Looking at 2005
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
December 2005

News organizations like to compile lists of the year’s top stories for publication in late December. The lists provide readers an opportunity to reflect on the year’s highs and lows and can help put events in perspective.

With the same purpose in mind, I thought it might prove worthwhile to list some of the big events of 2005 from the perspective of the Catholic social teaching and the work of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

The Death of Pope John Paul II Pope John Paul II shaped every aspect of Catholic life, including the Church’s social teaching. Before elected pope he lived, taught, and preached the Gospel under Nazi occupation and communist oppression, and he played an important role in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council’s key document on social doctrine, Gaudiem et Spes. As pope, he wrote the “social” encyclicals Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus, and Evangelium Vitae, which addressed the dignity of work, social conditions, the Church’s social doctrine, and the Gospel of Life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church issued under his papacy contains hundreds of references to social issues and, if that was not enough, he requested the completion of a “compendium” of the Church’s social teaching. Meanwhile, he played a significant role in the peaceful end of oppressive regimes in his native Poland, eastern Europe, and the Philippines. His outspoken criticism of the death penalty during a visit to the United States marked the start of a shift in public opinion in this country away from support for capital punishment. He was, as it states in the dedication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a “Master of Social Doctrine and Evangelical Witness to Justice and Peace.”

The Death of Terri Schiavo The tragic death of Terri Schiavo brought unprecedented attention to questions about health care decision-making, the state’s role and limits in protecting human life, the administration of nutrition and hydration, and the use of advance directives.

Catholic Health Care Directive
The North Dakota Catholic Conference, acting at the direction of Bishop Samuel Aquila and Bishop Paul Zipfel, produced the first health care advance directive for North Dakota Catholics.

The War in Iraq. The war, of course, started before 2005, but the fact that it goes on will continue to shape who we are as a nation and all Catholics, no matter how they felt about going into Iraq in the first place, are obligated to work for peace.

O’Connor Resigns, Rehnquist Dies, Roberts Confirmed, Alito Nominated. It may take some time before we know the full impact of the changes on the Supreme Court that began this year. We can hope, however, that we have started down the road to restoring justice in matters of religious liberty, the death penalty, and especially protection of unborn human life.

More Catholics on the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts became the fourth Catholic sitting on the Supreme Court. If the Senate confirms Samuel Alito, a majority of the court’s justices would be Catholic. Whether or not it means a change in the court’s decisions, it does signal that Catholics have come a long way in a country with a long history of anti-Catholicism. The verdict is still out as to whether America is shaping its Catholics or Catholics are shaping America.

Attorney General Says No to Assistance for Religious Schools and Hospitals. Within a two-month period in 2005, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued two opinions that denied state assistance to sectarian institutions. The first concluded that setting aside financial aid incentives for students at private colleges and universities violated the state constitution. The second concluded that money assessed for community hospitals could not assist sectarian hospitals. Don’t blame the Attorney General, however. He was only interpreting state laws that have been around for decades, and in one case, since statehood. These laws are vestiges of the anti-Catholicism so much a part of our history. The Supreme Court may change, but the laws may not.

Abortion Alternatives Legislation Passes. After years of trying, pro-life advocates finally convinced the state legislature to provide assistance to those giving positive alternatives to abortion. Several other states passed similar legislation in 2005.

Release of Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church Although completed in 2004, the English version of this important publication did not come out until 2005. Like the Catechism, it is a “must have” for those who make a study of the Church’s social doctrine.

Tsunami, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, Pakistan Earthquake, Bird Flu The natural disasters of 2005 – and these are only some of them – serve as reminders of the fallen state of Creation, the call to charity, the need for justice in the distribution of goods and services, the scandal of poverty, and our interconnectedness.