Faith First! A Meditation at the End of a Political Season.

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)

30 Replies to “Faith First! A Meditation at the End of a Political Season.”

  1. When I was growing up in Ohio and Michigan, Rome was some far away place, hardly relevant to our everyday lives, and the Pope was some old guy you might see in a 20-second clip on the news at Easter or Christmas. Whatever he might have had to say had no impact at all on our moral or faith formation. Now that has all changed, at least in the places I’ve seen in this area. I don’t know if it still is the case out there in middle America or the left coast, even with this amazing new thing they call the Internet.

    The point here being is that I really do hope that, instead of overlooking it, every priest in the country accepts the charge of Pope Benedict and takes the opportunity of this Year of Faith to deeply and profoundly meditate upon and pray about the New Evangelization, taking very seriously the charge to find some way to do a better and more effective job in proclaiming the faith, explaining the faith, insisting upon the faith, that is to say, insisting upon truth. No more business as usual. No more autopilot. And that might mean going back to school and hitting the books. No more vague and warm and fuzzy sermons consisting of nothing more than insubstantial fluff.

    I would think it fruitful to start studying how others in history dealt with the problem of “speaking truth to power,” especially when confronting and combatting grave moral wrongs and evils in the political/legal arena. And this is a time of highly grave moral wrong and great evil. Forty years of killing innocent babies are enough. It is time to stem the rising ocean of blood. Meanwhile, the family has been laid to waste. And fundamental liberty of conscience hangs by a thread.

    When they confronted the evil of their times, in speaking out about their political leaders, what did Saints Thomas More and John Fisher have to say, what are the words and tactics used by Blessed Clemens August von Galen, how did St. Thomas Becket deal with the king, what examples are to be learned from St. Stephen or St. Paul in speaking to those in power, what can be learned from the exchanges between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh?

    Certainly more straight talk is needed, more blunt and forceful and right-to-the-point words need to be used, and less squishy mealy-mouth diplomatic-speak that lets people conveniently avoid what is being said to them. Again, we have enough dead babies and enough women who are broken and wounded as a result. It is time to be blunt. Perhaps it is even time to openly and directly call people to repent — REPENT — to soften their hearts of stone and convert away from the EVIL that they have allowed to prosper. No more making excuses that allow the evil to continue, making excuses for continuing to elect people who allow the evil to continue, if not promote it. No more rationalizing voting for Adolf H. because you like his transportation policy. Maybe it is time to start naming names, calling out our so-called “leaders” specifically, rather than by inference. This can be done in a charitable and pastoral way, but it is clear that the approach used the last 50 years or so has had little effect whatsoever.

    We’ve been sleeping in the garden for far too long while our Lord suffers in agony. It is time to wake up and rise. It is time to find our voice. It is time to speak plainly and clearly and loudly. It is time to say to the evils of our age, “No! No more!”

      1. Who are some others we could add to this list?
        John the Baptist (how could I leave him off before?)
        Blessed Miguel Pro
        St. John Bosco
        Archbishop Oscar Romero

        Who else??

  2. I agree that priests should be able to speak about the moral issues without having to worry about what they are saying. However the priest must be careful how they say it and make sure they remember charity. Recently my wife took her sister to my parish, the sister is a person with same-sex attraction formerly in a gay relationship and she has a kid. She is slowly and gradually returning to the church. The homily was about Maryland question 6. If the priest had started with the compassion to homosexuals portion of the homily he would have been fine, but he started talking about how homosexual marriage is bad, homosexuals having kids is bad, etc. He eventually got to the compassion part of the homily, but by that part my wife’s sister had tuned out and was fuming. Nothing the priest said was wrong, just that the ordering could have helped things a little.

  3. “we simply confront the hard reality that many are more passionate about their politics than about faith”.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that if people believe strongly that Party A is the party to vote for rather than Party B then this means that they are necessarily more passionate about their politics than about faith.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that, in the absence of definitive Church pronouncements about which political issues are more important than others, some people believe more passionately about certain political issues than others and that Party A is closer [sometimes much closer] to Church teaching on said issues than Party B.

