Thomas Reese on Four Catholic Solutions to Toxic Politics

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The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


As the only major denomination with almost equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, the Catholic Church is in a unique position to respond to today’s toxic politics.

According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, “roughly equal shares of Catholic registered voters have identified with or leaned toward the Democratic and Republican parties in recent years (47% vs. 46%, respectively).”

Granted, the church itself is racked by division and scandal and may not appear to be the best solution to America’s political conflicts. On the other hand, the church teaches that there is strength in weakness, especially if this weakness teaches the church humility. In addition, the best way to overcome divisions in the church may be to join hands in healing divisions in the nation.

There are at least four possible Catholic strategies that could help reduce the country’s divisions.

The first is educate both Catholics and others about Catholic social teaching, something that Catholic universities have tried to do for decades. Catholic social teaching does not fit easily into either political party’s platform. Democrats oppose its teaching on abortion, while Republicans denigrate the role it gives to the state in responding to social and economic problems. Anyone who accepts all Catholic social teaching is not fully at home in either party; both Catholic Republicans and Democrats will be challenged by it.

Catholic social teaching also has the advantage that it is normally stated in general terms of values, principles and goals, not specific programs. It leaves open for debate the best way of reaching these goals, which is the job of experts and politicians to determine. This lack of specificity allows for flexibility and getting to solutions through negotiations and compromise.

For many years, the totality of Catholic social teaching has been the focus of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ political strategy. For Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, advocating for a “consistent ethic of life,” colloquially known as the “seamless garment,” meant protecting life from the womb to the tomb. Thus, he was concerned about the care of mothers and children after birth through health care, day care, education and jobs as well as ending abortion.

This was also the approach the U.S. bishops took every four years in their “Faithful Citizenship” statement, issued in the year before presidential elections and sometimes cited, albeit selectively, by candidates and elected officials.

On the other hand, Catholic social teaching has often been referred to as the church’s best kept secret. Sen. John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004, admitted to me that he had not even heard of “Faithful Citizenship” until after the election.

The chance of using “Faithful Citizenship” as a unifying document suffered a serious blow at the U.S. bishops’ Baltimore meeting last November, when they voted to single out abortion as the “preeminent” political issue for Catholics. Democrats will see this as a tilt toward the Republican Party. But most of the rest of the document is in tune with the Democrats’ agenda, which has traditionally made them sympathetic to the statement.

As an alternative to “Faithful Citizenship,” the church could attempt to build unity around the social teaching of Pope Francis, whom most Catholics admire and like, and who has struck a deep chord outside the church as well. However, partisanship has even infected Catholics’ attitudes toward the pope and his teaching —  55% of Catholic Republicans see Francis as too liberal, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 37 percent of Catholic Republicans believe that Pope Francis represents a major change for the better, as compared to 71 percent of Catholic Democrats.

Clearly, the days are gone when debate could be ended by simply saying, “The church teaches … ” It is hard enough to get people even to listen. But getting people to accept the church’s teachings has always been an uphill battle; the church should not stop proclaiming Catholic social teaching simply because it is difficult.

A second way to capitalize on the church’s bipartisan split is to bring its Democrats and Republicans together to talk about their differences.

Catholic Republicans and Democrats are just as divided on issues such as global warming, immigration and aid to the poor as Americans as a whole. But the church has decades of experience with ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, and perhaps similar processes could be used to bridge the divide between Catholics in different parties.

How to keep these meetings from descending into shouting matches would be a major challenge. Skilled moderators would be necessary. The average pastor would not want to host a political brawl in the parish hall. Seminarians and pastors need to be trained to foster conversation and dialogue among Catholics on both church and political issues. This is easier if the pastor approaches these situations without the attitude that “Father knows best.” Again, just because it is difficult, does not mean the church should not try.

Otherwise, as the old saw goes, “You will know that they are Christians by their love, but you will know they are Catholics by their fights.”

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Source: Religion News Service