Catholic bishop stumps for the GOP. Why?

(TONY GENTILE/REUTERS ) Catholic bishops have their party affiliations just like other Americans. Bishops also have the right to be … Continued


(TONY GENTILE/REUTERS )

Catholic bishops have their party affiliations just like other Americans. Bishops also have the right to be politically active. They also can take matters a step further and overtly support one political party over another.

But can does not mean should.

As religious leaders, Catholic bishops need to exercise what is called “prudential judgment,” especially when it comes to publicly identifying with an established political organization either on the local or national level.

While prudence is a cardinal virtue, it is often in short supply in the American Catholic hierarchy. A recent appearance by Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin gives ample evidence of this uncomfortable fact.

Speaking to a group of young Republicans in Providence, Bishop Tobin recently came out as a Republican himself. He had been a registered Democrat since 1969. He displayed confirmation of his new political identity and received standing ovations both before and after he spoke.

The news report does seem to provide a balanced context. Bishop Tobin, for example, has spoken about immigration in ways that Republicans might find quite challenging. But it does not seem that Bishop Tobin used the opportunity to challenge his audience on this issue. He did affirm one audience member’s suggestion that it would be good to dismantle the welfare state and replace everything with private charity—a policy position that is as realistic as arguing that we should implement world peace or give all American children free ice cream on Sundays. But Providence’s bishop was careful “to punt” the issue of whether Jesus has a political party.

The fact remains that the substantive points the bishop wanted to make—about the Democratic convention, about same-sex marriage, about abortion—could have easily been made without producing papers testifying to how he had been welcomed into the bosom of the GOP. He even held up his baptismal certificate letter along with the local canvassing board letter confirming his Republican party registration. Bishop Tobin observed, “My thesis tonight is that the two of these are related, and can be related very comfortably.”

It was here that bishop’s coming out seemed to be something like a come to Jesus moment.

Bishop Tobin really wanted to emphasize where he belonged—and who belonged with him.

Having Catholic bishops overtly support a political party is certainly nothing new in the United States. After all, the Catholic Church had a long and often incestuous relationship with the democratic party. In the part of the country that Bishop Tobin and I call home, stories still abound about how Boston’s Cardinal Cushing helped the Kennedys and got them out of numerous difficulties. Nowadays, a good number of Catholic bishops have heavily leaned Republican. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that Republican voters are a constituency that bishops find more amenable to the issues that they wish to emphasize, particularly those related to sexuality and religious liberty. While Catholic bishops have spoken against conventional Republican stances on immigration, water boarding and warfare, their voices have been muted in comparison.

Part of prudence is solertia, often translated a “shrewdness” or, more delicately “sagacity.” Overt political affiliations are exclusionary. But more importantly—especially for religious leaders—overt political affiliations are worldly: they entangle a religious organization in a series of compromises and associations that it would best avoid if it wants to speak clearly and freely on all issues, to all people.

Bishop Tobin’s presentation of his Republican credentials was imprudent if he seeks to honor his primary obligation as a religious leader and teacher in an institution that ideally seeks to transcend national boundaries and human divides.

For an example of prudence, and the sagacity that comes with it, I wish Bishop Tobin had looked to Pope Francis for how to comport oneself as a religious leader.

Pope Francis has spoken unflinchingly about Christian obligations in a world that is often indifferent to those who are poor and those who suffer. But no honest reading of Pope Francis’s actions could label him a “progressive” or a “conservative” in a conventional American sense. The pope has emphasized more general Christian values and this emphasis, thus far, has prevented his pronouncements from being dismissed as crassly political.

In acting this way, the pope is drawing upon his own hard experience as a Jesuit novice master and provincial before he became archbishop of Buenos Aires. At that time, the Catholic church was deeply divided. There were liberationists who wanted far more aggressive political action; there were those who were aligned with the regime; and there were still others who wanted to pursue a more moderate, and less worldly course of engagement—one of solidarity, asceticism, but one that avoided political entanglements. Pope Francis has carried with him the memory and burden of that time, especially when he inveighs against “factions” in the church.

Factionalism is most certainly part of the experience of being an American Catholic. This came through loud and clear when I was recently was interviewed by Larry Kudlow on CBNC. We’re both Catholic—but he wore a red tie and I wore a blue one. Most of the feedback I received commented on the sartorial choice as reflecting our differing political identities. I am indeed a life-long member of the Democratic Party. And I too am uncomfortable with some aspects of the democratic party as presently constituted—though my list of grievances is not nearly as long as Bishop Tobin’s. But as a Catholic Christian there is absolutely no way I could support the Republican Party as it exists now.

