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Originally published Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Church leaders should be careful influencing political campaigns

Catholic church officials involved themselves in 2007 political campaigns: Washington's Initiative 1000, which gives terminally ill patients access to assisted suicide, and California's Proposition 8, which stripped gay citizens of the right to marry. Seattle community leaders Terrence Carroll and Sam Sperry, who are lifelong Catholics, wonder if the Church's absence of dialogue with parishioners on serious issues is symptomatic of clerical lack of trust in the laity.

Special to The Times

MANY people, including those of us born and raised Catholic, watched with concern again this past year as church leaders involved themselves in political campaigns.

In our state, the Roman Catholic bishops took a lead role in opposing Initiative 1000, the so-called death-with-dignity proposal that passed with a substantial majority.

Similarly in California, many church officials succeeded in helping to pass Proposition 8, which took from gay citizens the right to marry.

These and other political efforts used up significant resources.

To be sure, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution rightly protects political speech, be it from you, or us, or the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, churches in our country have contributed much to the political dialogue over the decades and centuries.

Yet some church leaders use their positions of ecclesiastical authority to threaten members of their faith community if they do not vote the way the leaders assert is the morally right way. In notable instances, the threat is that Catholics will be denied access to the sacraments, typically the Holy Eucharist.

We think these are nothing more than raw attempts at bullying. The result is that many Catholics simply ignore the bishops who, in turn, complain they have lost influence.

For example, the nation's bishops may sincerely believe statutes like I-1000, as well as laws and court decisions that permit abortion, are morally wrong. Yet as polling and election results show, the majority of Catholics are not likely to agree with their bishops regarding the role of government in such matters. Are such lay members and Catholics morally deficient? Church officials indicate they may be. We disagree.

Instead of threats, Catholic bishops should encourage dialogue. Instead of pontificating moral certitudes, Catholic bishops ought to encourage conversations among the wide spectrum of views that populate their parish pews — or would populate them were the church known for its tolerance rather than for its rigid adherence to questionable dogma.

The beginning point, in the United States and in other countries, should be to understand how we can render to "Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

We submit it is not too much to ask of the bishops that they seek the thoughts and views of the laity before attempting to impose their own moral standards and devoting church resources regarding questions of public policy.

Apart from the question of forming one's conscience, there is the matter of resources. If church leaders, Roman Catholic or otherwise, engage in the political arena, then they should account publicly for the resources they expend on such activity.

After all, they do enjoy tax-exempt status. And some members of the faith community may not want their donations used for politics.

In its essence, this is a matter of trust.

We understand the Church has been administered like a monarchy for centuries. But, if the American bishops expect their fellow Catholics to accept their leadership on matters of public policy, then they must respect those among the faithful who, in good conscience, have formed their own differing views. Most Catholics do not delegate to a bishop, or their pastor, authority over their vote.

In this context then, the near total absence of dialogue between the hierarchy and parishioners on any serious issue facing the church is symptomatic of clerical lack of trust in, and any meaningful role for, the laity.

Why? Are any of us so certain of the truth of our position on political questions that we cannot tolerate the input from our brothers and sisters of faith?

Or, do bishops and church leaders fear dialogue and discussion as posing a risk to unchecked authority?

Retired Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll, left, served as chair of the Seattle Archdiocese panel on clergy abuse. Sam Sperry served as an editor at the Seattle P-I and on the Washington State Catholic Conference Board. Both are lifelong Catholics educated here in Catholic schools.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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