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June 28th, 2012

The Catholic Church on the Campaign Trail?


With anti-Vietnam War protests raging, and the nation bitterly divided, Democrats in Massachusetts searched for a candidate to challenge the pro-war incumbent for the third Congressional district. Recognizing the power of religious leaders in the movement, they turned to the Jesuit priest and professor Robert Drinan. As a priest and academic, Drinan worried that he was not as effective as he could be in advancing Catholic social thought. In an interview with Look magazine in 1970, Drinan said, “I’ve written books and I’m a professor, but who reads books? Who listens to professors? It’s Congress that turns it around, and I should be there.”

Convinced by party bosses to enter the contest, Drinan won the nomination and narrowly took the general election in 1970. Pope Paul VI and the local hierarchy, including his Jesuit supervisors, permitted him, a staunch liberal, to serve in office. He used his new platform to champion civil rights, fight the war, and further Catholic social teaching. But the intense partisanism of the time and his support for issues at odds with Catholic teaching made Drinan’s presence in Congress difficult. And in 1980, addressing both Drinan and leftist priests with government power in Central America, Pope John Paul II barred priests from holding public office and his political career ended. Should Drinan, an ordained Catholic priest, have served in Congress? Is this an appropriate, or effective, means of civic engagement?

Influencing policy debate

Fast forward a few decades. The hyper-partisan feeling still pervades our national conversation, and religious leaders remain important players in the debate. Catholic priests no longer serve in an official capacity, but they, along with bishops and religious women, influence policy debate.

I struggle with the proper role for theologians and religious leaders in civic life and political discourse. I am admittedly of the crowd that believes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whether intentionally or not, has aligned itself with the Republican Party for the 2012 election.

In April I wrote about the proposed Congressional budget that would reduce the federal debt by slashing programs serving the poor. It also maintains defense spending at current levels and lowers taxes for the rich. Several religious organizations have lambasted the proposal, noting that a society as wealthy as ours must try to help those in need before infusing those who have the most with even more. Now, another group is joining the debate. From the Washington Post:

A group of Roman Catholic nuns began a nine-state bus tour protesting proposed federal budget cuts Monday, saying they weren’t trying to flout recent Vatican criticisms of socially active nuns but felt called to show how Republican policies are affecting low-income families.

The tour was organized by Network, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group criticized in a recent Vatican report that said some organizations led by nuns have focused too much on economic injustice while failing to promote the church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage…

“We’re doing this because of what’s happening on the Hill,” [Sr. Simone Campbell] told The Associated Press in an interview. “We’re desperate to get the word out, that’s why we’re doing it now.”

The sisters are visiting several Republican congressional offices whose members are linked to the proposed budget, including Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, to plead for continued or increased funding for social welfare programs. The tour concludes July 2 in Washington, D.C.

Concern for the poor and marginalized, and challenging the structures and laws that entrap people in poverty, is a basic and enduring tenet of the Catholic faith. The sisters’ bus tour is encouraging, especially in light of their current situation with the Vatican. Their prophetic witness is an example of faith in action that deserves praise and emulation.

But is it the best way to advance their cause?

I ask not as an underhanded way to condemn the bus tour, but because I struggle with the proper role for theologians and religious leaders in civic life and political discourse. I am admittedly of the crowd that believes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whether intentionally or not, has aligned itself with the Republican Party for the 2012 election. Some bishops have praised President Obama for his recent action on immigration and if you dig deep enough, you’ll find support from various bishops and committees for various progressive causes, notably labor and the environment. But court challenges of the HHS mandate and the subsequent Fortnight for Freedom give an impression that the USCCB is openly campaigning against the president. I find this disheartening.

With the nuns, it’s a little trickier for me to consider the situation without some bias. The love expressed for nuns online and in print the last few weeks has been plentiful and encouraging, and I’ll add my voice to the chorus. Like many Catholics of my demographic, I’m predisposed toward a social justice Catholicism, and religious sisters are so often at the forefront of these important issues. But if the bishops are seen as too cozy with the GOP, does this bus tour infer that some sisters provide Catholic cover for the Democrats? Does this type of seemingly partisan protesting help or hurt the overall cause? Or does it not matter when so much is on the line?

