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The politicization of the U.S. church

In August, Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Illinois, wrote a column in which he announced that the "seven 'sacraments' of [the Democrats'] secular culture are" -- in alphabetical order -- "abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation." Carolyn, a Commonweal reader from Rockford, writes:

The politicization of the American Catholic church does seem to be picking up steam; I am concerned about it.

In the Midwest, it's everywhere. Hastert's campaign staff stands in the vestibule of my church with campaign literature. Catholics seem to be a big battleground for the political parties--and priests and others who should be more level-headed seem to be getting caught up. In other parishes Republican nominating petitions were circulated at the beginning and end of catechism classes. In Nov. 2004, one priest flat out told us we couldn't vote for Kerry, and issued a "my guy won" sermon after the election. And yes, Hastert's picture appears regularly in my friend's church bulletin. My friend is a lifelong Catholic, a senior Knights of Columbus member, a pillar of his community; his daughter was the first altar girl in his parish. And he and his family are being told by their own bishop they represent buggery and are a clear and present danger to society because they vote Democrat.

I had another friend come to me in tears after Doran's pronouncement. This stuff isn't benign, it tears apart people who make up the fabric of our parishes. This woman is a member of Pax Christi and has worked tirelessly for many years in the cause of peace and social justice. She makes prayer shawls, helps at the homeless shelter, and wants desperately to belong to a church that takes its mission seriously. What can I say to her?

Maybe I'm reading too much Bonhoeffer, but in my view the politicization of our church and its members is a danger, and something I wish our bishops and those who write about church affairs would take more seriously. Political oaths have no place in church.

Of course we all fall short. But the weak cries for unity and civility I hear are just not working. We need some real leadership from our Conference, or the Vatican, somewhere. We need some level-headed Catholicism. The days of Cardinal Bernardin seem like a million years ago.


Commenting Guidelines

Quote: "Again, it's fascinating that some people think of Republicans in such near-mythological terms. I can't think of a single Republican who is pushing for "unbridled" capitalism. "Of course there is no such thing as an unregulated free market, and a market has to be regulated in some ways in order to actually operate "freely". And of course regulations can work to diminish competition (for example) as well as to promote it. And it is reasonable for you to think that when I said unbridled I meant unregulated, (especially if you already think that regulations are bridles).What I meant by unbridled, and I will try to be clearer here, is unbridled capitalism in the sense of unbridled capitalists. The Republican Party is definitely the "pro-business" party and the pro-business has, for some years, meant pro-monopoly capital and pro-globalization. Well, fair play to them, but there seems to be a certain kind of morality that goes with this and that is that capitalism is an amoral economic system driven by purely technical rules (including its regulatory rules). Within this amoral market system are individual commodity producers and consumers who are also individual moral entities. (The American propensity to treat religion as a consumer product is one of the reflections of this.) I think that American Protestantism from the beginning had to presuppose the idea that it was possible to have religious individuals living within a secular (capitalist) society, with the society hardly impinging on religious morality at all. One is a rugged moral individualist and the devil take the hindmost.When we were organized into tight organic communities, this may have worked. But now that capitalism has almost destroyed all of the real communities that once existed and that are part and parcel of a true Christian society, what's left standing are the moral rules and isolated and aliented individuals. Now that society as a whole looks like it wants to reject religion as such (because after all, if religion is a commodity, why not just replace it with something nicer) the Right wants to run back home to mama and enforce those rules, and they think that this is the royal road to a moral (and Christian) society. But their support of the current economic order undercuts this because it continually atomizes people. This is Bishop Doran's basic error. (At least one of them.)

Quote "As predicted, the partisan beat goes on here!"Not sure what you mean here. I have not defended the Democratic Party (for example) as I talk about the Republican Party and no one that has posted since your earlier post has defended either party against the other. So when you say "partisan", what are you talking about?

