John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
This commentary was published in Global Pulse magazine on April 6.
A resurgent libertarian ideology drowns out authentic debate and progress
For decades now, scientists have raised increasingly urgent warnings about human-induced climate change. Headlines grow more ominous every day. Global carbon emissions are at record levels. Water shortages, including in the western United States, have reached crisis proportions. The Pentagon expects climate change to intensity global instability. The world’s poor—those least responsible for the carbon emissions in the first place—are already paying the heaviest price. Even in the face of this stark reality, a growing number of Americans say global warming is not occurring, or rank the issue low in importance. This is both dispiriting and unsurprising. A well-funded climate denial industry, politicians nestled in their pockets, casts a cloud of doubt over the overwhelming scientific consensus that our world faces a threat of existential proportions.
Enter, Pope Francis.
If anyone can help break the stalemate over climate change and reach an audience far beyond the progressive choir, it’s a global leader with approval ratings most politicians crave and the moral gravitas they usually lack. The first pope in history to take his name from Francis of Assisi – the saint most associated with poverty and reverence of nature – is working on a highly anticipated encyclical focused on the environment, expected to be released in early summer. When it comes to the Catholic Church, Francis is not exactly a maverick on this issue.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both addressed care for the environment as a profound moral issue and called for action to tackle climate change. “The depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions,” said Pope John Paul II back in 1990. He applauded “a new ecological awareness” that “ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” for taking steps to make the Vatican the first carbon neutral state in the world, also warned against delay. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?” he asked in 2010.
While Pope Francis is clearly following in the tradition of his predecessors, he will make a much bigger splash by becoming the first pope in history to issue a lengthy encyclical about the environment. From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has linked what he calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality” with ecological devastation. “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it,” he told a meeting of social movements last fall. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is one of several Vatican officials helping Pope Francis shape his encyclical. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related, and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today,” Turkson said in a recent speech.
Expectations are high.
The encyclical will be released in advance of Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations in September and before high-stakes climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the year. “We have been negotiating this issue at the political level for more than 20 years, and we look to Pope Francis to untangle this stalemate, because this issue is beyond merely a political issue,” Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ climate commissioner told Democracy Now. “It is a profound moral issue that affects the whole world.” Sano, whose country was devastated by a typhoon in 2013 that killed more than 7,000 people, thinks the pope’s encyclical will be a “game changer for the international process.”
A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Conservatives?
The first pope from Latin America will likely find his toughest audience in the United States, a country he will visit for the first time this fall. Some conservatives are already throwing punches. The pope is part of “the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress,” writes Stephen Moore, a Catholic who is an economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Robert George of Princeton University, a prominent Catholic philosopher, argues that the pope should steer clear of an area where—in his own misguided view—the science is unsettled.
Powerful Catholic politicians are climate change skeptics. Speaker John Boehner, who invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress, routinely blasts the Obama administration for “job killing” environmental policies. “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical,” the graduate of Xavier University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, has scoffed.
Prospective GOP presidential candidates are also singing from a different hymnal than Pope Francis. Sen. Marco Rubio has denied that human activity is driving climate change and saysmeasures to reign in emissions warming the planet will “destroy our economy.” Jeb Bush, a leading GOP presidential contender whose conversion to Catholicism was recently profiled in the New York Times, concedes global warming “may be real” and took steps to protect the Everglades from off-shore drilling, but is nonetheless a self-described “skeptic.”
Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate and a likely contender in 2016 who frequently invokes his Catholic faith, thinks any human role in climate change is “patently absurd.” He strongly opposed an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting mercury emissions from coal fired plants, a ruling lauded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently announced his candidacy at Liberty University – founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — has mocked “global warming alarmists” who he compares to “modern day Flat Earth proponents.”
