Who speaks for the Church in the realm of politics?
The question has been the subject of some controversy in recent days. Bishop Martino in Scranton showed up at a politics forum that was discussing the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference document "Faithful Citizenship." Instead of commending his flock for listening to, and discussing, the bishops’ instruction, he denounced the text: "The USCCB does not speak for me," he thundered.
Of course, the question has a perennial quality to it. Whether or not you can put lipstick on a pig, you can’t just plunk the label "Catholic" on an organization and make it so. There is a group "Catholics for a Free Choice" that really does not seem to evidence any awareness of Catholic anthropology. Conversely, I watched EWTN the other night and was appalled at their "more Catholic than the Pope" attitude towards the faith as well as the amateurish understanding of politics evidenced by host Raymond Arroyo. In their thirst for nostalgia they seem to have ignored such basic and observable phenomena as the fact that Pope Benedict did not bar anyone from the communion rail during his visit to America last April.
Archbishop Chaput of Denver made sure the audience he addressed last Friday night understood that in his comments criticizing Barack Obama and his Catholic supporters, he was not speaking as an archbishop but as a "private citizen." Of course, the Catholic women’s group who invited Chaput did not invite any other private citizens as their guest speaker. "Thou art a priest forever, by the order of Melchizadech" sings the psalmist, except, evidently, when you choose to speak as a private citizen. Clerics are entitled to their political opinions, of course, but it is smoke and mirrors to give a public speech "as a private citizen" when wearing a pectoral cross.
A voting guide put out by the group "Catholic Answer" not only claims it is speaking for the Church, but that there is only one answer to whatever conceivable questions you have. The voting guide issued by the liberal Catholic group "Catholics United" has a more balanced approach, analyzing the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. But, neither organization has a canonical mission so while both can be consulted (and the "Catholics United" voter guide is well done), they do not carry any kind of ecclesiastical imprimatur. Communion and Liberation does have a canonical mission, and its voter guide is the best of the bunch. It is relentlessly abstract.
Relentless abstraction has its place. The same night the Bishop of Scranton was denouncing his confreres, I attended a presentation by Msgr. Stuart Swetland for the group Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). He gave a fine and even-handed presentation of the Church’s teachings. In the Q-and-A, someone asked for whom he was going to vote and he declined to answer. "I think it is a mistake when a priest indicates who is going to vote for," he said. "You all have to decide for yourselves how to apply the Church’s teachings to the concrete circumstances of the election."
So, who speaks for the Church at election time? You do. We all do.
Michael Sean Winters