By Kimberly Perry | September 17, 2015
When Pope Francis arrives in the District of Columbia next week, he will associate with nearly a million Americans governed in a manner that falls far short of what the Catholic Church professes to believe about democracy.
In addition to visiting local Catholic institutions in the District of Columbia, the Pope will address our national legislature which holds ultimate authority and power over us as DC residents. He has a lot on his agenda, but his advisors would be wise to examine what the church has said about democratic government, and compare that to the way the United States government treats the people of the District of Columbia.
In 1991, Pope John Paul II spelled out the Church’s views on democratic government in an encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus.
“The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends.” (Paragraph 46)
John Paul II – who was widely credited with ridding of totalitarian rule in his native Poland, penned this encyclical two years after the Soviet system in Eastern Europe collapsed. Yet today, the system of governance imposed upon DC residents by Congress stands directly at odds with each point of the 1991 democracy encyclical.
Let’s break down the church statement phrase by phrase and relate it to the status of the District of Columbia:
First, we are American citizens residing in the nation’s capital and are denied participation in our national legislature. We have no voting representation in either chamber of the US Congress. We do not elect -- nor do we have the ability to hold accountable – political leaders who have ultimate governing authority over us.
At the same time, we make the same sacrifices as all other Americans do. We pay federal taxes, but have no say in how they are spent. We send family members to fight and die in military conflicts, yet when votes pertaining to war and peace occur, we have no way to register our opposition or support. We have no say in our federal political system.
Unfortunately, this undemocratic arrangement invites power-hungry politicians, elected elsewhere, to exploit the authority of the federal government and arbitrarily impose their ideological policies – another real-world injustice that cuts against Church teaching. Certain members of Congress have repeatedly been allowed to block our local government from using locally-raised tax dollars for critical life-saving health programs like syringe exchange and women’s reproductive health. And, they’ve even overturned local ballot initiatives and local laws passed by the DC Council and signed by the Mayor.
These actions and the officially-sanctioned denial of the “values of the democratic system” as outlined by Pope John Paul II, should give Pope Francis pause when he stands in the U.S. Capitol to deliver his speech to a joint session of Congress. He might consider following the lead of international bodies like the Organization of American States and the United Nations Human Rights Committee which have publicly stated that the denial of basic principles of political rights to the people of the District of Columbia can and should be corrected by the U.S. Congress.
No doubt the Pope has a lot of ground to cover during his U.S. visit. But part of that ground is the District of Columbia, a place I call home, and a place where the United States has fallen short of the teaching of the Church regarding democracy.