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How to be heard on Capitol Hill.

Why Catholic numbers don't translate into Catholic power.

THERE ARE AS MANY AS 60 MILLION CATHOLICS IN the United States; that's more than one in five Americans. But members of Congress don't frantically clear appointment books or flee in terror when lobbyists from church agencies like Catholic Charities or the United States Catholic Conference stride into Washington's well-waxed (and well-heeled) corridors of power.

"Your opinions are respected, and you are listened to courteously," Harvard's Mary Jo Bane told a recent gathering of Catholic social ministry workers in Washington. "But you are not feared."

Catholics are not feared for reasons that are beyond our control, and others that are completely of our own doing.

As a tax-exempt body, the church can't make direct political endorsements. The failure of campaign finance reform further restrains Catholic political power. As long as the people who pay for the campaigns set Washington's agenda, groups that represent people who don't bring money to the table--children, immigrants, the poor--won't be generating a lot of fear and trembling on Capitol Hill.

A good percentage of our 60 million constituents are people locked out of the cycles of power in the U.S.--new immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Africa, and Asia or low-income people too distracted by the daily grind to contemplate political action.

Finally, American Catholics have developed advanced skills in competitive foot-shooting. Overlooking areas where right- and left-wingers could work together, we play home versions of papal power games, mentally "excommunicating" fellow Catholics who disagree with us or squabbling over definitions of "cafeteria Catholicism." Liberals obsess over institutional dysfunction while some conservatives ignore whole serving trays of teaching on social and economic justice.

That's too bad, because if U.S. politics is on one level a game of numbers, we should be able to get more accomplished with our 60 million. With just 3 million members, the National Rifle Association has thwarted every common-sense attempt to restrain the arming of America in spite of the continuing mayhem in our cities and schools.

Yes, generous disbursements of campaign cash is a major part of the NRA's success, but equally significant is the fact that its numbers reliably translate into votes and an avalanche of phone calls, letters, and e-mails each time America's access to AK-47s and $35 handguns is threatened. The church needs to create NRA-style Catholics if it wants to be similarly "feared" in Washington.

This is certainly no easy assignment. The church can't emulate the NRA's one-issue focus. Our message has to be as comprehensive as the gamut of social and cultural ills we confront. And we have to do our homework. Too often our appeals can appear fuzzy and sentimental when they are not supported by hard facts or accompanied by pragmatic alternatives.

We also need to do a better job evangelizing Catholics who don't understand how the church's wisdom can inform the political judgments they make and help them fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. To that end, below are the 2001 legislative priorities set by the USCC:

* Assist low-income families with "refundable" tax credits, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and an increase in the minimum wage.

* Oppose the death penalty by supporting the Innocence Protection Act.

* Reshape foreign aid with more total aid and by orienting aid "to the elimination of extreme poverty."

* Expand debt relief to the world's poorest nations.

* End Cuba sanctions since the current sanctions regime only hurts the most vulnerable people in Cuba. (Learn more about these issues at www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/. Visit salt.claretianpubs.org for breaking news on legislation.)

These initiatives reflect core values every Catholic should be able to get behind. The fact that many folks may not understand why they should care about these issues only confirms how much more work the church needs to do to get its message out.

Let's make sure our numbers add up in 2001.

By KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:CLARKE, KEVIN
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:662
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