Prophetic, Not Partisan: Why We Need Courageous Preaching about Politics

(CNS photo)

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.

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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.

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Tom Fields
9 months 1 week ago

Yes, There has often been difficulty preaching on current issues---birth control, cohabitation---war in general---death penalty et al. On many of today's issues we are divided---about 50/50. Preach on Jesus, on the Gospel, on salvation, on charity, on conscience. Pray that we become united.

Mike Evans
9 months 1 week ago

Ah yes, return to only those "safe topics" which heap praise upon the devoted and pious. Keep away from all divisive moral issues. That'll bring about conversions!

Kevin Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

Here's a thought. What if, when we went to Church, the Priest spoke to us first of spiritual matters, and not politics, about our relationship with Christ instead of Social Justice? America seems to think that Jesus came to us as a political leader and not a spiritual one. I follow some Orthodoxy accounts on Twitter and it is like night and day when compared to many Catholic individuals. Their emphasis is on our relationship with Christ, on mystery and prayer. This is the priority, and all other moral actions proceed from this. I am so tired of activists constantly preaching politics and social justice. I can get that from a political party. Let us first take care of our souls and our relationship with God. Everything else will follow.

Thomas Severin
9 months 1 week ago

Kevin, If "Everything else will follow" why are there so few prophetic voices emanating from the clergy and laity within the Catholic Church? When Jesus says "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" and blessed too "are those who suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness" He is implying that His followers will speak out in behalf of the poor and powerless and may well end up being persecuted for doing so.
When is the point when we become holy enough that our prayer life translates into active compassion and advocacy for those people who are being persecuted and in need of the help of other Christians to come to their aid. If we focus to much on our own personal quest for holiness, we may end up like the Rich man who can't even see Lazarus on his doorstep ore acknowledge his responsibility to share his wealth with him.

Mike Evans
9 months 1 week ago

I think bishops, priests and other clergy/religious have been dumbstruck by the actions of the first two weeks of the Trump routine. His treatment of opposition spokesmen, critiques from his own party, the post inauguration marches, Tweets and claims, and now his direct attack on immigrants have intimidated and silenced those on the sidelines. Pre election Trump supporters are backpedaling, today even his own nominees have uttered cautionary complaints, and many who sought peaceful reconciliation from the hard issues that seem part of the GOP mindset have been rebuffed. No longer can Trump and his minions be allowed to lie, cheat and steal and cover up without stirring up moral outrage. It is everyone's duty to speak out for justice, civility and respect under these conditions. Earlier we were warned by some of the potential dangers. Now our nightmares have become real daymares.

Michael Barberi
9 months 1 week ago

It is almost impossible today to watch a single cable or alphabet TV news channel and get a fair, balanced and comprehensive grasp the issues of the day. I have to watch about 5 different channels: PBS, BBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc, to get all information and then filter out what is clearly speculation and exaggeration. Clearly the media is very bias today and I am not alone with this viewpoint. However, to be fair, some do a better job than others. I used to read the NY Times in the 1960s and 1970s, among other papers and magazines. However, today I would not read one word of the NY Times because they exaggerate the truth, provide partial facts and many of their editorials and news columns cannot be completely trusted. Every day I see so-called fake news and bias viewpoints. After I watch several of these news channels I make up my own mind. However, you have to keep your viewpoint in perspective as new information might change your opinion. Some people will never change their opinion, especially if it involves Trump, no matter what he does. Unfortunately, this is the nature of our times.

I can imagine how the average Catholic must feel when even the Bishops are fighting among themselves and with Pope Francis on a host of issues from Amoris Laetitia to the reorganization of the Curia. Now add what Trump is trying to do and the rhetoric in his tweets and you have material for plenty of news stories that are based on negative exaggeration and speculation based on so-called trusted informants that remain unnamed..

I will judge Trump incrementally on the policies that are fully implemented and not by his rhetoric or news stories.

As for speaking out on social issues from the Pew and Pulpit, I say go for it. However, I seriously doubt that parish priests and bishops will encourage a discussion of hot topic and emotional issues from the Pulpit or in a forum they would sponsor for their parishioners. Such things might generate more problems than solutions as I doubt parish priests are skilled enough to preach on such issues. If a theologian is running such discussions, I can tell you there is disagreement among theologians on many issues, social, sexual and political.

I wish I had the answer to all of this. However, I believe the more informed we are about social and political issues, and the more channels and pathways are open to all Catholics to expressed their views, the better.