Robert,This discussion is not so much about what position is more Catholic so much as is about the fantasy the Bishops like Doran or Burke or others are somehow suddenly politicizing the Church in a way that it hasnt been already except in terms of whose ox is gored. I will accept that people like Father Dear and Bishops Hunthausen and Gumbleton and Sr Prejean are informed by and moved by their faith, but they are just as political as Doran is. Why is a picture of Denny Hastert in a church bulletin any more politically or religiously offensive than a gay marriage advocate winning an award at a Catholic Charities dinner or Mario Cuomo lecturing Catholic college graduates about the righteousness of his abortion stance?Go look at the web sites for Our Lady Help of Christians here in Boston or St Joan of Arc in Minneapolis and ask, objectively, if you were a conservative living in those parishes how would you feel? As I said, this issue swings both ways. Is the answer to be apolitical? Is that even possible?

Stuart, I think the Onion said it best:

"Why is a picture of Denny Hastert in a church bulletin any more politically or religiously offensive than a gay marriage advocate winning an award at a Catholic Charities dinner or Mario Cuomo lecturing Catholic college graduates about the righteousness of his abortion stance?"From a conservatives point of view, it isn't any more offensive, and I would empathize with the discomfort it would cause. "Go look at the web sites for Our Lady Help of Christians here in Boston or St Joan of Arc in Minneapolis and ask, objectively, if you were a conservative living in those parishes how would you feel? As I said, this issue swings both ways. Is the answer to be apolitical? Is that even possible?"They would certainly feel out of place, and they would probably not find many friends there, and as I have also said the issue does indeed work both ways.However, I stand by my original objections and don't believe they "ring hollow" because the question that has not yet been answered is must I belong to a particular political party or hold a specific political view before I can be considered a member of the Catholic Church? I don't think it's possible to be apolitical, nor do I even think it's necessary. Discomfort is a good thing. None of us should be sitting comfortably content in our own righteousness. It is now, as it has always been, a challenge to be Catholic in a constantly changing secular world a challenge from which none of us are immune. I believe there are words warning us about that in the Gospels, are there not?If a priest gives a homily or a congregation presents an attitude that makes me uncomfortable, then it is incumbent upon me to examine that discomfort. Upon examination, I may change my opinion. I may find a stronger rationale for my opinion and hold onto it. I may be left feeling ambiguous and pray for guidance. It is an ongoing discernment process that hopefully leads us to live out the Gospels even during those times when we are feeling uncomfortable.The question that remains on the table is can we, as Catholics, give permission to each other to make that discernment in the political arena without jeopardizing our union with the Church and with each other?

mlj said: I distinctly remember one poster on this blog remarking that he/she was much more bothered by pro-life activists than abortion itself. It was a gestalt moment for me.Jean replies: Well, gestalt this, Mr. Mysterious.That was me. You had observed that some people seemed to be reacting more negatively to prolife rhetoric than to abortion itself. I thought carefully about this and concluded that I DO find some prolife rhetoric punative, overly emotional, and, to the extent it ties in with radical fundamentaism, I object to it.Moreover, I have probably expended more energy objecting to that than in supporting pro-life efforts.Sadly, I made the mistake of admitting this to you, because now my personal epiphany has become your "aha!" moment to illustrate just how bad we liberal Democrats are.As far as I can see, all it proves is that I'm trying to be honest with myself and better understand church teaching.