Some vocal evangelicals, a pillar of the Republican Party and the religious group most skeptical of climate change, are preparing for a fight. “The pope should back off,” says Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an organization that has called the environmental movement “un-biblical.” Critics of Pope Francis need a basic theology lesson when it comes to the environment. The pope isn’t cribbing talking points from Greenpeace or sprinkling holy water on a progressive agenda. His views are rooted in a traditional religious commitment to protect the gift of God’s creation, a biblical call to be good stewards, and respect for the sanctity of life and human dignity. “A Christian who does not protect creation,” Francis says bluntly, “is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”
Environmental justice and prudent action to address climate change should not simply be a progressive cause. Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and later Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, understood that stewardship and conservation matter. After all, classic conservative philosophy begins with preserving what is good, and surely our fragile environment is an inheritance we don’t want to squander. As Pope Francis himself said, it’s not just a legacy from the past, but a loan for our children. Conservatism traditionally casts a skeptical eye on the notion of progress at any price, and rejects a view of human flourishing that is only measured by the standards of crass consumerism.
A resurgent libertarian ideology is drowning out the voice of authentic conservatism. It has made an idol of free-markets and a virtue of self-centered hooliganism. The bottom line is protecting children from deadly toxins, safeguarding limited natural resources and transitioning to a more sustainable energy policy should all be part of a pro-life, conservative agenda.
If Republicans can’t stomach listening to progressives in Washington, perhaps they might take a cue from the world’s most popular religious leader?
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. Anthony Annett is a Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor for the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City.
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Pope Francis is arguably the most compelling leader in the world today. Unless you’re one of those hyperventilating Fox News pundits or a certain American cardinal pining for the good old days of pray-pay-and-obey Catholicism, chances are you stand in awe of how quickly Francis has resuscitated an ancient institution nearly on life support after decades of clergy abuse scandals and the first resignation of a pope in six centuries.
The pope isn’t a traditional politician, but he is a savvy global leader who understands optics and the art of diplomacy. Simply put, this is a man with political and moral capital to burn. His decisive role in helping President Barack Obama strike a historic rapprochement with Cuba was the latest signal that the Vatican is back as a formidable geopolitical player. The Catholic church, of course, began navigating political currents, both secular and ecclesiastical, centuries before our American republic was a glimmer in the eye of Thomas Jefferson and Co. In traditional Catholic teaching, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. Or, as Pope Francis phrased it a bit more colorfully in one morning homily: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”
As Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address tonight, I can’t help wondering what Pope Francis would say to Congress and the American people if handed the microphone. The idea is not as crazy as it might sound. House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September. If Francis accepts the offer, which news reports this week suggest he will, it would be a first for a pope. Aware of the obvious chutzpah needed to try and channel this enigmatic and eloquent pope, here’s my take on what Francis might say to a polarized Congress and a nation in desperate need of moral vision.
I ask that you forgive my English. I know some of you speak Spanish, so if I have trouble, perhaps I even mix up my fútbol with your football, I will revert to my mother tongue, no? I am filled with joy to be in this beautiful country, a nation born of hope and ideals. All men are created equal! Through the fire of a civil war, your country held to that promise first given in faith by God and shed blood to overcome the sin of slavery. I think of the hands worn down by chains that built this magnificent Capitol building. Could those slaves have imagined someone with their skin color as president? The American story is about striving and struggle, of being lost and then finding a way through darkness. This is our human story. We are all on a journey. God gives us a destination and affirms our sacred dignity — even when we doubt it.
My brothers and sisters, our world is broken. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen knows this. We sometimes prefer to be blind and deaf to this reality. So many people discarded, thrown away into vast oceans of indifference. We no longer weep! On my drive here tonight, I saw men and women — also children — bundled in the cold. The sidewalk is their bed. The same is true in Rome. In Buenos Aires. In Bombay. A homeless woman dies in the gutter. Do we stop? The stock market moves an inch, and that is front-page news. These upside-down priorities tell us our culture is sick. How do we heal the wounds of loneliness, alienation and injustice? All of us in this chamber tonight are privileged. Let us use whatever power we have not to glorify ourselves or weave cocoons of comfort around our lives, but risk going out to the margins, to the peripheries where there is pain, anger, disillusion. It is good to be made uncomfortable.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet reminds us. Please do not forget the migrant who crosses the desert. She has a family and holds tight to dreams. Do not abandon the unborn in the womb. Justice and human rights are not served by defacing the image of God. Do not discard the elderly or think the dying are served by the false mercy of euthanasia. I beg you to use the great influence and wealth found in this mighty nation to serve the common good. Say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Building a culture of life is impossible if workers can’t earn a living wage, pregnant women are denied the support they need, and families lack good health care. Some expect that wealth in the hands of the few will trickle down. This is a fantasy. The poor are still waiting! The market must serve human beings, not the other way around. The moral measure of your nation, any nation, is not judged by the stock value of corporations or the billions spent on weapons of war. Wealth is a gift, and that can be a good, but not when profit is made a god.
