It is almost a truism to say that America is increasingly divided along partisan lines. In 2016, nearly a majority of Democrats and Republicans claimed to be afraid of the other party’s victory in the election. Parents are more afraid of their child dating and marrying a person of the opposite party than of a different race, religion, or ethnicity. In his new book Them, Senator Ben Sasse (NE-R) links this to another well-known phenomena: the break-down of local communities, nuclear families, and friendships. He claims that increasingly, people try to fill this void with politics and tribalism.
With election season upon us, it is necessary to reflect on the role of the Church in a politically polarized nation. If Senator Sasse is correct, and I believe he broadly is, then the Church must be at the center of rebuilding local communities. In this, the Church has a unique advantage in the model of the territorial parish. The norm, which is eroding, that you attend your local parish, forces people to worship next to people with differing political beliefs. Losing the election to Fred, your neighbor who can’t sing the Sanctus on key, is a lot less scary than losing to the specter of far-leftism or far-rightism. It is a sign of the times that when asked to identify a member of the opposite party, people quickly think of an extreme ideologue in party leadership, not one of their neighbors. The parish can serve as a place of real community, with person-to-person interactions taking the place of political tribes.
But the Church must navigate the treacherous political waters carefully. It is precisely those people who are in most need of assistance who are the most acute to the modern political climate. Seemingly innocent phrases, like “America is a country of immigrants” or “America is the land of opportunity” can quickly signal which “side” you belong to. The unsuspecting pastor will find that he has alienated a significant number of parishioners. Sometimes, such as when speaking of the inherent dignity of the unborn or refugees, this is a price that must be paid. But it is terrible to think that souls are driven from the Church on the false belief that she is merely a tool in the country’s political brawl. While I believe the numbers are inflated, many of the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation) when polled, insist that organized religions are overly political, keeping them away.
This is not some call to “get the Church out of politics” or for “separation of Church and state.” It is a call for priests and seminaries to follow the guidelines of Vatican II. The job of engaging in day-to-day politics is reserved to the laity. If the Church has not spoken authoritatively on an issue, it is not the place of the priest to be a public activist. The clergy ought to avoid being partisan. What the Church doesn’t say can speak as loudly as what she does. It is not our place to impose belief requirements which the Church has not deemed fitting, even if they align with our political preferences. Our public actions and words must reflect this.