St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Greenville, South Carolina may not have the largest congregation but this week Father Jay Scott Newman’s post-election comments loomed large on the national scene. Father Neman is one of four priests who minister to the Upstate parish. In a letter posted on the church website Father Newman wrote “voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil.” He went on to call abortion the “chief battleground” in the culture war because “abortion is usually murder in secret and it lays the axe to the human life at the root.”
But, as strong as they were, it wasn’t these statements that caused Father Newman’s comments to be picked up by the national media. It was his belief that parishioners who voted for Obama should not receive Holy Communion until they repent. Father Newman hastened to say that church teaching doesn’t allow him to refuse people Holy Communion based on their vote but most news media outlets chose to ignore that statement, running headlines that suggested he would deny the sacrament to Obama voters. Those in the media who thought Father Newman’s position represented a new approach to church polity must have slept through the 2004 election when Missouri Catholic Bishop Raymond Burke declared that he would offer a blessing but not full Communion to then Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry, who is both Catholic and pro-abortion.
After Father Newman’s letter was posted, about fifty people showed up outside St. Mary’s to rally in support of his position. When Father Newman rose to speak at the Saturday afternoon Mass, he was greeted by an extended and emotional standing ovation from the more than 200 parishioners who were present. E-mails sent to Father Newman were running nine to one in favor of his letter.
Why was there such an outcry both for and against Father Newman’s position? The positions taken by those who support and those who condemn Father Newman’s strong stand against abortion represent a deep rift among Catholics who attend Mass regularly and those who are Catholic in name only. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that only 25 percent of the 65 million self-proclaimed Catholics in America attend Mass each Sunday. And although Election Day exit polls show that 54 percent of self-identified Catholics voted for Barack Obama, when you break the numbers down by regular attendance for Mass, McCain wins 55 percent to Obama’s 43 percent. Devout, practicing Catholics who know what their church teaches on the moral issues of the day are still solidly behind the Republican Party. The same is true of Protestants who faithfully attend church at least once a week and who consciously put into practice the teaching of their faith.
People responded to Father Newman’s stand because they are hungry for spiritual leaders who stand up, speak up, and then back up what they say with action. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul asked, “If the trumpet makes an unclear sound, who will prepare for battle?” Ezekiel reminded the watchmen of Israel “If anyone hears the sound of the trumpet but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood will be on his own head. However, if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people aren’t warned, and the sword comes and takes way their lives, then they have been taken away because of their iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.” (Ezekiel 33:4,6).
The 21st century Church must sound the trumpet of Scriptural morality and call God’s people to an accountability of knowledge. When Father Newman was asked if he believed people understood the connection between their vote and the promotion of abortion he said, “an uninformed vote is an irresponsible vote.” He went on to say that no informed voter could possibly have mistaken the candidate’s positions on abortion.
The problem for many Evangelical voters may have been the lack of a clear sound from the pulpit concerning the truth about the moral issues. According to another survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the number of churches involved in the election process dropped by as much as 17 percent from 2004. The survey defined “being involved” by the amount of information the church provided to members on the candidates and their positions on the moral issues.
I find this to be a disturbing trend. The world needs more leaders like Father Newman, not less. We need leaders who are willing to take a stand and passionately, purposefully, and profoundly proclaim the truth as it relates to politics and the public arena. When Jesus spoke of believers being both “salt” and “light” for the world he did not exclude the world of politics. If devout, practicing Christians find themselves with leaders who will not raise a prophetic voice to the culture they must demand a change in leadership. We must take the truth and apply it to every area of life, particularly the area of public policy. We live in a country that is governed by the rule of law as understood and applied by those who are elected to write those laws.
God help us if we are living in a generation of spiritual leaders who decide in mass to abandon their prophetic role in the public arena.
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.