Stuart Meisenzahl
9 months 1 week ago

Mr Barberi
You have supplied a cogent summary of the current dilemma facing our clergy and Catholics in general.
We suffer from a plaque of viewpoints masquerading as "facts".. you are correct that a balanced viewpoint can only be achieved by reading and watching, masticating and digesting enormous volumes of such "facts" .
The sources grow like weeds.
How are priests any more advantaged in sorting this out since they also have deal with viewpoints and conclusions masquerading as "theological facts/ truths".
The Social Justice Warriors seem oblivious to these conditions and insist like Cortez and his soldiers and priests that it is their holy obligation to denounce the contrary beliefs of The Indigenous people, burn their temples and overturn their idols. Forced conversion by sword and decree from the clergy. The results prove it didn't work then and it won't work now. As Arthur Brooks brilliant and personal essay The Conversion of a Catholic to Capitalism" contained elseware in these pages, points out that a single peasant who experienced and apparition from Our Lady of Guadeloupe converted nations who willingly embraced the Faith without having a literal priestly sword over their head. The clergy of today are not going bring their parishes to assist in Social Justice by attacking the parishioners' political and economic beliefs and background......their success depends on preaching and demonstrating and leading their people on the moral implications of various actions and inaction. The clerical swords of directives from the pulpit , hurled anathemas and rejection of basic economic realities will not win the day. Leadership in faith and demonstrating the very personal involvement of the individual in faith will win the day ....sponsoring Social Justice projects, supporting parishioner iniatives will help win the day.
The impatience of the Social Justice warriors to attack every perceived injustice with every verbal tool available is self defeating,self isolating, and counterproductive. Pretending that the people you verbally alienate are the same as the people who rejected Christ's words is just an example of extraordinary hubris......

michael schubert
9 months 1 week ago

While there are a lot of issues that could be addressed from the pulpit, I see how going too much in one direction can be divisive. However, there is one area that to me seems pretty clear - we need as citizens (and Catholics) to step away from hate and fear. Looking back on the campaign, particularly the Republican convention, there was an underlying theme - hate and fear - fear of foreigners, fear of crime, fear of terror attacks, fear of Mexicans, fear of the future.

How can we respond in faith to a climate of such hate and fear? I have fear. I don't fear immigrants or terrorists, but I fear the daily erosion of sanity this administration is demonstrating. I fear we have an insane President surrounded by spineless sycophants. History tells us this tends to not end well.

How does the Gospel speak to me at this moment in history? I need to examine my conscience and listen for an answer - although the answer may not be easy.

GERRY DRUMMOND
9 months 1 week ago

Civics & Religion 101 would say that politicians and preachers are aiming to save the common good and the souls of their congregants and the world they live in.

I find scandal--but not surprise-- in a rich man who one day finds himself our president but whose daily disruptive and fact-challenged modus operandi may destroy the common good on this earth.

I also find scandal--and some surprise-- in those who preach Christ on Sunday hoping that a "feel good" personal story or a clever word-play that leaves listeners wandering in a collective--non-divisive-- lucky limbo is the way to save their souls and the souls of others.

Cardinal Tobin, Pope Francis and others, including America, are exceptions here and don't need my advice.

Anyway, one Sunday, I'd like to see John the Baptist preaching truth to power in every pulpit at every mass in every state--before my community of believers enables our misguided president to "win" his civic kingdom without benefit of the truth and without the informed consent of the governed, and therefore lose his Christian and democratic/republican soul. Lord, have mercy!

Mary Therese LEMANEK
9 months 1 week ago

Oscar Romero was always accused of being political and advocating Communism when in fact he was calling people to listen to the gospel and live accordingly. We need to follow his example and be clear about where the gospel is consistent with how society operates and where it deviates.

