Tuesday, April 15, Noon ET

Politics and the Pope

Michael Sean Winters
Tuesday, April 15, 2008; 12:00 PM

Religion writer Michael Sean Winters was online Tuesday, April 15 at noon ET to discuss Vatican-U.S. relations, the role of Catholicism in the upcoming election and the political impact and motivations of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States this week.

Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

Winters writes about politics and Catholicism for a variety of publications. He recently wrote about the differing world views of Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush for The Post's Outlook section, and an analysis for Slate.com about how the pope has disappointed church conservatives. He blogs about religion and politics for the Web site of America: The National Catholic Weekly.


San Juan, P.R.: Has there been a significant change in the relationship between church and state since John F. Kennedy's famous speech on secularism? In your opinion should the relationship be stronger or weaker?

Michael Sean Winters: The problem with Kennedy's speech was not that he misconceived the relationship of church and state, but the relationship between religion and culture, including the culture of his own ideas. For him, religion was an accident of birth, like Jackie being a brunette, something odd he did on Sunday mornings, but nothing that would inform his views.


Kansas City, Mo.: Mr. Winters states in his article "Wholly Different Angles on the World"

that Pope John Paul II was the "...most pro-Isreal Pope in history..."

Will Pope Benedict XVI continue this unwavering support for the Jewish State or back off a little to appease Arabs and help improve the treatment of Catholics living in Arab states?

Michael Sean Winters: I do not think there is any real going back on the improved relationship with Israel, although at the margins you will continue to see a more pronounced concern for Arab Christian minorities, and that might translate into a more sympathetic posture to Arab countries.


Arlington, Va.: What do you expect the pope to say during his UN address?

Michael Sean Winters: I suspect that the Pope will argue that the moral underpinnings of the human conscience, and the long tradition of moral reflection seen in the Church, needs to be a part of international relations. A first step in this direction must be to de-emphasize the use of force and, specifically, to point out that nowhere in the Catholic intellectual tradition do you find any justification for "preventive war."


Washington, D.C.: How seriously do you think the president takes the pope's opinions about the war, torture, etc.?

Michael Sean Winters: As far as I can tell, George W. Bush does not really consult any opinions but those of people who already agree with him. That said, Bush has been exceedingly solicitous of the Catholic vote as seen in several recent Post stories.


Silver Spring, Md.: Who is paying for the use of Nationals Park?

Michael Sean Winters: The archdiocese of Washington and the Bishops' conference are paying for the use of all facilities. The government may be involved in paying for the security arrangements, as it would for any visiting head of state.


Houston: I've been reading the comments about the pope posted online here and on other news sites and WOW; the streams of anger and hate which are so intense as to render the poster seemingly irrational and clearly incoherent are stunning. Whether Evangelical Christians, ardent atheists, or secular liberals, all people for whom the pope is theoretically irrelevant, what I wonder is what it is about the Papacy and the Catholic Church that it elicits such extreme passion.

Michael Sean Winters: Your point is well taken. Of course, better to be relevant, even in anger, than ignored. I think the Pope stands in his person as the embodiment of religion, the human face of this mysterious experience that we call the religious quest. The anger does not surprise however. Wasn't it Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the Left? And his father, Arthur, Sr., told Msgr. John Tracy Ellis that he thought the bias against Catholics one of the most enduring features of American prejudice.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Vatican should try to exert more political influence around the world than it does, and could it if it wanted to?

Michael Sean Winters: I think the political influence is always indirect and, yes, I wish it were more pervasive. Unlike Catholic neo-cons, who tend to see religion as an add-on, a nice way to keep everyone behaving well so that democratic capitalism may flourish, the Church's influence in the political realm should be focused like a lazer on: 1) promoting human dignity; 2) promoting peace; and 3) promoting the Common Good. The Church's unique contribution, however, is to insist on the fact that abstract principles can enslave, even when they are enlightened, that when we say "human dignity" we mean the real lives of real people. The Pope, in whom Catholics see not only Joseph Ratzinger but the on-going, physical presence of the Apostle Peter, is uniquely capable of doing this. I would add that Marian devotion, which seems to many antiquated and bizarre, achieves the same effect: Mary did not give birth to a set of propositions or a summa, she gave birth to a child. Catholicism, in its sacraments, in the dramatic quality of its liturgies, etc., all point to the reality, the concreteness of the religious experience over-against abstract principles.


Reading, PA: Wow -- that seems a very general statement about JFK and I guess you are basing it upon his private life as an adulterer but sir it is presumptuous to judge how much those Sunday mornings influenced Presient Kennedy in other areas.

Michael Sean Winters: I refer you to Kennedy's famous Houston speech - in my forthcoming book I wrestle with that speech. He was quite clear in his statements that his religion would not influence his views. His adultery is not the issue. His willingness to divorce himself from the Catholic intellectual tradition is another. Remeber, the ghetto he grew up in was not the vibrant ethnic Catholic ghetto, but the rich man's ghetto.


Washington, D.C.: How much of what the Pope says when he's speaking in public does he write, and how much is written for him by speechwriters?

Michael Sean Winters: The degree of the Pope's personal involvement varies depending on the nature of the speech. The Vatican diplomatic corps would be heavily involved in drafting and vetting the Pope's remarks at the White House for example, and the Pope might consult widely among theologians and bishops in deciding what to say when he addresses the Catholic educators at Catholic University. But, this Pope especially, is a man of strong convictions and extraordinary intellectual gifts so much of what he writes and says, indeed the best of it, is likely to be from his own pen. Not to plug his book "Jesus of Nazareth" but it was a great read - accessible and very moving.


