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Strength of faith communities affects public policy

As the Diocese of Shreveport seeks new leadership, it would do well to put itself on a path to emulate what its neighbor to the south has done – as the repercussions here extend to non-Catholics as well.

Almost two years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI ascended to leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, I speculated that he would be the kind of pope that would bring good things to the Church. Apparently, he hit a homer with his appointment of the Rev. Ronald Herzog as bishop of the Diocese of Alexandria, according to one of the underappreciated jewels of the Catholic press, crisis magazine.

In its first-of-a-kind survey of all 176 U.S. dioceses, Alexandria was ranked the fourth most “vibrant.” The study measured this concept according to 2005 data of relative numbers of active priests, number of vocations to the priesthood and number of adults received into the church; the higher the growth rates, the higher the ranking. (And it seems the Diocese of Shreveport is surrounded by higher achievers: the Diocese of Little Rock ranked 13th overall, the Diocese of Tyler was top-ranked in the greatest increase in active priests, and the Diocese of Jackson ranked seventh in most adults received into the Church. Benedict has a chance to keep the momentum going in the Diocese of Lake Charles as well, still waiting an appointment; it ranked ninth in the greatest increase in priests.)

Most importantly, the authors argued that it was a bishop’s pastoral leadership that matters in the attainment of higher rankings. Shreveport currently has an opening to lead the diocese, with Benedict expected to make a decision next year, so the capacity to bring about greater health of the diocese will be much dependent upon the decision he makes.

And, according to the authors, there is some room for concern. They compared statistics from 1995 to find the biggest positive and negative changers over the past decade. For Shreveport, the good news was in 1995 it ranked 11th. The bad news was it fell to 88th over the past ten years, the tenth steepest drop in America.

This situation should merit the attention not only of area Catholics, but all people of faith regardless of their affiliations. By religiosity, the fastest growing category of adults in America does not favor a particular religious sect, but is that of atheists and agnostics. This continues to have consequences for government, politics, and policy.

Faith communities that grow increase the chances of translating moral concerns into policy, for as more people embrace the word of God and more strongly, this will be reflected in what governments do. It’s a fashionable, but entirely untrue, canard that government cannot legislate morality, because unavoidably moral values are part and parcel of public policy. For example, every society prohibits murder because it is considered immoral behavior.

Rather, the real issue is whose morality will government legislate? Today, believers and non-believers are more starkly in opposition than ever before, by indications of support of political parties. Exit polls from 2006 indicated that in terms of candidates voted for, even in an anti-Republican year, that Republicans held a 12 percent advantage over Democrats among voters who attended church regularly, but Democrats led better than two-to-one among those who never attended church, with the latter fueled by the 15 percent of the population who said they had no religious affiliation who preferred the Democrats by better than a three-to-one margin. (Among all Protestants and Catholics, almost 80 percent of the sample, the GOP held a small edge which magnified among whites only.)

Simply, stronger faith communities mean government policy will more likely favor turning into policy the moral values people of those communities cherish. It’s not to say that all those who profess a faith truly practice it, or that even those who refuse to acknowledge the existence of God cannot be moral nor support moral values associated with religion. The implication is a strong diocese in Shreveport not only has a big impact on the spiritual lives of area Catholics, but indirectly also may affect public policy as well.

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