Political, Not Partisan

The Church in the Public Square

When is the Catholic Church being “political”? When is it being “too political”? During the recent election season, Minneapolis–St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt mailed a DVD to every Catholic household in Minnesota, urging the enactment of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

The mailing, funded by an anonymous donor, arrived weeks before a gubernatorial election in which two of the three candidates supported same-sex marriage. Some of the ensuing criticism targeted the substance of the church’s teaching on marriage or the decision to prioritize the marriage issue over other concerns. But another line of criticism took on the “political” nature of the DVD campaign. ABC News, for example, reported that advocacy by religious groups on the question of marriage had never “appeared so political.”

The premise of such criticism is that the term “political,” as applied to church teaching, is a pejorative—that if the church is, in fact, making political statements, it has overstepped its bounds. Consider the following exchange between a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and Archbishop Nienstedt regarding the DVDs:

MPR: You also make a political statement at the end [of the video segment] that you feel that this issue should come before the voters of Minnesota.

Nienstedt: Well, that’s not so much a political statement as it is saying that, as other states have done, we need to bring this to the people, rather than have it decided by the judiciary or by the legislature.... We need to let the people say what the reality of marriage is going to be. I don’t see that as that big of a political statement.

MPR: Let’s hear that, if we could.

Audio excerpt from DVD: “The archdiocese believes that the time has come for voters to be presented directly with an amendment to our state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of marriage. In fact, this is the only way to put the one-man, one-woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and politicians.”

MPR: Is that, in fact, a political statement?

Nienstedt: I don’t believe so, no. I think that’s a reasonable, common-sense thing.

MPR: And you’re calling for something to be put to a vote. Isn’t that a political action?

Nienstedt: That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense.

At first glance, Nienstedt’s responses might seem either confused or disingenuous. What is clear is his strenuous effort to disavow the damning label of “political.” To understand this effort, we need to know what “political” means in this context. I discern four basic possibilities.

First, and simplest, “political” could be meant in the legal sense. IRS regulations limit tax-exempt status to organizations that do “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Nienstedt clearly did none of that in this case. Indeed, the archbishop avoids mentioning any names in his video segment. What he was advocating was a position, one based on church teaching; and the fact that church teaching on any given issue might overlap with only one current candidate for office—or no candidates, or many candidates—is irrelevant. To specifically endorse individual candidates, even apart from the potential legal dangers, carries treacherous implications for the church’s prophetic voice. Even if the IRS had not foreclosed this option for churches (and there are good religious-liberty arguments why the IRS should not have), such focused and particular political advocacy would remain risky territory for churches in the United States. We have a hard enough time not letting our churches be defined by the surrounding culture, and bringing partisan politics into the pulpit would simply accelerate that trend.

Second, “political” might refer to the bishops’ efforts to influence Catholic voters’ decisions on matters of concern to the church. On this count the church stands guilty as charged—and has so stood, to varying degrees, for nearly two millennia. The church does not aspire, after all, to a cool detachment from the world. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us, the principles of Catholic social teaching articulate “the truth of society by which every conscience is challenged and invited to interact with every other conscience.” These principles, moreover, “refer to the ultimate and organizational foundations of life in society.” For a church that takes its own teaching seriously, a prophetic presence in the “political” realm, where the “ultimate and organizational foundations of life in society” are decided, is inescapable.

Third, “political” could suggest an attempt by the bishops to promote policy positions that do not emanate directly from church teaching—to exceed the bounds of their teaching authority, in other words, and intrude on matters more properly left to the prudential judgment of individual Catholics. This type of criticism greeted the bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All [PDF]. That letter was too “political,” many argued, in that it suggested that specific (and hotly contested) policy positions, such as raising the minimum wage, followed directly from church teaching regarding society’s obligations to care for the poor. Similarly, critics today argue that the religious treatment of marriage need not dictate the civil-law treatment of marriage—much less the specific safeguard, prescribed by Nienstedt in the DVD, of a state constitutional amendment.

Such criticisms strike me as problematic. Even if one stipulates that deciding the best means for maintaining traditional marriage lies not within the archbishop’s teaching authority, but is rather reserved to the prudential judgment of the laity, there remains no clear reason why such a reservation should muzzle the archbishop. Catholics, after all, can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Is the mere fact that the archbishop speaks out on a topic an invocation of church authority? The tenor of Nienstedt’s comments suggests that he was proposing an approach that he deemed prudent, not prescribing a political path that Catholics are bound to follow.