So, Bishop’s Tobin’s ostentatious gesture has crystallized for me the need for me to change my voter registration and become an Independent. Unlike Bishop Tobin, I have a great deal of difficulty relating my baptismal certificate to how I should vote—especially given that the only thing that Republicans and Democrats agree upon is that it’s acceptable to massacre civilians in drone strikes. In my view, the clearest thing that can be said about politics in the United States is that it is deeply un-Christian.

Christians of all denominations are in a situation in which we have to apply prudential judgment when we vote—and especially when we publicly identify ourselves with a standing political party. This is especially important when many of our leaders are making imprudence a virtue.

Mathew N. Schmalz teaches at the College of the Holy Cross.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • AZ WI

    This guy should be thrown out of the church! The republican party also is against taking care the poor, disadvantage, sick, elderly and war! In my opinion this guy should be excommunicated

  • Gustoval

    Perhaps church leaders have finally had enough of the pro-abortion agenda of the Dems. No party is perfect, and the church has its own human failings, but at the end of the day it can’t reconcile the otherwise good social justice leanings of the Democratic party with the overwhelming evils brought about by the abortion industry. How many innocent lives have been lost to abortion in our country alone? 50 million, 75 million? The number grows daily – a modern holocaust, and this time on our own shores.

  • pluperfectdc

    If preachers are so overtly political, then their churches should be taxed.

    I recall when the former president of Catholic U gave the benediction during a political event for George W. Bush in 2004. I guess Catholic priests are supporting doctrine when they support candidates who are anti-choice and anti-gay rights but when Catholic nuns come out against war or injustice (also allegedly Catholic doctrine) they are summarily stifled.

  • DELUNSER

    The idea that you have a right to force someone you don’t know to have a baby thety don’t want or can’t afford is absurd. Hope that helps.

  • DELUNSER

    Yep, when these guys start telling people who to vote for, the tax exempt staus of therir churches needs to be reviewed.

  • birdmanmanmanman

    The idea that someone has the right to end the life of an innocent (of all personal strictly voluntary crimes) child is absurd. The government has a duty to prohibit the murder of children.

  • Ranmore

    “The idea that someone has the right to end the life of an innocent child is absurd”

    So where does your position on this start? With the fertilised egg? Are you really going to consider a single cell zygote “a child”? That would be absurd, so I humbly suggest that there are early stages of development where different rules apply.

  • cricket44

    What child? Let me guess, birdman, pregnancy and childbirth are risks you, personally, will never face. Typical arrogance.

  • LeastOfThese

    What’s that, Oh NO NOISE IN THE FOREST !

    One can only hope Frances dismantles these Clanging Brass Corner Screaming Pharisees as quickly as JPII installed them.

  • Nosy-Parker

    The concepsus of rape and incest is NOT innocent; it’s a product of a violent crime. Ill-gotten gains aren’t protected by law.

  • jimbowski

    take away the tax free status of the catholic church since it now a political organization!

  • jimbowski

    if the govt should stop murder of children, they should also have the responsibility to feed and educate them and provide medical care…..and perhaps they should not send them off to die in wars of choice like iraq!

  • jimbowski

    nice words–“innocent child”…interestingly enough until baptized not a nit in the eyes of the church, just an entity filled with “original sin” (whatever that is). and until x weeks it is not a viable living being but a parasite. Im always intrigued by church logic–keep fetus alive via medical action, take all action to keep a brain dead human alive but call an IVF baby a mortal sin!!!

  • persiflage

    The good bishop clearly demonstrates that authoritarian ideologies are sympatico to one another – like attracts like in this case. On a larger scale, the American Bishops Council holds essentially the same doctrinal political position.

    Too little is said about the basic orientation of individual personalities and their roles in the defense of certain conservative social policies. The philosophical conflict comes down to personal freedom vs the inflexible rule of law levied by a higher authority. The chaos of personal choice disrupts the comfort zone of the authoritarian personalty. See Theodore Adorno for the early research on this issue.

  • SimonTemplar

    The press doesn’t mind parading religious leaders around when they speak against GOP positions. Shmalz is upset that Bishop Tobin has “come out’ as a republican. The only time the left hides party affiliation is when one of their candidates is embroiled in scandal.

