With more than two weeks before election day, the battle in parish parking lots has already begun. A Catholic priest in Cleveland has threatened to sue Ohio Right to Life for passing out its voter guides in a parish parking lot.
This is only the first skirmish among many that will occur as various groups attempt to reach Catholic voters by putting their literature on the windshields of cars. However, we’ve never heard of a priest calling out a pro-life group and threatening legal action.
The closest thing to that we’ve heard of was a stand off in the 2004 election when an Orlando priest used his car to keep a group of Bush supporters from leaving his parish parking lot. When asked to move his car by the group’s leader, who also happened to be an attorney, the priest refused, saying he was waiting for the police to arrive. Once they arrived and spoke to both the attorney and the priest, the police told the priest he needed to move his car immediately.
Ohio Right to Life contacted LifeNews with the story but did not reveal the name of the priest who threatened them. The pro-life group issued a statement admitting, from their point of view, their volunteers were trespassing on private property but said;
“If our clergy and religious leaders were standing up for the helpless unborn and boldly proclaiming the Truth in the face of the Culture of Death, volunteers would not feel the need to risk trespassing charges in order to disseminate pro-life information to churchgoers.”
Earlier today, we were passed a series of emails between the head of a Knights of Columbus council in a Northern Virginia parish and a member of the parish. The two have come to verbal blows over the former’s message sent to fellow Knights that the pastor has asked them to “patrol” the parking lot the two weekends prior to the election, “to help prevent political campaign materials from being distributed on the parked cars.”
A Knight from the parish did not like the idea of his council being used in this way and wrote back stating his objections and included a memo on the topic from the Chief Counsel of National Right to Life, James Bopp, Jr. Bopp pointed out in his memo, written to Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, that the distribution of such literature in parish parking lots in no way jeopardizes the Church’s tax exempt status, that “such activity” is protected by the First Amendment, and, more importantly;
“Churches not only may permit campaign statements to be distributed in their public parking lots, they cannot prohibit such distributions because the parking lots are open to the public.”
The head of the Knight’s parish council was not convinced by Bopp’s argument. He stated he had no authority, and added his own concern about voter guides that contain the position of candidates on abortion but leave out their position on progressive tax codes. This issue, he pointed out, was discussed in the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All” in 1986.
There’s no need to follow the thread any further — because neither side changed their position as a result of the exchange. However, those Knights who questioned whether or not parish parking lots should be patrolled did end the correspondence with this intriguing comment:
The question you must ultimately ask is this: “Which is more important to you, the sanctity of life or the sanctity of the parking lot?”
The last time we consulted the Catechism, parking lots, indeed concrete or asphalt surfaces of any kind, were not considered in possession of personhood and, therefore, Catholics are not obligated to protect their “lives,” so to speak.
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Our tongues are firmly in our cheeks as we point this out, but it’s a sad situation when the parking lots of Catholic parishes are putting up virtual barbed wire against those pro-life activists who are doing nothing more than informing fellow Catholics of two things: The settled, non-negotiable teaching of the Church on abortion and marriage and the position of political candidates on those issues.
If the Church really believes its own teaching, and if the Church really wants its members to make informed decisions regarding their political participation, what is the harm of allowing this form of political participation to take place? Are Catholics attending Mass on the Sundays before the election the equivalent of elementary school children who must form a single line to safely board the school bus?
Or, are they adult citizens who are capable of “dealing with” whatever pieces of paper might be fluttering from their windshields after Mass? We think a less paternalistic approach, one that in no way is demanded by the Church’s non-profit status, is called for.
Let those who are giving their time and energy to the political process do what they feel called to do, and let lay Catholics take the information from their windshields and make their own decision without the interference of well-intentioned Knights of Columbus or parish clergy.
LifeNews Note: Deal W. Hudson is president of the Pennsylvania Catholics’ Network and was chairman of Catholic Outreach at the RNC between 2000-2004 and is
the author of Onward Christian Soldiers: the Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon & Schuster 2008).