Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.
The Church has a unique role in the political life of society. While confusion and controversy often surround the participation of religious groups in public life, it is clear that major public issues have moral dimensions and religious values have significant public consequences. Spirituality and politics are distinct, but they are not separable. Political judgments are inevitably permeated with moral and religious assumptions. The Catholic community brings to the public debate its rich tradition of service to the poor, education of the young, and care for the sick in its pursuit of a just society.
The Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, continues this tradition when it urges Catholics to understand, “We need more, not less engagement in political life. We urge Catholics to become more involved—by running for office; by working within political parties; by contributing money or time to campaigns; and by joining diocesan legislative networks, community organizations, and other efforts to apply Catholic principles in the public square.”
Clearly, the social teachings of the Catholic Church impel its members to reflection, commitment, and action. Advocacy offers a practical means for the Church to be a more effective voice for the poor and vulnerable, and to promote just principles and values in the public policy arena for the common good. Advocacy work addresses issues as close as local housing and as global as world hunger and trade policy. They provide Catholics with concrete ways to become informed and active citizens.
The Michigan Catholic Conference Government Relations Sourcebook has been prepared to assist Catholics in this effort. It is an aid to foster responsibility and to recognize that a unique contribution is guaranteed when our faith shapes our politics.
In March 1965 the Michigan Catholic Conference Board of Directors, under the direction of Cardinal Dearden, promulgated the following policy for its government relations work:
All questions regarding the position of the Church on public policy matters will be decided by the Board of Directors. No Catholic person or group may represent or purport to enunciate policy for the Church in Michigan on state or federal, legislative, administrative or judicial questions without specific and prior authorization from the Board of Directors or its agent.
In 1991 the Board of Directors revisited this statement and altered the language slightly to reflect changes the Conference had undertaken over the last 26 years. In order that the official Catholic Church position in Michigan on public policy matters be presented with one voice to the legislative and executive branches of government at both the state and federal levels, the Michigan Catholic Conference adheres to the following policy:
The Michigan Catholic Conference shall be the coordinating unit for the Catholic Church in Michigan and shall be the spokesperson to the legislative and executive branches of state government. Public policy statements on behalf of the Catholic Church in Michigan shall be made by the MCC or its designated representative.
The MCC shall keep diocesan entities fully informed of significant state and federal matters.
The effective implementation of the Michigan Catholic Conference Policy for Government Relations is dependent on the cooperation and coordination of the diverse entities of the Catholic community within this state. This handbook is intended to facilitate the full engagement of Catholics in Michigan in activities that carry out the gospel imperative to translate faith into action.
The policy has been formulated to:
Coordination of these activities among the MCC, diocesan personnel, parishes, and individuals is best facilitated through consultation, communicating with legislators and other public officials, attendance at legislative committee meetings and public hearings, research, and informing affiliated and interested parties as follows:
Prior to the formation of any position by the MCC, proper consultations with the appropriate legal, ethical, and policy experts are conducted.
MCC coordinates contacts by diocesan and local offices with legislators and public officials on Board approved, statewide legislative issues. Guidelines for communications on specific issues of local interest by diocesan personnel or individuals are found in Chapter III of this handbook.
provides for representation and, if appropriate, testimony at legislative committee meetings and public hearings conducted by state departments or agencies on bills, regulations, or other issues of importance. All testimony on behalf of the Church should be clear, accurate, well-documented, and always consistent with the position developed by the MCC and/or the USCCB.
Information and education are pivotal for sound public policy implementation. To this end, the MCC will provide the background and research necessary for action.
When addressing federal legislative issues, the Michigan Catholic Conference will work in collaboration with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Only when the USCCB has taken a position on an issue, and when requested by appropriate USCCB staff, will the Michigan Catholic Conference engage the Michigan congressional delegation and federal agencies.
Citizen involvement in government is at the very heart of democracy, a political system which works only when everyone accepts responsibility for ensuring that the human person is protected and that the public good is advanced. In return for undertaking this duty, the citizen is rewarded with the power to effect change.
