Political, Not Partisan: The Church in the Public Square

By Vischer, Robert K. | Commonweal, December 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Political, Not Partisan: The Church in the Public Square


Vischer, Robert K., Commonweal


When is the Catholic Church being "political"? When is it being "too political"? During the recent election season, Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt mailed a DVD to every Catholic household in Minnesota, urging the enactment of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

The mailing, funded by an anonymous donor, arrived weeks before a gubernatorial election in which two of the three candidates supported same-sex marriage. Some of the ensuing criticism targeted the substance of the church's teaching on marriage or the decision to prioritize the marriage issue over other concerns. But another line of criticism took on the "political" nature of the DVD campaign. ABC News, for example, reported that advocacy by religious groups on the question of marriage had never "appeared so political."

The premise of such criticism is that the term "political," as applied to church teaching, is a pejorative--that if the church is, in fact, making political statements, it has overstepped its bounds. Consider the following exchange between a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and Archbishop Nienstedt regarding the DVDs:

  MPR: You also make a political statement at the end [of the video
  segment] that you feel that this issue should come before the voters
  of Minnesota.
  Nienstedt: Well, that's not so much a political statement as it is
  saying that, as other states have done, we need to bring this to the
  people, rather than have it decided by the judiciary or by the
  legislature. ... We need to let the people say what the reality of
  marriage is going to be. I don't see that as that big of a political
  statement.
  MPR: Let's hear that, if we could.
  Audio excerpt from DVD: "The archdiocese believes that the time has
  come for voters to be presented directly with an amendment to our
  state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of
  marriage. In fact, this is the only way to put the one-man,
  one-woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and
  politicians."
  MPR: Is that, in fact, a political statement?
  Nienstedt: I don't believe so, no. I think that's a reasonable,
  common-sense thing.
  MPR: And you're calling for something to be put to a vote. Isn't that
  a political action?
  Nienstedt: That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in
  the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense.

At first glance, Nienstedt's responses might seem either confused or disingenuous. What is clear is his strenuous effort to disavow the damning label of "political." To understand this effort, we need to know what "political" means in this context. I discern four basic possibilities.

First, and simplest, "political" could be meant in the legal sense. IRS regulations limit tax-exempt status to organizations that do "not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Nienstedt clearly did none of that in this case. Indeed, the archbishop avoids mentioning any names in his video segment. What he was advocating was a position, one based on church teaching; and the fact that church teaching on any given issue might overlap with only one current candidate for office--or no candidates, or many candidates--is irrelevant. To specifically endorse individual candidates, even apart from the potential legal dangers, carries treacherous implications for the church's prophetic voice. Even if the IRS had not foreclosed this option for churches (and there are good religious-liberty arguments why the IRS should not have), such focused and particular political advocacy would remain risky territory for churches In the United States. We have a hard enough time not letting our churches be defined by the surrounding culture, and bringing partisan politics into the pulpit would simply accelerate that trend. …

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