Rev. Thomas Reese Asks: Will the American Catholic Church Self-Destruct or Bridge the Partisan Divide?

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The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at Religion News Service. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

American Catholics are almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, which means the church can either self-destruct or bridge the partisan divide.

Most other religious traditions in America are on one or the other side of the political divide. Most white evangelicals and Mormons vote Republican; most Jews, Muslims and black Protestants vote Democratic.

Catholics are more evenly divided.

Depending on which poll you look at, the difference between the Democratic and Republican vote among Catholics in the 2016 presidential election was 3 to 4 percentage points.

In other close presidential elections, the Catholic split was likewise close.

When it comes to party identification, Catholics are split, with 37% identifying as Republican and 44% identifying as Democratic. Only a few smaller churches are so closely divided. Catholics also have one of the largest percentages of independents (19%) among faith groups.

The large number of independent Catholics makes them a favorite target of political strategists fighting for their votes. But the large number of Catholics from both parties makes it possible that partisan bickering could blow up the church.

The involvement of clergy in politics exacerbates the problem. Although Catholic clergy have avoided endorsing parties or candidates, they have taken positions on controversial topics that can upset their congregations.

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a teaching document about faith and politics, the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken positions on a number of issues while trying to avoid partisanship.

That is harder to do in a diocese or parish.

If a bishop or priest preaches on abortion, he alienates Democrats. If he preaches on the plight of refugees and migrants, he alienates Republicans. Exercising a prophetic ministry is very challenging in a politically divided community.

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Source: Religion News Service