The 90th session of the Minnesota Legislature began on January 3. Dozens of first-term lawmakers are included among its 201 members.
Most come excited with some key priorities based on the issues they believe got them elected. But apart from those two or three main issues, much of the legislative terrain and the substance of many issues will be unfamiliar to new lawmakers, as it continues to be for some veterans.
The breadth of legislation is as vast as it is complex. Legislators looking for a way forward can too easily get sidetracked by the “herd mentality” of partisanship and the pull of special interests. Catholics should not leave it to lobbyists and others to educate lawmakers about what is truly important, and should instead remind their elected officials about the nature of their calling as a public servant.
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
But what are the primary responsibilities of lawmakers? And what guiding lights can politicians look toward to know with confidence that they are following a prudent course?
Pope Francis provided one such indicator in an interview following the U.S. elections on November 8. The Holy Father said, “I do not judge [specific] people or politicians,” when asked about the election results. “I only want to understand what suffering their behavior causes to the poor and the excluded.”
Consistent with long-standing Catholic teaching and Gospel values, Pope Francis highlights that a key measure of one’s term in public office is how his or her policies and actions affect the poor and vulnerable. “[T]hose who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church. . . .” (CCC, No. 2448)
In their 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops fleshed out further this “preferential love,” stating that “[t]he primary purpose of this special commitment to the poor is to enable them to become active participants in the life of society. It is to enable all persons to share in and contribute to the common good. The ‘option for the poor,’ therefore, is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.” (Economic Justice for All, No. 88)
The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable does not operate to the exclusion of other people or concerns. Nor should the terms “poor” and “vulnerable” be too narrowly construed to exclude children (born and, especially, unborn), the disabled, the migrant, and the elderly, as well as those suffering from increasing food and economic insecurity.
Rather, the option for the poor and vulnerable requires that in legislative and budgetary priorities, the needs of the poor and vulnerable “have the single most urgent claim” on our conscience, before other concerns and special interests. ( Economic Justice for All, No. 86.)
Justice and Charity
Many conservative-leaning Catholics are skeptical of Catholic social teaching, wrongly believing that the richness of the social tradition with its preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is driven by class-hatred, envy, and egalitarianism.
Fortunately, a new selection of writings from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, back in print for the first time since their publication in 1940, offers a fresh reintroduction to the topic by one whose piety and orthodoxy (as well as staunch anti-communism) are unquestioned.
Entitled “Justice and Charity” (ACS Books), Bishop Sheen explores how a capitalism that fails to submit to the demands of social and distributive justice can be corrected only by a revolution in the heart through the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
As Catholics prepare to work with legislators to uphold the common good, Bishop Sheen’s book is a helpful volume to identify first principles and the demands of justice, so that legislators may respond to their true calling as public servants.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.