None of this year’s Catholic presidential candidates (Sam Brownback, George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani, Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson) earned a nomination from either of the two major political parties. Arguably, however, the Church had its highest profile in a presidential race since 1960 with this past Democratic primary. Unfortunately, the Church did not come off looking that good.
Sen. Barack Obama took a lot of criticism over the anti-American, racist tirades of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He seemed, however, determined to weather the storm until Rev. Michael Pfleger, a white Catholic priest from Chicago’s South Side, gave a guest sermon in Obama’s Church in which he mocked a “crying” Hillary Clinton and made race-based arguments against her candidacy. Obama was forced to leave his church, and he barely limped to the nomination.
This was the first time that most Catholics saw Father Pfleger in action. The flamboyant priest has, however, been a fixture at St. Sabina’s parish since I lived in Chicago in the mid-1980s. His Masses feature rock bands, liturgical dances, almost constant music, but not necessarily any profession of the faith. His synthesis of music, showmanship, and social commentary has created a strong following, but it is one based on his personality, not on Catholic teaching. In fact, Father Pfleger may be more important as a political leader than as a religious one.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, like most dioceses, typically limits priests to a maximum of 12 years at any one parish. Father Pfleger, however, has been at his church for over 25 years. When his bishop tried to move him, Father Pfleger refused to go.
According to a recent article by Matthew Rarey in the Catholic World Report, the Archdiocese of Chicago has not forced Father Pfleger’s hand in part due his threat to quit and lead his flock away from the Catholic Church, but also — at least in part — because he is a significant player in Chicago and Illinois politics. Father Pfleger routinely talks about politics from the pulpit. He also seems to deliver lots of votes for Democratic candidates. Once they are in office, they reciprocate by sending money to important Catholic social programs.
After his performance at Senator Obama’s former church, Francis Cardinal George told Father Pfleger to take a couple weeks of extra vacation to think about what he had done. He has returned now, and according to the CWR article, he’s unapologetically picking up right where he left off. That’s problematic from the Church’s perspective and from the government’s perspective.
When a priest embraces a political viewpoint, it can alienate members of the congregation. The Catholic Church does not claim to have the correct political or economic solution to each problem; it speaks to eternal principles. When a priest claims to know the correct political solution to a typical social problem, he is likely going beyond the Church’s teachings and potentially creating problems for the Church. (Is his judgment correct? Does he know better than the Church?) What happens to the soul of a potential convert who leaves Mass, never to return, because he was offended by the unsanctioned teachings that he heard?
There can be confusion when a moral issue is also a political matter. Thus, social activists sometimes try to keep priests from speaking out against abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, and similar issues because they are political in nature. The Nazis also used to argue that Church teachings and sermons against racial policies were inappropriate ventures into politics. These political issues, however, are also moral issues for the Church. The line can be hard to draw in some cases, but Father Pfleger’s liberation theology is clearly beyond the scope of the Church’s Magisterium.
In addition to being a problem for the Church, when a priest gets too involved in politics, he can also offend the government. Like most charities, churches are tax-exempt, and donations made to them may be deducted from the donor’s income taxes. Donations to political causes, on the other hand, are not deductible. If a church ventures too far into politics, it can lose its tax status. Churches can engage in educational efforts — even “get out the vote” drives — but they are not supposed to advance particular candidates or parties. When they do, the government may respond.
Father Pfleger’s brand of Catholicism has shifted the balance of power between the bishop and the priest. It has likely driven some people from the Faith (possibly for reasons completely unrelated to the teachings of the Catholic Church). It could (and probably should) also jeopardize the tax status of his parish. Worst of all, those who attend services conducted by Father Pfleger may think that they are experiencing the full expression of the Catholic Faith, but they are not. They’re witnessing Father Pfleger’s self-indulgent liturgical abuses and listening to his personal theology. That’s the real shame.