John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
A Faith in Public Life report released today documents how a network of conservative Catholic organizations is targeting effective social justice initiatives funded by the U.S. bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign and creating a toxic climate of fear around community organizing.
Be Not Afraid? – Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism and Growing Threats to the U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission includes interviews with retired bishops, community development experts and non-profit directors whose organizations have lost church funding because of associations with groups that support same-sex marriage. These issues are in the news this week as Catholic leaders in Chicago consider defunding local groups that work with the poor because of their membership in an immigrant rights coalition that supports allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The American Life League, a Catholic pro-life organization with a $6 million budget, has led the charge. Their witch-hunt approach is having an impact and pushing some bishops to back away from effective organizations that put Catholic social teaching into practice:
- The Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota non-profit that for five consecutive years received church funds, abruptly lost a $48,000 CCHD grant to help immigrant farmers in 2012 because of an association with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and TakeAction Minnesota. Those two groups work on diverse social justice issues supported by Catholic teaching, but did not endorse the Minnesota bishops’ efforts to fight same-sex marriage. The stewardship project does not work on marriage issues and never took a position on the state’s 2012 marriage ballot initiative.
- Companeros, a small non-profit in rural southwestern Colorado that helps immigrants with basic social services and legal aid, lost church funds that amounted to half of its budget because of its association with a statewide immigrant rights coalition that included a single gay and lesbian advocacy group. Companeros did not and does not work on gay rights issues.
- In 2012-13 alone, five affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation – one of the nation’s largest networks of faith-based community organizers – lost CCHD funds.
Conservative Catholic activists who try to dismiss the report can’t simply ignore retired bishops, former top officials at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other prominent church leaders who endorsed it. As Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me:
At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty.
The most zealous, self-appointed guardians of Catholic identity today can be so busy playing purity police that they miss the essence of the Gospels. Jesus warned against moral arrogance and scandalized the religious establishment by eating with prostitutes. He reminded the high priests of his time that their vigilance toward the letter of law meant little if the spirit of the law was ignored. When 1 in 5 children live in poverty, pulling the plug on effective social justice organizations simply because of a group’s associations or legitimate need to work in coalition for the common good is unimaginable. It throws prudence and proportionality out the window.
Catholic bishops put plenty of institutional muscle and significant funding behind campaigns to fight same-sex marriage. I hope they can show the same energy to make sure their own anti-poverty efforts are not strangled by culture war fights.
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Catholic Democrats will be decisive in determining the fate of gun violence prevention measures now before Congress. Sens. Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich are reportedly still undecided on the bipartisan compromise deal put together by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Representing “red” states where gun ownership is a proud cultural maker, these on-the-fence Dems could use a moral wake up call as they navigate the shoals of gun policy and politics in the coming days. Their own faith tradition provides clarifying vision. Just last week, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development urged Senators to support a “culture of life by promoting policies that reduce gun violence and save people’s lives…” Catholic bishops have specifically endorsed “effective and enforceable background checks,” the central issue before Senators this week. (Bishops also supported an assault weapons ban and limits on access to high-capacity ammunition magazines. The gun lobby made sure these provisions were scuttled.)
Back in January, prominent Catholic leaders — including former U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See from the first Bush administration and the Obama administration — challenged Catholic members of Congress with favorable NRA ratings to show “greater moral leadership and political courage.”
Politicians have a tendency to worry about things like elections. In the case of Sens. Landrieu and Begich, midterms loom on the near horizon. The Hill reports that “Landrieu remains one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents heading into reelection next year.” But public service and real leadership is about putting aside political expedience and standing strong in the face of powerful special interests that hurt the common good. Let’s hope these wavering Catholic Democrats find inspiration from their own faith tradition, stand up to the NRA and do what’s right.
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The announcement today from the Obama administration that it is granting a more robust accommodation for religious institutions who object to providing contraception coverage is a sensible move. The values of protecting women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers should not be in conflict.
The provision that nearly all employers must provide contraceptive services under the federal health care reform law has sparked a long, messy fight between the Obama administration, Catholic bishops and some conservative evangelicals. This fight is far from over. A dozen separate legal challenges to the administration’s mandate are now winding through the courts. Because judges have reached different conclusions, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final call.
The most significant news from today’s announcement is that the administration’s “four-part test” of what constitutes a “religious employer” — a major sticking point for Catholic universities, charities and hospitals — has been scrapped for a simpler IRS definition. Under the original proposal, employers could be exempt from the contraception mandate only if their purpose was to inculcate religious values, they primarily employed those who shared their religious tenets, primarily served those who shared their religious beliefs and were a nonprofit under federal tax law. The first three parts of that definition were a big problem for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. For Catholics, medical institutions and charities are not tangential to a religious commitment, but central to putting faith into practice. Respected Catholic organizations like the Catholic Health Association, which supported the health care reform law and has distanced itself from the strident rhetoric of some bishops had been urging the administration to make this fix. At the same time, the administration’s proposals announced today, which are open to a 60-day public comment period, will still ensure women have access to contraception coverage without a co-pay. This is a victory for women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers.
