Partisan Or Catholic?

“Put not your trust in princes,” intones the psalmist. So it is not merely a matter of desiring to appear non-partisan that should guide the bishops in their governance of the Church. And, the psalmist’s warning contains wisdom for all of us Catholics. To me, in simplest terms, this warning is a part of a broader biblical narrative, confirmed by many centuries of tradition, that we Christians should put our faith first. All of our mundane concerns, including the concerns of politics, should flow from our prior religious commitments and beliefs. Or, as I said to someone at a party this weekend, “You know, on your deathbed, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party is going to send anyone and, besides, they would not send someone you would want. At that moment, you will want a priest.”

I learned many things from studying the life of the Rev. Jerry Falwell when researching my biography of him. But, one of the most prominent facts of his life that after ten years of leading the Moral Majority, from 1979 until 1989, and remaking the face of Christianity in the culture, for the first time in American history, Pew surveys began to notice an appreciable number of people who, when asked to identify their religion, replied, “None.” The rise of the “nones” in the early 1990s has continued and it seems undeniable that it was, in part, a result of a too aggressively partisan faith. When people had different political opinions from those being peddled from the pulpit, or could not tell the difference between faith and politics, or became convinced that this brand of Republican political engagement was the face of Christianity, they threw out the baptismal water with the political baby.

This lesson from Falwell’s life came to me when I was at Mass on Sunday. Our church bulletin had an insert from the USCCB that was a synopsis of their March statement on the issue of religious liberty. But, absent from the insert was one of the things I liked about the March statement: Its prominent inclusion of our Catholic concern that certain anti-immigrant laws, especially that in Alabama, were equally an affront to our religious liberty. Indeed, this absence of any mention of the anti-immigrant laws was even more troubling because since the USCCB statement was issued on March 14, the bishops’ conference has actually filed an amicus brief against the Arizona anti-immigrant law and, in that brief, explained how the Church’s religious liberty concerns were a part of the suit. But, the bulletin insert I got yesterday spoke only about the HHS mandate.

This is the second time that someone at the USCCB has decided to undercut their own argument. You will recall that last November, when he spoke to the plenary meeting of the bishops, Archbishop William Lori, then of Bridgeport and now of Baltimore and head of the USCCB ad hoc committee on religious liberty, cited the Alabama anti-immigrant law first as he detailed the reasons the bishops should be concerned about religious liberty. (Remember, this was before the White House messed up on the HHS mandates!) But when Lori testified before Congress, he did not mention that the Church’s opposition to the HHS mandates was part of a broader concern about religious liberty and point to the Alabama law. Had Lori done so, certainly he might have made some of the Republicans on the panel nervous. After all they and their party’s standard bearer Mr. Romney have endorsed the Alabama law and Romney has stated publicly and repeatedly that he would drop the Department of Justice lawsuit against these anti-immigrant laws in Alabama and Arizona.

But, the USCCB has to decide. Either they believe that the issue of religious liberty is genuinely transcendent and non-partisan, in which case they will always and everywhere mention the religious liberty implications of the GOP-sponsored anti-immigrant laws, or they believe that they should not offend their Republican friends by mentioning this fact. You can’t do both. The bulletin insert yesterday states “this is not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American issue.” If this is so, then why did someone at the USCCB decide to devise a bulletin insert that only attacks one side of the political spectrum and one threat to religious liberty? And, relatedly, I am still waiting for some acknowledgement by the USCCB that the most “unprecedented” threat to religious liberty in recent times was not the HHS mandates but the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, but maybe some at the USCCB HQ don’t want to mention that outrageous decision because it was penned by Justice Scalia. (h/t to Mark Silk for making this point.)

This weekend, we also got news that the “fortnight for freedom” will begin in Baltimore and conclude in Washington. At the Washington Mass, the homilist will be Archbishop Charles Chaput. I cannot think of a worse choice: Archbishop Chaput’s comments about Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama in 2009 were among the most hateful and unhinged things I have ever read from a cleric. His understanding of President Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Houston Ministerial Association is mostly a misunderstanding – I, too, have been critical of parts of JFK’s speech but mostly because of how it was subsequently understood and, unlike Chaput, I have always understood that the Houston speech came in a unique historical setting (go listen to the Q&A from the ministers – they really, really were hostile to Catholicism) and that Kennedy certainly never understood his remarks to be a theological treatise for all-time. Chaput, as much as any bishop in America, has been peddling a narrative about American politics that is not entirely accurate and which seems to me to be serving a partisan agenda, whether or not that is Chaput’s intent.

Mightn’t someone have thought to invite Archbishop Rodi of Mobile, Alabama to preach the homily, or perhaps a Latino bishop, who could speak about how some state laws are seeking to restrict our religious liberty in caring for immigrants? Perhaps, a Latino bishop might also point out that the Church should be combating the anti-immigrant fervor not only on religious liberty grounds but, as seen in the amicus brief, because the Church’s commitment to the immigrant is as much a part of our American Catholic story as is our commitment to religious liberty. Could someone at the USCCB point out that the Church is as committed to correcting Republicans on their blindness regarding immigration as they are with correcting Democrats on their blindness regarding the legitimate autonomy of Catholic institutions?

I will take a second seat to no one in terms of public and repeated and determined opposition to the HHS mandates. I have publicly, repeatedly and determinedly stated that the issue of religious liberty is a real one and it should concern liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans. But, the USCCB is making it harder and harder to make that second argument with a straight face.

Of course, Democrats are no better if HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ speech at Georgetown last week was any measure. In her speech she, too, referred to JFK’s famous Houston speech, and quoted the single dumbest line of the entire text. Sebelius said: “In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and said he believed in an America, and I quote, ‘where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.’” Hmmm. Was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a “religious body” seeking to “impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace?” Of course it was.

I do not expect much from Secretary Sebelius in the way of thoughtfulness. But, I was deeply disappointed that the nearly 100 Georgetown professors and administrators who wrote such a forceful letter to Congressman Paul Ryan in advance of his speech on campus last month could not bestir themselves to write a similar letter to Sebelius. Their letter to Ryan said that they did not object to his coming to campus, but to his policies, drawing a nice distinction between themselves and the heresy hunters at the inaptly named Cardinal Newman Society. They thoughtfully pointed out the ways in which Ryan’s positions differed from those of the Catholic Church and encouraged him to think more deeply about the issues involved. Surely, a similar letter to Ms. Sebelius could have been crafted. Surely, the signatories of the first letter could have found much in Sebelius’s proposals that, like Ryan’s, conflict with Catholic teaching. The signatories of the Ryan letter are as morally compromised by their failure to address a similar letter to Sebelius as the USCCB is compromised by its unwillingness to point out that Republicans only care about religious liberty when it suits them.

Put not your trust in princes. In America, we have no princes. We have only ourselves. And, as Catholic voters, we should be able to look to our bishops and to the learned academicians at our universities for inspiration and guidance. Instead, we find that the guidance in both cases appears hitched to a partisan bandwagon. Next week is Pentecost. I hope all Catholics will ask ourselves in this coming week if we have the courage to let the Holy Spirit enlighten us about the ways our partisan blinders keep us from witnessing to Christ and His Church. Before we have a fortnight for freedom, let’s have a week of soul-searching.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here