The Church and Politics

I disagree with most pundits, and perhaps, most Americans. We deserve our politicians and our laws. Candidates feed us a fictitious narrative that Washington is broken (this much is true), but the American people are exceptional. They tell us: send me to Washington, and I’ll fix it by restoring honesty, transparency, and a spirit of cooperation. It is a popular message, resting blame on someone else. Politicians blame each other and citizens blame politicians, no one accepting fault for any of our problems.

If Washington is the problem, the solution is fairly easy. Vote incumbents out. Yet, how many cycles have we seen over the past few decades? How many waves of new politicians have promised change, but Washington seems to have more in trouble than ever?

For a second, consider the current political circle as a reflection of our society. That is to say, the partisan nature of Washington is a reflection of the steep divide in the electorate. The moral confusion of our laws is a reflection of the relativism of contemporary American culture.

When the housing market crashed, causing a major economic recession, politicians were quick to play the blame game. Republicans insisted that government-backed loans distorted the market and helped create an unsustainable bubble, which eventually burst. Democrats countered that the deregulation of financial institutions allowed risky, predatory loans to flourish without any oversight. Government guarantees and deregulation made the housing crisis possible, but these measures did not cause the bubble and subsequent crash. The root cause was greed. Millions of bankers, brokers, real estate agents, and home owners knowingly participated in unsound purchases, but they overlooked this concern in order to reap huge short-term gains.

No politician discusses the pandemic of greed that plagued the housing market crash. If avarice is mentioned, it is reserved for the CEOs of top banks; it is not referred to as a societal issue. Moreover, government cannot effectively deal with some of the problems facing our country. Political leaders cannot legislate honesty or thrift, especially with the current amoral and secular view of the state.

This era should be golden age for the church. People dissatisfied with the government are meandering around, searching for an upright institution which they can trust. In addition, religion offers precisely the answers to many of the problems facing our country. Is not the church best suited to offer a critique of greed and illustrate the importance of charity and moderation?

I am concerned that this moment might be squandered. Church leaders, seeing politics in chaos and experiencing direct attacks from it, have entered the fray, hoping to provide some moral guidance. I have supported the efforts of the bishops, applauding their stance against the HHS mandate, but a more political church could also stand to lose more than it gains.

Politics has toxicity, affecting everything that comes into contact with it. As soon as the church enters a campaign, some individuals are turned off, and that’s fine. The church is meant to stand up for truth and not for what is popular. Problems arise when clerics working with Republicans on traditional marriage are viewed as supporting Republicans or when church leaders allying with Democrats on immigration are seen as backing Democrats. Charges of a partisan church are unfounded, but they are numerous. In many ways, I am not arguing against what the church does, but how it is viewed, especially through the lens of a distrustful media. Non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics mainly hear about the church through news stories, and the media overlooks its spiritual and charitable activities and focuses exclusively on the church’s scandals and political actions. Many outside observers have expressed the opinion that the church resembles a political party more than a religion.

Practicing Catholics face a different challenge if they have an overly political worldview. If my predictions hold true, the church will face and lose many political challenges in the near future. Some religious institutions have had to reduce services or close down all together due to recent rulings; more will follow. Several religious leaders and schools have faced charges of intolerance and discrimination; this will only increase. If individuals place too much emphasis on political rulings, overturning laws, or getting favorable politicians elected, they could despair in the coming years.

Jesus lived at a time which was not unlike ours in some respects. The Jewish community was at the mercy of the Roman Empire, and they faced severe limitations in the practice of their faith. Jesus, however, had very little to say about the Romans. In his encounter with Pilate he remained uninterested in political power: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18: 36). Numerous political writers speculate if Jesus be a Republican or Democrat. I wonder if we are reading the same Gospels. If Jesus returned today, He would not be seen at conventions or campaign stops. He would be at the back of our churches, asking people as they left: remember me, my teachings, and my commandments? His harsh words were not directed towards the Romans, but members of his religious community that drifted away.

What is the main political problem facing the church? It is not that religious freedom is under attack. It is that many Catholics either support these measures or do not care about them. The elephant in the room is that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who implemented the mandate, is Catholic. The Vice-President, who advised on the matter, is Catholic. The Speaker of the House when the healthcare bill was passed is Catholic. Furthermore, the majority of Catholics voted for the current administration, and they will likely vote the same way again, even after these matters have come to light. If the majority of Catholics upheld the teachings of the church, there would be no political struggle, no attack on religious freedom.    

We do not need political reform. We need spiritual reform. We do not need another political party. We need an alternative to politics.

Sadly, we deserve our politicians. Our government has faltered due the lack of morality in our country. New laws or new politicians will not correct the course of this country, only a return to morality. I look expectantly at the church and its leaders to lead the way.

(I am in no way discouraging Catholics to vote or become involved in politics. It is a Catholic duty to perform these actions. I am merely stating the priority of the church to be a spiritual entity over its role in politics, and its primary mission is to lead people to God rather than seek success in politics.)

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.