A Dangerous Game: The Catholic Clergy Enter Political Life

The American clergy saw that they would have to give up religious influence if they wanted to acquire political power, and they preferred to lose the support of authority rather than to share its vicissitudes.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, and with them their loyal followers, the Catholic clergy, have entered the political life of the nation with purpose and vigor. During the past decade and a half, through pastoral letters of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, statements issued by the United States Catholic Conference, and testimony before Congressional committees by bishops and U.S.C.C. staff members, the Catholic clergy have committed themselves — and by dubious implication committed all American Catholics — to a long list of political judgments. Catholic support has been expressed, for example, for national health insurance, handgun control, the right of farm workers to bargain collectively, compensation for victims of crime, government aid to non-public schools, the SALT II treaty, guaranteed annual minimums for foreign food aid, selective conscientious objection, the Panama Canal treaty. Catholic opposition has been offered to capital punishment, draft registration for women, development of the MX missile, public funding for abortion, U.S. military aid to El Salvador. (See J. Brian Benestad, ed., The Pursuit of a Just Social Order, for details.)

The bishops’ latest pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” constitutes the American bishops’ most ambitious venture into politics. In it, public policy judgments abound. The letter endorses a bilateral nuclear freeze, supports a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, recommends U.S. funding for “peace research” at a designated percentage of the military budget, suggests the founding of a U.S. peace academy, urges that the U.S. more strongly support the United Nations, recommends “global systems of governance,” and so on.

Clerical involvement in political life is not only a fact of our time; according to the former President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is a desirable goal for the church. Archbishop John R. Roach of Minneapolis-St. Paul made this point explicitly and vigorously in his N.C.C.B. presidential address in late 1981. According to Archbishop Roach, “the social vision of faith increasingly calls the church to a public theology and public witness on political questions.” Earlier that year, in another address, Roach said, “We are political practitioners because we have to be.” By “the church” and by “we” the Archbishop evidently meant the bishops.

The hierarchy’s engagement in the political process does not include work as political party activists or volunteers, nor as public servants or elected officials; they are rather in the business of shaping and influencing public policy through persuasion and lobbying. “The Challenge of Peace,” give its significant subject matter and its quasi-public drafting process, seems to signal a sharp increase in episcopal politicking.

Do the bishops understand — have they considered — the implications and consequences of their growing political involvement? There is reason to believe that this involvement will lead on to important consequences both for the Catholic Church and for political society. Many of the potential consequences are worrisome. Yet, alongside the dangers, there are some opportunities. Several of each are worth notice.

The first danger of clerical politics is imbedded in the changeable nature of democratic politics. Public policy in this country rests on the will of the people, expressed primarily in their decisions as voters. This will shifts with the times and with circumstances. Although people in general may hold to certain moral principles over long periods of time, they often do not hold to fixed policy positions related to such principles. Moreover, policies are the result of dialogue, differences among citizens’ and leaders’ opinions, and compromises — and thus often appear internally inconsistent.

If such is the fact of public policy formation, it makes for an uncomfortable situation for those (such as the clergy) whose professional life revolves around the enunciation of unchanging and consistent moral and religious principles. This situation would become more uncomfortable if the principles have previously been applied to political issues. Yet a Christian or a Catholic is not eo ipso uncomfortable in American politics, but if one deduces political judgments from religious faith, then the need to compromise, to shift with the times, to accept the results of division — these will be difficult. The clergy — bishops in particular — when they attach to their theology and morality a political platform of the sort being written over recent years by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will probably find political involvement deeply discomfiting.

How do lay Catholics cope with this situation? a skeptical clergyman might ask. Mainly by experience — by exchanging ideas with Americans of other political, religious, and ideological persuasions; by participating in party politics or interest-group politics; by serving with one’s fellow citizens on planning commissions and city councils, in legislatures and bureaucracies. In these ways one learns what pluralistic democracy is, in fact and in action. In the give-and-take of politics one’s constant principles and the implications of those principles are disciplined by the realities of political and social life.

A second danger of clerical politics revolves around the authority of bishops. Bishops are accustomed to speaking to Catholics authoritatively. But in American politics, there are no designated authorities. Authority is earned by some persons through strength of argument, or by superior organizing, or by a decision of voters, or by pleasing a superior. Will bishops abandon the authority of their office as they go deeper into the political waters, or will they attempt to save it and thus misuse it? Both options are perilous for the clergy and perhaps for the church in general.

