The very left-wing Catholic clericalism from which Obama hopes to derive votes in the fall served as the pretext for his leaving the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Just as Jeremiah Wright's over-the-top sermons could not have come as a surprise to Obama, so Father Michael Pfleger's hyper-partisanship would have been known to him as well.
But Father Pfleger's timing and choice of a target were poor: his antics hit the Internet just as the Wright furor had begun to dissipate and instead of attacking a Republican for racism he selected Hillary Clinton. Maybe at another moment in the campaign this wouldn't have mattered -- Geraldine Ferraro's comments saying Obama had an unfair advantage due to race might have even lent the sermon some plausibility -- but as Obama began his courting of Hillary's support he found it all very annoying.
Yet normally the Democrats encourage priests and religious to misuse their office, to treat the binding teachings of their church as debatable while treating the platform and causes of the Democratic Party as doctrine; to put on their religious garb at political meetings, then take it off for catechesis.
The Drinans and Pflegers can't muster up much enthusiasm for the magisterium of the Church but left-wing politics brings out their zeal. Disagree with Church teaching? That's okay, they think.
But disagree with the Democratic Party's specific proposals for this or that tricky, prudential issue on which reasonable people could disagree? That's not. Dissenters inside the Church brook little dissent when it comes to left-wing politics.
SO WHILE OBAMA severs his association with Trinity Church on the pretext of offense at left-wing Catholic clericalism, he plans in the coming months to recruit practitioners of it.
Obama has formed a "Catholic advisory committee." Among the national co-chairs of his committee are Sister Jamie Phelps, O.P., Professor of Theology at Xavier University, and Sister Catherine Pinkerton with the Congregation of St. Joseph, standard issue leftists both.
As long as priests and religious in the mold of Pfleger aim their partisan arrows at the right targets, Obama won't mind. He needs them to choose fidelity to the Democratic Party over fidelity to the teachings of the Church -- to treat the former as absolute and the latter as relative.
And if John McCain, as is likely, blurs the moral differences between the parties, Obama's task will become all that much easier. Look how little it takes to get a Douglas Kmiec to come over to his side. That McCain finds religious talk off-putting while Obama gravitates to quasi-religious rhetoric won't help matters either.
WHAT COMPLICATES Obama's project is that Pope Benedict XVI has asked the bishops to knock off the clericalism and restrict their political participation to "non-negotiable" principles that represent not personal opinions but moral truths.
Some bishops are following his lead, if only incrementally. They are taking steps to end open scandals, starting with the immediate one of Catholic politicians who support abortion.
A more spiritually serious Catholic Church is bad for the Democratic Party but critical to the common good. The clericalism of the last four decades marginalized the moral authority of the Church at the very moment American society needed it most. It made the American Church seem like just one more irrational special interest group clamoring for attention over the din of democracy.
This model of political participation was justified on the spirit-of-Vatican-II grounds that without it the Church couldn't speak to the "whole world." But as Pope Benedict understands, that model ensures it never will.
In the end the world isn't interested in the erratic opinions of men but the voice of God. It is only when the Church restricts its political participation to the articulation of universal moral principles rooted in the reality God made that it can speak to all men authoritatively.
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