Charles Erlinger
9 months 1 week ago

In critiquing the parish homilist, it seems to me that you have to take in consideration both the choice of subject matter and the environment in which the priest may be trying to be influential or persuasive. One principal factor of the environment includes the top cover that the homilist should expect for his foray into behavioral influence or persuasion. He has a right, in my opinion, to expect this top cover to be provided by the bishop and the pope. There certainly is no shortage of documents and recorded utterances originated by the pope personally, and by offices under the pope's authority, that the homilist can cite in the event he wants to persuade parishioners to engage in some effort pursuant to the Church's policy objectives. Reliance on episcopal top cover, however might be something that the homilist would want to evaluate carefully. A quick scan of diocesan web sites reveals that areas of primary interest and concern vary widely, influenced, no doubt by the geographic location and other area-specific characteristics of the diocese. In the event that the homilist simply wants to urge parishioners to think about some scriptural lesson that offers authoritative support to an objective that the pope and bishop find worthy, there would seem to be little excuse for the homilist to avoid the subject, despite the fear that some influential parishioners might object. If, on the other hand, the homilist wishes to urge parishioners to take part in some pragmatic strategy to achieve the objective, there is every justifiable reason for the homilist to think hard on the subject. Ordinarily, the two main characteristics of a strategy are feasibility and flexibility. If a strategy fails but the objective remains compelling, a new strategy must be adopted. Of special concern for the homilist, I should think, would be the morality of the steps in any recommended strategy. Does the strategy involve characterizing others in a sinful way, or immoral use of force, or lying, or depriving others of rights? Of all of the concerns that a homilist should think about, it seems to me that upsetting some parishioners would be one of the minor concerns.

Thomas Farrelly
9 months 1 week ago

If priests wish to preach about politics, then the sermon should be given after the final blessing, so that those who do not welcome such preaching are free to leave. And of course members of the congregation (sorry, I can't get used to "assembly") should be free to participate, asking questions and presenting their own points of view.

Lisa Weber
9 months 1 week ago

Preachers can talk about the issues without talking about politics. They should have been doing this during the campaign. A homily about how Satan is the father of lies, and that nothing good or lasting can be built on lies would not be a political homily, but it would certainly apply to the current political situation. We have a president who blatantly lies and this apparently causes little outrage among Catholics.

The Church would also do well to look more closely at the message of Jesus. In matters related to sexuality, Jesus taught and took actions that indicated that sexuality is private. Why would this be? A logical explanation is that sexual matters are private and little can be done about them by public rulings. Another, possibly more important, reason is that sexual issues generate a lot of emotion. Strong emotion tends to blind people to the overall picture. Strong, blinding emotion over matters that little can be done about is a recipe for political disaster.

Political disaster is what we have in the Trump administration. We have a dishonest, incompetent president who was elected partly because people saw him as "pro-life" in the matter of abortion. A willingness to overlook lies, mental health issues, corruption and possible treason is bizarre when choosing to vote for a president. A church that supports such a candidate displays a profound disregard for the common good and for the teachings of Jesus. I am not interested in hearing a homily about politics, but homilies that unfold truths are both interesting and applicable to political life.

Michael Barberi
9 months 1 week ago

Lisa,

Those who voted for Clinton often support your argument while those who voted for Trump make the same arguments about Clinton (lies, not trustworthy, scandal and a message that did not resonant). In my opinion, both candidates were seriously flawed and I did not vote for either of them. However, I will judge Trump incrementally by the policies that are fully implemented, and not by his rhetoric, biased media news stories, or controversial ad hominem criticism.

GERRY DRUMMOND
9 months ago

Lisa,
Right on. Truth is a two-edged sword. We must call the big lie when we see it--no matter who is in the White House--and be ready to duck! Truth and it's consequences transcend political parties and political partisanship. We all must be partisans of the truth, especially when it's under attack.

Trump, e.g., lied when he said that he personally had seen thousands of Muslims celebrate the fall of the Twin Towers in Jersey City on 9.11. This was a religion, race-baiting falsehood, appealing to the dark and prejudicial part of his support base. This was a lie sure to put 1.6 Billion Muslims on video-notice worldwide that Trump has no problem lying about them BIG TIME. It also put Americans at home and abroad in greater danger from radical Muslims who now had more material to motivate them to harm people like America's readers. That lie demeaned American democracy and it demeaned our Christian faith. I could go on . . .

What lie did Hillary tell that could have the same consequences? None that comes to mind.

Michael,
You appear very political, saying that the Republicans will respond to Lisa by saying Hillary lies like Trump. But she doesn't . And if she did, we must call them both out on it, especially when the outcome could lead to terrible consequences.

Michael, you hesitate to weigh the facts and present the possible consequences. You want to w a I t . . . Your political philosophy of "incremental-ism" is a standard bystander survival reflex with bullies that I could accept on a short-term opt-out basis, realizing, however, that it risks total death and/or submission if Trump, as a Bully, sets up agent provocateurs to crash our democracy and turns the United States into Kremlin West's "America First! Nation State."
(It took Hitler 5 months to take complete control after becoming German Chancellor with his little plurality with the educated German democratic center leadership naively thinking that they could control him! When they realized where he was taking them, it was too late!)

