Catholicism and politics has been in the news a lot lately. From the debate about health care policy to proposals for the federal budget, just about every account more than a few paragraphs long includes some nod to religion.
My experience is that a lot of the conversation is undertaken by people whose understanding of the official Catholic position on these issues is formed mostly by reading or hearing what others of like mind have to say about those positions, which is a shame.
It's a shame because, unlike many other factors in political arguments, it's actually possible for an interested citizen to easily discover what the actual answer is to many questions about Catholic doctrine and how that church's religious hierarchy is choosing to apply it. And in order to intelligently decide whether or not one agrees with something, it's useful to find out for yourself exactly what it is you are agreeing with -- or not.
The Internet isn't mentioned in Christian scripture, but Catholic institutions have been reasonably quick to take advantage of it.
The Vatican's site has its quirks -- timeliness has been an issue in the past -- but is wonderfully searchable and comprehensive. (And having nothing to do with politics, the virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel is totally worth the broadband. You can't get that close in person.)
Here in America, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops hasn't exactly been cutting edge online. But it's making an effort. Recently, the organization sent out an e-mail blast pointing to resources online that are specifically related to how it interprets doctrine and politics.
"Christians have a responsibility to live out their faith in the public square, and today that also means online," said Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Communications.
The basic document that the USCCB is working from is called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," issued by the U.S. bishops in 2007 and reissued last fall. The bishops have decided that Facebook is the best platform to do comprehensive outreach.
And there's a specific Facebook page for "Faithful Citizenship" material.
The site is pretty good. You want a quiz? They got a regular bi-weekly quiz. ("How many successful treatments for 'incurable' diseases have been developed using stem cells harvested from human embryos that were destroyed to obtain them?")
You want a blog? Of course there's a blog. Here's an entry about the thorny question of hoe religious liberty and citizenship intersect.
I'm not going to say that the bishops are exactly hip with their online presentations. For instance, Bishop William Murphy bishop of Rockville Centre presents the healthcare argument in a video. I'm not sure that a balding, elderly white guy talking into a camera is the best way to capture the Internet generation. But I will say that he's clear with his explanation.
Which is the point: if one wants to enter into a civil, reasoned argument on matters of faith and public policy, one needs to know what the sides really are. That's not saying that knowing will be the same thing as agreeing, of course. And some of the material I found made me raise an eyebrow or two.
Take that poll question about successful medical treatments derived from human embryo stem cells. The official USCCB answer is:
"The answer is 0. (Zero. Zilch. Nada.)"
Presented as if that were a slam-dunk argument against such research being conducted. Which depends on the implicit assumption that something that has not happened in the past few years will never happen. That seems like an odd premise to be used by the leaders of a faith whose central premise is that their Messiah, gone for two millennia in spite of many predictions to the contrary, is going to come back.
But that's not even a tiny quibble with the online resources themselves. If you are serious about wanting to engage Catholicism in the public policy arena -- whether you are Catholic or not -- I strongly commend this to your attention.