Alexandria, Va.: Do think there's still a Catholic voting block in the U.S., and if so, which way do you see it going during the next election?

Michael Sean Winters: There is no longer "one Catholic bloc" - conservative Catholics vote like conservative Protestants. But, it turns out that Catholics and "swing voters" overlap a great deal. Think "Reagan Democrats." They were from heavily Catholic suburbs. Look at the Democratic primary race - the voters Obama needs are white ethnic blue collar Catholics. The press focusses on the fact that the demographic in question tends to lack a college degree and make less than 50k a year, because the press and campaign staffs can understand that more easily. But, Obama would be well advised to listen to the Pope's words and see how it coheres with his own worldview. Certainly, on immigration, the Church has a way of looking at the issue that it would help Democrats to mimic. So, in a nutshell - different parts of the Pope's message appeal to different choirs, but for Catholic swing voters, I suspect that Benedict's influence will tilt Left.


Alexandria, VA: By showing up at the White House for the requisite photo ops, Pope Benedict is doing the President's bidding. Pure and simple. The only way he rewrites the script is to pull an "Oscar Romero", and speak out against the President's embrace of torture and of "preventive war"--while standing next to the President. Of course, that will never happen.

Michael Sean Winters: I disagree. I think good manners are not the same thing as endorsing the more objectionable parts of Bush's program. And, if Bush were up for re-election, there would be no White House visit.


Re: Houston: Have you heard of Bernard Law? Gee - I think people have good reason to be angry.

Michael Sean Winters: I have heard of Cardinal Law. In fact, he has always been personally kind to me and so when I had to publicly call for him to step down it was very painful. I remember him bringing relief supplies to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after a Hurricane - he was the first one there and they had to line up cars along the airport runway for his plane filled with food to land in San Juan. This does not excuse what he did in the sexual abuse crisis, and he needed to resign his office. But none of us would like to be judged by our worst decision.


Washington, D.C.: Michael: you have just completed work on a new book that promises to share some important insights into the relationship between politics, especially within the Democratic party, and religious practice in the U.S. Could you give us a sneak peek of your principal theories? Thanks, MSW!

Michael Sean Winters: Hmmmm - I think you will need to buy the book! I will say this - the first half is a historical look at the alliance of Catholics and Democrats. We forget that in 1936, Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Bishops' Conference gave a nationwide radio address endorsing FDR's re-election - and the broadcast was paid for by the Democratic National Committee!!! And, I have always been troubled by JFK's Houston address and, to a lesser degree, by Cuomo's NOtre Dame address in September 1984. I finish the book with how Catholic social teaching can help Democrats gain some intellectual consistency and a chapter on Latinos and how they are changing the Church and politics, in ways that hearken back to the urban Catholic ghetto of Msgr. Ryan's day. I hope you like the book.


Bethesda, Md.: I somewhat disagree with you view on Kennedy. Remember at that time, he was trying to convey that he would support the constitution of the US. Many Christians felt at the time that Catholics only held allegiance to the pope, and not to American government.

Michael Sean Winters: I understand why he did what he did. Yes, anti-Catholicism was real and it was abetted by his political opponents. Hubert Humphrey's campaign theme song was "Give me that ole time religion!" But, that does not excuse the way he tried to bracket his faith from his politics. For him, it is not clear his religion really did influence his ideas. When told someone was writing a book about his faith, one of his sister's said, "That is going to be a short book." But, for the Democrats, divorcing religion from culture has been a dead-end, yes? Democrats have become the de facto party of irreligion, and that is a guaranteed way to lose an election in a religiously devout nation like America.


New York, NY: This may sound stupid, but how does the concept of "dissident Catholic" work? I recently attended an interfaith Catholic wedding involving a couple who intend to use birth control, for instance, and I think both of those factors (interfaith and birth control) should be no-nos. But they were being married in a church by a priest. Shouldn't that priest have been excommunicated, or the wedding barred, or something? I'm confused because as a Protestant, if you dislike what your pastor does, you find another church, but aren't all Catholic churches supposed to be one doctrine?

Michael Sean Winters: New York - take a deep breathe. No one is going to get excommunicated for taking the pill. Does contraception fall short of God's plan for mankind? Catholics say "Yes." But, the Pope is the successor of Peter who denied Jesus three times. This is why there are confessionals at the back of the Church: we all fall short of what God desires. Does that make us "dissidents"? No, it makes us humans. Does it make us hypocrites? No it makes us sympathetic with the human condition. Can we ever TEACH that something that is wrong is really right? No. But, the religious quest is begun in God's grace, carried by God's grace, and will end in God's grace. The only sin that bars the way eternally is the failure to ask for mercy.


Asheville,NC: The Catholic Bishop's voter guide "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" says a catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil such as abortion or racism.Simply by omitting sexism in the document they have said it is all right to support sexism. Also Sen.Clinton and Sen.Obama support a woman's right to choose. Is the church telling us to vote for McCain?

Michael Sean Winters: I think the document you cite is more nuanced. It states that it is a sin to vote for a pro-choice politician BECAUSE they are pro-choice. That means you are approving an intrinsic evil. But, the document also clearly says that if you have informed your conscience well, you may have to vote for a pro-choice politicians DESPITE that position. And, it is worth asking in what meaningful way the GOP has done anything except give lip service to the pro-life cause.


washingtonpost.com: Michael had to go, but wanted to thank you for your questions.


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