Keep the church out of politics

God hasn't signed on to any party roster, but you can't fault the Democrats or Republicans.

Both parties strive to say they represent religion, and each one heralds the aspects of Catholicism it holds most dear. The Republicans claim to be pro-life, as they define the issue. The Democrats claim to be in touch with church social teaching.

Church involvement in partisan politics is a bad idea. James Joyce famously defined the Catholic Church as, “Here comes everybody.” When the church aligns itself with one party, it automatically cuts Joyce's crowd in half.

A religious house should be a refuge, where one can step away from political madness in search of peace. Church leaders need to help people develop their consciences so they can make good decisions, and to encourage public servants to be men and women of moral courage. They can't do that if they turn half of them off.

That does not mean church leaders should shrink from speaking the truth found in Scripture and church teaching. But taking sides in a partisan conflict often does more to obscure truth than reveal it.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document they approved nearly unanimously last year, state clearly that church leaders are to avoid endorsing or approving candidates or telling people how to vote.

Recent developments show why.

A pastor is supposed to offer comfort, a calm oasis on stormy seas. In the case of Sen. Barack Obama, fiery pastors drove him to resign from his church and to promise not to align himself with a church again until January, if then. This marked a sad moment for religion in this country.

One of my favorite tales is from John F. Kennedy lore. The candidate was visiting a Catholic church when someone reminded him of an Irish tradition: A person has three wishes on a first visit to a church. Shortly afterwards, as Kennedy walked down the aisle, aides heard him pray: “New York, Pennsylvania, Texas.”

It's a funny story, yet one that shows an important role for religion: to offer comfort and hope.

When a church leader aligns himself with partisan politics, he becomes one more rancorous voice in the crowd instead of a voice of wisdom above it.

Politics by its very nature is an institution of compromise; the church by its nature holds that there are certain absolutes. There will always be a divide between them.

Church leaders must live so that both a Democrat and a Republican would feel free to seek them out.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.