There are two issues with the criticism of Fr. Pfeger.
First, should priests be political in the first place? There, I believe they cannot avoid it — after all, all Catholic social teaching is, in some basic sense, political — but should steer clear of partisanship, which — in the US context at least — means endorsing certain candidates. The problem with this approach is that the priest in question will find himself embracing the whole unsavory ideology. This post presents an example.
This brings me to the second issue: why is this criticism focused almost uniquely on those priests who support Democrats in general, and Obama in particular? I’ve already talked about the hypocritical approach between the treatment of Wright and Pfleger on the one hand, and Hagee and Parsley on the other (not forgetting the original exponents of “God punished America with 9/11”, Robertson and Falwell). Of course, some in the media caught on somewhat belatedly to this disconnect– but you read it here first!
But let’s get back to the specific issue of Catholic priests. We all now know about Fr. Pfleger. But how many of us have heard of Msgr. Jim Lisante? Have a listen to the link below which shows his address (supposedly an invocation) at a New York state Republican party event. There he is, standing behind the podium with the emblems of the Republican party, dressed in clerics. This man made a mark a while back at a similar event when he told the audience that while the two GOP candidates for governor had their differences “on any day of the week, they beat hands down, Eliot Spitzer.” At the current event, Lisante brags about that speech, dubbing himself a prophet.
And he goes on. He calls the Vice-President “magnificent” (clearly, he is not aware that torture is an intrinsically evil act). He spouts some pro-war nationalist propaganda about US troops fighting for America’s freedom (I would like to know which ones). This is all lead-in to his attack on Barack Obama. His criticism of Obama is that he wants to change the USA! Wow. How in God’s name could a Catholic priest oppose such a notion? Again, it is sheer partisanship, and utterly opposed to Catholic teaching.But it gets worse. He then leads the congregation in prayer, as follows: “Lord… please tell Sen. Obama that maybe change is a good thing and that maybe he should think about changing his favorite preacher.” At this point, he smirks and waits for the applause line in response to his oh-so-clever quip. Think about this. This man, a priest, is using the sacred act of prayer to make a cheap partisan joke. How revolting. But the prayer has not ended, for he calls on God to “see that the change we embrace comes from Arizona and not Illinois.”
Msgr. Lisante’s behavior is scandalous. I would like to know what his ordinary thinks about this. In the Pfleger context, Cardinal George made the following statement, which I think is quite sensible: “The Catholic Church does not endorse political candidates. Consequently, while a priest must speak to political issues that are also moral, he may not endorse candidates nor engage in partisan campaigning.” For that is really the issue. There is nothing wrong with a priest saying that Obama’s position on abortion is out of line with Church teaching. But he cannot tell people to vote for McCain on that pretext, and he should also mention the areas where McCain is out of line. But note that Lisante did not even mention abortion. He instead runs with the memo from RNC: attack Obama through his association with his pastor. Indeed, Lisante’s true religion seems to be based on nationalism rather than the redemption of Christ. Like I said, a scandal.