If the bishops announce that their political judgments have no authority de officio, they run the risk of appearing as fallible as anyone, and of that fallibility spreading to their moral and theological opinions. Their status as religious leaders might be at stake. Notice in “The Challenge of Peace” that the farthest the bishops would go on the question of the authoritative character of the pastoral letter was the following:

We do not intend that our treatment of [each issue] carry the same moral authority as our statement of universal moral principles and formal church teaching. Indeed, we stress … that not every statement in this letter has the same moral authority.

What is left out here is the important caveat that judgments on particular political issues made by bishops — or anyone else — have no necessary authority whatsoever. In the game of democratic politics, all citizens are players, no-one calls the plays.

Bishops are unlikely to misuse their authority in political affairs, though they will no doubt be sorely tempted to do so. They might succumb to a milder temptation, however, and give to their political judgments a religious veneer, couching them in rhetoric that makes political opinions sound like gospel truths. One can note some of this in U.S.C.C. statements over the years; issue after issue is said to be a “moral” issue, as if that label lends it some special significance that mere politicians wouldn’t know about. And to make the discussion of a political issue appear somehow religious contains its own special hazard, one expressed by Patrick Glylnn earlier this year:

. . . what makes a political position “religious,” “Christian,” or “Catholic” is precisely its uncompromising purity of intention, its vehemence, its unwillingness to accede to the exigencies of the secular realm. (The New Republic, March 19, 1983.)

Clearly, this is a state to be studiously avoided.

A third danger arises from the disposition of religious thinkers to confuse the realms of morality and politics. But would separating morality and politics condone amoral if not immoral politics? — a politics with no moral anchor at all, a politics whose only guide is the acquisition and exercise of power? On the contrary, the point is not that morality and politics have nothing in common, but rather that they are not identical spheres of human endeavor.

Politics depends on moral principles, to be sure. But politics goes far beyond morality by attaching coercion to its dictates. The civil law makes little allowance for an individual to decide whether or not the law applies in his or her particular case. Thus the law — and the political process that makes the law — must be careful to leave open a large field for individual liberty, so the coercive element in organized society can be minimized as much as possible. A good moral principle applied without concern for liberty (and for its factual counterpart, a pluralism of beliefs among the citizens of a state) can become a very bad political principle.

Some people think that political ideas are derived by deduction from moral premises. Even if this overly simple notion were valid, the road from premise to practical conclusion is not straight, and there are many side roads. In such a deductive process there is much room for disagreement along the way among those who begin at the same starting point.

When religious thinkers and leaders bring their moral ideas to political life without benefit of collateral political experience, they are tempted to think that morality is a sure guide to political wisdom. They are inclined, moreover, to denigrate mere politics. The mistake they are prone to is forgetting that political practitioners have always known that their realm is intensely moral but that the political realm has a certain autonomy of its own, which needs to be understood and respected.

In the second draft of “The Challenge of Peace,” Quentin Quade of Marquette University found a deep misunderstanding of politics. The final draft seems not to have entirely corrected this misunderstanding. The pastoral letter, Quade wrote,

is premised on a fatal dualism, in which the bishops imagine there is a political politics that includes most of the political spectrum, and then a morality politics which involves that allegedly rare issue wherein transcendent values are at stake. (Catholicism in Crisis, Feb. 1983)

Quade adds about the pastoral letter an opinion that applies to many of the political statements of the N.C.C.B. and U.S.C.C. over the past few years:

The flaw in their thinking . . . is their failure to understand that politics in all its essential respects is a moral doing, a moral endeavor. (Ibid.)

The fourth danger in the clergy’s entry into politics concerns disunity — the bad kind and the good kind.

Politics in this country thrives on disunity — divisions between parties, within parties, between interest groups, between individual citizens. These divisions are more than facts — they are natural, inevitable, desirable, and essential to democratic politics. But will religious leaders adapt to this kind of system? Do not religions by nature seek to unify people? And do they not use means far different from the political convention and the public debate? Is not a parish a community of believers united in the faith, worshiping together? Is not the parish — and perhaps even the universal church — a place to go to experience that the divisions of politics are not all that the human community offers, to find ways in which the human family can be unified?

If public policy is to be influenced by religious views and by religious organizations, must not that process be democratic in a democratic country? If there is to be a Catholic position on capital punishment or national health insurance or military aid to El Salvador, then it seems clear that the political debate looking toward a consensus needs to go on in every Catholic parish. Do the clergy welcome this prospect of politicizing — that is, dividing — their parishes and dioceses? And if the Catholic people are not to be consulted about political stands to be taken by the N.C.C.B. and U.S.C.C., then no doubt the practice of U.S.C.C. staff members testifying before Congress and pretending to offer a “Catholic” position and to be representing someone other than themselves will continue.

