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Spiritual Life

Seeking political guidance at church

Chris Korzen, who coauthored ''A Nation For All'' with Alexia Kelley, denounced modern, cutthroat politics. Chris Korzen, who coauthored ''A Nation For All'' with Alexia Kelley, denounced modern, cutthroat politics.
By Rich Barlow
September 6, 2008
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John McCain's nomination this week officially launched the last lap in our lengthy presidential race, with the Arizona senator and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois having less than two months to make their respective cases to the voters.

Undecided Americans can find guidance from an ancient, hierarchical institution with millennia of experience pondering the common good - the Roman Catholic Church.

Or so say Portland, Maine, Catholic activist Chris Korzen and coauthor Alexia Kelley in their new book, "A Nation For All"(Jossey-Bass).

Denouncing modern cut-throat politics by both political parties, the book suggests a national agenda that includes combating poverty and pollution. It dismisses ideas behind such Republican slogans as "compassionate conservatism" as failures. But it faults the Democratic Congress for passing agribusiness subsidies that flood the world with surplus food, driving down prices for already impoverished farmers in the developing world.

The authors offer suggestions for voters concerned with labor and poverty - traditionally Democratic issues - who lean Republican on social matters such as abortion. While sharing the church's opposition to abortion, Korzen and Kelly argue that making it a single issue can be counterproductive: Brazil bans abortion, they say, yet has twice our abortion rate because it doesn't address the poverty that drives many women to end pregnancies. Indeed, before becoming pope, they write, Benedict XVI said a Catholic could support a pro-abortion rights candidate as long as the candidate's abortion stance was not the reason behind that support and as long as the voter had other compelling moral reasons for her vote, the book says.

Excerpts from a recent interview with Korzen, 32, follow.

Q. Why would non-Catholics want a "Catholic vision of the common good," to quote your subtitle?

A. We feel the Catholic social tradition is our church's gift to the world, ways that we can build a society in which everyone can flourish. Some of the principles are endemic to other faiths, indeed to the US Constitution when we talk about "We the people. . ."

Q. Some pundits think the church's sex abuse scandal dealt a body blow to its moral authority.

A. We're talking about 2,000 years of church tradition and more than a hundred years of Catholic social tradition. If folks feel that the sex abuse scandal undermined that tradition, there's not much we can do to change their minds. We believe that there's a lot of common sense built into the Catholic vision of the common good. We're all created equal in the eyes of God, and our duty as citizens is to treat one another with love and kindness, reflected in our public policy.

Q. Catholic economic justice teachings argue for liberals' priorities, while teachings on matters like abortion and gay marriage favor conservatives. How should a voter decide?

A. We try to help people break out of these categories like liberal, conservative. We've seen that degrade into a shouting match. Catholic teaching doesn't fit into these boxes. Faithful Catholics need to understand church teaching and make prudential judgments about how to apply that teaching.

Q. Your proposed agenda omits gay marriage, which the church opposes. What's your personal view?

A. We're against scapegoating people of different sexual orientations. Personally, I think a Catholic can support a candidate who favors something like a civil union, because it has nothing to do with the sacrament of marriage. There are some Catholics who might disagree. It's a question that needs more respectful dialogue within our church community.

Q. Besides [combating] poverty and war, your agenda lists abortion among the "affronts to human life and dignity." How many pro-abortion rights voters will that cost you?

A. The Catholic tradition is very clear about abortion. If folks don't agree, this is a free society. They don't have to read the book. We need to focus on ways that actually reduce the number of abortions [such as reducing poverty].

Q. Your concern is the common good, but you also say individual responsibility is important. Give me examples from Catholic teaching about how government should expect responsibility from its citizens.

A. There are two points in the tradition, subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity holds that problems should be addressed on the lowest possible social level. For instance, schools and fire departments [are] something local communities have a better handle on. Solidarity says we are responsible for one another, and there are certain challenges we need to take on [at] that high level.

There are no hard and fast answers to these questions about where's the boundary. There's a movement, even within the Catholic community on the far right, to diminish the role of government almost to zero. We don't find a lot of support for that within the Catholic social tradition.

Comments, questions and story ideas may be sent to spiritual@globe.com.

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