To me the evening felt like a small council meeting of spiritual mothers (and one grandmother; the grandmother being myself.)
We were on my friend Julia’s Motekaitis’ patio with our snacks. I had never met Jane Sherman before but we connected well. Our idea for the evening was to discuss faith and civil engagement. All three of us are very devout Christians; Julia and I are Catholic, Jane is Protestant (though married to a Catholic.)
After the early chatter died down, she asked us what the Catholic Church teaches about how to go about voting and about political involvement in general. “What are the guidelines?”
I felt like saying “Yes” to that question because, as the USCCB says in its letter, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, for Catholics, “responsible citizenship is a virtue” and “participation in political life, an essential duty.” We can’t just hide under the bed when it comes to voting and being involved in the public square.
Julia and I ticked off the four basic pillars of how we are to form our political consciences and Jane, as she is currently running for County Commissioner of Brazos County explained her own concerns and values regarding our community which turned out to relate to the principles of the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity quite well to us.
The dignity of the human person:
One of the things we talked about was the need for mental health services locally and the growing problem of homelessness in our community. Jane explained what a county commissioner does, and that 8% of the budget is for indigent care. We talked about mass incarceration as a national issue and she talked about how locally we spent six million on enlarging our youth detention center. “Twenty million to lock kids up and nothing on how we might prevent it.” I never thought I could have an impact locally about this issue I care deeply about. Julia and I were surprised about some of what Jane said was possible. I guess I thought all this just happened willy nilly? It happens because that’s what the local government, accountable to voters, decides. I should be a better Catholic and pay attention to local politics more.
The common good:
According to the principle of promoting the common good, every person we vote for, each decision we make as a community must be considered with the goal of the common good of everyone, not just that of a few. Some of these are the rights of workers, (we say something will bring jobs for instance but are these the kind of jobs people can support their families with or will they need three of those jobs to even come close?) The Church believes everyone has the right to a good education, health care, adequate nutrition. We must concern ourselves with making sure that everyone is able to build a good life here in the Brazos Valley. We want everyone not just to survive here but to thrive.
At the council of mothers (and one grandmother) this was a very high priority. We discussed education and the decisions of the school board and how they affect the poorer students. Julia talked about one school wanting to limit how many “free lunch” kids they were willing to come in, wanting to limit that in some way. This upset me, having been a free lunch kid myself while my parents were students here.
It should also be noted that according to the USCCB (in the same letter referred to above) has said,
“While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst” (no. 50).
So when we consider our local politics and the direction our towns are taking, we should always keep the common good and the preferential option for the poor in mind as well.
People who can only afford mobile homes but own their own property in town were discussed. Their homes may have been “grandfathered in,” with the new zoning but they won’t be allowed to replace them, and this city wide unless one lives in a designated park in the right zoning. What happens to these home and landowners? Where do they go? This question has to be a priority.
This also includes care of the environment, considering the impact of any given direction will have on the environment. An example would be how we have experienced flooding in the last few years and the damage it has done to people’s homes. Some of this has been due to decisions made in the past that had unwanted consequences for local homeowners. How we decide future flooding is best to be prevented should morally be according to the common good.
Subsidiarity: Here Jane talked about how the decisions that have the most effect on our lives are local ones. She listed the issues of the day like Covid-19, the availability of mental health services, how money is allocated in funding the local justice system, affordable housing and the care of indigents. These are addressed by the local government. The principle of subsidiarity holds that smaller local communities should be able to solve their own problems without interference from larger organizations or institutions as long as the smaller organization is able to provide for its needs and protect the vulnerable. I thought this principle harmonized well with her call to get involved locally.
As a woman who ran a community center in a lower income neighborhood of El Paso said to me, “We don’t need liberals coming in here and telling us what we need or ‘helping’ us to ‘get out of here.’ And we don’t need conservative big business guys coming in and trying to ‘develop’ us. We want to solve our own problems. No one who came to help ever asked what we wanted for our neighborhood.”
What they wanted was to make a community center where they could learn about world affairs and also local wisdom. They also founded a community owned restaurant with neighborhood people contributing their grandmothers’ and great grandmother’s traditional recipes. It’s doing well. They said they based all that they have done on Pope Francis’ Care of Our Common Home encyclical. They have a community garden as well and they have gardening classes from green thumb neighbors in the community center. What an excellent use of the principle of subsidiarity.
Solidarity. The Holy Father has been talking a lot about solidarity lately, saying it is the way to come out of this pandemic better than before. We will have to work together to protect everyone and rebuild our common life.
I had been struck by another of his remarks that, “We build towers and skyscrapers, but we destroy community. We unify buildings and languages, but we mortify cultural wealth.” Having grown up here, and witnessing good and bad changes, this is close to my heart.
Both Julia and Jane are very active in the community. They talked about the heightened need in our two cities for affordable housing and how this need is, they don’t think, being considered enough and hasn’t been historically. Jane had been the marketing director of Habitat for Humanity locally and Julia and her family had helped with a youth build, which is how the two met. I agreed about affordable housing. It seems to me it is beginning to be under threat in Bryan too as well as College Station running off most, it seems of its poor. My community involvement is more informal but I agreed with what each of them said about this. I have noticed that there are more homeless among us than ever locally.
Julia talked about “a charitable literacy.” She thinks we as a community need to restore the rubrics of real dialog about these issues. We have all gotten so used to the intensity of the “us and them” way we talk about others, and the way we often approach differences with vicious verbal attacks and general disrespect. Jane thought that humility is key in these exchanges. We can respect others if we see ourselves clearly. Then maybe we could balance everyone’s needs better.
To me solidarity means to be “poor in spirit.” This Beatitude has other meanings in the life of prayer but to apply it to politics it means to me that whatever I do, and whatever my socio-economic status, my heart should be with the poor and vulnerable at all times.
Julia thinks that perhaps we should develop a model of the virtues as a method of deciding about a candidate. The Catechism defines virtue “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”
The traditional Christian virtues according to the Church Fathers are: prudence (right/wise judgement,) justice, temperance, and fortitude (or courage,) And also of course, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. How do our candidates stand when it comes to these?
Jane said often people don’t know what’s available to them in the community or that they can speak up about things that affect them or that they care about right here where we live. “You are asking for crumbs,” she says she wants to tell people, “but Jesus invites you to the table to have a voice!”
I have often felt that Jesus calls me to help, or to stand up for those worse off than I am or who are suffering a grave injustice. I felt impelled. It has not always been a great experience or has required sacrifices that weren’t so fun. However, Jesus and the people he asks us to love and especially care for have to come first.
We took turns praying aloud, particularly about the issues we discussed and for one another. We also prayed Come, Holy Spirit and part of the Mary’s Magnificat, that the mighty would be brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted, that the hungry would be filled and the rich sent away empty and that in this, all would feel God’s blessing.
The council of mothers (and one grandmother) parted in good spirits that night with the intention to meet again.
Julia said that she guessed we had solved the world’s problems.
I said I thought that we had. That is how the world, or a small-medium town changes. People talking to each other over delicious snacks.