One day in the spring of 2000 while working at my assignment at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., a colleague approached me, gave me a list of cities and asked if I could travel to those cities as a representative of the Bishops' Conference.
At that time, a number of us were part of a team making presentations on the topic of faithful citizenship. When I looked over the list of about eight cities, I saw that one of them was in Alaska. I had never been to Juneau before in my life.
As I made my way from Washington to Juneau I almost missed my flight to Juneau because my flight into Seattle was delayed. I remember making my most frantic run for a plane ever. The flight attendants had just shut the door to the plane when the gate agent pounded on the door and asked if they had room for one more. The seating assignment didn't matter. There was an open seat in the first row of the main cabin. I took my seat and let out a sigh.
I didn't know it, but I had just boarded the "milk run." All around me, throughout the flight, I heard lively conversations about family, fishing, politics and favorite recipes. It seemed to me that I had gotten on a "community bus," only with wings.
I was met at the airport, driven into town and checked in at the Baranof Hotel. The Diocese of Juneau lent me a car and gave me a day to "adjust to the time change." So I drove out to the Shrine of St. Therese, saw the Mendenhall Glacier, and had an Alaskan Amber. I entered into the offices of the Diocese of Juneau and began preparations for my presentations the following day.
Because the 2000 presidential election was coming up in November, I had come to Juneau to speak to the priests of the diocese about a Church document called "Faithful Citizenship." Adopted by the bishops of the United States, "Faithful Citizenship" invites people to be active and responsible citizens by exercising their right and privilege to vote. While it is not the place of the bishops to tell who to vote for, we have the responsibility as teachers of the faith to encourage and challenge others to exercise their right to vote in accord with sound moral teaching. In so doing, we seek to help create a society which promotes the common good of all people and upholds the many blessings we have received from God.
"Faithful Citizenship" addresses seven major themes which establish the basic principles for building a more just society and responding to the moral and ethical challenges of modern life. The first of these principles is the life and dignity of every human person. This is the foundation of each of the other principles of social teaching. Human life is sacred - from the moment of conception until natural death. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the moral measure of every social institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. The sacredness of life and the dignity of every person impact a discussion on abortion, war, the death penalty, euthanasia, and many other moral issues.
Second, the person is not only sacred but also social. Marriage and the family are the indispensable institutions that promote the common good by building up and strengthening society. Therefore marriage and family must be supported and protected, not undermined.
Third, our tradition teaches that every person has a fundamental right to life and the right to those goods required to live a decent human life: food, shelter, health care, education and employment. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities - to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. Human rights are to be protected and responsibilities met.
Fourth, the treatment of the most vulnerable members of society is the moral measure of that in every society that seeks to be good, and especially in our rich and blessed society, the needs of the poor and the vulnerable should be primary concerns.
The fifth theme states the economy must always function in the service of people in society. The dignity of work is protected and workers have a right to organize and to be paid fair and just wages.
The sixth theme is solidarity. We are one human family; whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic or ideological differences may be, we are brothers and sisters. In a small world, loving our neighbor has global dimensions. Pope Paul VI taught "if you want peace, work for justice."
The last theme addresses care for God's creation. Care for the Earth is not just a slogan or a trendy fad; it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet living in relationship with all of God's creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.
These seven themes guide us in exercising our responsibility to act as faithful citizens within this community and our society. The church asks people to consider such teachings as they exercise their right to vote. We must weigh not only how our vote will affect our own individual interest, but how our vote will uphold the dignity of each person and promote the common good.
This was my presentation back in 2000 on my first visit to Juneau. When I made my way home to Washington, I would never have guessed that there would come a day when I would participate myself in the life of this community as a resident and a voter. But I am doing so because Juneau is now my home.
If you intend to vote in the upcoming primary elections and have not registered, please take time to register. Registration ends on July 25.
Edward J. Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and was installed on April 2, 2009. His next column will run July 18.