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Hiding the church's treasure

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.

The fallout: Disarray in the Bishops' Conference. This is actually good news. One person's disarray is another's openness. There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church's tilt rightward over the last several years.

One surprising result in Baltimore was the refusal to endorse a vague statement on the economy after the document came under attack from more progressive bishops for failing to deal adequately with inequality, the rights of unions and poverty. Rarely does a document reach the floor of the conference and then fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. Something is stirring.

There are also influential bishops who now want to work with the Obama administration to secure a compromise on the contraception mandate under the health care law. This too would be a positive break with the recent past and the president should seize the opportunity. He can provide contraception coverage while building on the adjustments he has already made in the mandate to accommodate the church's legitimate conscience concerns. And there's nothing that should stop the bishops from cooperating with the administration and other progressives on behalf of immigration reform.

But above all, the bishops need to learn what I'll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization -- which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing -- clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.

Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.

Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionne@washpost.com.