Amen, Sister!: Catholic Bishops' Media Rep. Preaches Nonpartisan Pulpits

"Church involvement in partisan politics is a bad idea."

I can't say I agree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all that often. The hierarchy's stands for tax aid to religious schools and against reproductive rights, civil rights for gay people, stem-cell research and other issues are often wrong from my perspective.

That's why I was surprised to see a recent Religion News Service essay on religion and politics from a USCCB representative that was pretty much on target.

In her Aug. 12 guest commentary, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, USCCB director of media relations, states bluntly, "Church involvement in partisan politics is a bad idea."

Houses of worship, she argues, must welcome everyone. If the pulpit is partisan, Walsh says, many congregants won't feel welcome.

"A religious house," she continues, "should be a refuge, where one can step away from political madness in search of peace. Church leaders need to help people develop their consciences so they can make good decisions. They need to encourage public servants to be men and women of moral courage. They need to urge citizens to make wise decisions. They can't do any of that if they turn half of them off."

Walsh has more.

"There are other reasons for concern when religion and politics get too cozy," she argues. "When a church leader aligns himself with partisan politics, he becomes one more rancorous voice in the crowd instead of a voice of wisdom above it. Instead of being a prophetic voice that focuses people on the moral dimension of political issues, the leader makes the church seem just one of many ranters in the public square. Politics by its very nature is an institution of compromise; the church by its nature holds to that fact there are certain absolutes. There is, and must always be, a natural divide between them.

"In practical terms," Walsh continues, "church leaders are called to be all things to all people. Each must live in such a way that both a Democrat and a Republican would feel free to seek him out. A churchman's pastoral ministry is important – it lets him offer care, comfort, wisdom and the benefits of his prayer life. It's a ministry that lets him stand in for the Lord himself.

"For a pastor," Walsh concludes, "you can't beat a good priest with brains. But when a churchman gets involved in partisan politics, he's left his brains at the party headquarters door."

I know there are plenty of examples where Catholic prelates have ventured into partisan politics. And the bishops' heavy-handed lobbying often rankles. But let's leave those topics for another time. Today, I'm saying "Amen!" to Sister Walsh.

I thought of Walsh's essay today, because I just received a poll from Catholics for Choice that dovetails nicely with the USCCB rep's words. Now, I know that the bishops and CFC are mortal foes, but – call it a miracle – they seem to be on the same page for once.

The CFC poll finds that American Catholics are almost evenly divided in their choice of presidential candidates and they don't want their bishops telling them how to vote.

According to the survey, "Seven in ten (70%) of those polled say that the views of Catholic bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion (73%) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend."

The poll also found that Catholics are thinking about the big issues, not narrow doctrinal concerns, when they vote.

Says the CFC, "In order of importance, Catholics say that priorities are: improving the economy (68% saying it should be one of the highest priorities); protecting the U.S. from terrorism (54%); resolving the war in Iraq (50%); and making health care more affordable (48%). The next tier of priorities also reflects practical domestic needs, including protecting Social Security (47%), improving public education (34%) and cutting taxes (34%).

Only 25 percent prioritized "promoting moral values in the country."

In other words, Catholics, like most Americans, are interested in placing candidates in office who will tackle the most pressing issues of the day. Their faith undoubtedly plays a role in that process, but orders from religious leaders do not.

That's a message that candidates and curates alike should note.