Strange times for politics make for strange times for preaching. In just one week at the end of January, people in the United States and elsewhere participated in large and sometimes spontaneous demonstrations for the defense of human life, for recognition of women’s rights and for justice for refugees and immigrants. At the same time, in addition to the Senate’s consideration of President Donald J. Trump’s cabinet nominees, commentators discussed revisiting what constitutes torture during the interrogation of terror suspects, the beginnings of a process of dismantling the Affordable Care Act and the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, to pick just a few examples.
Meanwhile, the liturgical cycle offered us the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. But if the initial impassioned responses of our readers are any guide (see Your Take in this issue, page 6), few Catholic preachers and parishes accepted the invitation to connect the Good News with the news of the day. In a Pew Research Center survey last fall, just over a third of Catholics reported hearing about immigration and religious liberty at Mass, and just under a third reported hearing about abortion.
There are good reasons to be wary of addressing political issues from the pulpit. In addition to questions of the proper relationship between church and state, the church’s own teaching allows for a great diversity of political regimes and actors. Most important, the pastoral reality of congregations whose members support different candidates and political parties means that preachers need to avoid anything that could be construed as a partisan endorsement in order to avoid creating division instead of building communion.
But when only a third of Catholics report hearing from the pulpit about contemporary issues on which the teaching of the church is utterly clear and the bishops of the United States have spoken forcefully and consistently, we need to ask whether cautious prudence has crossed the line into unwarranted avoidance.
It seems that many Catholics, both in the pews and in the pulpit, have conflated politics with partisanship, assuming that addressing any issue on which our two major political parties are divided necessarily constitutes an endorsement of one and rejection of the other. This narrow focus produces a regrettable sidestepping of questions of the common good in preaching, which can lead to saccharine, feel-good homilies. On the other hand, some Catholics have been eager to “baptize” one party or the other—the Republicans for the issues of abortion and religious liberty, the Democrats for poverty and immigration—and pull out the pitchforks whenever support for their party’s positions are challenged.
The Gospel demands more of us—both when we speak and when we listen.
The Gospel demands more of us—both when we speak and when we listen. While we must avoid partisanship, we must also avoid letting the fear of partisanship loom so large that it overpowers our ability to speak prophetically on issues that are political in the best sense: questions about how to order our common life toward the common good. Jesus in the Gospels is anything but silent on these questions, and those who follow him cannot be silent either.