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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — To say that the Belle Harbor neighborhood on New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula was slammed by Hurricane Sandy understates the case. Like many other parts of the region, it has suffered the kind of devastation we usually associate with wars.

In these circumstances, people turn to government, yes, but they look first to trusted friends and to neighborhood institutions that combine deep local knowledge with a degree of empathy that arises only from a long connection with residents of a particular place.

Two of my brothers-in-law who have been washed out of their homes are involved in one such group, the Graybeards, a local nonprofit recently featured on the NBC Nightly News. They immediately took up the task of restoring the city blocks they love.

And at the heart of the relief effort is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, the epicenter of so many practical works of mercy that it has received a mountain of earned media attention. The Washington Post published a photo last week of a big Thanksgiving dinner organized in the parish gym where I once watched my nephews and my niece compete fiercely on the basketball court. Last week, for a moment anyway, competition gave way to fellowship.

I intend to come back again to the determined struggle of this neighborhood to rebuild. But I also hope the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops contemplating the future of the Church’s public and political engagement notice how the witness of this parish has inspired people far beyond the confines of Catholicism.

During the presidential campaign, many bishops, though by no means all, seemed to enlist firmly on one side of a highly contested election. The church didn’t endorse anyone, but some bishops made clear their preference for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was about as clear as he could be short of putting a Romney-Ryan sticker on his car.

“I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. On the other hand, he said of low-tax conservatives: “You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation.” No doubt Paul Ryan smiled.

For such bishops, the election came as a shock. I’m told by people who attended the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops post-election meeting earlier this month in Baltimore that many of them had been convinced Romney would win. Yet Romney not only lost; he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote, partly because of overwhelming support for Obama among Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the Church.