    My question is this: What makes these positions (abortion, same sex marriage) strictly political? Some issues are political to be sure, but many issues (even political ones) also have moral dimensions which opens the door for religious leaders to offer their opinions.

  • Hildy J

    Let me say that Simon Templar is half right. I have no problem with religious leaders speaking their mind on issues such as a woman’s right to choose or a gay’s right to marry.These are, indeed, religions issues.

    My problem is that these should be only religious issues. Various religions have tried to get their dogma written into law. This is unconstitutional. From blue laws to “keep the Sabbath” to rainbow (?) laws to oppress gays, enacting dogma is wrong. Basing your personal moral code on the traditions of a primitive tribe from thousands of years ago is questionable, but it’s your right. Basing the laws I am required to follow on these traditions is morally, spiritually, and legally wrong.

    As Paul instructed you: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.”

  • AZ WI

    This bishop should be booted out! The Republican party is against for everything that the church is supposedly for. The GOP is against healthcare for the disadvantage and aid to the poor! I never give a dime to the church again with bishop like this “jerk”!

  • question1

    Excellent piece, Mr. Schmalz. Of course you know the answer to your question: ego. I believe that Christianity is the simplest religion in the world, having essentially only 2 commandments. However, it’s the most difficult to live because they’re both beauts. We have to crucify our own egos. Once religious clergy have achieved significant levels of power & fame that’s a problem equivalent to shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. LOL. Imagine what Toobin could accomplish if he (as you state) managed to promote Christianity without advertising his political idol, I mean party. Jesus was caught between & ultimately tortured to death by the marriage of oppressive government & oppressive religion. I am also an Independent.

  • reformthesystem

    As an American, a “bishop” like Tobin has a right to come out for whomever he wants. However, if he plays up his ecclesiastical office in into politics like this, the RCChurch ought to defrock him, like it threatened to do with former Father and former Congressman Driscoll, and if it doesn’t carry out that duty, concerned RCs should be authorized to kick his behind so often and so hard that he will hightail it back to Rome where he belongs.

  • reformthesystem

    Several times since Pope Francis took over the Papacy he has spoken out on the side of economic issues that the US Republican Party opposes.

  • reformthesystem

    Most of the women that seek abortions are not RCs and, in the USA, they have the First Amendment liberty to believe what they want and accordingly do what they want with their own bodies; concomitantly, RCs that don’t like that have the right to demonstrate and vote for laws against it, but unless and until RCs become able to have the USA taken over by a Franciso Franco style dictatorship, they have no right to directly or indirectly interfere with other citizens’ privacy.

    The RC Church has all too often found itself on the side of repressive dictatorships that grossly violate human rights, including its silence about the Holocaust, and for that reason tries to stay out of politics. In accord with that, it should defrock Tobin and/or provide him with a job at the Vatican, out of harm’s way.

  • Ed Warnebald

    just became an atheist,

  • SimonTemplar

    Not all issues which play out in the political arena are strictly political. Many of them have obvious moral dimensions. Abortion and same-sex marriage (both mentioned by Schmalz) certainly have moral dimensions. I believe religious leaders have an obligation to speak about such issues.

    The left doesn’t mind at all when religious leaders speak for the Democrats. They openly celebrate the “nuns on the bus.” They love the Rev. Jessie Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

    How many religious leaders spoke at the last Democrat National Convention? Yes they love them when they support THEIR political agenda.

  • leibowde84

    Marriage = civil term
    Holy Matrimony = religious term

    In terms of same-sex marriage, only civil implications are at stake. Beyond those, you are speaking of “holy matrimony,” which, in no way, will be effected by “same-sex” marriage. Abortion is also a legal issue (as discussed in the political forum). It revolves around rights and the legal determination of when those rights exist. No matter what side of the issue you are on, it is imperative that you recognize that these are legal issues. The Government cannot be involved in any other aspect of legislation.

  • leibowde84

    Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage are legal issues, not moral ones. They must be decided by fact, law, and legal rights … never emotion.

  • leibowde84

    And, certainly never because of “God’s will” or desires. As human beings, we aren’t meant to understand the will or plan of God. We must act on our own terms for each other here on earth.

  • SimonTemplar

    The legal/civil side of the issue is well known. But even strictly civil issues can have ultimately moral consequences. My point is that there are moral dimensions to those issues to which I believe religious leaders and lay people alike have a right to speak.