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Faith Groups Wade Into Politics With Rules That Will Cost Membership, Priest Says


Leaders of two prominent religious groups met last week, the Southern Baptist Convention and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both institutions set guidelines for millions of Americans who belong to their churches, and both faced searing debates that touch on critical political issues as well as matters of faith. So that's where we're going to start today.

The Catholic leaders approved a document that could call into question the eligibility to receive communion of politicians who support abortion rights. It's being seen as a rebuke of President Biden, the second Catholic to attain the presidency. And among Southern Baptists, sex abuse scandals, the church's response to racism and the legacy of President Trump were points of contention that led some leaders to leave the convention even before the meeting began.

Father Thomas Reese has been writing about this, so we called him to hear his thoughts. He is a Jesuit priest and columnist for Religion News Service. Father Reese, thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS REESE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So let's start with news from the Catholic Bishops. I understand that this is called a teaching document. It was drafted and approved by a pretty large vote. And it is seen as a rebuke of Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, for receiving communion despite their support for abortion rights. For people who aren't Catholic, what's the significance of this?

REESE: Well, what the bishops did at this meeting was vote to have a document. They have not written it yet. And, in fact, it's not at all clear what's going to be in the document. It's clear that a large number of bishops are unhappy with Catholic politicians who are pro-choice, and they want to punish them for their position by denying them communion.

On the other hand, there's also a large number of bishops who think this is a dumb idea. And the Vatican has also come in on this and said that they don't think that the bishops should move so rapidly on this. So what's going to end up being in the document at - when it finally is written and perhaps voted on next November is really unclear.

MARTIN: What's the point of having this statement now or having this public discussion now?

REESE: Well, the policy today is that it's every bishop for himself who decides what happens in his diocese. So when you have a politician who's running a national campaign and - like Joe Biden, and going across the country and he wants to go to church on Sunday, he's got to have his people check out the church and make sure he's not going to be embarrassed there.

Now, what these bishops - some bishops want to do now is have a national policy which would say, no, you can't go to communion anywhere in the country. And that's what the change would be. But that's not the church's law right now, so they would have to get the approval of the Vatican to have that kind of policy. And the Vatican is not excited about doing this.

MARTIN: So let's turn to the Southern Baptist Convention. That - the convention elected a new president at their meeting. He's a preacher from Alabama named Ed Litton. He's considered by some to be a moderate, whatever that means these days. And what's your reaction?

REESE: My friends who follow this very carefully in Religion News Service have told me that the situation here is really not between moderates and conservatives. It's between conservatives and people way out on the right. You know, the man that they elected president is a conservative. But he also has worked for racial reconciliation. And I think that what we saw here was a majority of the Baptists at that meeting felt that the convention had gone just too far to the right. And they wanted to see some kind of reconciliation, especially with the Black community.

MARTIN: You recently wrote a piece for Religion News Service in which you acknowledge that both churches are very different, I mean, in their teachings, certainly in their leadership structure. But you also say they're facing a lot of the same issues. Could you talk a little bit about that?

REESE: That's certainly the case. I mean, we see that both the Catholic Church and the Baptists have been faced with sex abuse crisis. The Baptists could learn a lot from the Catholics' mistakes. In terms of adopting zero tolerance and reporting and transparency, this would be very helpful. The other issue that they're both having to struggle with is these are organizations that are run by me, and they're having a hard time dealing with women today. The Baptists don't want them preaching. The Catholic bishops don't want them as priests.

But there's also a number of issues they're simply kind of ignoring. The Catholics, for example, said nothing about racism during this convention, during their meeting. They said nothing about global warming during their meeting. And the Baptists were fighting over critical race theory during their meeting.

And, of course, finally, they're both struggling with the fact that they're losing people. Neither of them has figured out a way to reach out to young people, to reach out to the so-called Nones, those who identify with no religion.

MARTIN: And before we let you go - I know that you've been writing about this. What reaction have you gotten to your columns?

REESE: The reaction I've had so far to the columns is people who like it very much and agree that, you know, these are two extremely important religious groups in the country, the Baptists and the Catholics. They're the two largest. And they've been allies in the culture wars despite the fact that, historically, there was a lot of anti-Catholicism in the Baptist community. It's amazing how politics can bring people together. And this is the tragedy where politics becomes the religion rather than the gospel of Jesus.

MARTIN: It's interesting because the Catholic bishops in particular feel - and I think the Southern Baptists, their argument is that that's what they are doing. The people who are proponents of this teaching document, for example, their argument is that they need to be clear about where the church stands on this issue and that the Southern Baptists, part of their - the debate around critical race theories, their argument is that it's unbiblical. But you would argue that that's not the case, that these are actually political issues, not biblical issues.

REESE: Well, I'm - agree with the bishops on their pro-life position. But on the other hand, you know, no one is confused about the position of the Catholic Church. Joe Biden is not confusing people, which is a line that the bishops often use. The problem is the bishops have been very clear, and people disagree with them. They've got to find other arguments that are more convincing to people. So it's not that people don't understand what the bishops are saying; it's people don't agree with them. And the bishops have to come up with much more convincing arguments.

MARTIN: Father Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and columnist for Religion News Service. Father Reese, thank you so much for joining us.

REESE: OK. Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.