It happens whenever we change administrations in America. Catholics who favor those who are now in power view opposition from the Church as partisan behavior, injecting their opinions into political debates. With Trump, the bishops get opposed for stating the Church teaching on immigration. With Obama, the bishops were opposed for stating the Church teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, religious freedom, and transgender issues. We could certainly go further back—for example the bishops expressing concern about the bellicose arms race under Reagan. In all of these cases, those Catholics who agreed with president of the time attacked the bishops for acting politically, while those who opposed him cheered the bishops for standing up.
The underlying problem here is a dangerous error which holds that the Church has one opinion, the State has another, and I am the judge who determines who is right. This is just another form of “Cafeteria Catholicism” where I choose what I will find and treat the rest as unimportant in God’s eyes. Of course that’s presumption. When God tells us to keep His commandments (John 14:15), and warns us that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Luke 10:16), we should not take their teachings so lightly.
Of course many will take offense with this. People associate “Cafeteria Catholics” with liberalism, and Pharisaism with conservatism. But the fact is, any faction can play either role. The Cafeteria Catholic decides when to listen to the Church and when to ignore it. The Pharisee determines that whoever does not follow their interpretation of Church teaching is not a good Catholic. I’ve seen liberals and conservatives play both roles.
What we have to remember though is the Church is not a faction with an opinion. She is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). She is the one who binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). When our bishops warn us not to be swept up into a popular view, at odds with Church teaching, we should be paying attention, not assuming their words are partisan or uninformed.
This is a lesson easier to see with other countries, and when those of a different ideology do it. We praise Bishop von Galen of Germany and Cardinal Sapieha from Poland for standing up against the Nazis. We praise many who suffered for speaking against the communists. In all of these cases, some people thought they were being political because these people agreed with a policy the Church condemned. We also praised the bishops for standing up for religious freedom against Obama (I’m not trying to say these were equivalent threats, mind you).
But when the bishops stand up against a popular policy, people treat them as if they were particularly uninformed, and ignorant of Church teaching when Church teaching actually says more than is cited. For example, people accuse them of being ignorant of St. Thomas Aquinas (the most popular currently is STh., I-II q.105 a.3, which actually is about evaluating God’s Law in the Old Testament) or the Catechism saying that nations do have a right to regulate immigration but ignoring the full text of ¶2241, which also talks about helping those in need as much as possible).
It’s the same error—treating the successors to the apostles as being merely one faction with an uninformed opinion and oneself as the judge who evaluates it.
However, this error must not lead us into the opposite error of a political pharisaism. The fact that the Church teaches we are obliged to act in a certain way does not mean we must support political platform X which seems similar to it. The Church has never said we must vote for one party or one specific program. We do have to consider what the Church teaches and try to be faithful. Those Catholics who say “You must vote for this party/proposition” are misappropriating the teaching authority of the Church.
That does not mean we can vote however we like or support whatever we like. We’re obligated to form our political preferences to follow Church teaching. If we decide one Church teaching can be ignored in favor of another, we have malformed our conscience with Cafeteria Catholicism. If we decide whoever does not support the candidate or platform we do is on the side of evil, we have fallen into Political Pharisaism. Both are wrong.
What we need to realize that we should be listening to the Church when she warns us about dangerous mindsets. We should not be thinking of the bishops as idiots when they dare to speak against what we prefer politically. Otherwise, we might find at the last judgment that we have fallen away from the Church without realizing it, and we will hear Our Lord say, to our horror, "I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23).