenges and Opportunities
David Hollenbach, S.J.
Consider the challenges faced by the members of one middle-class Catholic family in their roles as citizens of the United States today--the O'Briens. John O'Brien is fifty-two and a mid-level executive in a financial firm whose activities are intertwined with the globalizing economy. Kathleen is forty-nine, and she teaches in a public grade school in a racially mixed neighborhood on the border between the inner city and a gentrifying urban neighborhood. John and Kathleen's joint incomes of about $110,000 put the O'Briens in the top 10 percent of American families in United States, though they certainly do not consider themselves rich. They have three children. Heather is seventeen and attends the public high school in the suburban neighborhood where the O'Briens live. Twenty-year-old Michael attends a Catholic university and hopes to go on to medical school when he graduates. Caitlin is twenty-three and has followed her father into work in financial services. The parents have considerable debts due to the cost of their children's education. The older daughter herself has a sizable educational debt, for which a good chunk of her earnings is earmarked. The son and younger daughter will have similar debts when they finish school. [End Page 57]
What effect might the O'Brien's Catholicism have on they way they live out their roles as citizens of the United States? The U.S. bishops have stressed that "Every believer is called to faithful citizenship, to become an informed, active, and responsible participant in the political process." 1 John and Kathleen would probably agree with the bishops' statement were they to read it. They have tried to raise their children as good Christians with a strong sense of social responsibility. They were both active in the school-board campaign of one of their neighbors some years ago and found their efforts to improve the quality of their community most rewarding. But John and Kathleen regret that this kind of involvement seems less possible than it used to; there just isn't enough time. And they have sometimes shared worries about their children's apparently casual attitude toward both church and social matters. The children have occasionally been involved in social-service activities organized at school. But neither Caitlin nor Michael has voted since turning eighteen. When questioned about this by their parents they say they really don't see the point, since politics is controlled by the fat cats with all the money anyway.
The Catholic community in the United States is so diverse that the O'Briens cannot be regarded as typical. But the issues they face in relating faith to their lives as public citizens are not unusual. Many, if not most, American Catholic families face the financial and time pressures Kathleen and John grapple with daily. The O'Brien children are good young people, but the regular barrage of media reports on the role of "spin," money, and even deception have given them a quite suspicious attitude toward politics and politicians. 2 For such a family, religious beliefs and political convictions often seem compartmentalized. Matters of public life seem too complex and unmanageable to be brought into one-to-one correspondence with religious or moral values. Middle-class Americans, seemingly including the Catholic middle class, deal with this complexity by concluding that tolerance is the highest value we can [End Page 58] aspire to in public life. This translates into a stance that political sociologist Alan Wolfe has called "couch potato politics." 3 This is not due to laziness or bad will. Rather, it arises from the complexity and information overload that are characteristic of our technological society. 4 Nonetheless it still has serious negative consequences for the O'Briens' ability to relate faith to citizenship and to envision their lives as part of a commonweal.
The problem was brought home to me...