Donna,I am with you up to a point, which is your last point, that seems to indicate that our political judgments and actions are ultimately just private decisions and we must live and let live. I agree that this is the case 95% of the time. When political judgments and actions are openly, repeatedly, and unambiguously contrary to the moral law and doctrines of the Church, what are we to do? Turn a blind eye? At what point do political actions have consequences for our relationship with the Church?It is still Church teaching that to approach communion in a state of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin. If I have a sincere belief that a fellow Catholic may not be in a state of grace do I do him a favor by being civil and not mentioning it? I have a very good friend who grew up Catholic but stopped going to mass almost 20 years ago. We were on an out of town trip on a Sunday, and I told him I needed the rental car to go to mass, he (to my surprise) said he wanted to go along. I was very worried. I wasnt sure what to do if he wanted to go to communion. Its not like I was going to chase him down and stop him, but I truly felt obligated to tell him I thought it was a problem for him. Not because I felt holier than him, but because I care about him. To my relief he didnt go, and after mass he said, I wasnt going to go to communion. I havent gone to mass in years. I may not be a good Catholic, but Im good enough to know that.When a politician votes for legalized abortion, votes to fund it, goes to rallies and says it is a fundamental right on a par with the practice of religion, and come election time goes to mass to do the God thing. If we remain silent, what does that say? The whole real presence thing is a sham? What does it say about our responsibility to the politician? Ok, go ahead, I think youre committing a mortal sin, but lets not make a scene, better you go to hell than we seem uncivil. Is abortion the limit? What about a doctor who openly and unapologetically euthanizes people?I know we dont deny everyone in a suspected state of mortal sin communion, but at some point the problem is so in your face that denying it is a scandal is unreasonable.

I thought that you actually had to HAVE an abortion, PERFORM an abortion or ENCOURAGE someone to get an abortion before you were in a state of mortal sin.As far as I know, there has been no consensus in the international church or clear-cut statement from the Pope that politicians who fail to vote to stop others from having abortions are to be excommunicated. So I don't think, Sean, you have a consensus of church leaders on your side when you argue that such behavior is so "in your face" as to warrant rejection from the sacraments.Moreover, where does this line of thinking end? How far do we extend culpability?Do we excommunicate those who vote for politicians who fail to vote against abortion?Do we excommunicate anybody who fails to stop anyone they know from voting for a politician who fails to vote against abortion?It seems to me that calling for any individual's excommunication is out of line in the public arena. These matters are between a parishioner and his confessor, no?

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a persons formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Churchs teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

Sean, are you quoting some authority or just opining?I'm looking at CCC 2272, which excommunicates those who participate in abortion by "formal cooperation," but it makes no specific reference to elected officials who vote against anti-abortion legislation.The latest article I can find on excommunicating politicians is from NCR 2003. That article says that while voting for abortion is to be considered sinful, there is disagreement about whether this actually constitutes "formal cooperation." USCCB's March 2006 statements about Catholics in public life, underscoresa Catholic politician's obligation to make moral decisions based on an informed conscience, but does not mention excommunication. was also some mild encouragement last week by USCCB for Rep. Davis' proposal to support pregnant women.

Sean H, I used to work for a Mormon bishop who was charged with meeting with gay Mormons (perhaps more accurately Mormons who thought they might be gay) and giving just such a talk. By all accounts he was superb at it. I don't know many Catholic priests, if any at all, that I would trust to give the talk you describe.I repeat that I was a college student in Massachusetts in the mid-60's when there were stricter abortion laws than any that are likely to be passed now, and I was constantly astounded (and more than a little appalled) at how many abortions were taking place, and how easy they were to get. Which is why I think that laws are not the sole solution -- since we occasionally do Latin around here, leges sine moribus uanae.

"I am with you up to a point, which is your last point, that seems to indicate that our political judgments and actions are ultimately just private decisions and we must live and let live."Not exactly. Our political judgements, or any judgements for that matter, are not private in the sense that as long as I can satisfy my own conscience, I'm good to go. But, they ARE private in the sense that if I walk into Mass, I don't need to check in with the congregation so they can review my voting record any more than they should have a say in any other aspect of my life.Political decisions, like personal decisions, involve more than following one's conscience and just like any other aspect of life, there is little about politics that is clear cut.Practically, I'm sure you and I want to get to the same place regarding abortion, but how we get to that place politically is something I'm just as sure we don't agree on. Church doctrine on abortion talks about where we're supposed to end up - putting an end to abortion - and there is no opposition there. Church doctrine does NOT define or specify the political path we must take to get there.

My apologies. That was from the Cardinal Ratzinger's letter to the bishops of the US in response to their request for guidance on this very issue.

