Catholic Citizenship gets back to its grassroots

The old saying goes that religion and politics are two topics that should be avoided in polite conversation. However, Catholic Citizenship, an organization created by former U.S. Ambassador Raymond Flynn to encourage Catholic grassroots participation in the political process, is calling on Catholics to speak up when it comes to politics.

“It’s important because our faith demands that we participate in active self-governance,” said Victor Pap, executive director of Catholic Citizenship.

“If we don’t take an active part in the body politic, then the only people leading our government will be those who aren’t Catholic Christians and that leads to public policy that is less than desirable to say the least,” he said.

The group, which has been active since 2004, educates voters on moral issues and encourages them to put Catholic values before party affiliations.

Just a year after it was formed, the group joined the efforts to reverse the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. When the marriage amendment was defeated in 2007, Catholic Citizenship was forced to reexamine their efforts and their goals.

“The organization’s focus has been on evaluating why -- despite a vast majority of Massachusetts citizens agreeing with the Church on issues -- the impact we have on our culture has been minimized,” said Pap. “We determined that the Catholic viewpoint simply isn’t relevant, just as the pro-life or the sexual relativism movements weren’t relevant 40 years ago.”

Additionally, Catholic Citizenship was still a very new organization when the fight to pass the traditional marriage amendment was raging and “because the issue was one with national implications, the mission of Catholic Citizenship was overtaken by an issue it wasn’t quite ready to handle,’’ said Pap.

Catholics also have a “bad habit” of reacting to issues instead of being proactive, Pap added.

With these realizations in mind, Catholic Citizenship has decided to shift gears and concentrate on grassroots activism that empowers one parishioner at a time, he said. Catholics need to contact their elected officials before a political crisis occurs and make sure they vote in primaries and local elections. Another component of their initiative is to encourage practicing and committed Catholics to run for municipal office.

“Grassroots participation in the political process means ordinary people develop a relationship with elected officials, organize their parish communities and execute long-term, meaningful plans to change the status quo,” said Pap.

“For Catholic Citizenship, it specifically means that we rely on our grassroots network, such as the people who receive our e-mails and letters, to inform us when there is a local issue that has important ramifications to spur action,” he said.

Pointing to an example of grassroots participation, Pap said Catholic Citizenship was recently able, on short notice, to get nearly 50 people to attend a school committee meeting in Revere and speak out against a move to expand student access to contraception and the potentially abortifacient morning-after pill.

In 2008, the group worked with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference to publish and distribute 13,000 voter education guides for important legislative elections throughout the Commonwealth. Catholic Citizenship was also able to encourage hundreds of Catholics to publicly oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to rescind the health care conscience clause regulation that allows health care providers to refuse to provide certain services, like abortion, because of moral objections.

“There are newly elected legislators who are seeing a much more vibrant, active participation from parish communities in their districts,” Pap said. ‘‘This is good for the Catholic community because it helps us combat the image that the Church only concerns herself with hot-button or inflammatory issues. It gives Catholic Christians more credibility and enables us to influence public policy much more effectively.”

Catholic Citizenship also has held two forums with elected officials, lobbyists and legislative aides so that Catholic parishioners can have a clear picture of how the Catholic grassroots movement is doing and see where it is lacking.

“We frankly have significantly less clout than we did even a decade ago and this has prompted frustration on the part of many members of the laity, which in turn has led to less effectiveness on issue advocacy, community organization and presence in the secular media,” explained Pap.

“Catholic Citizenship has developed a strong program that enables students and parishioners to really become much more adept at advocating for issues that are important to them and the Church, whether it’s parental rights in education, funding to prevent homelessness or abortion. If we are not smart and savvy, we simply cannot be effective,” he said.