Since election day has arrived I have sought to make a few observations about the struggle that many priests face as the increasingly painful political process unfolds in this country every two, and especially every four years.
I say “painful” for several reasons. On the one hand, many of us priests are excoriated if there is even a remote sense by someone in the pew that we are “getting into politics.” Perhaps we speak on the matter of abortion, against the homosexual agenda, or a so-called gay “marriage.” Perhaps we speak of the need to care for the poor, welcome immigrants, or remind the faithful that the Pope and bishops have asked us to oppose the use of the death penalty.
And though each of these are important moral topics on which the Church has either doctrinal or prudential teachings, many will scold the priest, either to his face, or behind his back, and say “Father should stay out of politics.”
It is a true fact that these issues, at least these days, do intersect substantially with the political process. But of themselves, they are moral topics, on which the Church has taught, often for centuries. But since many people are more passionate about their politics than about their faith, when they sense that the preacher has tripped the wrong political switches, they just shut down, and refuse to be taught or even yield an inch of ground.
This is increasingly frustrating for priests who wish to teach clearly a moral topics but realize that they must navigate a very complex minefield, full of tripwires of hypersensitivities and thinly veiled hostility and cynicism. Sadly, many priests take cover by speaking only in vague abstractions and generalities. Necessary teaching is not given out of fear of offending, and/or an egocentric need by the priest to be liked.
A second set of problems revolve around those who seek to bait priests, to actually draw them in to the political arena. Many ask aloud, “Why doesn’t Father make it clear that we can’t vote for candidate X?…Why are our priests not more courageous Party Y’s political platform?….Why doesn’t Father just make it clear that no loyal Catholic can belong to Political Party Z?”
And here as well is another kind of mine field, for neither party wholly lines up with Catholic teaching, across the board. Further, when priests move from issues to parties or candidates, it seems that a clear line has been crossed. While the laity are free to cross such lines, and encouraged to be active in political process, clergy instinctively know that to choose sides or candidates automatically alienates them from substantial numbers of Catholics and Americans whom they seek to influence, and reach with the Gospel message.
And once again, we simply confront the hard reality that many are more passionate about their politics than about faith, and would refuse to even listen to a priest who clearly belonged to the wrong party, or supported the wrong candidate. They would simply shut down and refuse to listen to anything the priest had to say whatsoever, no matter how deeply rooted it was in Scripture. As priests, our first goal is to preach the gospel and to not be hindered in this by worldly categories and distinctions, none of which lines up perfectly with the Gospel or the teachings of the Church.
A third area which causes special pain for priests is to strive to serve a Catholic community that is often so severely divided within itself. Politics is very pernicious, and poisonous these days in the ways that it intrudes upon the unity of the faithful, and especially the primacy of the faith.
Catholics should be in agreement with each other over issues of life and death, marriage, and homosexuality. And even if there may be different approaches about how best to care for immigrants, or the poor, Catholics while open to a diversity of solutions, must also grasp more deeply the fundamental principles of Church teaching regarding our obligations to immigrants and to the poor. Catholics should find a unity among each other through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, which are quite thorough in all the moral and social issues.
But the current political climate has utterly poisoned the parish environment where these discussions and learning should take place. The pernicious effects of poisonous politics creates hostility where discussions and teaching shut down almost the moment they begin. So while there may be a few parishes that are largely unified, many, even most, are seriously divided.
A priest may speak from the pulpit on the horrific practice of abortion and be written off by many as being simply a Republican. He may speak to the issue of capital punishment, or immigration, and though he read directly from the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he will be simply dismissed with a wave of the hand is sounding like some sort of liberal Democrat. Let the priest speak against homosexual activity and against so-called gay “marriage” and once again he is consigned by many to the ranks of being some “right-wing, reactionary, hateful, Republican.”
It is all very ugly, and even while some may wish to opine that some teachings have more doctrinal authority than others, what I refer to here is a simple refusal even to any openness to being taught, to being persuaded. There is almost complete resistance even to reluctantly agree, just as a matter of strategy, that it might be good to stand unified with our bishops, even in prudential matters. No, it would seem that politics generally rules the day, it drives the discussion, it trumps the faith at every turn.
It is an increasingly difficult and painful landscape for priests to navigate. It is also quite difficult to see any hope for improvement in the near future.
It is of course a problem that is bigger than the Church alone. The synthesis between the Judeo-Christian faith and Western culture has broken down in the last 50 years. This breakdown is intersected with politics.
And while it is true that the Democrat party seems increasingly to be aligning itself with the forces of secularism, and opposing the teachings of historical Christianity, it hardly seems wise at this moment for the Church to wholly abandon any attempt to continue to influence all political parties and movements. Slamming doors, and wholly cutting ties is not generally the instinct of the Church. It also remains a fact that many Catholics, including churchgoing Catholics, remain strongly attached to the Democratic Party, for historical and local reasons. The Church cannot, as a good mother, simply say to some of her children, “No longer darken my door.” Admittedly though, it is an increasingly strained relationship.
Perhaps the best the Church can do in a time like this, perhaps the best that the priests and pastors can do, is to insist, yes even to beg that all the Catholic faithful will use the faith as their starting point. Yes, the faith! Not their politics, not just what they heard some dopey actor say recently, not what they heard in a popular song that has a pretty melody. No, the starting point, the main influence must be the sure, undiluted waters of the Gospel, and the teachings of the faith. And this should be the case no matter what tensions are introduced into a person’s political leanings.
Let the faith be first! Let the Lord have the first word, indeed the last word as well. Faith must be the starting point of how we think on every issue. Would that every Catholic would bring the faith into the political process and make it a dynamic force, rather than to try and bring the political process into the Church, and insist that we make foolish compromises to the clearly revealed truth of the Gospels. Our holy faith comes first. It is the light by which we see and judge everything else. No earthly prince or earthly philosophy should ever be able to overrule the teachings of our Lord in our mind and heart. Faith comes first.
Perhaps we do well to conclude the words of St. Paul to the Philippians:
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. (Phil 2:2-3)