Alibi V.13 No.27 • July 1-7, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Mixing Religion and Politics Gives Me a Hangover

I don't belong to an organized religion; I'm a Roman Catholic. That's a paraphrase of Will Rogers' great line, except he was talking about being a Democrat. Lately I've been thinking about Democrats and Catholics a great deal. The two go together a lot more smoothly than some pundits would have you think, despite the White House's efforts to pretend they don't.

I suppose it might seem strange to some readers to hear Catholicism described as "unorganized" since it has from medieval days carefully cultivated the image of being incredibly structured, formalized and prepared.

I mean, we grew up being told the Church had the answer for every question worked out centuries before you could even formulate the query. This is a religion, after all, which has entire generations of libraries written on theology, morality, hermeneutics, homiletics and epistemology. (Note: I have no idea what those last three items are all about. However, if your religion has them, it's gotta be a clear sign that yours must be a highly structured body of religious thought and practice, right?)

Compared to many religious traditions, Catholicism may look very structured, especially to those who have only been superficially exposed to its multiple layers of belief. Yet, on my way to work the other morning, I passed a small gathering of older men demonstrating against abortion outside of the Planned Parenthood building on San Mateo and on the way home, a second cluster of young men and women demonstrating against the occupation of Iraq outside the Truman Gate to Kirtland.

It would be reasonable to assume that each group would have a Catholic in its membership. If so, each groups' Catholics would be firmly standing on two well established but very distinct foundational traditions within Catholicism.

It is actually a very big tent, this Roman Catholicism, with room beneath its banners at the same time for ideological opposites like Dorothy Day and Phyllis Schlafley. So when you hear anyone (even someone wearing a bright red cloak) suggest that "All Catholics must agree that ..." or, "If you want to call yourself a Catholic, then you have to think ..." please take it with a grain of salt.

There are good, devout, fervent Catholics who can be found at every point on the political, sociological and theological compasses. While it is often tempting to describe those standing on the 359 points other than my own particular foothold as (pick one) heretical, wishy-washy, fallen away, irreligious, protestant or the antichrist, in fact, we are all, by our own choice, Catholics.

Drawing tight membership or doctrinal purity circles around pieces of our tradition has led to some of the more unfortunate chapters in our history, episodes we may never satisfactorily live down: the Inquisition; the Crusades; the forced baptism of indigenous people in the New World, Africa, Asia and Australia. The list is lengthy, revealing and depressing.

I thought we might have matured past that fascination with defining who gets to be inside and who has to be outside the membership circle. And then Archbishop Burke of St. Louis and Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs jolted me back to Earth with their widely-publicized opinions about withholding participation in Holy Communion from Catholic politicians who vote pro-choice (Burke) and from Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians (Sheridan).

Luckily the vast majority (97 percent) of the American bishops rejected the views of that pair. Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe sensibly said, "We need to be very careful to keep the reception of Holy Communion separate from politics." His position recognized that speaking out strongly on social issues can be done without endorsing one particular party or one particular candidate.

A friend from New Orleans sent me a tongue-in-cheek letter suggesting that all priests should withhold Holy Communion from everyone who votes in the November presidential election since Bush is pro-death penalty and Kerry is pro-choice and the Church's current leadership is quite definitely aligned in opposition to each of those positions.

What confuses many in the secular press about Catholicism is the seeming absolutism with which many Church teachings are put forth: no unbaptized souls in heaven; missing Sunday mass is always a mortal sin; killing another is never allowed, etc.

I ascribe this seeming intransigence to the language chosen for the elementary school catechism books that first introduced us to Church teaching. In fact that language was deliberately made up largely of absolutes because that's what preteens can handle. The sad part of the recent tempest in a teapot over Catholicism and democracy is that to the press it seemed to reinforce that mindless conformity of grade school religious education texts.

It was even sadder, however, to discover that there were still one or two Bishops out there whose thinking had never advanced beyond that stage, either. Mixing religion and politics is a long-standing American tradition, one practiced by New England Deists, black preachers and Catholic bishops, among others. It doesn't have to produce the symptoms of a hangover that this episode did. Let's all just take a deep breath and calm down. The last thing we need is another Inquisition.