That said, Nienstedt admittedly added fuel to the fire in a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, noting his belief that “it’s important that if you’re going to be Catholic, that you have to be 100 percent Catholic.” To the extent that support for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is presumed to be a component of 100 percent Catholicism, then Nienstedt would indeed seem to be intending the DVD’s message as an exercise of his authority. From the AP account, however, it is impossible to discern the exact content Nienstedt was attaching to the phrase “100 percent Catholic.” If he did intend this specific policy recommendation as authoritative (for Catholics), he would need to provide a fuller explanation of how the church’s non-negotiable teaching on the sanctity of marriage between a husband and wife gives rise to a similarly non-negotiable policy position in favor of  amending the state constitution.

Finally, “political” as a pejorative may suggest that the bishops have become partisan—that they are not just overreaching, but doing so in a way that reflects their capture by a particular ideological camp or political party. Now, a single DVD does not necessarily constitute evidence of partisanship, and so such a criticism would need to assess the entirety of the bishops’ (or a particular bishop’s) political advocacy. The accusation of partisanship cannot justly be based on a single issue to which the church has given its voice unless that voice is accompanied by a noticeable silence on other issues encompassed by church teaching. Of course, if the bishops believe that we are at a crucial point of social change on same-sex marriage, they may consider their advocacy on this issue particularly urgent. Yet while one policy issue might be more pressing than others in a given election cycle, keeping the entirety of church social teaching before the public is always a pressing need. The danger exists that the power of advocacy will be weakened by perceptions of partisanship—by the sense, that is, that the underlying goal is to influence a particular election in favor of a particular candidate, rather than to bear witness to the full weight of the church’s social teaching, which defies simplistic political categories. When an election rolls around, we know where labor unions will line up, and we know where the Chamber of Commerce will line up; if voters begin to tune out the bishops’ statements for the same reasons, we have a problem.

In light of these contrasting understandings of “political,” it is no wonder that Archbishop Nienstedt and the reporter seemed to be talking past each other, and that Nienstedt took pains to deny the label. Avoiding the negative categories marked off by “political” does not end the inquiry, however. There are other labels and other qualities—positive ones—for which the church should strive whenever it works to influence the voting decisions of citizens. Three in particular stand out:

Coherence: Citizens may disagree with the bishops on a given issue, but even those who do should be persuaded of the internal logic and consistency of the church teaching. If critics perceive that the bishops will move heaven and earth to stop same-sex marriage, but are not willing to lift a finger to roll back no-fault divorce laws, the perception is that the objective is not to defend the institution of marriage, but just to keep gays out of it. The bishops need to make sure that responses to charges of incoherence or hypocrisy are built into the advocacy in the first place.

Compassion: The timing of the DVD mailings in Minnesota was unfortunate, given news reports of recent suicides by gay teenagers who had been harassed for their sexual orientation. The DVDs thus fed a broader media narrative about the ostracism and subjugation of sexual minorities. The bishops have spoken in the past about the dignity of gays and lesbians, but timing is everything when it comes to public perception. When espousing church teachings that are charged by many with ignoring or even exacerbating the suffering of certain categories of people (gays and lesbians in the case of same-sex marriage; women pregnant through rape and incest, in the case of abortion), it is vital to affirm repeatedly the dignity and humanity of those affected. This is especially important today, when the public is trained to assume the worst about the motives of those with whom they disagree. Compassion needs to be a constant and unmistakable element of the bishops’ public advocacy. How much more powerful might the bishops’ advocacy be, along these lines, if they took the lead on an issue such as the bullying of gay and lesbian teenagers?

Commitment to dialogue: The bishops have declared that some issues, such as the ordination of women, are not open to further discussion within the church. When the bishops enter the public arena on an issue of civil law, however, they are not settling a matter of ecclesial authority, and they should signal a corresponding willingness to engage the issues on an ongoing basis. Obviously, bishops have a few things on their plates besides penning op-eds and hanging around the local debating society. Still, it is important that the tone of their contributions to the public conversation suggest that they are as adept at listening as they are at speaking.

Of course, none of these attributes will guarantee consensus or erase the hostility that has greeted the bishops’ efforts to influence political discourse in recent years. And even if the citizenry agreed to welcome—or at least tolerate—the bishops’ political participation, substantive disagreements will persist. But the “political”-as-pejorative premise is wrong, in my view, and its continuing hold on public discourse makes the conversation about marriage and other thorny issues even thornier. In the end, our debates will be more authentic and focused if we strip away the laments over the “political” nature of the church’s advocacy. Debating the merits is hard enough.

Related: Archbishop on Lukewarm Catholics, This Week in Catholic Political Activism
and 'Elite' in What Sense? from dotCommonweal

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

Robert K. Vischer is the dean and Mengler Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

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