Looking Ahead to 2016: The Estuary Where Politics & Religion Meet

by Michael Sean Winters

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The last two days, I have looked at those issues and personalities that we can expect to dominate politics and the Church in the coming year. I would like to close out this look ahead by examining the always interesting intersection of religion and politics, the estuary where they combine, and which currents will become dominant and which will begin to wane.

Politics is not really driven by anything resembling principles these days. Pollsters and fundraisers have as much say in what stance a politician will take as do any policy experts. Politicians themselves are so busy campaigning and raising money for their campaigns, they scarcely have time to reflect on their principles, read a book that might invite them to a deeper consideration of an issue, or otherwise devise a different approach from that advocated by the many special interest groups that populate Washington. It is exceedingly difficult, in such circumstances, for those concerns that animate the Church in the public square to get a decent hearing, let alone become effective.

Speaking in broad generalizations, Democrats today have a pro-choice litmus test these days that prevents not only from supporting any effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, but from deviating one inch from the small battles that pro-choice groups engage in, mostly as fundraising devices but also as policy wins, small wins to be sure, but wins nonetheless. When President Obama was first elected, pro-life groups agitated against the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which got its start twenty years earlier as a pro-choice fundraising tool. FOCA had no shot at passing, in its first or its second iteration, but that was not the point. Special interest groups need to be seen to be doing something and, sadly, that something is never reaching out to those with whom they disagree to seek common ground. The polarization we see in Congress is rooted in the polarization of special interest groups.

Again, speaking in broad generalizations, Republicans today have their own anti-government litmus test. They are unwilling to spend more money on any government program that is not associated with the military. They would love to be able to privatize the social safety net, with little concern for how such privatization might affect the poor. They certainly do not think the government capable of defining a common good, let alone enacting policies that might pursue it, especially on an issue like climate change where too much of their campaign cash comes from the extraction industries. As a party, they have become hateful on the issue of immigrants, which directly affects Catholic families, and listening to their presidential candidates jump all over each other about which of them was the most committed to killing the families of terrorists, it is hard to see how the GOP can meaningfully claim to be a pro-life party.

Additionally, both parties are infected, in different ways and on different issues, by a libertarian strain of thought that is itself one of the most poisonous cancers in our toxic body politic. Pro-choice Democrats talk about women’s bodies the way Republicans talk about their wallets: It’s mine and you can’t tell me what to do with it. There is very little language about justice in this year’s campaign and equality only matters to most people when it advances one of their causes.

How should the Church engage such a dyspeptic political culture? The Holy Father provided a textbook case of how it is done when he addressed Congress in September. A friend gave me a nicely bound copy of that address. It was encouraging, not scolding. It elevated the discussion of the issues it addressed, and the people in Congress whose job it is to address those issues. It was decidedly, and very self-consciously, non-partisan. In short, it was the speech of a churchman, not a culture warrior. And, one of its central calls, indeed one of the central emphases in this pontificate, is for dialogue.

Regrettably, in recent decades, it has become the norm that churchmen think they cannot and should not dialogue with anyone who is pro-choice or in favor of same-sex marriage. (No such litmus test is applied to people who think we should deport immigrants or bust unions.) At a most basic level, it is hard for me to conceive how we will ever convince someone who does not already agree with us if we do not dialogue with them. In their new book about Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina talk about a meeting then-Bishop Wuerl had with priests who had left the priesthood and gotten married, and his response to criticism at the time should guide the bishops today as they think about how to engage the world of politics. “I remain firmly convinced that the only way you begin to make headway with people who share other views is to listen them and talk with them – let them explain their position while I explain mine,” he said. “I believe that remains a necessary part of any resolution of a problem.” Amen.

When bishops are asked to engage people on issues unrelated to abortion or euthanasia or same-sex marriage, they hesitate. The organized, self-appointed champions of pro-life orthodoxy are quick to condemn anyone who does not treat a pro-choice politician as a pariah. Think of the outcry that faced Cardinal Sean O’Malley because he presided at the funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Look at the disgust expressed towards Archbishop Blase Cupich when his op-ed about the Planned Parenthood videos tried to link the understandable outrage those videos produced with other evils in our society that should cause outrage. Abortion is surely an important issue, and I believe its prevalence in our society is a source of shame. Other people, people of good will, view the issue very differently, and I think they are wrong but I do not think they are evil people. In any event, it is not the only issue, and even if it were, the culture warrior approach is not working! People who really care about helping the unborn should at least recognize that they need a new and different strategy if they want to convince the culture that the laws of the land should protect the unborn.

As well, Catholic leaders must point out that it is important not only to weigh the relative importance of different issues, but accurately assess what a given candidate or officeholder can do about a given issue. I regret the fact that so many Democrats in Congress routinely support abortion rights, but Congress can take as many votes as they want on the issue, they can even affect the margins of the issue, but only the Supreme Court can overturn Roe v. Wade. (And what would happen if it were overturned unless we simultaneously undertook some major cultural and economic changes in this country to support women facing a crisis pregnancy!) On the other hand, in the last Congress, the Republican leadership of the House failed to permit a vote on comprehensive immigration reform, even though the votes were there to pass it. There was a real consequence to that decision.