In order to meet the obligations of living in a democratic society, individuals must keep in touch with the issues that affect their lives, be it on a local, national, or global scale. For some people, taking an interest is enough. Anyone who learns about the issues or votes is taking part in democracy, but for some that is where their involvement ends. Their activism is strictly on a personal level. Others, who embrace a specific cause or issue and translate that into visible activity, are advocates. Advocacy is not lobbying, an attempt to influence the voting of legislators to urge the passage or defeat of a bill. Advocacy is the expression of a stance, in the biblical tradition of a political ethos as found in the letter handed down in Jeremiah, where the prophet urged the exiled Israelites to seek refuge in the city and strengthen what was good there:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:5,7)
The poor have a special place in the advocacy of the Catholic Church. Involvement with the poor is outlined in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus said to the righteous “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40) Pope Paul VI stated in his 1971 Apostolic Letter, A Call to Action, “…it is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustices and utter prophetic denunciations; these words lack real weight unless they are accompanied by effective action.”
In 1986, the U.S. Bishops confirmed this statement when they wrote “…the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.”
Advocacy demands a great commitment from Catholics. The Church’s teachings offer a vision for an alternative society and thus provide a challenge to change the status quo. Based on two millennia of social action, and the promise of a new and better day, the Catholic Church generates the enthusiasm within her members to seek justice for all.
Grassroots organizing is a powerful communications tool that involves a group of like-minded citizens expressing their position on important public policy matters to elected officials. This requires great effort and planning, but it is only effective when people care enough to make it work. Whether the issue is human life, religious freedom, education, economic justice, or issues concerning marriage and the family, Catholics across the state have the ability to unite in large numbers with one powerful voice.
Faced with limited resources, advocates must use their time and energy in the most efficient manner possible. To that end, the Michigan Catholic Conference has developed the following recommendations for Church-related grassroots organizations.
In addition to these general pointers, Church-related grassroots organizations may enter the political arena, although action is limited due to the Church’s tax-exempt status. (See Appendix D “IRS Code 501(c)(3)”) Michigan Catholic Conference staff is always available to respond to inquiries regarding political activity. Some of the activities that citizens can undertake are letter writing campaigns, phone calls, lobby days at the Capitol or when legislators return to their districts, voter registration, community organizing, and candidate forums. Careful use of limited resources can yield great results.
Grassroots organizations generally consider letter writing to be their major activity. When writing to a legislator, there are three criteria to keep in mind:
Following these guidelines will not always result in victory, but there are no losers in grassroots organizing. Group advocacy always has one very important result: it brings people together in a cooperative effort. People get to know their neighbors and themselves, discover talents and capacities they never knew they had, as well as the value of caring deeply for something. They learn that there is an enormous sense of satisfaction in working with others to bring about change and that we are each part of our society, our state, our community, and our Church.
Every four years since 1976 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement on the responsibilities of Catholics to society. According to Msgr. William Fay, General Secretary of the USCCB, “The purpose of the statement is to communicate the Church’s teaching that every Catholic is called to an active and faith-filled citizenship, based upon a properly formed conscience, in which each disciple of Christ publicly witnesses to the Church’s commitment to human life and dignity with special preference for the poor and vulnerable.”
The statement, titled “Faithful Citizenship,” urges Catholics to “become more involved—by running for office; by contributing money or time to campaigns; and by joining diocesan legislative networks, community organizations, and other efforts to apply Catholic principles in the public square.
In order to provide statewide Catholics with an avenue to fulfill their roles as “faithful citizens,” the Michigan Catholic Conference has instituted an innovative web-based grassroots advocacy center called the Catholic Advocacy Network. Implemented in February 2004, the Catholic Advocacy Network provides the faithful with a quick and easy method of communicating support for or opposition to legislation of concern to the Conference. In addition to facilitating “Faithful Citizenship,” the Catholic Advocacy Network also helps counter-balance the effects of term limits in Michigan.
The inception of term limits, which were well intended to consistently develop new ideas, has also produced a crop of “fresh-faced” legislators who are unaware of the dozens of statewide advocacy organizations and the issues for which they advocate. Prior to term limits elected officials had been in office long enough to thoroughly understand the legislative and budget process and could spend more time addressing issues of concern to advocacy organizations. With the creation of term limits, however, organizations such as the Michigan Catholic Conference depend more on communication from local communities and grassroots networks to assist elected officials in understanding local and statewide concerns—especially as it relates to the Catholic community.