Just imagine this . . .CANDIDATE STRESSES QUAKER ROOTSIn an interview with TV 8 yesterday evening, gubernatorial candidate Elmer Bumpkin stressed his Quaker upbringing as key to his world outlook and moral character. When challenged that his stand on the death penalty was inconsistent with Quaker principles, Mr. Bumpkin explained that while he found the practice morally repugnant himself and akin to murder, he believed the people have a right to choose what types of punishment are appropriate in the states criminal justice system.CANDIDATE ADDRESSES COPSIn a speech before the State Association of Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers Elmer Bumpkin lauded the decision of the state legislature to re-enact capital punishment five years ago, and in particular the work of the Associations president, Sherriff Jackie Shooter. Said Bumpkin, Without the staunch support of people like Sheriff Shooter and this Association, who knows how many more murder victims there might be. His support for the death penalty ensures these criminals are off the street permanently. Bumpkin stressed that if he is elected, he will veto any bill like the one currently before the state senate that would require irrefutable scientific evidence or the testimony of three or more eyewitnesses before the death penalty could be imposed. I pledge to you today, said the candidate, that I will only appoint as judges those men and women who understand that capital punishment is here to stay and will apply the law strictly. There will be no radical left-wing judges on my watch!NEW GOVERNOR LAUNCHES CRIME PROGRAM SAYS WILL REDUCE EXECUTIONSGovernor Elmer Bumpkin today proposed a two-pronged program that he says will impact violent crime and reduce executions by as much as 80% in the next 8 years.If we are to have an impact on the number of people executed in this state, we must get to the root cause of the problem violent crime. The first prong of the governors new program would loosen current gun control laws and make it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons. Citing a study by the National Rifle Association, Bumpkin claimed that the number of murders is drastically reduced in places where the population is armed. Look at Switzerland, said the governor at yesterdays press conference. There are firearms in almost every home, and they have a very low incidence of violent crime. Further supporting his position, the governor noted that 90% of the victims of criminals on death row were unarmed. If we could arm just half of those people, imagine what that could do to the number of executions.The second prong of the two-part effort involves the use of severe corporal punishment for minor crimes, particularly for young offenders. More than half those on death row now have previously been incarcerated, many as juveniles. Rather than relying on what appears to be an ineffective deterrent, we need to take drastic steps to come up with punishment solutions that work, Bumpkin said. People wince at the mention of beating and canings, but its far better to do this now than to strap a criminal down for a lethal injection later. Bumpkin cited the examples of Singapore and many Middle Eastern nations with low crime rates.I think the important thing, declared the governor, is that this proposal is something both sides of the capital punishment debate should be able to support. Those opponents of the death penalty who stand vigil outside the prison with candles whenever I sign a death warrant need to show they are serious about stopping executions, not through unreasonable demands to enforce their morality on others, but by supporting this compromise legislation.

Quote: "Just imagine this . . ."I have a feeling that you are trying to make some sort of point here, but I can't quite tell what it is.

unigidon - maybe this will help - Truth is stranger than fiction

Sean, thanks for the cite on Cardinal Ratzinger's letter.So it's clear that the USCCB has advised Catholic politicians of their duty to make moral decisions informed by their faith in the Church. And it's clear that then-Cardinal Ratzinger advised bishops to meet with those who have actively campaigned and voted for pro-abortion legislation and ask them to refrain from communion.But it seems to me that what's actually done with individual Catholic politicians has been left up to the bishops. Where bishops decline to follow Ratzinger's advice, they are not at odds with church teaching.Is that how you read it?

Your characterization is what the USCCB voted for. What the letter actually says . . . I will leave that to you to decide - a copy of the letter is at the link below. What is disappointing is that very few of the bishops are taking the steps suggested - particularly counseling or confronting such politicians with the gravity of the sin.

"As for the rest - what is the limit? Where do we draw the line? Whay about a person publically declares he or she doesn't believe in the true presence, or doesn't believe in God? What about a doctor who runs an abortion clinic? What about a Dr. Kevorkian? Is it getting in God's way to deny anyone communion? If anyone participates under any circumstances what does this say about the sacrament?"Who said anything about never denying the sacrament? I never said that. Who said anything about anyone receiving under any circumstances? I never said that.Here's where we draw the line:Are you the Eucharistic minister? Then do what you think you must. If that means refusing to serve the person Communion, then so be it.Are you sitting in the pew as an observer? Then speak to the pastor after Mass. There is no provision in the liturgy for objecting from the sidelines.Are you not directly involved with the person at all, but have knowledge of them through their public life? Then write to your bishop with your objections, but recognize that the decision does not rest in your hands. It rests with the person, their bishop, their confessor, and God, and you will not know the outcome of any such discussion.At that point, you are no longer in control of what happens, and as much as you may hate it, that is where your influence ends.There is nothing to stop you from teaching what we believe about abortion, euthanasia, or any other matter; but when it comes down to determining which individual gets to do what, that's probably not going to be your call.Just as it wasn't my call to demand that certain priests be barred from saying Mass no matter how strongly I felt about it.

The discussion about the sacraments is an interesting one.We discussed this in RCIA. As I understand it, there is no sin attached to taking communion in ignorance--non-Catholic visitors to Mass, for example.However, if a Catholic is in a state of grave sin and takes communion, that simply compounds the sin.But calling for the excommunication of individuals for specific reasons where we as lay people are not fit to advise or judge is dangerous.In the first place, Jesus Christ does not need our protection. The whole notion is laughable.And in the second place, It is our business to decide if we, individually, are prepared to take the sacrament. I would consider myself in a state of grave sin if I were guilty of judging others in the communion line fit or unfit to receive instead of focusing on the state of my own soul.But that's just me.

No one in either party is compelled to an oath of allegiance to any of the assertions of a party's platform. Pro-life and pro-choice politicians openly and actively exist in both parties, and party is not a measure of the righteousness of a politician. Doran is wrong.

Carolyn,No one is saying that all Republicans are right on this issue or all Democrats are wrong. There is a key difference, however, in that the Democrats specifically and explicitly endorse abortion as a right and the use of embryos for experimentation as an affirmative policy and the Republican party doesn't.Donna,As for the relationship of the priest crisis to this issue, I can only say two wrongs don't make a right.As for the rest - what is the limit? Where do we draw the line? Whay about a person publically declares he or she doesn't believe in the true presence, or doesn't believe in God? What about a doctor who runs an abortion clinic? What about a Dr. Kevorkian? Is it getting in God's way to deny anyone communion? If anyone participates under any circumstances what does this say about the sacrament?

Sean,Of course it's difficult. There are a lot of difficult conflicts between what we believe as Catholics and how we can live that out in a secular world that is as diverse as ours.It's difficult for me to separate the unspeakable sins and crimes committed by some priests against children and the permission they were given to continue to say Mass and distribute the Communion we worry so much about receiving.It's difficult for me to understand the deafening silence surrounding that issue, and difficult to explain to my son that the actions of a few do not diminish or change the truths he learned from the Church even when those actions were committed by the very people entrusted with safeguarding the truth. Heck, I still even struggle with that one!You teach your teens that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and yet their eyes and ears are filled with images suggesting the opposite every day. You teach that marriage is a sacrament of a lifelong commitment, and yet the divorce rate is around 50%. Conflicts abound! And we all have to work through them.So what to say and how to say it?You can say that you think it's wrong for Kerry and the other politicians to present themselves for Communion based on their political positions on abortion or whatever. You can say that to the teens, you can say it here, you can say it to your pastor, you can even say it to your bishop.Where I keep saying the line is drawn is when these statements become a public campaign to keep an individual from participating in the Church. In my view, that's not only presuming to know more than you do about the state of a person's soul, but it's also getting in God's way. How far would St. Augustine have gotten if the Committee to Ensure Purity Among Catholics had gotten hold of him before his epiphany and conversion?

