When a friend forwarded an email about a meeting of local Catholics for Obama last week, I perused it with possible interest but ultimately chose not to attend for two reasons. First, I have other commitments, including to the neighborhood Obama campaign group. But the message’s reference to identifying “parish reps” disquieted me, and I decided against expressing my political views through that avenue. Soon after, in a New York Times article about Cardinal Dolan’s appearance at the Republican National Convention, senior Romney advisor Peter Flaherty was quoted about their similar focus: “We’re going to have outreach to Catholics in a coordinated, organized effort — state by state, diocese by diocese, parish by parish and pew by pew.”
I am really bothered by this approach. A parish is not a political entity like a precinct or an affiliation like Democrat or Republican. It is a house of worship and a community of faith. Yet faith is expressed in public life, so how to reconcile these two aspects? While it’s often said that Catholic social teaching cannot be reduced to a platform or a candidate, the bishops’ activism creates an impression of a black and white Catholic “platform” based on opposition to abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. Or, increasingly in the present election, the idea that Catholics are concerned about poverty OR abortion is taking hold. I believe the bishops have stepped far beyond their role as teachers to their own flock with polarizing behavior that is a source of scandal. After the past eight or so years, targeted tactics to gain Catholic support via parishes seem a natural outgrowth of the hierarchy’s growing presence in politics combined with the key role of Catholic voters, especially in swing states. The vision of competing “reps” within a parish is unappealing at best and could be even more divisive in an already divided church.
How might Catholic communities engage the political process? As a starting point, St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians, excerpts of which we have heard on recent Sundays, provide important counsel.
Remember our transformation as followers of Christ. “When you heard the glad tidings of salvation, the word of truth, and believed in it, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit who had been promised. . . . May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you, the wealth of his glorious heritage to be distributed among the members of the church, and the immeasurable scope of his power in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1: 13, 18-19)
Treasure our unity and treat each other accordingly: “Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its binding force. There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. . . . Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Ephesians 4: 3-4, 31-32)
I still believe that people of faith can in good conscience disagree on specific public policies. Given the breadth and depth of Catholic social teaching and the complex intermingling of issues like the federal budget, health care, energy, food production, climate change, and the related moral/ethical challenges they present, it could hardly be otherwise. With Paul’s guidance in mind, I wish for a Catholic culture in which all parishes were safe places for members to participate in open discussion, learning, listening, reflection and discernment on the important political issues of the day — a hearth to gather around for wisdom and knowledge that enlightens activity in the public sphere. Rather than bring politics into our parishes, we ought to take transformation and unity out into the world.
Image from University of Maryland Press Release (Aug. 16, 2012), via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.