    For many Catholics, abortion is by far the most important political issue and there is no Church pronouncement stating that Catholics are wrong to consider it the key issue. For those who have been working in the trenches for years on abortion, there is no question which American political party is further from Church teaching on abortion. The late Father Paul Marx’s Population Research Institute [without specifically stating that Catholics should not vote for Obama] makes perfectly clear that Obama is the pro-abortion presidential candidate:

    For other Catholics, abortion is not the key issue. Catholic social teaching [in the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Laborem Exercens] is more important to such Catholics. Joe Biden specifically referred to his belief in Catholic social teaching during the vice-presidential debate. Arguably, the Democratic party may be closer to Catholic social teaching than the Republican party.

    In light of the fact that the Church [probably for some good reasons] is loathe to establish a hierarchy of issues that should be considered more important to Catholic voters, the divisions that we see among Catholics on political issues are likely to continue. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that these Catholics are putting politics above their faith.

    1. You are speaking of politics, I am speaking of teaching, more specifically, the capacity to teach. I am speaking of the way the doors slam shut When Church teaching Even mildly challenges a political position. There can be little teaching in a climate of such hostility And this is true about both definitive and non-definitive teaching. For the church must be able to teach in all areas To give Catholics a frame of reference which is both biblical and Catholic. But too often politics trumps all of this. Clearly as you point out Catholics, having been taught, can and will bring their Catholic views into the political arena, and may even differ on some specifics About how best to apply the teachings. But my point here is that many are not willing to be taught in the first place if there is even a mild transgression, or challenge to their political point of view. Thus I stand by the fundamental point of this article which is that politics, is becoming an increasingly pernicious Barrier to the capacity of the church to teach

    2. “I Like the Church Fathers”:

      I think it is clear that at least one bishop does make the case that a Catholic voting for one candidate (and furthermore, any who take a pro-choice stance) constitutes in “placing your own soul in serious jeopardy”:

      Notice that he does not tell you who to vote for, but rather who you must not to vote for. I think this is an important distinction. Thus the Catholic Church, at least through one of Her princes, makes a “heirarchy” of evils to be avoided. Indeed, the commonly referred to five non-negotiables are actions inherently immoral (same-sex “marriage”, abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research) and have been preached from the pulpit.

  4. Brilliant response by Bender.

    Monsignor, present company excluded, but I think a big, big issue is that some priests are pretty picky about what they will preach on. The priest in my church has spoken up about abortion less than a handful of times, and then only in passing. But social inequality? That’s real safe – no one is gonna be offended by that. He’s been hammering it home for 3 years about the “rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and God-doesn’t-like-that.” Combined with “the church has a teaching on any social justice issue you can think of,” lets him off the hook to delve further himself, from the pulpit. One priest we had years ago, the only issue he talked about -ever- was how scary it must be for illegal aliens when INS comes knocking on the door for them. He never talked about anything else.

    Hearing from the pulpit that we are sinners is painful. But that what our priests are there for. I know people who have left the church simply from hearing that message alone.

    1. Yes, silent pulpits have been a grave problem for the Church. And priests must be willing to talk about the “whole counsel of God” not just a few safe or favorite topics. Priest too have political leanings and themselves may feel more or less prone to speak on different topics. But, as men of the Church we must be willing to faithfully present Church teaching and represent the bishop. I will say, I had to make something of a journey on a few matters such as the death penalty and immigration, to do a lot of learning and praying to let my faith trump political leanings and to have my unity with the two popes and the three bishops I have served under to be true and heartfelt, not just grudging and resistant. Once somebody asked me if celibacy wasn’t the hardest part of priesthood and I said no, obedience was. But here too I have found obedience and docility (teachability) to be very freeing in the end.

  5. “But my point here is that many are not willing to be taught in the first place if there is even a mild transgression, or challenge to their political point of view. Thus I stand by the fundamental point of this article which is that politics, is becoming an increasingly pernicious Barrier to the capacity of the church to teach”.

    I don’t disagree with this at all Monsignor. Obviously, people shouldn’t harden their hearts to Church teaching just because it might conflict with the views of their preferred political party.

  6. In spite of all these, we elevate our priests to the most honored because of their stance to first glorify GOD above all. Only the limited mind can not understand the priests on their quest and purpose to lift their souls to GOD and bring lost souls to GOD’s Kingdom. We pray for all our priest who can turn bread and wine into Body and Blood of CHRIST by their imposition. GOD bless our priests.

  7. I do not think Catholics are all that confused about this issue In fact as the election cycle has evolved some of. in fact many of the Bishops have thankfully been clearer on the what the governing principles are than in the past.