Realities of a toxic political environment

It’s vital that the Catholic Church continue to contribute its voice and rich history of social teaching to the national conversation about a range of important issues. On that point, many would agree. Part of the beauty of Catholic thought is that it transcends traditional political taxonomy. Pro-life Republicans may revere the pope for his steadfast views on abortion and euthanasia, but then lament his solidly left-wing views on global warming, the environment, labor unions and the economy. But in the United States, it can sometimes seem that some of the most vocal Catholic leaders pontificate on issues exclusively from one side of the spectrum.

Nuns so often provide the antidote to this challenge by their very work among the poor, the sick and the marginalized. But what is the most fruitful way to translate this work into advocacy? Is the current political climate too toxic, where support for any program or law implies support for a party or platform? Can nuns, or bishops for that matter, escape this cycle? Or, perhaps, are they playing into it?

These aren’t easy questions, but finding answers may be essential to ensuring that the church’s views remain relevant to citizens and lawmakers alike.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • kathy

    I don’t believe that birth control and abortion should be thrown in the same category. That being said, I am confused how some can say they love their neighbor and God, and yet support politicians who will turn their backs on the needy to protect the “riches” of the wealthy, all under the disguise of “the other guy approves birth control.” Yes, we should each individually do our part to help the needy, but we should also collectively as a society look out for the needy. Is that not what He wrote on our hearts? love your God above all, find Him in your neighbor, and love your neighbor as you do yourself? The very reason people seek birth control, and abortions for that matter, is that they think they can’t afford another child and see no hope. Why give them more fuel to foster that thought by cutting social programs that would help see them through the “hopeless” situation?

  • Roaming Catholic

    One further thought on this: perhaps we can gain some insight from the contrasting roles of kings and prophets (and priests?!) in the Old Testament. The kingly role arguably had a place (although God, through the prophets, is portrayed as granting it pretty grudgingly), but it was the most morally slippery leadership position.

  • Roaming Catholic

    With my Mennonite background, a deeply rooted distrust of politics – and even more of church involvement in politics – is in my blood, so this article touches on questions I’ve often wresled with. I believe the church should have a voice in the public sphere without becoming beholden to partisan ideology of any stripe, which can only hinder the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed. What it looks like to get this balance right in the concrete is the hard part; it requires constant discernment on the part of all Catholics and all Christians, especially those with a public voice. I doubt the possibility of speaking truth to power when we are entangled in the machinations of power ourselves, and for this reason I agree with John Paul II that priests should not hold public office.

  • Bert N. Fall

    This is a very well written article and I would agree that the USCCB has pretty much aligned itself with the Republican Party for this election. They are also right in doing so. While Social Justice is paramount in our lives as Catholics we must not rely on the government to bear the burden for it. It is the sole responsibility of us, as Christians, to provide for those in need and do so using our own resources and not those of others. When we task the government to fund and administer programs for the needy they can only take money from some to give to others. That is not the Christian way. We must give of ourselves. When I go to the voting booth and elect those who will use the taxing power of the state to provide for those in need I have done nothing righteous. I’ve only placed that which is my responsibility on the shoulders of others.

    As for Fr. Drinan, I believe that he undermined his faith when he went against Catholic principle in his support for abortion. If you can’t use your faith to direct your actions what is the point of having faith in the first place? That applies to Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr. as well.

  • Kenneth Barr

    I think the key point of Father Drinan’s public service is that he understood Article VI prohibition against using religious tests as a qualification for an office or public trust. He fully understood the statutory seperation of religion and government. Contrast that to Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr, a pentacostal minister who serves as a New York State Senator representing a district in The Bronx. He proudly proclaims that is the Bible that guides his positions, which has led him to oppose Marriage Equality and other socially liberal issues.

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