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Why Would a Bishop Politicize a Hurricane?

When a natural disaster looms, people look to religion for hope, for relief, for answers to difficult questions about what “acts of God” have to do with God’s will.  So it’s hard to imagine what possessed Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia to greet Hurricane Sandy with a lesson on the limited role of government.

Chaput’s statement “Regarding Hurricane Sandy,” issued on the day the storm (expected to cause significant damage in his diocese) made landfall, began with a reminder that 2012 is an election year. “In Catholic thought,” the archbishop continued, “government has an important but carefully limited role, with a special stress on local accountability and ensuring public safety. This year, a storm like Hurricane Sandy has the power to show public officials at their best or worst”—not to mention religious leaders. Chaput noted with approval the efforts of “governors and mayors of the tri-state area…in serving their people where it matters most—at the local and state levels, where the ‘common good’ has flesh-and-blood meaning.”

It’s a bold move to dismiss the role of the federal government, even implicitly, in the midst of a natural disaster, when most people tend to be positively disposed toward any help they can get from Washington. When a hurricane devastates significant portions of the Northeast, destroying homes and crippling infrastructure, it is awkward at best to be caught making the case for downgrading federal emergency response—which may be why Mitt Romney chose to ignore questions about his intentions for FEMA while campaigning during the storm. Flooded subway tunnels don’t have an obvious private-sector solution. Even New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, on a break from his role as Romney surrogate, praised Barack Obama for his response to the hurricane: “I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance as [we] recover from the storm,” he tweeted, adding later, “I don’t give a damn about Election Day after what has happened here. I am worried about the people of New Jersey.”

Chaput wasn’t the only one to politicize the disaster, of course. With just a week to go before the election, the candidates had little choice but to make it part of their campaigns. President Obama opted to leave the campaign trail to oversee recovery efforts—the only responsible choice he could have made, but a political decision nonetheless. Mitt Romney’s campaign announced that it was canceling appearances for the day after the storm struck, but replaced them with “storm relief events” that were essentially modified campaign rallies with a table on the side to collect supplies. (The Red Cross doesn’t really want those canned goods the campaign collected—or, as was reported in one city, bought at a Walmart before the rally—but they looked good in photos.)

Politicians are expected to politicize. (Even Chris Christie made time to appear on Fox & Friends.) But religious leaders are expected to tread more carefully where politics are concerned, and when a hurricane strikes, it’s not unreasonable to expect their minds to be on other matters. Chaput went far out of his way to make a political point, turning what ought to have been an expression of compassion and prayer into an endorsement of Republican ideals and budget priorities. It reminded me of the young priest in my parish who finds occasion to mention in nearly every homily that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world.” Be that as it may, it seems a bit far afield from the gospel—which is, after all, what people come to church to hear. Likewise, an election-season reminder that government should be “carefully limited” clearly has more to do with politics than pastoral sensitivity. And while there are times when a bishop must comment on political matters, an impending natural disaster is not one of those times.

Chaput’s statement did get around to basic charity eventually: before concluding, he mentioned the archdiocese’s Catholic Human Services programs, promising that they would contribute to the recovery, and he asked for prayers for the storm’s victims. But  why didn’t the expression of concern and the assurance of assistance come first? For that matter, why say anything else? Political theorizing is not hard to come by, even in a storm. But Catholic teaching has far more to offer. In times of fear and suffering, the church should be looking beyond the next election. Its leaders should be focused on the “flesh-and-blood meaning” of the common good—not taking advantage of a disaster to throw the weight of their office behind the talking points of one political party.

Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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