I don't think it would be a bad thing for some Catholic politicians to voluntarily stop taking communion until they'd examined their own consciences and spoken to their confessors. I have done so from time to time, bad Catholic that I am. But how do you know the bishops have not confronted the politicians? We only know what we hear reported in the media, and isn't it possible that bishops might choose a less glaring light under which to conduct their pastoral counseling?

"But how do you know the bishops have not confronted the politicians?"Because he wasn't invited to the meeting.Because no one took minutes.Because there's no list of politicians organized by category - Republican, Counseled Democrat, Heathen.Because he wants to KNOW, dammit!That lack of ominipotence thing is a real bummer, isn't it?

Bishop Doran is wrong.Democrats don't have exclusive rights to being pro-choice, there are certainly plenty of pro-choice Republicans out there, including President Bush, and Catholic Republican Mark Foley. Apparently for some, as long as the party holds the correct opinions "officially" on something it doesn't matter what they actually *do.*Foley is a member of Republican Majority for Choice, an organization that sent PAC money to the following Reps/Senators' political campaigns this year:Bass, Charles (R-NH) $1,000Boehlert, Sherwood (R-NY) $1,000Bradley, Jeb (R-NH) $2,000Brewer, Marilyn (R-CA) $2,500Castle, Michael N (R-DE) $1,000Detert, Nancy C (R-FL) $1,000Johnson, Nancy L (R-CT) $1,000Kelly, Sue (R-NY) $500Pryce, Deborah (R-OH) $1,000Rainville, Martha T (R-VT) $2,500Schwarz, Joe (R-MI) $2,000Shays, Christopher (R-CT) $7,000Simmons, Rob (R-CT) $10,000Sorensen, Sheila (R-ID) $5,000Chafee, Lincoln D (R-RI) $10,000Snowe, Olympia J (R-ME) $5,000Other GOP members include: * Susan Collins,Maine * Arlen Specter,Pennsylvania * Jim Leach,Iowa * Judy Biggert,Illinois * Mark Kirk,Illinois * Jim Kolbe,ArizonaSince there are apparently quite a few pro-choice Republican reps out there, it would seem disingenuous to single out one party as the "party of death" in this matter. If you like, I could post similar materials regarding Republican members' support for feminism or homosexuality. But I don't think it's really necessary, do you?

I guess you are right Donna, I have no way of "knowing" anything with absolute certainty - I just have to go by what they say -"I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many. I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith. I believe that choice is a woman's choice. It's between a woman, God and her doctor. That's why I support that. I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade. " John Kerry, Tempe Arizona 13 Oct 2004"When the pope speaks on doctrine, that is absolute. I dont think choice and gay marriage are doctrine." Mayor Thomas Menino, Boston Dec 2005"I love the pope. I have the highest regard for the pope . . . But I don't think that a lot of guys should be calling the shots.'' Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco, Nov 2003

And so what does that mean for you personally? What do you consider your role to be based upon what they say?

At some point it begins to undermine the sacrament itself in the eyes of many, and it certainly become difficult to catechize our children.I work with teens. How can I say to them - A - abortion is a great evil and a grave sin - B - you sin when you materially cooperate or actively promote sin - C - you have an obligation to confess your grave sins - D - you ought not to approach the real presence and receive the eucharist if you have not done so and if you do you commit a grave sin. These are all indisputably the teachings of the Church. This is not about "You aren't good enough to be in our club." or "We want to make an example of you." We are all unworthy. It is about the real presence. It seems to me that being silent about it is incredibly uncharitable if we believe what the Church teaches. We are saying that it is a greater evil to hurt people's feelings than to speak the Truth.That's the problem - It is clear that the politicians I mentioned above don't believe what the Church teaches about abortion and actively work to permit its continuance. If we don't even say anything about it doesn't it follow the WE don't believe it either?

If Hastert's picture really is in all those bulletins, it won't be long before the rude jokes just start writing themselves.

If this thread still lives, I just want to recommend Tom Robert's Piece "God doesn't register to vote" in Natl. CatholicReporter now on line (10/4). It has much to say to many of these points and our divisions about them