Published May 29, 2012
When asked in 1999 to lead Governor Bush’s Catholic outreach, I assumed the chief obstacle to overcome was the deeply embedded loyalty to a distorted version of the “seamless garment” found in many of the Catholic institutions of our nation.
Under this brand, the Catholic concern for the most poor and vulnerable among us was being used if not to dismiss outright, at least hide out of sight, the issue of abortion. Why this happened to the venerable Catholic understanding of social justice has been chronicled numerous times, but the bottom line is this: When the Democratic Party made the ideological issues of secular feminism a litmus test for party loyalty, millions of Catholics including thousands of clergy had to make a choice.As a result of this choice, the “Catholic voter” was destabilized. No longer reliable Democrats, some Catholics became registered Republicans and many became de facto independents or swing voters. Although at present there are still more self-identified Democrats among Catholic voters, the history of the presidential elections since the late sixties exhibits a level of volatility capable of swinging the election back and forth between the two major political parties.By focusing on the swing Catholic voters who attended Mass regularly, Bush was very successful in 2000 and 2004 in regaining the Catholic support lost to the Democrats during the Clinton years. Senator McCain made little effort in this regard, while Obama’s religious outreach team did an outstanding job of selling a pro-abortion candidate to Catholics as a president who would “lower” the abortion rate. (It goes without saying they will have a harder sell this time around!)I initiated Catholic Advocate in 2006 with the hope of continuing independently the work of identifying, educating, and organizing Catholic voters, and after six years have handed it off to the next generation of leadership. But, though I hope in the future to begin addressing once again a wider range of religious and cultural issues, there is one lesson I learned that I feel compelled to share – the problem of what I will call “the clerical frown.”There is a widespread inclination among U.S. Catholics to ask their priest or their bishop for permission to become politically active, beyond the simple obligation of voting on Election Day. Thus, the problem I describe could also be called an improper form of “lay deference,” but I’m equally struck by how often those lay Catholics who sought guidance were met, not by an explicit veto, but by a gesture of disapproval, i.e., the clerical frown.Catholics have highly developed antennae, I have learned, for when Father is displeased, and many of them allow that displeasure to shape their attitudes and action in the political sphere. Obviously when it comes to the teaching of the Church, the laity is constantly being taught and formed by our clergy and bishops. But, does the teaching of the Church extend to decisions by the laity about whether to be a Republican or a Democrat, or to become active in an independent group like Catholic Advocate, the Susan B. Anthony List, or National Right to Life?The willingness of some clergy to employ their “frowns” to dissuade laity from certain kinds of political participation is far too common in my experience. But, I am less surprised by this than I am by the willingness of Catholic laity to care about expressions of clerical displeasure when it comes to politics. Of course, if a Catholic asks his priest if it’s OK to join a neo-Nazi party then something more than a frown is called for, but there is not such an “extreme” in question here (unless there are those who consider it extreme to place abortion and marriage at the top of a political issue list!)I am writing this to and for grown-ups. We all know that much human communication, including that between priests and laity, is exercised without the explicit language of “yes” and “no.” And since priests are just as human as the rest of us, they must be allowed “gut reactions” when asked for their opinions on any topic, whether it be politics, baseball, or the latest movie sequel. But our clergy surely know the power they wield with their body language and facial expressions, much less their praise and condemnations.The solution is two-fold: Lay Catholics simply need to affirm their obligation to engage fully in the political process without asking for permission from their pastor or their bishop. The Church itself teaches that prior permission is not required but that participation should be guided by the teaching of the Holy Father and the bishops. The clerical frown, as I call it, should be retired in regard to political matters. Catholic political participation is too important a matter to be disturbed by the political party preferences of our clergy. The Church does not care if a Catholic is a Democrat or a Republican; she cares about the work that is being done under that, or another banner.