    Bishop Ricken of Green Bay has said it pretty concisely and has written the following:

    “I would like to review some of the principles to keep in mind as you approach the voting booth to complete your ballot. The first is the set of non-negotiable s. These are areas that are “intrinsically evil” and cannot be supported by anyone who is a believer in God or the common good or the dignity of the human person. They are:1. abortion 2. euthanasia 3. embryonic stem-cell research 4. human cloning 5. homosexual “marriage.”
    These are intrinsically evil. “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program that contradicts fundamental contents of faith and morals.” Intrinsically evil actions are those which have an evil object. In other words, an act is evil by its very nature and to choose an action of this type puts one in grave moral danger.But what does this have to do with the election? Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party’s or their personal political platform. To vote for someone in favor of these positions means that you could be morally “complicit” with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy.”

    Other Bishops have said similar things. The rest of his piece can be found by Google searching Bishop Ricken

    Its also worth looking at Archbishop Aquila of Denver’s comments as well: to quote “Many good-hearted and well-intentioned people suggest that both major political parties in America want to end abortion. However, the facts do not bear out this suggestion. The platform of the Democratic National Party “unequivocally supports” legal protection for “safe and legal abortion.” Further, it suggests that access to abortion is a right “regardless of ability to pay.” Unequivocal support for legal abortion is unequivocal support for grave and intrinsic evil. No language about reducing the need for abortion will ever mitigate the evil of legal protection for abortion.
    The rest of his letter can be found on his web site as well.

    I would note Both Archbishop Aquila and Bishop Ricken write in highly contentious battleground states (Colorado and Wisconsin) and were not fearful of the repercussions.

    Perhaps if the clergy were unified in clearly presenting the message without attenuation as articulated by Archbishop Aquila and Bishop Ricken we would see minimal debate about the role of the clergy getting involved in politics except from those who favor the intrinsically evil actions. After all the proper role is pretty obvious. Clergy as clergy have a duty and a right to instruct us in principles. As Catholics when its a principle at stake then we need to bow and submit. On the other hand There is no one of any political party that says the poor should be neglected, that undocumented immigrants should be put in camps and mistreated, that says that sick people should be left to die in the streets, or that the United States should embark on unjust wars. In the United States the parties agree at least overtly in these areas with the goals the Church articulates. We all agree, the poor should be cared for etc. etc. If there are no actual principles in play, all the other issues involve prudential judgements, some highly technical, about how to achieve goals we all agree should be sought and how to balance other competing just and important goals. It seems pretty clear that how to do this is not a question a Priest or Bishop has any expertise on, as a priest or Bishop per se. Comments that imply one political party or another addresses these positions better are also not helpful. The positions taken in that case are only as strong as the arguments given for them, and carry no special weight being delivered from the pulpit, any more than advice from the Priest about the best chemotherapy regimen for leukemia would carry. In fact such statement’s are somewhat suspect since Clergy are not typically experts in public policy than they are in cancer management. There are exceptions ( there are clergy who are also economists and Brothers and priests who have also studied medicine, but they are not the norm). In a situation when one party has openly endorsed intrinsic evils and the other one has not, it is not clear why one would even bring up the prudential issues since Catholics are free to decide the for themselves. The reason to bring up the intrinsic evil issues is that Catholics are not free to decide those.

    This is all pretty simple and straight forward. The false equipoise between these fundamentally different kinds of issues is doing more to promote and continue the divide among Catholics than an honest recognition of the difference would do. .

    Perhaps now that many Bishops are seeing and stating the obvious we can move beyond this false and divisive equipoise between the issues. This may have the effect of being inadvertently partisan for a time. but the reason for the effect lies not with the clergy but in the choices those in the Democratic party are making as Bishop Ricken points out. The principles involved are not partisan at all. It happens to seem partisan now solely because of the alignment of the parties in our time. Should some time come in the future when an imaginary party is controlled by libertarians who think as a matter of principal economic policies should be enacted regardless of the effect on the poor, or some nationalist party that thinks the US should conquer Mexico for its oil, than the inadvertent partisan effect of calling us to obey certain principles will favor a different political party then it does now. In fact Archbishop Chaput has pointed out that had the Church in the past been less afraid of being partisan ( and frankly listened to those of us on the “conservative” side of debate) we may not find that the Democrats would have embraced the culture of death as fully as they do now. This would have lead to a much less divisive and polarized politics than we now see. At least within the Church itself. A video of the Archbishops comments can be viewed on the website of “Boston Catholic Insider”

    1. OK, I am generally with you and agree that the bishops you have quoted have written well. But one thing I would like to be careful to avoid is that even non-infallible, or non-definitive things like capital punishment and the general social doctrine of the Church, should receive a hearing by Catholics and not be dismissed as some do by saying, “Tisk tisk, I can’t be bothered with non-infallible matters.” As if the Church should be required to dogmatically define every teaching. Equipoise no…but there should be an openness and docility (openness to being taught) of even non-infallible teachings of the Church. The whole counsel of God is ultimately important for us even if there are matters of critical importance that require special attention and unqualified obedience as you rightly point out.

