On Pulling Punches from the Pulpit

Casting broad generalizations about the state of American Catholicism is a hazardous business.  Yet from where I sit in the pew, pulpits are experiencing the phenomena of Sherlock Holmes’ hound that doesn’t bark.  More specifically, I am getting a sinking feeling that in this age of ideological political partisanship, bishops and priests are succumbing to excessive self-censorship and are failing to educate their parishioners on the fundamental tenets of the faith, and how politics can be informed by that faith.  As Pope Francis noted in a daily homily, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.”  Far too many bishops, priests, and deacons seem to shy away from homilies about how Catholicism can inform public policy debates.

Those of us who fill the pews each and every Sunday Mass and holy days of obligation are a minority of Catholics.  The Pew Forum recently surveyed and found that only about 24 percent of U.S. Catholics in 2012 attended weekly Mass, down from about 47 percent in 1974.  As one of the minority of Catholics who do attend weekly Mass with my family, over the past two years I cannot recall ever hearing a priest give a homily on “religious liberty,” “same-sex marriage,” or “abortion,” and rarely have I even heard a priest mention one of these “hot button” topics in passing.  Nor have I heard a pointed or passing rebuke of high profile American politicians who claim to be Catholic but who support public policies that violate Church teachings.

I hope my experience only reflects merely local or regional shortcomings and not a Church-wide phenomenon.  Given the beliefs of American Catholics on major ethical issues of the day, however, I suspect that it is illustrative of a national problem and failure.  Authoritative and expert polling from the Pew Forum paints a grim picture.  About half of American Catholics in 2012 support same-sex marriage, and half say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.  When so many Catholics hold beliefs in direct opposition to Church teachings on issues of grave sin, the teachers clearly are failing their parishioners.

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Some clergy might say that they “don’t want to be partisan” by taking sides in political debates.   The elephant lingering in the room here is that the Church cannot be seen as partisan or taking sides in political fights lest it jeopardize its “non-profit” and tax-exempt status in the United States.  A cynic might point out the added incentive to keep parishioners content with only “happy talk” and “feel good” homilies to keep weekly attendance and collections up.

But bishops and priests do have to take sides on issues just as they, and we laity, have to choose between Mammon and God.  They have a duty to warn us about same-sex marriage, for example, no matter how many gay or lesbian friends, colleagues, acquaintances we may have, or public personalities for whom we care about, whose company and council we enjoy, whose labor, expertise, and good works we respect and admire.  They have to argue head-on that the notion of a marriage between man and man or a woman and a woman does not make any sense through reason or faith.

God and Natural Law will not change no matter how many legislatures—state or federal—pass laws saying that they do.  If bishops and priests run away from their duty to educate from the pulpit, legislatures will just keep steamrolling God-fearing citizens with laws that in essence say that marriage can be anything and everything.  As the nuclear family falls apart so too does the societal foundations of our nation-state.  Bishops and priests have the responsibility to teach their parishioners that we all have a Christian responsibility to speak out in opposition to the fashionable teachings of our secular elites that threaten our civil liberties and challenge our religious values. If we do not resist, the time will come, if it is not already here, when anyone who voices public opposition or even disbelieve of “same-sex marriage” will be found guilty of a “hate crime.”

There are clergy who allow partisan politics to excessively and dangerously circumscribe what they teach their flock.  It can no longer be said that the Catholic Church is the Democratic Party at prayer. The growing divisions between the Church and the Democratic Party should stir Church leaders into action rather than silence. The mere fact that Church agencies continue to receive government funds and contracts even during the Obama Administration is no justification for acquiescence. The Democratic Party has taken same-sex marriage and abortion as core issues of its political agenda and barely hides its disdain and contempt of those who oppose these positions for religious reasons.  Many bishops and priests are slow to recognize the deep chasm that separates Catholicism from the contemporary Democratic Party.

Homilists should imitate the frankness and simplicity of the greatest saints. These great saints, moreover, may have moved in elite political circles of their times, but were certainly not of the elite.  Today’s bishops or even cardinals sitting down at tables to break bread with those opposed to Church teachings is certainly consistent with Christ in the Gospels speaking with Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and women of ill repute.  But when today’s Church leaders publicly cooperate with so-called Catholic politicians—and refrain from any type of public rebuke much less withhold the sacraments from them—they sew confusion among their flock.

There is a reason why Christ in the Gospels refers to us as sheep.  Sheep are lovely animals, but they are not very cleaver and neither are we.  We need to be taught and taught repeatedly lest we wander off from the flock, which by no accident Catholics are doing in droves today.  Even for those who stay “Catholic” they obviously do not know or fully accept the faith when they gush with admiration for President Obama.  One recalls the spectacle of hero worship for President Obama when he received an honorary degree from the nation’s premier Catholic university Notre Dame in 2009, save for a small heroic few who demonstrated against the president being honored.  Faithful Catholics would refuse to honor and admire the first siting president to make a public speech to Planned Parenthood and have the audacity at the end of his speech to ask God to bless the organization.

Clergy do not serve the faith courageously when they refuse to give their flock concrete and specific examples of politicians and policies that oppose Church teachings. Some cardinals, bishops, and priests, to be sure, speak out against such politicians but an effective defense requires a united and consistent effort by the entire Church. If the sheep wander from the flock and endanger others by enticing them to do likewise, good shepherds have the obligation to correct the wandering sheep.

Critiques of Democratic politicians can be balanced with sharp rebukes of Republican Catholics.  Republican New Jersey governor, and presidential hopeful, Chris Christie, for example appears to be leaning in the same direction as Democrats on social issues by publicly declaring that homosexuality is not a sin.  Paul Ryan too positioned himself as gay-friendly during and after the presidential election of 2012. Many Republicans—including Catholic ones—are likely to go this politically attractive route too as the Republican Party is increasingly characterized as extremist by the press due to the maneuverings of its Tea Party faction.

If bishops and priests continue to “pull their punches” in their homilies and public statements, the sheep will simply go on their merry way believing that all is well in the Republic, that religious liberty is not under attack because it is enshrined in our Constitution, and that there is no moral objection to supporting politicians who promote public policies contrary to the faith.  The 50 percent of American Catholics who voted for President Obama in 2012 can go right on adoring him and like-minded Democrats because they never hear anyone telling them during Sunday Mass that their policies are in direct opposition to Catholicism. After years of failed catechesis, many of these Catholics no longer even attend Mass and are thus less likely to receive the Church’s message. To help reverse this disastrous spiral of ecclesiastical decline, Church leaders must teach forthrightly and in full the Gospel message to those Catholic citizens who are still willing to listen.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Sermon on the Mount” painted by Henrik Olrik.


  • Richard L. Russell

    Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

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