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.