Located on the Conference’s website, the Catholic Advocacy Network allows for users to become familiar with legislative issues, read talking points prepared by MCC staff, locate a legislator simply by entering a home address, and electronically send a message to an elected official in support or opposition to legislation. The network also allows an individual to send a letter to the editor at their local newspaper, find out who is running for elected office in a specific community, read about bills which MCC is currently advocating for or against, and sign up to receive email alerts when immediate “action” is needed. The network also includes a link where users can register to vote with the Secretary of State.
To become active, visit the Catholic Advocacy Network.
The framers of the United States Constitution, with unparalleled foresight, embodied in the American system of government the principle of “separation of powers” by establishing three equal and independent branches of government—the legislative, executive, and judicial.
At the state level, Article IV, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution provides that “…the legislative power of the State of Michigan is vested in a senate and a house of representatives.”
The legislative process, which has developed as a result of this constitutional mandate, is complex. The primary responsibility of the legislature is to formulate solutions to the problems faced by the state by enacting legislation designed to regulate the activities of people, businesses and government, and to protect constitutional, civil, and religious rights for the common good.
Several sources develop ideas for legislation:
The professional background, experiences, and committee assignments of a legislator are important in determining the interests and concerns of a lawmaker. Legislators also introduce bills to respond to the needs of their constituencies, but must exercise judgment on issues that affect every Michigan citizen.
Example: Public Act 312 of 1990, the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care law, was promoted by one representative for 16 years.
Ideas from citizens are usually generated in response to a specific problem being experienced in a lawmaker’s district. These ideas are principally formed when concerned citizens alert their legislator to a grievance, or the legislator may be made aware of a problem through the media or by attending a civic function in the district.
Example: When people were outraged by the murders of six young girls by an individual on parole, the Legislature quickly acted to reform the Michigan Parole Board.
Interest groups are able to assert their political power because they are more visible and have greater resources at their disposal than do single individuals. These groups range from those representing single issues, trades, professions, or social groups to those representing a multiplicity of issues. In addition, some of these groups are established on a temporary basis while others are permanent organizations designed to maintain an ongoing review of legislative activity.
Example: Public Act 78 of 1993 was promoted for several years by organizations concerned with the high cost of medical liability.
The governor and departments of the executive branch make recommendations to the legislature in an effort to advance programs and enhance the management and distribution of government services.
Example: Under the state constitution, the governor is required each year to propose a budget for the upcoming fiscal year—which begins October 1.
During each legislative session, thousands of bills are introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Only a few hundred become law, but all of them require analysis of content and study of their implications for positive and negative effects on the people of the State of Michigan and specifically the Catholic community. Every two years MCC staff at the beginning of the legislative session, together with the MCC standing committees, undertakes a review of public policy issues to develop its legislative agenda, which is then published as an issue of Focus.
Four operative principles control, to a great degree, the nature and extent of MCC participation in the public forum. These controlling principles flow from:
In addition, there are three questions that direct MCC involvement in public policy:
MCC staff monitors, analyzes, categorizes, and evaluates the daily flow of legislative information based on the preceding principles and questions. Each bill is then prioritized based on the seriousness of its impact on the moral life and well-being of all persons, the significance of its impact on public policy, and its implications for the Catholic community. These priorities are adjusted as necessary as a bill makes its way through the legislative process.
The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and enact and reject laws, called the initiative…
The concepts of initiative, referendum, and recall have their roots in the progressive and populist movement at the turn of the 20th century. The process for initiative and referendum was originally adopted in the Michigan Constitution of 1908 and revised with the Michigan Constitution of 1963. The process begins with the signing of petitions by registered voters. Signature requirements for initiatives and referenda are driven by the total vote cast for governor in the previous election. The percentage of signatures required along with a description of the petition in question follows:
For proposed changes to the state constitution, petitions with signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the total gubernatorial vote in the previous election must be filed with the secretary of state at least 120 days before the general election in order for the initiative to appear on the ballot.
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers’ certification of sufficiency or insufficiency of signatures is required at least 60 days before the election. Any question submitted to the voters shall be worded so that a “Yes” vote will be a vote in favor of the subject matter of the proposal, and a “No” vote will be against the subject matter of the proposal. If two or more amendments approved by the voters at the same election conflict, the amendment receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail. Constitutional amendments take effect 45 days after the election.
