The polarization of American politics means that Catholics must be a force for unity rather than "divisively tribal," and clergy especially need to be careful that they don't let their personal politics compromise their Christian mission, Bishop Donald Hying of Madison has said.
"All Catholics have to be careful to engage in political life in a manner that reflects the Gospel, but clergy need to exercise special caution so that their political activity is consistent with their vocation in the Church," he said in a Jan. 27 reflection on the "current state of general acrimony."
Clergy should not voice "overt and purely political opinions regarding individuals, parties, election results, the current news cycle," nor should they engage in ad hominem attacks.
"Such actions threaten to politicize the Church and divide our people even more," he said.
"I am not implying that we should be silent in the face of evil, injustice, and wrongdoing, but we need to stick with the moral issues and refrain from the personal attacks," Hying said.
While bishops, priests and deacons can vote and hold political opinions, Hying said, their task is "to preach and teach the Catholic faith to the laity and to lay out the revealed priority of moral issues." Pastors who fail to preach the truths of the Catholic faith, however, "fail in loving our people."
"The task of the laity is to form their consciences and apply the teachings of the Church to the spheres of politics, economy, society, and culture," said the bishop.
He reflected on the state of the country in January 2021: "the anger and vitriol is palpably toxic."
 "Our cultural, political, and social divisions, exacerbated by COVID; the elections; and the violence in our streets and cities have unfortunately entered into the Church and are seriously wounding our unity in Christ," he said.
"We now seem to have Biden Catholics and Trump Catholics, perhaps just the latest incarnation of traditional and progressive Catholics, but a division that is louder, angrier, and far less compromising than all the previous rifts in the Body of Christ."
"Any words of moderation, actions of conciliation, benefit of the doubt given to another point of view, or attempt to find middle ground is dismissed as betrayal and disloyalty to the truth," he said.
"If we do not even desire to heal the divisions among us, how can we ever rediscover our unity in Christ? The bishop asked. "The painful experience of these past months tells me that we as fallen human beings can become divisively tribal. We instinctively associate with the people who think, act, and live as we do."
He emphasized that Christ calls members of his body to "a far greater reality, indeed a supernatural unity, founded in the very life of the Most Blessed Trinity."
"Jesus served, loved, died, and rose from the dead to establish a New Covenant in His Blood, a redeemed humanity of every race, tribe, and tongue, incorporating every culture, nationality, class, and people into the Church," Hying continued. "For us Christians, water is thicker than blood, for the communion we discover in the waters of Baptism is far deeper and significant than the ties of race, nation, political party, and even family."
"If we are bound together in Christ as His Mystical Body, then how can we keep tearing each other apart? We are brothers and sisters in Christ," he said.
He suggested Catholics should spend the time before Easter in deeper prayer, penance, and almsgiving.
"How can I be more patient, kind, gentle, and compassionate to others, especially those I disagree with? Get off social media and get in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Stop watching so much news and start reading the Good News. Spend the time on volunteer service to help the poor instead of writing angry emails," said the bishop, who added: "Examine your conscience regarding the sins of calumny, rash judgment, violent anger, and malicious speech. And then go to confession."
At the same time, Hying said vocal partisans are not necessarily representative of Catholicism.
"Most Catholics are simply trying to live their faith, focus on Jesus Christ, become holy, and do God's will. Many people had questions and concerns about some of President Trump's policies and actions, as many do about President Biden," he said.
He said that the Catholic bishops in the US do consider abortion the "preeminent" national issue because it is "intrinsic evil as the deliberate taking of human life in its fragile beginnings." At the same time, he said, "'preeminent' does not mean 'only'."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has always tried to work with every presidential administration to support moral policies and oppose others, said the bishop.
"The fact that President Biden is a baptized Catholic who attends Mass and asserts faith as the guiding principle of his life gives greater urgency to the need to challenge those of his policies which are opposed to moral teaching based on the natural law," he said. "Some may mistakenly assume the Church is taking political sides, but Her actions are always inspired by the truth of God's revelation and the dignity of the human person. And that cuts both ways, as the Word of God is 'sharper than a two-edged sword'," said Hying, quoting the Letter to the Hebrews.
To the Madison diocese's north is the Diocese of La Crosse. Before the 2020 elections, La Crosse diocesan priest Fr. James Altman's Aug. 30 video went viral for saying "You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period."
Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse sought to correct the priest, saying he inflicted a "wound" upon the Church.
"Unfortunately, the tone Fr. Altman offers comes off as angry and judgmental, lacking any charity and in a way that causes scandal both in the Church and in society. His generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue," Callahan said Sept. 9.
Altman's video won support from Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, who praised him on Twitter Sept. 5.
Father James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America magazine, wrote an essay claiming that Catholic leaders' criticism of President Joe Biden's stance on abortion helped contribute to the conditions for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He named Altman and Bishop Strickland, among others, as well as Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville.
In a brief response, Bishop Stika rejected the claim. He stood by his criticism of Biden's abortion stand and again noted the contradiction between the president's professed Catholic faith and his support for abortion.