Clericalism and the Campaign

Barack Obama, Father Pfleger, and the bishop

“No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist,” said Pope Pius XI in 1931. Were he alive today, he might have substituted in the word “Democrat.” One can be a good Catholic and a bad Democrat, or a bad Catholic and a good Democrat, but, given the party’s embrace of a secularist moral agenda flatly at odds with Church teaching, it is impossible to excel at both.

This isn’t to say that the Republican party’s own moral drift and ambiguity aren’t cause for concern, and should it ever incorporate the same anti-life, anti-family positions into its platform, a Pius XI-style formulation would fall on it as well.

But at the moment believing Catholics are more likely to witness the scandal of priests and religious supporting pro-abortion Democratic politicians. And it leaves them perplexed: how can this keep happening if what the Church teaches about the natural law is true?

Usually, the explanation is that these religious relativize authentic Catholic moral teaching while dogmatizing their own personal political opinions. This form of clericalism produces a curious anomaly: dissenters brooking little or no dissent about matters on which reasonable Catholics can disagree, even as they treat binding truths crucial to the common good as debatable.

Hungry for Catholic votes, proabortion Democratic politicians have encouraged this confusion, and Barack Obama hopes to exploit it all the way to the White House. Toward this end, he has formed a Catholic advisory committee. National co-chairs of his committee include Sr. Jamie Phelps, OP, professor of theology at Xavier University, and Sr. Catherine Pinkerton with the Congregation of St. Joseph.

In late May, however, left-wing Catholic clericalism at least temporarily caught up with Obama and damaged his political standing. In a primary contest rich in ironic footnotes, it was a liberal Catholic priest, not a Protestant minister, who finally forced Obama to end his association with the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Father Michael Pfleger, known as a Chicago priest-activist, gave a visiting Sunday sermon at Obama’s church that was so ludicrous and intemperate even the famously indulgent candidate couldn’t overlook it. Perhaps if Father Pfleger had accused a Republican of racism in his sermon, he might have gotten away with it. But instead he targeted Hillary Clinton and her supposed racist disappointment with Obama’s success: “She just always thought that, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white.’ . . . And then, out of nowhere, came ‘Hey, I’m Barack Obama.’ And she said, ‘Oh damn, where did you come from? I’m white. I’m entitled. There’s a black man stealing my show.’”

Father Pfleger ’s antics, captured on tape and disseminated across the Internet, embarrassed Obama just as the furor over the inflammatory speeches of his old pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had begun to die down. Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” by Father Pfleger’s sermon and he shortly thereafter publicly quit Trinity United Church.

Whether this farce marks the terminus of decades of left-wing Catholic clericalism, or if we will see new instances of it over the coming months, are open questions. But this much is clear: under the sober, spiritually serious leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the American Catholic Church has an opportunity to avoid such follies and grow more disciplined in its approach to politics.

To keep politicians, both Democrat and Republican, honest, the American bishops cannot continue to waste their authority on a grab-bag of political opinions, but must follow Pope Benedict’s example of focusing on those truths rooted in reality that are, as he puts it, “not negotiable.”

What Pope Benedict said to European politicians and bishops in 2006 applies with equal force and relevance to their American counterparts: “As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable.”

He spelled out those non-negotiable principles:

• “protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death”;

• “recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family— as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage—and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role”;

• “the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.”

He noted that these principles, though buttressed by faith, are truths of the natural law, “inscribed in human nature itself and therefore . . . common to all humanity.”

Left-wing clericalism leaves many Americans with the impression that everything the American bishops introduce into public life is nothing more than an opinion. But as the Pope points out, the Church’s defense of the natural law rests on reason and therefore her interventions in politics represent not just one more dubious opinion amidst the clamor of democracy, but truths “addressed to all people, prescinding from any religious affiliation they may have.”

The irony of post-Vatican II clericalism is that it aimed to speak to the “whole world” at the very moment its proponents were squandering the only authority that makes that possible. Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI, the American bishops now have a chance to get it back.


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