US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Walking a fine line between faithful witness and partisan politics

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |

As Election Day gets closer, it is getting more and more difficult for the Catholic Church to convince Americans that it is not involved in partisan politics.

Following a complaint to the IRS from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, news outlets have been latching on to a story about a Texas priest who told parishioners--in writing--that they should not reelect President Barack Obama. Msgr. Francis Smith, pastor of St. Raphael Parish in El Paso, Texas, wrote the following in his parish bulletin last month:

"I am asking all of you to go to the polls and be united in replacing our present president with a president that will respect the Catholic Church in this country. Please pass this on to all of your Catholic friends."

The language of Smith's statement left little room for interpretation, and with the complaint being filed that the parish has violated the terms of the church's tax exempt status, the El Paso diocese acknowledged that Smith crossed the line. They also instructed him to issue a retraction of the comments, which he has done. But this isn't an isolated case.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported last weekend on opposition to "rosary rallies" being held at the state capitol that have openly supported Wisconsin native and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Father Rick Heilman, a priest of the Madison diocese, claims the prayers for Ryan are non-partisan and are just based on him being "a Catholic son in the Diocese of Madison." But Heilman also mentioned what he called "this whole nonsense of recalling this strong governor"--a reference to the recall attempt against controversial Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker--which certainly sounds like an endorsement of a Republican politician. No mention was made of any efforts to pray for Democratic candidates at these "non-partisan" rallies.

The Wisconsin State Journal also posted a story about the support Madison Bishop Robert Morlino has shown for Paul Ryan, who Morlino calls a good friend and an "excellent Catholic layman" who forms his policies in accord with Catholic teaching. Morlino is careful to say he does not endorse any candidate, but as the Journal notes, Morlino is happy to discuss his vision of how Catholic teaching relates to government and policy, which sounds quite a lot like Ryan's.

Catholics are of course not only supporting the Republican Party. Last week Sister Simone Campbell of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK appeared at the Democratic National Convention. Though Campbell doesn't speak in the same official church capacity as a priest or bishop, her endorsement of one party's agenda was troubling for many Catholics.

People in the pews are clearly growing tired of the partisan approach. I spent much of the morning reading responses from the roughly 600 readers of this website who took our survey on walking out of Mass, written by a Catholic who was greatly troubled by a homily that called on Catholics to vote against the current president. The full results will appear in our November issue, but it suffices to say the responses made it clear that such messages aren't uncommon--nor are they appreciated by many Massgoers.

The U.S. bishops' document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship says that the church is "involved in the political process but is not partisan" and "cannot champion any candidate" (presumably even those who are native Catholic sons) or party. That can be a tough line to walk, and it is one that many church leaders seem to be falling on the wrong side of in recent months.

The church would seemingly be better served to skip all the talk about candidates and elections entirely and to stick instead to the issues involved. As the bishops wrote in Faithful Citizenship, "These themes from Catholic social teaching provide a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of 'right' or 'left,' 'liberal' or 'conservative,' or
the platform of any political party. They are not partisan or sectarian, but reflect
fundamental ethical principles that are common to all people."

That's a point that many laity would be well served to reflect on as well, rather than demonizing only their political opponents or going on a tirade when someone expresses a part of Catholic teaching that doesn't align with the "liberal" or "conservative" label they've adopted. Catholic teaching can be non-partisan, and it can help to inform our consciences when we are faced with difficult voting decisions, but we--including priests, bishops, and laypeople alike--need to shed our own political ties and come to the discussion with an open mind.