Keeping Politics Outof Church?

Richard M. Doerflinger

January 18, 2013

Soon parishes throughout the country will distribute postcards to help Catholics communicate with their elected representatives in Congress. This Project Life and Liberty campaign will encourage Congress to make sure that taxpayers are not forced to subsidize abortion, and that Catholic (and other) individuals and institutions are not forced to violate their moral and religious convictions when they provide or purchase health care.

The bishops of the United States have seen a need to sponsor this kind of campaign in times of urgent necessity before. Events provoking this campaign include a federal mandate forcing even many Catholic institutions to include female sterilization as well as contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices in their health plans, and new trends that force Catholic agencies and health care professionals to either stop serving the needy, or start violating their conscientious respect for human life.

As in the past, some pastors and parishioners may react to this invitation with discomfort, saying that "politics should be kept out of church."

The concern carries a grain of truth.The Church must not let itself be swallowed up in partisan politics. At election time, Catholic dioceses urge their parishes not to distribute "voter scorecards" from outside groups trying to garner votes for or against a candidate. And on many policy issues, the Church does not claim to have one settled position or to be an expert on the details.

Yet many policy debates give us an opportunity to transcend mere "politics," to raise up the moral principles that should help guide those debates to resolution. For example, the bishops support an electronic postcard campaign that urges Congress to take up comprehensive immigration reform, and offers basic priorities on just and compassionate treatment of immigrant families (

The issues of religious freedom and conscience rights present an added dimension. Here we are not talking about the Church injecting itself into the political sphere. Rather, political forces have injected themselves into the lives of Catholics and Church organizations, substituting their own secular ideology for the Church's values. Some will say the Church should leave politics alone and concentrate on teaching the Catechism and serving the needy – but what if a political initiative says the Church may not follow the Catechism, even in its own institutions? What if it says a Church agency may not serve needy people regardless of those people's faith, because then it will not be "religious enough" to be exempt from a mandate to provide morally objectionable drugs and procedures? What if it says your neighbor, a devoted Catholic nurse, has no right to her livelihood because she will not help perform abortions? At that point we must resist, or we will have nowhere to go with our faith except the hidden recesses of our own minds. "Politics" of an especially intolerant kind will take over everything else.

Jesus said: "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." At his October 2011 Mass dedicated to the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict recalled a comment on this text by an anonymous early Christian: "Caesar's coin is gold, God's coin is humanity…. Therefore give your riches to Caesar but keep for God the unique innocence of your conscience, where God is contemplated." Every once in a while, we may have to remind Caesar that we don't owe him our souls.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more about Project Life and Liberty see