(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.