January 28, 2013 in Uncategorized
Deal W. Hudson (president of the Pennsylvania Catholics Network)
The shift in Catholic support for President Obama between 2008 and 2012 was substantial: 4 percent less among self-identified Catholics and 6 percent among religiously active Catholics. But Mitt Romney needed to double those numbers to win, an outcome that seemed possible given the direct violation of Catholics’ religious liberty by the Health and Human Services mandate on contraception and abortifacients, which are used to induce abortions.
What happened? At first, bishops and priests were blamed for not speaking with a loud enough voice. But, in fact, the Catholic bishops spoke against the HHS mandate with a voice more unified than we have witnessed since the Reagan years.
The real issue, in my view, is that well-meaning lay Catholics have not absorbed their responsibility in the “temporal sphere” for political participation. It’s time for a period of self-examination, not more griping about the bishops, “social justice Catholics,” or Obama’s presence at the Al Smith dinner.
Having worked as a Catholic activist in four election cycles, I’ve observed that Catholic political outreach has become too strident, too condemning, and, at times, arrogant. Many voters, especially Latinos, young adults, and single women, are being turned off and pushed away.
This is not the result of our focus on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, or religious freedom. It’s a consequence of how we are doing it, and who we have become in the eyes of those we are trying to influence. As one prominent pro-life activist said to me recently, “I go to pro-life, pro-marriage meetings, agree with everything that is said, but I end up asking myself, ‘Do I even like these people?’ “
As individuals, Catholic conservatives and pro-life leaders are committed, involved, and mostly pleasant people, willing to laugh at themselves. But put them all in the same room, and they are often loudly and angrily denouncing each other. There are exceptions, but those who remain compassionate toward those with whom they disagree are rarely heeded.
Catholic activists need to pay attention to what used to be called comportment, which is based on a Latin root meaning “to bring together.” What are we communicating by how we talk and how we present ourselves? Do we present ourselves as “better Catholics” than others? Few people are attracted to that approach, especially when being told how to live, what to believe, and the very meaning of life.
When I recently shared these thoughts with a bishop from the Midwest, he said, “We find ourselves in the situation where we have to say ‘no’ to most of what goes on in the culture – we have to find a way to say ‘no’ in a positive way.”
Our self-examination will not change basic truths, but we must consider how our messengers can make “no” feel like something other than a slap in the face. To borrow a thought from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, until Catholic activists can “make the truth laugh,” we will have little success with those who laugh at truth.