I ask you with special urgency: Do all that you can to protect the gift of creation! Human beings are destroying our environment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers …” The growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” he said, must awaken our conscience and lead us to take action. We often speak today of rights. What about our responsibilities to each other? So many worship at the altar of individualism that we forget that human beings only flourish in community. Solidarity is a good word to remember. Listen again to one of your American prophets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
As I leave you, I give my sincere appreciation for your commitment to public service. This is a true vocation. I pray that you will live up to its noble calling.
This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on Jan. 20, 2015
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A Portland group that advocates for immigrant day laborers has been disqualified for a grant from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign over its affiliation with a national organization that endorses cvil marriage for gays and lesbians.
The Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, which has received church funding since 1994, will no longer be eligible for a $75,000 grant from the bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) because the advocacy group will not agree to the bishops’ request that it cut ties with the nation’s preeminent Hispanic civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza.
NCLR, which primarily focuses on immigration reform, economic justice and a host of issues supported by Catholic bishops, also holds a policy position in support of marriage equality. As you might expect, the largely Hispanic men that Voz serves each day are not crusaders on the front-lines of LGBT rights or deep-pocketed liberal donors invited to glitzy galas at the Human Rights Campaign. We’re talking about poor immigrants, many of them undocumented, who are struggling to find jobs that put food on the table, get decent health care for their kids and learn English. As Voz director Romeo Sosa told the Associated Press: “Marriage equality is not the focus of our work. We focus on immigrant rights.”
As a tiny non-profit, Voz survives on a shoestring budget — the CCHD grant would have amounted to a healthy chunk of its total budget — so they find invaluable technical support and other resources from more established national organizations like NCLR. But even this kind of relationship is viewed as morally unacceptable by some in the hierarchy because of the specter of same-sex marriage.
Talk about a classic lose-lose. Bishops will not win any points here in their efforts to oppose a demographic tsunami that has made support for marriage equality a mainstream view even among many in the pews, and an organization that puts Catholic social teaching into practice by empowering immigrants will have fewer resources. Day laborers should not be collateral damage in our tiresome culture wars.
At a time when Pope Francis says he prefers a church that it is “bruised, hurting and dirty” because its out “in the streets,” this seems like a page from an old playbook that wasn’t working so well for Catholic bishops.
Let’s be clear. Many bishops deserve enormous credit for standing up to an increasingly aggressive network of conservative activists who relentlessly attack CCHD, which has long been a key funder of community organizing that addresses the root causes of poverty and structural injustice. Just last month, the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty campaign approved grants totaling over $14 million to support more than 200 organizations doing this essential work.
But it would be a major step backward if CCHD withdraws from the kind of bridge-building coalition work that research says leads to the most effective outcomes for low-income communities. I wrote about these trends last summer in a report endorsed by several former CCHD executive directors and retired bishops. This would be a loss for both the image of church and, even more importantly, low-income communities Catholic institutions have a proud history of serving so well.
“Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage,” Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, a past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me at the time. “Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty.”
In an interview today, Dylan Corbett, the Mission Identity Outreach Manager at the U.S. bishops’ CCHD office in Washington, told me the church remains committed to building coalitions and finding common ground.
“We are not pulling back,” he said. “Our commitment to collaboration is not diminished. The money is flowing out the door.” Corbett emphasized that Voz, CCHD staff in Washington and the Portland diocese had many conversations. “We wanted to work through this and we never shut the door. We are troubled by what happened. We are deeply committed to immigrant rights.”
But he said Voz recognized that their affiliation with the National Council of La Raza would disqualify the day laborer group from the potential grant because of CCHD’s contractual guidelines. NCLR’s public policy position on marriage equality, he said,”does not square with Catholic teachings.”
