Catholic left should avoid becoming explicitly partisan

The dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is seen in Washington June 23. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

My dear friend Mark Silk, who is one of the smartest commentators on politics and religion in the country, posted an item last week in response to Laurie Goodstein's article in The New York Times about the supposedly resurgent religious left. The gist of Silk's argument is twofold: 1. It is about time the religious left mimics the religious right, and becomes explicitly partisan; 2. they need to do the nuts-and-bolts organizing too. Otherwise, its political influence will always be negligible.

I agree with Silk's second point, but his first is more complicated and far more debatable.

Contemplating the creation of a "Catholic Party" or, in the model of postwar Europe, a Christian Democratic Party, is an interesting thought experiment. A denominational party would run counter to too many American sensibilities, although any political party that made Catholic social doctrine its philosophic foundation would instantly possess more intellectual coherence than any party in American history. As I have written too many times to count, there is not a problem facing American society that is not leavened by viewing it through the lens of the great social encyclicals. From Rerum Novarum through Quadragessimo Anno, to Octogesima Adveniens and Evangelii Gaudium, the Catholic magisterium has developed a body of consistent, incisive and credible thought that, if permitted to guide political decision-making, would result in a more humane polity.

Nonetheless, I deprecate the idea of linking that authoritative teaching to a particular political party, and do so for a variety of reasons.

The first reason the Christian left should not become too tied to any one political party is noted by Silk in commenting on the political success of the Christian right. Silk outlines the history of the GOP's courtship of the religious right and the latter's eagerness to transform itself into the base of the party, and concludes: "It would be hard to argue that the strategy was a failure — except perhaps in spiritual terms." At the end of the day, our faith is about the end of time too. If the cost of partisan empowerment is spiritual impoverishment, it is a cost too high. "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world," the good book says, which biblical verse inspired this great moment in "A Man for All Seasons."

Second, Silk comments on the ineffectualness of those profiled by Goodstein, writing "the religious left has preferred the prophetic allocution and the occasional march or rally to the grinding work of turning out the votes for candidates who support its causes." Sad but true. Perhaps it is the type of funding groups associated with the Christian left can procure that they tend to end up as inside-the-Beltway noisemakers rather than political heavyweights. I recall speaking with people at a left-of-center Catholic group years ago, before I became a journalist. And I told them that if they wished to be effective, they needed to demonstrate some strength outside-the-Beltway, that such strength always translated itself inside, but the reverse was not always the case. I cannot think of a single organization that we associate with the Christian left that I would consider effective, at least not when compared to those on the Christian right.

Third, there is an alternate model that allowed the U.S. bishops' conference to be enormously influential in Washington: They wore their nonpartisanship on their sleeves, never demeaned a politician personally or by name, and went out of their way to make sure that they were not being co-opted by partisans of either kind. They were like the farmers, who reached out to all sides. Indeed, I remember a staffer at the USCCB telling me, "We aim to be like the farmers because the farm bill always passes with a large, bipartisan majority." Of course, even the farm bill has now fallen victim to the dysfunction of Washington. And, the bishops' conference has functioned more or less as an arm of the Republican Party: They hired as their chief lobbyist a man who previously worked for the far-far-right Family Research Council, they launched a frontal attack on President Obama before he was even sworn in, and, even last week, their partisanship was on full display as they worried out loud about appearing too partisan on immigration reform but did not voice the same concern when discussing religious liberty. Consequently, they have lost the enormous clout they once had when John Carr was running the show over at the U.S. bishops' conference.

Of course, in theory, a group of Catholic laypeople could organize themselves into a political party that was true to Catholic principles without compromising the independence of the bishops. But, in practice, as the history of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe illustrated, the specter of clerical control is ever present. And, what is more, say a group of Catholic lefties formed a political party on their own and some conservative Catholics did the same. The divisiveness of the political landscape would work its way even further into our already divided church. Nonetheless, insofar as the faith is to be brought into the realm of politics, I hope we can all agree that it is the laity, not the clergy, who should be bringing it except in the most extreme situations, such as confronting a totalitarian regime.

A priest friend once expressed the opinion that the U.S. bishops' conference should never support any particular government policy but only, and always, say, "No, that falls short of the Kingdom." Alas, the perception that the Catholic Church is one big bundle of negativity is already too strong for such an approach. Still, I see his point and I think it is the final reason that Silk's suggestion is best ignored. Politics involves compromise, partisanship involves dealmaking, and all of it aims at something less than the Kingdom of God. Put differently, if people want to mess up the politics of their land, this is not even news: People have been doing that for millennia. But, the church aims higher and it puts forth claims that are resistant to compromise. When it enters the public square, let it do so at the highest of levels of discourse, and leave the mudslinging to the politically engaged laity.

In the last analysis, I do not think we can move beyond general statements and guideposts. Even guidelines suggest something too precise. For example, as a general rule, religious ideas and religious leaders, are most useful and least harmful, at the level of general principles. Yet, who would gainsay Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington when he said it was immoral to vote against the cloture motion on the civil rights bill? Cloture is a specific parliamentary procedure, not the kind of thing about which there can be a clear theological preference. But, in that moment of history, was it not true that it was immoral to try and impede the civil rights bill through such a procedure? What constitutes appropriate or inappropriate religious entanglement with politics, then, may be akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]

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