Example: The Headlee Amendment, the 1978 amendment to the Michigan Constitution, placed certain limits on state and local government spending.
Statutory initiative extends only to laws which the legislature may enact under the constitution. Once the necessary number of signatures (8 percent of the total vote cast for governor) are certified, the proposed law is submitted to the legislature which has 40 session days to act. The legislature may:
Statutory initiatives that pass take effect 10 days after certification of the election results by the State Board of Canvassers.
Example: Public Act 211 of 1990, requiring parental consent for abortion, was the result of a statutory initiative after the proposed legislation was vetoed by the governor.
Voters have the power to reject laws enacted by the legislature. This power does not extend to laws making appropriations for state institutions or to meet deficiencies in state funds. To invoke referendum, petitions with signatures equal to 5 percent of the total vote for governor in the previous election are needed. Referendum must be invoked within 90 days following the final adjournment of the legislative session in which the law was enacted.
Once the necessary number of signatures has been filed with the secretary of state, the public act is suspended until voters in the next general election vote “Yes” or “No” on the act. (Filing of signatures—not certification—suspends the public act.) Any public act approved by voters in a referendum election may be amended by the legislature in any subsequent session. The legislature may immediately re-enact a law that the voters have rejected by referendum. If voters approve a public act in a referendum election, the suspended act goes back into effect 10 days after certification of the election results by the State Board of Canvassers.
Example: Proposal A of 1988 was a referendum on Public Act 59 of 1987, which prohibited the use of public money to pay for abortions for persons receiving public assistance.
Recall is designed to give the people the power to remove from office an official whose conduct is contrary to the wishes of the people. Every elected public official in the state except for judges is subject to recall. Recall petitions for state and county officers (except county commissioners) are filed with the secretary of state. Petitions seeking the recall of the secretary of state are filed with the governor.
Recall petitions circulated against all local public officials: city, township, school board, and county commissioners are filed with the appropriate county clerk. Recall petitions shall not be filed against a public official until the official has served at least six months of the current term of office, and petitions must be completed with the required amount of signatures and filed with the appropriate office within the allotted time.
Details for specific offices can be obtained through the secretary of state’s office.
Example: Two Macomb County state senators were recalled for supporting Governor Blanchard’s 38 percent tax increase in 1983.
The Michigan Catholic Conference can make a positive contribution on those initiative and referenda issues that are placed forward as a matter of justice. These issues include a consistent life ethic, education, and the just division of resources. The engagement by the Michigan Catholic Conference on an individual issue will be judged on a case-by-case basis as to the merits of the proposals and their effect on the well-being of individuals and the common good.
The Michigan Catholic Conference provides diocesan staff, statewide Catholics, grassroots advocates and other interested parties with several communication tools that highlight the Conference’s activity on legislative issues. The Conference has placed a level of importance on making transparent to the Catholic community its work—as the legislature’s decisions affect day-to-day lives of the Church, her faithful, and her institutions. As the Michigan Catholic Conference works to pursue the common good for our society through legislative measures, the following communications tools are provided:
Each week when the legislature is in session the Conference distributes via e-mail a brief yet descriptive newsletter that chronicles the week’s legislative activity. Lansing Update focuses on legislation of interest and concern to the Church as well as pertinent measures that affect us as Michigan citizens. Lansing Update also alerts grassroots advocates when communication to legislators in support or opposition to legislation is necessary through the Catholic Advocacy Network. When necessary, Lansing Update will also announce pertinent committee hearings for the coming week as well as the introduction of bills of interest.
The Michigan Catholic Conference collaborates with several diocesan newspapers to publish a monthly column, “The Word from Lansing,” which addresses specific legislative issues and their relevance to the principles of Catholic social teaching. The columns are intended to bring awareness to public policy matters that affect the Catholic community as well as encourage participation in the political process.
At the conclusion of each two-year legislative session the Michigan Catholic Conference will publish a report chronicling the Conference’s involvement in all issues for that session. The legislative report addresses particular bills as they pertain to religious freedom; human life; education; families, children and economic justice; fiscal and regulatory policy and health care. The report details the Conference’s position on an issue and its legislative activity, the bill number and its sponsor(s), as well as information on how the bill fared in the legislature.