Besides, we owe it to Trump himself for us to speak out our truth to his power now in a situation where literally, he is in the position to lead the world--or to destroy it--and lose(or gain) his soul in the process.

Michael Barberi
9 months ago

Gerry,

You cannot be serious to ask 'what lies did Clinton make'? Do you honestly believe that the 30,000 emails she deleted were all about her daughter's wedding and other personal business? She said she only used one electronic device when she conducted Department of State business? B.S. We now know she used several electronic devices and one of them was completely destroyed while she was under investigation. Do you really believe she knew little about Bengasi? Obviously, you must think Clinton is an angel. Not me. I concluded she was untrustworthy and is a person that will say and do anything to get in the White House. Evidently, so did most other Americans.

Clinton won the popular vote, but if you take out California, Trump wins the popular vote by more than 1 million.
Don't get me wrong. I disliked Trump's rhetoric and campaign style, which he is carrying into the oval office. However, he is the President of the U.S and I will give him a chance to govern this country. I am not naive or have any illusions about Trump. I pray for him, his administration and the Congress. However, I choose not to react to all the biased negative news stories about him. I do listen to about 5 news channels to get as much of the truth as possible and try to screen out the biased rhetoric and half-truths. I may end up disliking Trump and his policies. However, I will give the policies that are implemented a careful and unbiased evaluation.

My conscience did not allow me to vote for him or Clinton. Obvious, it seems you voted for Clinton, or if not, you react harshly to those who either like him, voted for him, or want to give him a chance to govern, like me. However, your disparaging comments about my 'so-called political philosophy' amounts to name-calling and irresponsible non-sense especially your ridiculous argument linking my giving Trump a chance "to Hitler and armageddon". If Trump't policies end up harming our country and its citizens, after they get fully debated and negotiated by Congress and the final product gets fully implemented, then I will denounce them. Until then, I am not taking the far-left bait as the media is doing everything to decrepit anything Trump is doing. Make no mistake, he has a few problems on his hands but he is only in office for 1 month.

As for the 'truth' I always speak out for the truth but do so with respect and after careful thought. However, I don't equate 'the truth' with your apparent dislike of Trump (and my posting) or your exaggerated analogies. What is claimed to be the truth often is based on partisan politics. I think we will have to agree to disagree on Trump for now. I am not ready to throw him under the bus yet as the media and Democrats are already doing.

GERRY DRUMMOND
8 months 4 weeks ago

Michael Barberi,
We have to talk. I live in Northern NJ and am one of the 1-million+ who've asked Mr. Trump on www.whitehouse.gov to produce his income taxes as Hillary and Barack once did and he Trump still fears doing, even when faced with huge conflict of interest questions that dig into his credibility more and more each day.

Mike, I'm the last to condemn to solitary a fellow pilgrim like you who is bold enough to cross swords with me. Our life experiences and informed consents have drawn different lines of battle. I was actually for Bernie (not Hillary), who I'd assume would adjust pragmatically to office as president. When Hillary beat him, I cast my lot with our first woman president-to-be, whose public sector experience and intelligence outclassed the birther-minded and Putin- praising Donald.

That said, however poor Hillary's judgment may have been in some areas, 9 Benghazi committees could find no crime for her to do any time. And the FBI could not find enough email mayhem to even indict her. Meantime, Trump--rather than face certain conviction--settled for $25 million with cheated Trump University Students, and he then got help from Putin and Comey and he still lies and bullies his way about, though reality is starting to catch up with his quest to brand the world with his great name.

Anything is possible if we don't give in for one second to this man's planned mayhem and confusion and his one-on-one nation-state pro-Putin leadership-weakening deals. And our Sunday preachers must not confuse rhetoric with bold-faced lies as Lisa Weber makes clear. I'm sure you'll agree that publicly preaching the duty of presidents and politicians to tell us the truth (not protect our leaders' lies by silence) and proclaiming our duty as Americans to help our neighbors is Gospel First, Last and Always. This is not political in any party sense.

And for preachers to fear doing so at this time in our history is, in my mind, a dereliction of their duty. They already have a "cover" in my Newark Archdiocese NJ where Cardinal Tobin has come out clearly . . . but they still hesitate to use even the option to bring differing opinions together after mass in honest dialog.