If you want an idea of how out of touch the USCCB is, look at this statement they issued two days before Christmas about Congress’ failure to include the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) in the Omnibus tax and spending bill that passed just before the end of the session. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this statement was issued – nor exactly who issued it, seeing as some paragraphs start with “I” and others with “We.” What purpose did this statement serve? The ANDA is a good idea, to be sure, but it had zero chance of passing. The harshness of the language directly contradicts Pope Francis’ speech to the bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, when he said that harsh language has no place on the lips of a pastor. And, why issue this statement two days before Christmas?

One of the more hopeful signs in the past couple of years has been renewed engagement with other societal actors like labor unions. In June, Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave a spectacular keynote address at a conference at the AFL-CIO headquarters and in September Archbishop Cupich gave a similarly great talk at a meeting of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Both men highlighted the historic relationship between the two groups and encouraged rekindling that relationship. Archbishop Cupich said something that is exactly relevant to this discussion of how the Church should engage the culture. He said:

Friends can disagree and can see things in different ways. Admittedly, these differences can create tensions, but they should not break relationships. In times of tension, I ask you to keep in mind that the Church’s commitment to solidarity with workers is rooted in our commitment to solidarity with all. The Church stands in solidarity with the undocumented. We stand in solidarity with the poor and homeless. We stand in solidarity with unborn children and their mothers. We stand in solidarity with the unemployed. We stand in solidarity with families and their children and their right to a good education. We stand in solidarity with the elderly and the sick. Some of you will not share our commitments on one or more of these priorities. I ask that you respect that these commitments flow from the same, core belief in human life, human dignity and solidarity as our support for workers and their unions.

Here is how you invite people who may not share the range of the Church’s moral concerns to recognize the consistency with which the Church addresses all moral issues, and to do so in a way that is respectful and requests that such respect be reciprocated.

All Catholics, of whatever political sensibilities, would agree that our culture needs some conversion, but then you must engage the culture as you would a convert. You don’t start by shouting the catechism at them. You find out how God is already working in their lives, show them respect, share the Church’s teachings, don’t ram them down their throat, build a bridge, not a wall. Some of my conservative Catholic friends talk about how attractive the Church’s teachings are, but then they seem bound and determined to make them appear as harsh as possible. The profess their belief that the Holy Spirit is active in the life of the Church, but then they turn to political and sociological analysis and models of behavior. It is the calm, quiet confidence of leaders like Cardinals O’Malley and Wuerl, and Archbishop Cupich, the “troika” of pro-Pope Francis leaders of the Church in the U.S. that actually is persuasive and convincing.

The presidential campaign appears to be getting nastier and nastier and this, too, opens up a possibility for the bishops. In the scheme of things, a plea for civility seems like a low bar. Civility in our political discourse is not more important than, say, abortion or immigration, but without civility, it is difficult to see how we make progress on any other issue. The bishops should model civility in their own discourse, something many of them failed to do in 2009 when Notre Dame awarded an honorary degree to President Obama. But, they should also speak out about the increasingly hateful tenor of our political life.  

One of the key moments for the intersection of religion and politics will come when the Supreme Court makes its ruling in the cases involving Church ministries challenging the HHS contraception mandate. I hope we win, but not because signing a form saying we do not want to participate is any kind of complicity,  the reason the USCCB lawyers highlight, but because I think the Church’s ministries should be viewed no differently from our churches themselves when it comes to conscience rights.  But if we lose, and it is far from clear that we will not lose, some bishops have suggested they will shutter our ministries. This is insanity. We should not make the poor pay because we wish to avoid signing a form that does not really make us complicit in anything. What will people conclude if some bishops shutter their ministries and others do not? I cannot imagine a more public division within the hierarchy at anytime in our history. I hope whoever is the new nuncio is prepared to play hardball if it comes to it, and tell the bishops that if they insist on closing their ministries over this, they should resign. There are precedents.

There are divisions among the bishops about how to engage the culture, but there have always been differences among the bishops. Thing of the struggles between the Americanizers like Gibbons, Ireland and O’Connell (Denis, not William Henry) and the conservatives like Corrigan and Katzer. In the 1940s and 1950s, Cardinal Spellman did not invest his time in the bishops’ conference, but Midwestern leaders like Cardinals Stritch and Mooney did. Different Catholic universities at different times have been champions of alternative approaches to the relationship between the Church and the ambient culture. In 2016, it appears that the culture warrior bishops wish to make the conference their redoubt while the more pastoral bishops will be going their own way. You could see this divergence last year in the differing tone of the responses to the Supreme Court’s decision about same sex marriage. But, to be clear, all of our bishops are opposed to abortion and to punitive immigration policies. Some are more committed to Catholic social teaching than others, to be sure, and I fear some do not know much about it, which is a shame, because our political life could find many of the answers to its most intractable issues by consulting Catholic social teaching. We pay attention to the differences and the divisions more than to what unites the bishops for the same reason it is never news when a train arrives on time.

Well, this post has turned out longer than I had anticipated. There are other issues at this intersection of religion and politics that we will be looking at in the coming year, to be sure. But the dominant theme will be this: Will the leaders of the Church in the U.S. follow Pope Francis’ lead and become more engaged, less judgmental, and more committed to dialogue than they have been in the past, or will they stick to the failed, culture warrior, build walls not bridges approach of recent years. For me, it is not much of a choice, but I expect that much of 2016 will be spent noting and analyzing this fault line. Happy New Year to one and all.


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