Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests

Synopsis

For well over a century the Catholic Church has articulated clear positions on many issues of public concern, particularly economics, capital punishment, foreign affairs, sexual morality, and abortion. Yet the fact that some of the Church's positions do not mesh well with the platforms of either of the two major political parties in the U. S. may make it difficult for Americans to look to Catholic doctrine for political guidance. Scholars of religion and politics have long recognized the potential for clergy to play an important role in shaping the voting decisions and political attitudes of their congregations, yet these assumptions of political influence have gone largely untested and undemonstrated.

Politics in the Parish is the first empirical examination of the role Catholic clergy play in shaping the political views of their congregations. Gregory Allen Smith draws from recent scholarship on political communication, and the comprehensive Notre Dame Study of Parish Life, as well as case studies he conducted in nine parishes in the mid-Atlantic region, to investigate the extent to which and the circumstances under which Catholic priests are influential in shaping the politics of their parishioners.

Smith is able to verify that clergy do exercise political influence, but he makes clear that such influence is likely to be nuanced, limited in magnitude, and exercised indirectly by shaping parishioner religious attitudes that in turn affect political behavior. He shows that the messages that priests deliver vary widely, even radically, from parish to parish and priest to priest. Consequently, he warns that scholars should exercise caution when making any global assumptions about the political influence that Catholic clergy affect upon their congregations.