“We respect Voz’s thoughtful decision to make a public commitment to La Raza and the values of La Raza,” Corbett said.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and a former assistant director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of the 1.3 million-member Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998-2001). A leading social justice voice in the Church, Fiorenza spoke with Catholic Program Director John Gehring about the ways Pope Francis is setting a new tone and shaking up the Catholic conversation.
In your opinion, what has been the most important change Pope Francis has brought to the Church and why are most people responding to him so positively?
The Pope seems to want a Church that is inclusive and out in the world, a Church going to the peripheries, a Church that is involved in the truly human problems that are affecting so many, especially the problems of poverty. He is also demonstrating a desire to enter into dialogue with an open spirit, not only among Catholics, but all people of goodwill who want the world to be more fair and just and peaceful. And even with those who may be our opponents he wants to find points where we can agree. Even when we don’t agree we should show respect and dignity. Bishops have a lot to learn from him, especially his lifestyle. He has made a deliberate effort to distance himself from the imperial court of Rome. Bishops have to take a close look at ourselves to see how we can live more simply.
Pope Francis has faced criticism from some Catholic conservatives. The editor of First Things wrote that the Pope’s “naïve” and “undisciplined” rhetoric has been “used to beat up on faithful Catholics.” Bishop Tobin of Providence, RI expressed reservations that the Pope was not talking more about abortion. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia acknowledged in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that “the right wing of the church”…“generally have not been really happy about his (Francis’) election.” Why do you think he has faced this resistance?
The Pope’s very clear teaching condemning the “economy of exclusion” and the structures of sin that are involved strikes at the heart of some conservative Catholics who are so wedded to the unfettered free market that they think the Pope’s talk is naïve. Well, the Pope sees it as realistic. The poor of the world who suffer from that type of economic philosophy see it as realistic. The Pope is on a steady course. He is not naïve. He knows what he is doing.
Pope Francis makes it clear that he is opposed to abortion, but that can’t be the only thing we talk about. What he said early on in his papacy struck the heart of people who make abortion the whole agenda. The Pope is saying we have to oppose abortion but there must be a broader agenda. Some pro-life advocates don’t like to hear that and think if you take the focus off abortion you weaken your position. The Pope is saying you weaken your pro-life position when you don’t take a broader view of issues that attack human life. Some people think there are only sins that are intrinsic evil, but the Pope is saying the economy has built in a structure that strongly impacts against the humanity of people and that is an evil too. Some pro-lifers don’t want to hear intrinsic evil entering into the conversation when it comes to the economy. By broadening the focus, he is strengthening our preaching against abortion.
As someone who is a leading voice in the Church on economic justice issues, do you think we will see a more robust emphasis on economic justice from the U.S. hierarchy because of Pope Francis?
If you take the “Gospel of Joy” (the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium) as guidance, I can’t help but think that will cause the bishops of this country to be more sensitive to the problems of the poor than they have been. That will take a while because there is an element in the church… some of the bishops of my time see these things more clearly than some of the new bishops who have come along in recent decades. But I’m hopeful that with Pope Francis they will broaden their views about the many ways human life are under attack.
Bishop McElroy of San Francisco has written in America magazine that the “substance and methodology of Pope Francis’ teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country…These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Do you agree? Talk about what this “transformation” might look like?
I agree completely with him. He is a young bishop but a bright light in the conference, and we would do well to listen more carefully to what he is saying. There has been discussion about some limited revision of Faithful Citizenship. (the U.S. bishops’ political responsibility statement.) The last time it didn’t include enough about what Pope Benedict said about economic justice in Caritas in Veritate. Hopefully, we will begin to see in Faithful Citizenship more emphasis on what Francis is saying about the poor. That will be a sign of how well Francis’ influence is taking root among the bishops of the United States.
Over the past several decades, the late Cardinal Bernardin’s vision of a Church that is known for “a consistent ethic of life” seems to have diminished some as U.S. church leaders put greater emphasis on fighting issues like civil same-sex marriage. Research from scholars like Robert Putnam of Harvard University and others shows that young Christians have left organized religion in part because of the perception that Church leaders are too cozy with a narrow conservative political agenda. Do you see this as a challenge for U.S. Catholic bishops?
I think there is truth in that perspective. A lot of young people are far more attracted when they see the Church opposing the death penalty, for example, where we have seen great progress and much more so than in my generation. I also think when young people see we are in the streets working with the poor I think that will make a difference.
