Keep the political messages away from the pulpit

Well, I suppose it was inevitable–this weekend I joined the many Catholics around the country who have received a lecture on the HHS mandate during Mass.

Thumbing through the bulletin before Mass began I noticed a copy of the latest release from the bishops’ conference on the mandate, which didn’t seem out of place. But I was caught off guard when, during the celebration of the liturgy, I heard a strong message condemning the Obama administration and instructing those of us in the pews to take a stand by calling our representatives in Congress and voicing our opposition to the HHS mandate.

I didn’t stick around after Mass to ask the pastor if this was his own decision or if he’d been given a directive to speak about the issue during the liturgy. He didn’t read from a letter (as many parishes around the country have been instructed to do) and instead spoke extemporaneously, though his points were very much in line with the arguments made by the bishops.

My parish is certainly not the only one where this has taken place. Someone recently uploaded to Youtube a highly politically-charged homily by an Indiana priest who launches into an angry tirade of partisan rhetoric, warning that our country is headed toward socialism. He didn’t just try to convey the bishops’ position on the HHS mandate, he actually reproached those Catholic who voted for President Obama and blamed them for being part of the problem. Regardless of your personal feelings on the president, is this really appropriate material for a homily?

I can understand why the bishops want this issue discussed at Sunday Mass: It is their best opportunity to reach a captive audience. I hear about these issues every day because of my job, and those who read Catholic publications are well aware of the church’s position on political issues. But that makes up a small percentage of the American Catholic population, and the church leaders are looking for a way to get their message directly to the rest of the Catholic faithful. Having that message delivered during Mass is perhaps the only way to do it.

Still, it just didn’t feel right to be asking Catholics to take political action as a part of the liturgy. There are other times and places for such discussion, and announcing those opportunities at Mass or in the bulletin might be an acceptable alternative. The same goes for discussing other political issues that have become calls to action for the Catholic bishops, such as same-sex marriage. It is one thing for the clergy to discuss Catholic teaching on an issue like contraception or marriage within the context of a Mass, but calling on people to take a specific political action seems a bit over the line.

It wouldn’t matter to me if the message were about Barack Obama’s poor record on immigration, Mitt Romney’s disconnect from the poor and vulnerable, or Rick Santorum’s version of what the Catholic faith is about. None of them have a place at Sunday Mass.

The church can and should have a moral voice on issues of the day and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But when its members gather around the table to celebrate the Eucharist, the focus should be on the belief in Christ that unites us, not on the political issues that tear us apart.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former editor at U.S. Catholic.