Tuesday, November 30, 2010
In the new Commonweal, I weigh in on the controversy surrounding Archbishop Nienstedt's DVDs opposing same-sex marriage, using the episode to draw some tentative lessons about what critics might mean when they accuse the bishops of being "too political." After exploring three other possible meanings of "political" in this context, I address the partisanship charge:
“[P]olitical” as a pejorative may suggest that the bishops have become partisan—that they are not just overreaching, but doing so in a way that reflects their capture by a particular ideological camp or political party. Now, a single DVD does not necessarily constitute evidence of partisanship, and so such a criticism would need to assess the entirety of the bishops’ (or a particular bishop’s) political advocacy. The accusation of partisanship cannot justly be based on a single issue to which the church has given its voice unless that voice is accompanied by a noticeable silence on other issues encompassed by church teaching. Of course, if the bishops believe that we are at a crucial point of social change on same-sex marriage, they may consider their advocacy on this issue particularly urgent.
Yet while one policy issue might be more pressing than others in a given election cycle, keeping the entirety of church social teaching before the public is always a pressing need. The danger exists that the power of advocacy will be weakened by perceptions of partisanship—by the sense, that is, that the underlying goal is to influence a particular election in favor of a particular candidate, rather than to bear witness to the full weight of the church’s social teaching, which defies simplistic political categories. When an election rolls around, we know where labor unions will line up, and we know where the Chamber of Commerce will line up; if voters begin to tune out the bishops’ statements for the same reasons, we have a problem.
I welcome feedback, but it would be most helpful if you read the whole thing before you give me your reaction.