When clerics join the political fray

Word reached us of a Catholic priest in a parish in Florida who exhorted the congregation at Sunday mass recently to register to vote, but that they should absolutely not vote for President Obama. This was after he reportedly railed against the Obama administration being supportive of abortion and being indifferent to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

One courageous parishioner, it was reported, voiced his displeasure over such barefaced anti-Obama campaigning from the pulpit, in defiance of the separation of church and state doctrine, and promptly walked out with his family.

A diocesan spokesperson confirmed that this had indeed taken place, but explained that the priest, who happened to be subbing for the pastor who was away, had embarked on that heavy-duty politicking totally on his own. His remarks, the spokesperson explained, were contrary to church policy guidelines, and this was reaffirmed to the errant priest by the pastor upon his return. The pastor also indicated that he would be meeting with the parishioner and his family who had taken offense to the remarks made.

All things considered, this was maybe as good an outcome as could be expected after the inability of one man of the cloth to refrain from stepping over the propriety line. That priest, though, is certainly not alone, as we well know, in such public demonstrations of rigid opposition to anything declared to be running afoul of church dogma. Earlier this year the Obama administration’s mandate that women employed in Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions were entitled to the same coverage for contraceptive services in their health insurance as were other women, drew a firestorm from the Catholic establishment — an unyielding resistance that even nixed an Obama compromise where that coverage would not be provided by the institution but by the insurer. It was an accommodation seen as reasonable by some, who apparently were told by the high command to get with the program and remain included with a solid frontal assault.

They may not have campaigned from the pulpit for or against specific candidates, as did the (we dare hope) chagrined fellow in Florida, but there certainly has been a profound message sent when certain bishops have refused communion to elected officials known to be of a pro-choice persuasion. The demonizing of pro-choice by the likes of the clergy has to be paradox writ large. In that, a woman’s right to choose is the law of the land, has been since 1973. Back then, the nation’s highest court ruled that a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy was entitled to the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. There may be lots of folks, perhaps even including conservatives on the current high court, very anxious to erase Roe v Wade from the books. But until their efforts succeed, if ever, what does this make of those who attempt to demonize upholders of the law? And, pray tell, how is this different from school districts not too thrilled about another historic decision when it came down, trying to maneuver around Brown v Board of Education?

But on the matter of maneuvering, let’s not pretend that the reported incidence here of bashing of Obama, served up sermon style, doesn’t have special significance, happening as it did in the good old state of Florida. Major battleground that it is, one could just hear the sound of high fives and clicking of heels in the Republican camp when news hits of a cleric, whether or not sanctioned by higher-ups, turns some no-holds-barred fury in the president’s direction. Echoes here, perhaps, of the role played by the vaunted faith-based initiatives when George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004. And with a common denominator to boot. You really can’t be surprised if it turns out that the fingerprints of the infamous Karl Rove and his truckloads of superPAC money are in the mix here someplace. We’re hearing incessantly about the extremely tight presidential race that Florida is shaping up to be – a race Obama won by two percentage points four years ago. From a Democratic perspective things could get even more dicey should Mitt Romney reach out to Marco Rubio as a running mate.

Social conservatives are a given, as far as the political sway held in that sector by men of the cloth. What influence the clergy may have with independent voters – even clergy that doesn’t behave as eye-popping bonkers as was done in this instance — could be a pivotal factor come November.

And the president has given campaign fodder to that element which condemns irredeemably anyone making even the most modest embrace of behavior unacceptable to their faith. The aforementioned coverage for contraceptive services was one of two raw meat packages tossed the way of the social conservative set this election year, the other being Obama’s announced support of same-sex marriage. With that much to work with, pastoral types may not need to go overboard to get the flocks revved up, although the scoop on the incident at that church in Florida is that the priest was greeted with lusty applause from the majority of the congregation when he dissed Obama in his spiel. Other collared guys may be thinking they’re already equipped with what it takes to get the faithful up and marching in lock step.