Church Politics

I like this Pete Wehner post on church involvement in politics. On the one hand he highlights the important message of VA AG Ken Cuccinelli, explaining to religious leaders that they have First Amendment rights and "separation of Church & state" is a limitation on the federal government, not on churches:
Cuccinelli assured the pastors, though, that speaking out on political issues is not only legal, but appropriate.
“When you became a pastor, you didn’t leave your First Amendment rights at the door,” he said. “Continue to be good shepherds to your congregations – and don’t be afraid when your shepherding includes giving guidance on issues that fall in the political world, because those are the same issues your congregants face each day in their world. Let your voice be heard. Speak out and guide your flock toward what is right and what is true.”
Wehner goes on to make a point I have sometimes wished our bishops --and sometimes even folks in the Vatican--would consider more carefully.
what individual ministers have to determine is not simply what their rights are but how to wisely exercise them. It’s not as easy as it may seem.
Over the years, for example, liberal and conservative churches and their pastors have damaged their credibility by taking stands on issues to which they brought no special competence or insight. In addition, there is a strong temptation to simplistically connect the dots between moral principles and particular public policies. Most issues, however, involve prudential judgment about which honorable people can disagree. And even on matters on which pastors may believe a biblical principle is clear, it’s not self-evident what the proper course of political action might be.
That's excellent as well. There is an obligation, when we speak in the name of religion, to avoid making dogmas out of prudential opinions. The Church Left does have a point when it complains about "creeping Magisterium," even if it is the usual wielder of that particular cudgel. It's wrong when the Left talks as if federal programs were the only possible means of fulfilling "preferential option for the poor," and it's wrong to use "the pope says so" in the same way fundamentalists use single Bible verses as "proof texts." I like the way B16 put in his recent address to Caritas International
In the political sphere - and in all those areas directly affecting the lives of the poor - the faithful, especially the laity, enjoy broad freedom of activity. No one can claim to speak “officially” in the name of the entire lay faithful, or of all Catholics, in matters freely open to discussion (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 43; 88). On the other hand, all Catholics, and indeed all men and women, are called to act with purified consciences and generous hearts in resolutely promoting those values which I have often referred to as “non-negotiable.”
[The "non-negotiables" for Catholics are the right to life from conception until natural death; marriage betwen one man and one woman; and the right of parents to educate their children. All other political matters are subject to debate.]

I have heard sermons (not recently, I must say; this was more prevalent in my neck of the woods 10 or 15 years ago) in which it was clear the preacher had no idea what he was talking about....simply had the facts of the issue wrong. You have an obligation to have your facts straight and to have some mastery of the issue if you expect to oblige people in conscience.

I have also read countless op-eds in Catholic periodicals which defended the Church's opinion with completely specious reasoning and unjust accusations against those who disagreed....which is a good way to actually encourage dissent. If you insist, wrongly, that a matter is not open to debate and a man cannot in conscience accept your argument, you are only teaching him that he can't trust Church teaching.

Furthermore, it's an old principle of good governance that you shouldn't needlessly multiply laws. No one can follow everything, and too many statutes leads to people picking and choosing what's important to follow. A priest or pastor might be a political genius, but if he issues a comment on every bloody issue, he lessens the impact of his preaching on truly important matters. (Does anyone pay attention to various pronouncements from the different Vatican & USCCB committees? Perhaps if there were fewer of them.....) It's wise for pastors to hold their fire on most political questions and let the laity handle things: having the expertise and being in the thick of things, they're generally better at it anyway, and constant pastoral intervention actually usurps their legitimate role, as Benedict XVI has been at pains to point out over and over again.

Finally, as Wehner points out, people live in the City of Man all week long and generally go to Church to encounter God. You will lose them if it's all politics all the time.

Still: where politics crosses into moral matters, pastors can have at, freely, and without being bullied about their tax exempt status or lectured about imposing their values on others.