How is Pope Francis different from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the late Pope John Paul II?
I think he has a broader view. He comes from Latin America and has seen first hand the effects of globalization on his own people.
There is a lot of anticipation for the October Synod at the Vatican. Do you think there will be changes regarding the availability of Sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics?
We should be guided by the spirit of the Gospel in a way that upholds the dignity or marriage. Hopefully, there will be a consideration of ways to have a path that includes these people (divorced and remarried) in the life of the Church but in a way that is not in conflict with the Church’s teachings on marriage.
Pope Francis has fully embraced the teachings of the Second Vatican Council for the laity to take an active role in Church life. What role do you see the laity playing in implementing the Francis agenda?
I hope they will be up front and strong about implementing that agenda in their parishes and dioceses. The “Gospel of Joy” can be their diocesan plan. If that becomes the starting point I think lay people will make a very positive contribution.
Some Catholics have expressed disappointment that Pope Francis has allowed the oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to continue. Are you hopeful for a positive resolution in that tense situation between Rome and women religious?
I think if Pope Francis had stopped the process it would have been perceived as him disagreeing with Benedict so I’m not really surprised the oversight (of LCWR) continued. But my hope is there is much more dialogue going on, and I hope they have a chance to meet with Pope Francis. Hopefully, there will be more voices coming forward among bishops who want to get this issue resolved. The Church has grown and been strengthened in this country because of women religious. They have been doing what Pope Francis has been talking about in the streets of the world, in the prisons. They have done that far more effectively than anyone else in the church.
As someone who has been a Church leader for many years you can take the long view. Are you hopeful about the future of the Church?
I am hopeful as long as we continue to support what Pope Francis is doing and what he is trying to achieve. We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and lay people have to be involved so that this Francis era is not just a passing moment but salt and light for our church for many years to come.
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The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group representing 80 percent of U.S. nuns, has faced scrutiny from the Vatican for years. In 2012, the Vatican’s doctrine office accused the conference of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The assessment also criticized sisters for not doing enough to oppose abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was appointed to oversee the conference as LCWR officials continued to dialogue with the Vatican.
The hot seat just got a little hotter.
As first reported by the National Catholic Reporter yesterday, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pulled no punches in an April 30 address to the leadership of LCWR. As Dennis Coday of NCR reports:
Using the most direct and confrontational language since the Vatican began to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious two years ago, Müller told leaders of the conference that starting in August, they must have their annual conference programs approved by a Vatican-appointed overseer before the conference agendas and speakers are finalized.
Müller specifically challenged the LCWR leaders for deciding to bestow its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to “a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.” Although he does not name her, Müller is referencing St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University.
This is a painful turn of events that sours some of the refreshing new spirit Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church. Most Catholics and plenty of Americans with no connection to Catholic institutions have a deep appreciation for the way sisters minister to those on the margins. At a time when Pope Francis is calling for “a church for the poor,” there are few people who live that mission better than women religious.
When the Vatican signals it will micromanage LCWR operations by forcing the nuns to submit conference agendas and speakers for screening, the dynamics of power, gender and hypocrisy smack you in the face. Catholics have every reason to wonder why the Vatican is turning up the heat on nuns who serve the poor and fight for social justice at the same time a convicted criminal presides as bishop of a U.S. diocese.
Catholic sisters find themselves in good company. Doctrinal watchdogs have long scrutinized and censured those who became some of the most influential figures in the Catholic tradition. John Courtney Murray, S.J., the Dominican Yves Congar and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton all clashed with church authorities in their day. All of them left towering legacies that enriched the Catholic Church and the world.
LCWR should take at least some comfort in knowing that a prominent church official, Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, a favorite of Pope Francis, told an audience at Fordham University in New York last night that “the church is not a monolithic unity. We should be in dialogue with each other.” His answer came in response to a question about LCWR, according to Rev. James Martin, S.J. of America magazine, who tweeted from the event. Speaking about Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, the Fordham theologian that LCWR will honor and the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee has flagged for theological errors, the cardinal noted that “St. Thomas Aquinas was once suspect too. She is in good company.”
Keep the faith, sisters.
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