    2. Bishop Ricken isn’t wrong, but his list is too short according to Blessed John Paul II, who described intrinsic evil as “any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace … and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator” (Veritatis Splendor, 80)

  8. I like the post because it proposes a principle: faith first. Maybe, a lot of Catholics don’t realize that our relationship with God informs our relationships with each other and with government.

  9. It boils down to this…
    How would Jesus deal with this?
    Would he be worried about offending the Republicans or Democrats? I think not.
    Would he be worried if people got up and walked out on his sermons? I think not.
    Would he be worried about offending people when he spoke out about their various sins? I think not.
    Modern day Catholic priests, need to ask themselves, “How would Jesus handle this?”
    …and not worry about tip-toeing, and walking on egg shells with their congregations.
    Sometimes the truth hurts….we all know this.

  10. Msgr.,

    The fundamental issue I have with your comments on this matter is that abortion is murder and should be the primary consideration above all others. Does the debate over the efficacy of a particular social program really compare to the mass slaughter of millions. One party openly embraces mass murder of innocents. Another party presents a much stronger (but not nearly strong enough) opposition to the mass murder of innocents. The other issues, by comparison, are irrelevant. To try and balance them with poverty programs or immigrant rights is the equivalent of saying the Nazis were ok because they alleviated poverty from the Weimar era and that Holocaust thing is just one of many factors to think about. Sadly, too many bishops and priests have fallen into the deceptive lies of the ‘seamless garment’. Future generations will correctly look back upon us with contempt ] the same way that we look upon the Germans in the 1930s who embraced National Socialism because it initially put more bread on their tables.

    1. It remains the principle crisis of our time, but it does not mean that the Church should stop teaching on anything else or that Catholics should not learn anything else.

  11. Still struggling to find Jesus’ path for victory? Look at how Jesus taught the masses in scripture and look at how His message is being taught now. How many degrees of separation does it take to see that there is a difference?

  12. Msgr, thank you for your clarity. I think there are many priests who would like to speak as clearly from the pulpit, but they knew they will be in trouble with their bishops if they do. In our local newspaper there was once an opinion piece by a well-known local politician saying that no bishop had ever told him that he couldn’t be in favor of abortion and still be Catholic. Our bishop replied … nothing. No reply in the paper, no letters to parishes. Nothing. I am sure the bishop was personally pro-life, but he was pro-life so quietly that many people thought he wasn’t. And when he spoke, his emphasis was so much on love that his words were ambiguous. Bless the bishops who are now speaking out with the same clarity you use. And bless you for your work.

  13. I a wayward Catholic stumbling my way back to the church got the message…

    I either stand with the Church and her teaching or I become her enemy through schism, personal or public.

    In this election those Catholics who stood against their Church will be judged for their complicity with intrinsic evil. They have abdicated their American Duty to defend our constitution and they have chosen Caesar over Christ. HHS is an attack on the Church and the protection of Religious Liberty.

    Jesus won’t care what political party we belong to…He knows if we have become his enemy.

    “We will be a smaller and purer church” – Pope Benedict XVI

  14. I find it compelling that our crisis is mirrored in some ways by a similar crisis amongst American Jews.

    Many American Jews cling to the democratic party even though this party undermines in policy the sovereignty and security of the nation of Israel who is our ally. Our elected President acts as King to Dictate to Netanyahu at the peril of his people.

    Many Rabbis are intimidated by the culture who don’t want to be morally reprimanded through criticism.

    There is division and confusion amongst them as well and the secular cultural Jews seem to outnumber faithful Jews. Some are even campaigning against the Jewish identity and have like us allowed a secular redefinition of what being a Jew is outside and separate from the Religion of Judaism.

    This doesn’t surprise me…I think it’s a warning.

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