Words have a power of their own


Presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has become the focus of commentary and criticism in recent days due to his controversial sermons.

In many of his stump speeches, Senator Obama has indicated that “words have meaning.” Indeed they do, and words from the pulpit sometimes have even greater meaning.

The controversy surrounding the preaching of Reverend Wright comes at the same time that a new book is released entitled Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests. The book is the result of a study by Gregory Smith, a fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and indicates that Catholics are influenced in their political thoughts by the preaching of parish priests and the commentaries in parish bulletins.

Mr. Smith’s study confirms Senator Obama’s rhetoric that “words have meaning.” His study took place during the 2004 election, when Catholic Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, was subject to harsh criticism by many bishops and laity concerning his views on abortion and other life-related issues. The study suggests that parish priests can influence the point of view of many parishioners by stressing certain aspects of Catholic teaching, especially such teachings as the sanctity of human life.

Smith indicates that the priests he interviewed were not bashful about preaching on controversial subjects, whether perceived to be liberal or conservative. Most of the priests indicated that whether their words on political or moral issues would be welcomed or not by the congregation was not a factor in their preaching. Smith states: “Across the board they all said they were willing to speak up even when they know the subject matter is going to be unpopular.”

While the Church is never to engage in partisan politics, the preaching of priests on the fundamental moral issues of our day is vitally important for the life and mission of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas, when he stated, “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument, and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”

As this election year proceeds and in the coming months, voters begin to take a much closer and more careful look at the positions of candidates, it is clear that the words from parish pulpits might have an influence on Catholic voters. We urge parish priests not “to remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” but to boldly proclaim the Gospel and fearlessly preach to their congregations.

Words have meaning!