The public arena is a mission field

Pope Francis has called us to understand the Church’s structures and institutions through “a missionary key.”

He has stated (and tweeted!) that the Church exists for no other reason than to facilitate the encounter between the person and Jesus Christ. All of the Church’s activities — charitable, educational, social — must have the advancement of the Gospel and the kingdom of God as their primary end, because the saving truths of Jesus Christ are life-giving.

Not just ‘politics’

The Church’s activity in the public arena must be understood through this lens as well. It is not just the Church “doing politics,” but fulfilling the Gospel mandate to

serve others, bringing people together in rational public discourse to foster a peaceful world guided by justice and charity.

When we fulfill this task in word and deed, we serve as witnesses and reflect, in some small way, the face of Christ to others. And, though our sins and failings often obscure the face of the Lord, the public arena is yet another mission field where people can encounter Him.

The stories of non-Catholics who appreciatively encounter the Church and the teaching of Jesus Christ through Catholic social teaching are too numerous to count. Indeed, evangelization through the social teaching of the Church fosters an encounter with the Lord Jesus. That task, however, requires us to go out and meet people, listen to their concerns and create opportunities for dialogue and conversation.

Reaching across aisles

Unfortunately, one of the common complaints we receive at the Minnesota Catholic Conference about our policy advocacy is that we are willing to (and do) work with diverse groups, legislators and individuals to pass legislation.

People are upset that we will, for example, support a pro-choice legislator’s bill on some topic other than abortion or say something positive about that legislator’s work, join together in informal coalitions with an organization to advance a piece of legislation when we may disagree with that group on other legislative matters, or testify in the same hearing with another person or group that they consider unsavory.

This mentality betrays a common problem with public discourse and policy advocacy today — namely, the tendency to view debates in an ideological and partisan framework, rather than through one in which the main aim is the rational attempt to order our life together as a community. It also betrays our evangelical responsibilities.

Missionary politics

The evangelical dimension and opportunities inherent in the Church’s work in the public arena shape not only the substance of our advocacy, rooted in the Gospel, but also how we conduct ourselves in the public debate.

The Church must work to elevate the public debate, pulling issues out of the partisan either/or, “us-versus-them” dynamic. It does so by starting with first principles on which common ground can be built, acknowledging the reasonable points made on both sides, and then building a rational case for why a particular policy serves the common good.

Policy work can be a wonderful witness of the Church and of our Lord. But it takes courage to do it right. These days, unfortunately, true courage often means standing with those with whom you may disagree on some things to advance the common good of all.

If we hope that our politicians act righteously in the public arena and build bridges instead of walls, we must first witness to that responsibility ourselves. Pope Francis, the supreme “pontiff” — that is, bridge builder — is doing just that. Let us follow his lead.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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