It will take time for various religious organizations to digest the details of today’s announcement, and tensions won’t disappear overnight. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put out a brief initial statement saying bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”
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If many progressives are disappointed that President Obama and most political leaders have not done more to reign in the corruption and greed of Wall Street titans who sparked a global financial crisis, they have an unlikely ally in a theologian who leads a global church of more than a billion souls.
While Pope Benedict XVI is viewed as a staunch conservative for his opposition to same-sex marriage and frequent pronouncements on sexual ethics, his powerful voice on economic justice issues too often gets short shrift. But it’s hard to ignore the pope’s recent blistering critique of what he describes as “unregulated financial capitalism.” Pope Benedict, who has urged world leaders to pay more attention to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor nations, used his recent World Day of Peace message to challenge “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset” that gives rise to economic models based on “maximum profit and consumption.”
It’s unlikely that Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, free-market fundamentalists with a soft spot for Ayn Rand-libertarianism, will be passing out copies of the pope’s address in the halls of Congress. You can also bet many lawmakers from both parties, dependent on corporate campaign contributions from the financial services industry, paid scant attention to the Vatican’s call in 2011 for more robust financial regulation and a financial transaction tax.
But as we navigate the shoals of post-fiscal cliff Washington, with Republicans hankering for a fight on the debt ceiling and insisting on deeper spending cuts, political leaders could do worse than reflect on the Catholic justice tradition’s prudent balance between acknowledging a vital role for government while advocating for a market system that is tempered – and made more humane – by reasonable safeguards that serve the common good. In fact, Catholic social teaching on taxes, the role of government, the importance of unions, strong social safety nets and the need for robust regulation of global financial markets offers a progressive blueprint for building a moral economy.
The next time you hear a Catholic politician or a “pro-life” leader who argues for gutting financial regulations and slashing vital programs that protect children and the elderly so the wealthiest few can get more tax breaks, tell them to take it up with the pope.
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In the wake of the horrific violence unleashed last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School, religious leaders across the country have tried to provide spiritual healing and grappled with profound theological questions about the nature of evil. As the dead are buried and we mourn the loss of heroic teachers and innocent children, the work of faith communities is just beginning. Now is the time for pastors, rabbis and imams in every community to speak up boldly for saner gun control laws.
Pro-life Christians who are a major political force in this country should be leading this movement. If the sanctity of human life in the womb galvanizes evangelical Christians and Catholics to march on Washington, create sophisticated lobbying campaigns and hold members of Congress accountable, there is no excuse for pro-life timidity on this issue.
Sadly, if not unexpectedly, the loudest Christian voices have been from the usual chorus of culture warriors who are again blaming Democrats, President Obama and “godless” public schools for the tragedy. Mike Huckabee, pastor-in-chief at Fox News, thinks if we had a more God-fearing nation this tragedy could have been avoided. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, best known for his homophobic screeds, roared that “we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, an evangelical who apparently believes the Prince of Peace would want us all packin’ heat, recently called for arming teachings and school administrators at a Tea Party event.
The National Association of Evangelicals, a pro-life lobbying force, has sent out press releases this week about how evangelicals are portrayed in the media and the attitudes of younger evangelicals toward abortion reduction, but nothing about the moral scandal of gun violence that kills more than 30,000 people a year. The Southern Baptist Convention has been mum. Back in 2002, Richard Land, the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called a “long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”
This moral cowardice and Christian capitulation to NRA propaganda should turn our stomach.
Catholic bishops, who will help mobilize many thousands of pro-life activists next month for the annual March for Life in Washington, could also put more lobbying muscle behind gun control efforts considering the church’s past statements. As Carol Glatz reports for Catholic News Service:
The Catholic Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership? The answer is resoundingly clear: Firearms in the hands of civilians should be strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated. But you won’t find that statement in a headline or a document subheading. It’s almost hidden in a footnote in a document on crime by the U.S. bishops’ conference and it’s mentioned in passing in dozens of official Vatican texts on the global arms trade. The most direct statement comes in the bishops’ “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” from November 2000.
“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer — especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner — and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” That’s followed by a footnote that states: “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions — i.e. police officers, military use — handguns should be eliminated from our society.” That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops’ 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called “for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”
Catholics in the pews are ripe for mobilization. Among U.S. religious groups, Catholics are the most likely to support gun control. More than 6 in 10 of Catholics — 62 percent — favor stricter firearms laws, compared to fewer than half of white evangelicals (35 percent) and white mainline Protestants (42 percent), according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll.
There is no easy fix for the epidemic of gun violence. Inadequate mental health services, rampant materialism, the glorification of violence and the spiritual alienation of young men and women who are disconnected from community all play a role. We live in a toxic culture. Laws can’t be the only answer for a crisis that is more deeply rooted. But the complexity of this urgent challenge can’t be an excuse for inaction or deferring to an unacceptable status quo.
The religious right will continue to blame the gays, contraception and abortion for the collapse of civilization. But there are far more empty churches in Europe and Canada than in our highly religious society, and mass shootings like the ones in Littleton, Aurora and Newton are a rarity because of reasonable gun laws and a culture that does not mythologize guns. If pro-life Christian leaders need some inspiration they should look to Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, who on the first Sunday after the school shooting in Connecticut said the best way to mourn the Sandy Hook tragedy is “to mobilize the faith community for gun control.”
“The gun lobby,” said Hall, “is no match for the cross lobby.”
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