As bishops get deeper into politics — how can they avoid it if they follow Archbishop Roach’s advice? — there will inevitably be more debate of this sort even though it may not reach the parishes. We will be able to thank apathy for that. But in any forum the Catholic debate reaches, in what terms will it be couched? There is a natural tendency for religious thinkers to use theological language, and such language is quite inappropriate to political discussions. To claim the gift of “prophecy,” for example, or to offer oneself as a “witness,” may be acceptable in parish life, but such notions do not fit the rational give-and-take of political discourse.

One brief example may show that the practice of using religious notions in political argument could be dangerous to the conduct of the political process. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle gave a speech two years ago in which he said:

Jesus’ acceptance of the cross rather than the sword is the Gospel’s statement of unilateral disarmament. We are called to follow.

Here Bishop Hunthausen is making a direct connection between a basic Christian belief and a debatable political judgment. Clearly he believes this direct connection exists. But to disagree with him on unilateral disarmament, in order to meet his argument, one would content that Jesus’ acceptance of the cross does not mean unilateral disarmament, but means something else. In short order, one would be debating a theological issue with Bishop Hunthausen — the true meaning of the crucifixion. Debating theology leads to debating religious understanding and then to debating religious faith. And thus in such debates can arise the bad kind of division, a division of American citizens along religious lines. Disunity in religion does not serve the same desirable purpose as disunity in politics. And if divisions in politics are allowed to lead to divisions in religions and if religious differences are brought into the formation of public policy, our society could arrive at a point that the separation of church and state wishes to avoid, that is, the determination of civil law according to the relative strengths of various religious convictions among the populace.

Fourth, politics as a concern of religion could lead to a democratizing of the Catholic church. If bishops consult laity, and if laity discuss issues and if it is recognized that all are involved in the issues, then why shouldn’t all Catholics be involved in the structure of their church? Certainly a place to begin would be to democratize the U.S.C.C. If U.S.C.C. staff members would be elected by the Catholics of this country, then they could go to Congress with some confidence that they truly represent American Catholics. Possibly not everyone in the church would see democratization as an advantage, but any group becoming more political needs to become more democratic if it is to be more effective, and churches should be able to see the benefits of the process.

If any conclusions are to be reached concerning the recent growing involvement in politics by the American Catholic clergy, the dangers of that involvement must be weighed against the advantages. At this time, the dangers seem clearly to outweigh the advantages. But what suggestions to be derived for the consideration of the hierarchy are not as clear. Part of the problem of arriving at recommendations for the clergy is the fact that the clergy are making their own political decisions without much consultation with the laity. The very act of clergy receiving suggestions from laity is out of fashion. Many lay persons who are inclined to make such suggestions as part of a public dialogue rarely if ever persuade the clergy to become part of the dialogue the lay persons seek.

There is a way by which the dangers of political involvement by Catholic clergy can be reduced before trouble begins and the advantages maximized simultaneously. In short: turn the process of formation of Catholic political judgments upside down — set the process on its feet, so to speak, as Marx said he would do to Hegel’s philosophy. Instead of the N.C.C.B. appointing a committee of bishops to consider a great public policy issue — such as nuclear weapons or capital punishment or the American economy — instead, form, by a democratic process, a committee of lay Catholics who by education and experience have special competence and concern about the issue in question. Arrange for this committee to commission research and solicit recommendations about the moral aspects of the issue. And provide that the committee invite theologians, bishops, U.S.C.C. staff members, etc., to testify to the official church’s history of involvement in the issue. This committee should then be asked to write a report to be submitted to every diocese — and thus to every Catholic parish — in the country. Reactions to the document should be solicited from clergy and laity, and the committee should meet again to judge whether there is indeed any political consensus among Catholics on the issue. If so, the final draft of the document should be published as the majority judgment of United States Catholics.

If this process were to be adopted, the influence of the clergy would be significant. The tradition of the Church on social and political questions would receive serious and widespread study and debate. The laity would be asked for the wisdom of their political experience, and the conclusions would be tempered by this wisdom. Congress would be moved by the fact that a large segment of the American citizenry had engaged in a democratic process leading to a considered conclusion. One can reasonably hope that the ultimate result would be a better country and a better church.

Out of this new process of Catholic involvement in the political life of this nation might come an essay to balance John Henry Newman’s 1859 essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” The thesis of the new essay would be that lay Catholics should not continue to conduct their political life in isolation from the moral and theological judgments of the Catholic clergy; the title of the new essay would of course be, “On Consulting the Clergy in Matters of Politics.”


  • Robert Spaeth

    Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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