Over the last four decades the Michigan Catholic Conference has been diligent in advocating for the promotion and protection of life, social and economic justice, civil rights, education reform and religious freedom through Focus. Initially drafted in October 1969 as a periodic newsletter addressing Governor William G. Mulliken’s education proposals, Focus has transformed into a contemporary public policy essay that provides societal analysis with focused reflection on the Gospel.
Since its inception the Michigan Catholic Conference has advocated for dozens of critical social and economic issues, with Focus having been present to chronicle their significance. From opposing a constitutional amendment banning state aid to non-public schools in 1970 to leading the charge against assisted suicide in 1998, from speaking out against abortion on demand in 1972 to supporting property tax relief and public school finance reform in 1993—Focus has been a critical medium in communicating the message of the Michigan Catholic Conference.
Published approximately four times per year when important societal issues arise, the essay has a mailing list of approximately 9,000 individuals that includes all parishes, schools, religious leaders and public officials. In an effort to maximize its reading audience parishes are encouraged to order limitless copies for their parishioners at no charge. Readership is also expanded by the use of the Internet as previous and current issues are located on the Michigan Catholic Conference web site.
In harmony with the mission statement of the Michigan Catholic Conference: To promote a social order that respects the dignity of the human person and serves the common good in the spirit of the Beatitudes and in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Focus continues to facilitate public policy understanding through the lens of Catholic social teaching to publicize information that elevates the moral fiber and common good of our society.
Archived issues of Focus may be accessed by clicking here.
The following map depicts the seven Catholic (Arch)diocese of Michigan. The individual counties that each (arch)diocese is comprised of are also outlined and labeled. You may also wish to view a zoomable PDF version of the map.
Enter your zip code below to find your locally elected officials, their office locations and pertinent contact information. Information provided by way of the Catholic Advocacy Network.
All Catholic churches are exempt from the federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code, which, in relevant parts, limits exemption to organizations:
Organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable…or educational purposes…no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation…and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.
In addition to exemption from federal income tax, exempt organizations are entitled to receive contributions which taxpayers may deduct for purposes of federal income, estate, or gift taxes. In return for tax exempt status, the IRS has placed constraints upon exempt organizations which limit the organizations’ involvement in political debate. Political campaign activity is subject to an absolute prohibition.
Section 501(c)(3) forbids participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate for public office (including publishing or distributing statements). Under the regulations, this prohibition is extended to both direct and indirect participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate. The regulations further provide that such activities include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written or printed statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate. Exempt organizations may not provide financial or other forms of campaign support such as volunteers, facilities, or similar assistance. The IRS has approved public forums, debates, or lectures in which speakers explain their views to the public, provided the sponsoring organization does not indicate its views on the issues being discussed, comment on candidates’ responses, or in any other manner indicate bias for or against a particular candidate.
The IRS also severely limits exempt organizations in the use of voter education materials. In order for such materials not to be considered prohibited political activity, the following characteristics should be present. The materials must:
Frequently, churches can only guess when applying the voter education guidelines to their own situations. The penalties for guessing incorrectly, however, are potent indeed. An exempt organization that violates the political activity prohibition risks loss of tax-exempt status and tax-deductible contributions.
While loss of exempt status might be remedied by requalification under another section of the Code, the loss of deductible contributions, at a minimum, would severely impair a church’s ability to pursue the religious, charitable, and educational work which its exemption was meant to encourage. Members of the church hierarchy, however, have a unique role as teachers and pastors which involves them in educating on church teachings, analyzing issues for their social and moral dimensions, measuring public policy against Gospel values, participating in debate over public policy and speaking out on issues involving human rights, social justice, and the life of the Church in society. The Church hierarchy must continue to emphasize and balance this unique role with the restrictions of 501(c)(3).
A specific set of issues is assigned to each staff member. For more information about a particular issue, please contact the appropriate person. If your question is general in nature, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. To reach someone by phone, please call the Michigan Catholic Conference at (800) 395-5565 or (517) 372-9310 and ask to speak with the appropriate person.