By George P. Matysek Jr.
Christopher Costello worries about the number of Catholics who can’t name their political representatives, much less the major issues of the day.
“If you don’t know who your lawmakers are, if you don’t enter into dialogue with them, then they are going to assume you agree with everything they do,” said the parishioner of St. Agnes in Catonsville. “More likely, the special-interest groups down there in Annapolis will put pressure on them and then they will speak for you.”
Costello was one of five Baltimore-area Catholics who met at Holy Cross in Federal Hill Oct. 15 to discuss ways of getting parishioners more engaged in the political area. One of a series of “pizza-n-beer” nights sponsored by the Maryland Catholic Conference, the event was a recruiting effort to find Catholics willing to take leadership roles in raising awareness about faith and politics.
The Catholic Conference, legislative lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, is looking for people to serve as “district captains” who will act as liaisons between the conference and the parishes within their state political districts. The conference is also seeking parish points of contact and volunteers.
District captains will contact pastors, distribute informational material, conduct registration drives for the conference’s Catholic Advocacy Network, hold educational events and more.
Mary Ellen Russell, the conference’s executive director, said there’s a need to help Catholics view politics “through the lens of faith.” The church is neither Republican nor Democrat, she said, and it doesn’t endorse candidates. The church takes stances on political issues that emphasize a respect for life and human dignity. That means working on issues that can seem politically divergent – opposing abortion and the death penalty, welcoming immigrants, protecting the poor, standing up for marriage and supporting nonpublic school families.
“What’s most concerning to me is this notion that we don’t belong ‘imposing’ our beliefs on people,” Russell said. “The voice of faith is just as valid as any other on the public square.”
Russell pointed out that it was the faith community that was a driving force behind enacting Civil Rights legislation.
Paul Bunting, a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Halethorpe, said he often hears people assert that faith and politics don’t mix.
“I think they need to mix,” said Bunting, who has toyed with the idea of running for public office. “For too long, Catholics just took the viewpoint that they can’t say anything or get involved and that they have to vote the way their parents or friends have always voted.”
Costello, a partner in the Public Sector Consulting Group, noted that constituents can visit their lawmakers, write letters, send e-mails and participate in events like the Catholic Conference’s annual Lobby Night.
“When (lawmakers) get 10 letters on an issue, they know that there must be many more people out there who agree with these letters,” he said. “Yet, they rarely get 10 letters on most issues.”
In Maryland, there are 47 legislative districts, each with a senator and three delegates. Mariann Hughes, communications and outreach coordinator for the Catholic Conference, hopes to have at least 10 district captains in place by the holidays. They must have the approval of their pastors and will receive a stipend for their work.
“Maybe someday, one of them will run for office,” she said. “We have high hopes for this.”