Michael Barberi
8 months 2 weeks ago

Gerry,

I agree that our politicians should not tell bold face lies or exaggerate, distort or print half the facts. Nor should they play the politics of fear while doing nothing positive to bring differing viewpoints together for the good of the people. All we are getting at the moment is one party trying to take a new approach to solving our nation's problems, and the other party doing everything in their power to destroy such attempts. Even when Trump puts forth policies that Democrats love, such as Infra-structure spending, few Democrats applaud him for fear that they might be offending their 'base'. Make no mistake about what I am saying: both parties are guilty of partisan politics and few leaders are doing anything to fix Washington. I think we both can agree that the time of character assassinations, fake news, partial facts and extreme and irresponsible accusations must stop.

I did not vote for Clinton or Trump. I am an Independent and I don't like his rhetoric, style or tweets. However, his address to a Joint Session of Congress was unifying, Presidential and optimistic. Let's pray it continues. However, witness the recent statements of the main street Media and Democrat leadership: the Flynn dust up was pronounced as the moral equivalent to 911 and Pearl harbor; Trump committed impeachable acts; AG Sessions should resign (yet no Democrat called for AG Lynch to resign when she met with President Clinton while his wife Hilary was under investigation)...the list of hypocrisy and hate-filled exaggerated rhetoric on both sides needs to end.

As for Trump's tax returns, we as a country have more important issues to solve. Does anyone truly believe that the Media and Democrats will not demonize Trump's legitimate tax deductions resulting in Trump paying no taxes or a small tax payment? If people don't like the tax laws, they can change them. I never believed that 'taxing the rich and giving free college to everyone' as Clinton wanted was going to stimulate the economy, create jobs or truly resolve things like income inequality and poverty. I will wait until I get all the facts about Trump's tax plans, and also wait until they get modified by Congress before I chastise Trump.

We will have to leave our disagreements here Gerry, as it appears that neither of us will be persuaded by further arguments. Thanks for your comments.

Anne Chapman
8 months 2 weeks ago

Michael, you seem to be selective in your examples. Sessions should resign for lying to the Committee. As someone who does not have justice towards minorities as a priority, who has more than once shown racist tendencies, he should not have been confirmed in the first place. Now he has committed the same kind of lies he once used to insist that Bill Clinton should have been impeached. Lying about contact with the Russians, which seems to have become a habitual lie in Trump's camp, representa a far greater potential danger to the US than did Clinton's lies about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/03/02/six-times…

One test for all christians in evaluating politicians is Matthew 25 - Trump openly campaigned on a policy of rejecting and pushing out the "stranger", rather than welcoming them feeding them, clothing them. He openly said he wants to destroy the safety nets that enable many to feed their families, and obtain medical care through medicaid or Obamacare. He wants to cut off access to health care for 20 million people who finally got it via Obamacare, as flawed as that law may be. He has openly said he will cut regulations that help ordinary people, such as those on the financial industry that protect small investors.

Finally, unless Trump releases his tax returns, we will not know how his businesses will impact his decisions as President. We know that not a single terrorist act has occurred in the US by someone immigrating from the seven countries on his banned list. We know that many of the terrorist acts in this country, including 9/11, were the work of visitors from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Dubai - which are not on the list, but which do have Trump properties.

Apparently his attempts to strike business deals in Russia failed, but we do not know how much Russian money is invested in his international businesses. We know that he borrowed money from at least one Russian bank. We know that he did nothing about Flynn even though he knew that Flynn was discussing dropping sanctions on Russia - did nothing until the "lying" mainstream media broke the story. Trump has refused to put his assets into a blind trust, as have all previous Presidents, he has not divorced himself from his companies, simply from day to day engagement. And please, nobody can be naive enough to believe that he does not discuss the family business with his sons and daughter

You are hoping that Trump is not what Trump has shown himself to be. Perhaps you are right. But his actions since becoming president indicate that following Jesus' teachings are not among the factors guiding his decisions.

My original comment was very long (really long - this one is long!) and I have deleted most of it. Many don't like to hear the social justice message of the church, they don't like to hear the social justice focus of the gospels themselves. That does not mean that these gospel teachings should be ignored by those who preach. Those who don't want to hear the message (becauses they look at these messages as politics rather than as what Jesus taught), who want to focus on their own private piety and saving themselves should read the parable of the sheeps and goats one more time. Jesus is pretty clear about who will "save" themselves through how they care for the "least of these" - or instead turn their back on them - and who will find themselves left out.

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