Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic

Catholic NO-It-Alls

I don’t often show it, but I’m a bit of a political animal.

In college, I majored in political science with a primary concentration in American politics alongside an independent study of the internal machinery of the church. For a long time, campaign season meant high-gear; I worked on races at all levels and on both sides of the aisle, ending up as a mix of strategist, spokesman or campaign manager on a smattering of local contests.

But somewhere along the way, something changed. I became frustrated with the guts of the process: the wordy statements that really said nothing, the ceaseless clawing of fund-raising and, most of all, the hollow superficiality, depraved tactics and poisonous polarization that have come to dominate the modern state of campaigns and elections. It simply became too much, and while Election Night is still as exciting and magic as Christmas Morning in my world, trudging through the run-up to it from a desk in a windowless “war room” was something I no longer had in me.


Given the results of Tuesday’s election, I hope you don’t mind if I slip into the role that devoting this week’s column to playing the role of the church’s Chris Matthews won’t be unwelcome.

As I see it, despite some spin to the contrary, the American belief in the sacredness of human life remains sound. The prevalence of Iraq as Issue #1 and the resulting windfall for Democratic candidates is proof of that. Having weighed the casualties and costs of war against its justifications, the end of 12 years of Republican dominance in the House, Senate and the governorships signaled a consensus that the effort wasn’t worth it and the party that advocated the use of pre-emptive force deserved to suffer.

If only the newly-vanquished had heeded the emphatic pleas for peace Pope John Paul II offered numerous times at the war’s outset, we (and they…not to mention thousands of Americans and Iraqis) would all be better off right now. At the same time, however, it could be said that in its political outreach, the church’s American branch has boxed itself into a corner.

Instead of articulating the teaching that transcends secular ideology and avoids the perilous poles of rabid partisanship, we’ve allowed our message to be defined by a series of “No”s. Consequently, the Catholic contribution has been easily painted not so much as seeds for the life of the world but bullets in a cultural war.

Regardless of which candidates won or lost on Tuesday, the fact that three of the Church’s high-octane ballot items—stopping embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri, banning most abortions in South Dakota, and sanctioning parental notification in California—went down to defeat should serve as a clarion call that the way our leadership engages questions of faith in public policy is in need of a full and thorough rethinking.


In political terms, think of the church’s teaching as an impeccably qualified candidate, with the little issue of radioactive personal baggage that makes him unelectable. Tragically, the radioactive obstacle in this scenario is the continuing marriage in the public mind of the terms “Catholic church” and “pervert priests.”

If there’s a disservice that’s been done to advertising the beauty and logic of Catholic teaching and its potential to work its way into politics, law and policy, look no further than the church’s own hand. The hemorrhage of moral credibility which befell the church in the US post-2002 is not something for which the media, nor the “culture of death,” can be blamed. And in light of this state of affairs, the firebrand style of political involvement on the part of some among us has shown itself a liability that can obscure the goodness of what we believe and why we believe it.

“Instead of articulating a teaching that transcends secular ideology and avoids the perilous poles of rabid partisanship, we’ve allowed our message to be defined by a series of “No”s. Consequently, our message has been easily painted not so much as seeds for the life of the world but bullets in a cultural war.”

Given the reasons behind our diminished public standing, much of our current political engagement often serves to further benefit those seen as opposing our priorities. Sometimes it would seem better if we just sat it out and cleaned up our own house—which, if you haven’t noticed, could use more than just a little once-over right now.

Womb to Tomb

You’ll hear from a lot of politically-active Catholics that “we need to defend our teachings.” And rightfully so—from womb to tomb, and everywhere in-between, there’s no question about that. But in the American Catholic experiment, while the deposit of faith (i.e. issues of faith and morals) is above electoral scrutiny, the manner in which it’s presented isn’t. In an age when the medium is the message, we need to get back to presenting our truths in a way that’s electable.

Trust me—it’s not rocket-science.

Think of it this way: the inheritance we’ve received in our beliefs is like a priceless work of art that draws the masses wherever it appears. But if you throw it at someone or handle it improperly, it breaks. It wasn’t crafted to be a weapon, no amount of Culture War Krazy Glue can put it back together and the crowds of prospective admirers scatter, the treasure they’ve sought to behold never meeting their sight.

Moral of the tale: to be faithful to our Catholic values in the public square, to exhibit them with the care they deserve, means to stand up for them responsibly. It means a consistent witness, not just to the moral teachings on the ballot, but to how we’ve been taught to treat those with whom we disagree and to be patient with the process. Remember well the Great Commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Lose sight of that in advocating our issues and—congratulations!—you’ve blown out the underpinning of why we support those issues in the first place.


In this cultural climate, it’s no secret that the slightest misstep is amplified, blogged and You-Tubed to the extreme, creating a distorted perception of reality. Keep in mind the most effective form of Aristotelian rhetoric relies on the credibility of the speaker—and that, when and where we fail to “bring it,” a lackluster performance is not the audience’s fault.

Just like any other actor on the stage of this pluralist democracy, the church’s message is given a chance, and we only have so many of those before the opportunity is gone for good. No culture, no electorate can justly be blamed for our failure to present our teaching as it is: salient, rich, life-giving, and wise enough to have stood the test of two millennia. Whether it succeeds at the ballot box hinges not on its truth and value, but on the faith, hope and love with which we bear it.

It’s sad to say, but the one genuinely pro-life, pro-family issue that scored a resounding success on Tuesday did so with little to no ecclesiastical advocacy, as six of six states passed a proposed increase in the minimum wage. In an age when Catholicism has been portrayed as synonymous with an incessant chorus of “No,” it’s quite the commentary that when a wide swath of our top brass finally had the opportunity to say “Yes” to an initiative that wasn’t some kind of ban, it could not and did not find it in itself to do so in any kind of passionately proactive way.

In a July interview, even Pope Benedict aired his exasperation with the messages coming from the church he leads: “We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.”

We do? If that’s indeed the case, Holy Father, hopefully you won’t be alone in saying so much longer.