Editorial: When the Catholic voice is heard in the public square, everyone benefits

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The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned for the year on Friday, April 21. The four months that legislators gathered in Nashville were often chaotic and controversial as they debated some of the most contentious issues facing our society, including:

• Access to abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs case that overturned the decision in Roe v. Wade.

• Transgender treatment for minors.

• Gun laws and gun violence.

All of that came on top of the typical legislative issues of funding state government, building roads, addressing the regulation of the economy, and providing for the education of our children, which all can be difficult in their own right. 

In the midst of that came the controversy over the expulsion of two state representatives after they staged a protest on the floor of the House of Representatives over gun violence in the wake of the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville during which an assailant shot and killed six people, including three 9-year-olds. The expulsion triggered a debate over the right to free speech and American democracy that rippled across the country.

But below that roiling surface, there were several successes on issues important to the three Catholic dioceses in Tennessee, which are represented by the Tennessee Catholic Conference, and which touch on the Church’s teaching on human dignity and the common good.

A law addressing abortion that might have led to the criminal prosecution of physicians following the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care was amended to protect them.

The Education Savings Account (ESA) program, which originally was limited to Davidson and Shelby counties, was expanded to include Hamilton County in the Diocese of Knoxville. The program will provide funds for qualified families to enroll their children in private schools, including Catholic schools. The program, which has already proven a success for Catholic schools in Nashville and Memphis, will now be available to families in Chattanooga so their children can benefit from a Catholic education.

With an assist from the Tennessee Catholic Conference, Catholic schools in the state will now have access to $17.9 million in COVID relief funding to address learning loss by students.

These successes show the importance of making sure the Catholic voice is heard in the public square. 

Over the centuries, beginning with lessons Jesus Christ shared with his followers, including in the Sermon on the Mount, the Catholic Church has developed social teachings that address protecting human dignity at every stage of life, care for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger, the young, and the old. In every situation we are called to seek the good for all God’s children. Individual Catholics and the Church have much to offer society as it grapples with issues that shape our culture and our lives.

In their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops remind us that “as Catholics we are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord, a mission that He has called us to share.” They make this call fully aware that neither major political party in the United States embraces the full range of Catholic social teaching.

The bishops echo Pope Francis’ call in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“Joy of the Gospel”): 

“An authentic faith … always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. … All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change, and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.”

When we look upon the deep political divisions in our country, there can be a temptation to throw up our hands in frustration, to see those with whom we disagree politically not as merely political opponents but as moral enemies. But those divisions are the very reason individual Catholics and the Church must be involved in the debate of public issues. It is our mission to find common ground to serve the common good, to bring God’s love for all His children to every situation. 

When we do that, we all benefit.

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