The church, politics, culture & more


Robert K. Vischer (“Political, Not Partisan,” December 3, 2010) missed the primary concern regarding the foray of Minneapolis–St. Paul’s Archbishop John Nienstedt into the political arena with his “defense of marriage” DVD, right before the fall elections. Vischer carefully distinguished four meanings of “political” and defended the archbishop’s action in each case, and I agree with Vischer’s analysis. The problem, however, was not that the archbishop was taking a political action, but that he continually denied that he was taking a political action—as did the archdiocesan spokesman. Archbishop Nienstedt repeatedly insisted he was acting only as a moral teacher. Even when confronted with the fact that calling for a vote on a constitutional amendment was clearly political, he attempted to slide away from this fact by appealing to the overall context of his message.

There are two serious issues with the archbishop’s refusal to acknowledge the political nature of his action. First, he portrayed himself as standing above and apart from politics, speaking from a superior position as a moral teacher. Thus he attempted to hold himself aloof from political considerations and critiques, even while acting politically. It was politically dishonest.

The second issue is more subtle but perhaps more serious: the archbishop launched a highly publicized political statement in the final weeks of a tight gubernatorial race in Minnesota, timing and positioning his statement to align with only one of the three candidates. The effect, as he surely knew, would be supportive of that one candidate. Further, he insisted to Catholics that they were bound by moral teaching to support his message—not as a political initiative, which he disavowed, but as authoritative Catholic doctrine on marriage. In doing so, he pushed his local church aggressively toward one of the three candidates as a matter of Catholic fidelity, all the while insisting he was doing nothing more than teaching Catholic morals. Furthermore, he justified this action as funded by an anonymous donor rather than scarce church resources, thus placing the moral teaching of the church at the service of an unnamed political actor in a political act—all the while pretending it was not political.

“Pretending” is a strong word in this context, but it seems to be the only word appropriate for what was done. As Vischer pointed out in his article, there is no contradiction in bishops taking action in the political arena. The problem is when bishops do so but pretend otherwise. Thirty years ago, we had church leaders with the moral courage to enter the political arena and acknowledge that they were doing so, thus attempting to apply moral teachings in a realm where challenges to their application of teaching were expected and honored. Now we have, instead, church leaders who apply moral teachings to political issues and insist that all Catholics must agree with them as a matter of moral fidelity and Catholic identity. It’s not just politics, it’s bad politics—and bad moral example.

Frank Schweigert
St. Paul, Minn.


I am saddened by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s “Defenders of the Faith!” (December 3, 2010) because the popes and bishops against whom she rails are people whom I have found to be, in general, men of strength, wisdom, and charity. Have we ever had, at one time, such admirable and apostolic leaders as Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, and Cardinal Seán O’Malley—to mention just the few with whom I am most familiar?

The glass, as they say, is always half full and half empty. So it is, and so it will always be, but today in our church I find much to be thankful for and encouraged by, and I have chosen not to join the chorus of naysayers.

John McCarthy
Weston, Mass.


Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s “Defenders of the Faith!” is one way of looking at the last several decades of the Catholic Church in America. Historical consciousness suggests another way.

The pre–Vatican II church in America modeled embattlement and trust in sacred authority. Secular authority was beginning to erode, but the church as sacred was the last bastion of its defense.

After Vatican II, however, the buzzword became “dialogue.” Vatican II taught us to embrace the culture. Some went too far in this vein, hence a backlash.

One characteristic of the postmodern world is suspicion of authority, or deconstruction. In an individualistic age, this accounts for much energy on the left and on the right. Mutual suspicion admits of little or no common ground.

(Rev.) Val J. Peter
Boys Town, Neb.



Paul J. Schaefer’s “The Reach of Beauty” (November 19, 2010) touched me deeply. I have liked and valued many things in Commonweal over the years, but this is the very best. He says so much of what I feel about the church of our childhood, but have been painfully unable to capture. For me personally, the accent falls not so much on music and art, but on the examples of moral heroism, the saints, and the beauty and depth of the language. One section, about the family journey to St. Mary’s on Sundays, reminds me of a similar passage in John McGahern’s beautiful memoir All Will Be Well. In a late interview, when asked about his attitude to the church, McGahern responded that although he had ceased to believe, he remembered the church of his childhood with gratitude, and that all he knew of beauty and a larger world came to him through the church. I am not sure who else would publish an essay like Schaefer’s. Thank you.

Bob Gilliam
Brockport, N.Y.



I was puzzled by Paul J. Schaefer’s “The Reach of Beauty.” If he thought the Catholic Church as he knew it when he was young was so inspiring, why did he leave, and why does he not come back?

If he is looking for a medieval-style church building with stained glass, come to St. Mary Church in Fairfield, Iowa. We dedicated this new edifice on January 31, 2010. All who see it marvel at the blend of old and new.

We have semicircular seating, with a baptismal pool in the center aisle at the back. And yes, we have a huge stained-glass window above and behind the altar. It depicts the Nativity, including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and angels. It was brought over from the old church and refurbished to last another hundred years. The old church had to be taken down as it was structurally unsound, but all the stained glass found a home in the new church. And our music is not pallid. We sing the responsorial psalms and other Scripture-based hymns, and everyone joins in.

I am eighty-one years old and grew up in a rural setting, as Schaefer did, but I was never so happy as when we began to use English in the Mass. I understood what was being prayed.

I think somewhere along the line Schaefer missed the point of Mass attendance. It isn’t about the stained glass, or the painted frescoes on the walls, or the style of the building. It is about the togetherness of the congregation offering their lives to God and receiving God’s promise of eternal love in the Eucharist.

Teresa Mottet
Fairfield, Iowa



It is difficult to come to the defense of specific Tea Party politicians, so I won’t. But I’d like to offer a general response to Joseph D. Becker’s article “House on Fire” (December 3, 2010), in which he attacks the Tea Party by way of connecting it to two unconscionable acts (a fire department allowing a house to burn down because its owner hadn’t paid a fee and a pharmacy refusing an inhaler to a woman who, in the middle of an asthma attack, couldn’t pay in full).

The article fails in a number of ways. Does the Tea Party deny social responsibility in its entirety, as Becker claims? I think not. The Tea Party surely emphasizes individual sufficiency and responsibility, and aims to limit the expensive and poorly managed social apparatus that are unevenly and irresponsibly funded through high taxation. The Tea Party does not promote “opposition to taxation,” only opposition to excessive taxation.

I know it was candidate Christine O’Donnell who was purportedly mistaken about the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and maybe she was. The argument of conservatives is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not an appropriate rewording or interpretation of that clause; it certainly does not appear in the Constitution. But either way, this is a tenet of social conservatism in general, not of the Tea Party’s particular brand of fiscal conservatism.

Becker says that Tea Party members “equivocated about secession.” But wasn’t that the Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who was in office long before the creation of the Tea Party?

Throughout the article, Becker uses unnamed individuals as representative of the entire Tea Party movement. By refusing to name names or to explain the Tea Party policies in an accurate light, Becker fails to elucidate the possible future problems that the “moral indifference” of the Tea Party will stir up over the next few years.

The basic problem is a difference in philosophy. The Tea Party believes social responsibilities are more efficiently fulfilled in the private sector. Perhaps the Tea Party would support the privatization of fire departments (which would not be silly if thought through). Nevertheless, it objects to the government forcibly taking an excessive amount of people’s money, even to fund things that it believes are of moral importance.

Joel Gallagher
Silver Spring, Md.

Published in the 2011-01-14 issue: 
Also by this author
Admitting We Were Born

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads