The Common Good

What My Catholic Faith Has Taught Me

I’m Catholic. My father comes from a working class Irish Catholic family; my mom is from a large Catholic family of German and Lithuanian decent. My brothers, sister, and I all attended Catholic school and growing up we attended Friday fish fries during Lent and church polka fests in the summer. I’m an active member of a Catholic church in St. Paul. And soon, my wife and I will celebrate the baptism of our daughter into the Catholic Church.

I’m also voting no on the anti-marriage and voter restriction amendments.

Some have asked how I can embrace a faith whose leadership has taken such a hard line against gay and lesbian equality, and which is painfully quiet on the threat to limit voting rights. I understand why people ask this question. For me, my decision to vote no is not in spite of my Catholic faith, it’s because of it.

When I was 10 my parents divorced. A couple years later my mom came out to my family as lesbian. By then she no longer felt welcome at church and stopped going to mass, though she has remained a deeply spiritual person. This one case of social exclusion is deeply meaningful to me, but is nothing compared to political decision by church leadership to spend millions of dollars to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota. By doing so church leaders seek to permanently exclude gays and lesbians from the civil rights and benefits straight couples enjoy.

But here’s the thing: I’m still getting my daughter baptized. And I’m still Catholic. And I’m still voting no on both amendments in November.

I’m a religious person because I need help figuring out how to apply the values I believe in to the real world. Prayer, reflection, the sacraments, and regular attendance at mass are important elements of the Catholic faith. But a great thing about being Catholic is that there are also countless examples of how others live faithful lives that one can look to for inspiration. My favorite Catholic role model happens to be my mom’s sister, Sister Kathleen Ries.

When I was 18, my aunt was called to a new ministry, community organizing, and she left her job as an elementary school principal in the Bronx. She needed someone to help her move cross country to her new assignment on the west coast and, as the only one of her 16 nieces and nephews who was old enough to drive a car and whose summer job had not yet started, I was told I was going.

I believe every young man should drive cross country with a nun. For 5 days we drove through the plains and over the Rockies. We stopped in Reno on my 18th birthday and tried to gamble (turns out you need to be 21 to gamble in Nevada and we were escorted out of the casino).

We made it all the way to California where we stayed in a convent and I sat in on a couple days of her community organizer training in a dim church basement. I was hooked – there was a whole field devoted to changing the world for the better – and I didn’t need to take a vow of celibacy to join. I had found my purpose and have been a community organizer ever since.

There is a lot I admire about my aunt and the integrity with which she lives her life. She now lives in New York City and volunteers at the United Nations for a nongovernmental organization that works internationally for women’s rights. On Wednesday evenings she protests for peace. On weekends she volunteers for the homeless. Did I mention she helps run a hostel and greets all guests at breakfast each morning? Did I mention she’s 71 years old?

My choice to vote no has everything to do with being Catholic. The marriage amendment says that gays and lesbians should not have equal access to the financial and social rights and benefits my wife and I enjoy. Nothing in my faith experience justifies this. The voter restriction amendment will set in place permanent barriers to the civic participation of all voters. The fact that it will quiet, if not silence, the voices of those who are poor, homeless, unemployed, in foreclosure, elderly, people of color, and students makes this amendment morally out of bounds.

Another great thing about being Catholic is that by practicing our faith in community we help each other live the values of the gospel. This is why we Catholics can see how our lot in life – and the fate of our souls – is tied to the fate of others. This sense of purpose and interconnection is what I want for my daughter. I’m voting no because that’s what my faith – and my family – have taught me to do. I’m voting no for my faith and my family.

Dan McGrath is Executive Director of TakeAction Minnesota. Dan was introduced to community organizing at the age of 17 during a cross-country road trip with Sister Kathleen Ries, his aunt. While earning a bachelor’s degree at Hamline University, Dan became a student organizer and leader. After college, he went to work for Progressive Minnesota, where he served as a canvasser, community and political organizer, and Executive Director. He has worked on numerous legislative, issue, and electoral campaigns and has worked inside the labor movement for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). His overseas experience includes work at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in the Republic of Ireland, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), and as an election observer in El Salvador.

Photo credit: STILLFX/Shutterstock.

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