Elections and the Catholic Church

Drawing lines between religion, politics

Within the last month, we witnessed the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., and the Democratic in Charlotte, N.C. This November's election presents one of the most highly

Within the last month, we witnessed the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., and the Democratic in Charlotte, N.C. This November’s election presents one of the most highly charged campaigns of the past century. And the Catholic Church is highly visible.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, sometimes dubbed “the American pope” in the press, offered the closing prayer at both conventions — after taking criticism for first accepting an invitation to the Republican convention before he was later invited to do the same for the Democrats.

Cardinal Dolan was also criticized for inviting President Obama to the Oct. 18 Al Smith Dinner, an annual fund-raiser for his archdiocese. He also, as is the custom in election years, invited the other presidential candidate, Gov. Mitt Romney. That invitation drew little or no criticism.

For the first time in U.S. history, two Catholics are vying for vice president: Joe Biden and Paul Ryan of Janesville, Wis. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Ryan’s bishop, entered the public arena in August with a letter of support for Ryan as a Catholic. (The Compass, Aug. 31, 2012).

This summer a national Fortnight for Freedom, called for by the U.S. bishops, offered prayer, fasting and sacrifice to highlight the issue of religious freedom.

Drawing lines between religion and politics is never easy. While Catholics have joined mainstream public life — witness Catholics on both political tickets — not long ago U.S. Catholics were outcasts. In fact, anti-Catholicism in the 1850s had its own political party — the Know Nothings (Native American Party of 1845, which later became the American Party). Members were accused of violence against Catholic immigrants and clergy, and destruction of Catholic monuments and churches.

The custom of displaying the national flag in church — uncommon outside the U.S. — had its origins largely in an effort to counter such anti-Catholicism of the 19th century, as well as during both World Wars.

Questions about displaying the flag in church still arise — especially at summer holidays and in election years. (The norm is to avoid it, due to mixed messages about religion and patriotism.) However, a new twist appeared often during the Fortnight for Freedom: “the patriotic rosary.”

Developed in 1995 by a “friend of Medjugorje,” this devotion prays for the conversion of the U.S. and its leaders, and everyone in all 50 states — prayed for alphabetically with the rosary’s decades. Scripture readings — the backbone of a traditional rosary — are replaced by quotes from George Washington, John Adams, Robert E. Lee and two lesser known U.S. historic figures. Marian hymns — Mary is the heart of the rosary — are replaced by songs such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The patriotic rosary does use the “Hail Mary” and other rosary prayers, and pleads for Jesus’ aid. However, unlike a traditional rosary, it lacks a clear Christological focus. Rather, it seems as it is named: “patriotic.” It reflects the perennial dilemma of practicing our faith in public places, and whether that should combine religious symbols with political ones. Praying for our country is our clear-cut duty as Christians. Adapting a centuries-old devotion — focused on Christ through Mary — into a patriotic practice blurs the lines of duty.

As Catholics, our faith in Christ is the center of life; following Christ should influence all that we do — including our political lives. As Vatican II noted, the laity have a special role in bringing faith into modern society. Cardinal Dolan wrote in his Aug. 14, 2012, blog that “… the posture of the church towards culture, society and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one.”

This is what the cardinal sought to do in Tampa and Charlotte. No easy task. And Catholics must always remember that “opening a door” does not mean compromising, confusing or adulterating our faith traditions. This applies to flags in church, red, white and blue rosaries, and how any Catholic, especially in public arenas, interacts with candidates and political issues during an election year.