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.
Ever since his election just eight months ago, Pope Francis has brought a season of renewal and hope to the Catholic Church with his emphasis on personal humility, engagement with the broader culture and focus on economic justice. His warnings that an isolated Church grows “sick” when it fails to be “in the streets” and headline-grabbing comments that Catholicism must not be known exclusively for obsession with a few hot-button issues is breathing new life into the Church’s efforts to evangelize in a culture often indifferent and frequently hostile to institutional religion.
Today, Pope Francis released a major document, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), that expands on core themes articulated in his previous sermons, interviews and reflections. Building on his frequently articulated desire for a more inclusive Church defined by mercy and compassion, Pope Francis writes that the Church must be “the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.” In an earlier interview Pope Francis described the court mentality not uncommon at the Vatican as “the leprosy of the papacy.” He now calls for a “conversion of the papacy” that includes a less top-down approach to Church governance – a “sound decentralization” in his words.
Most relevant to timely political debates, Pope Francis offers a bold message about economic justice that especially needs to heard by Catholics in positions of power. While House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan slash billions from nutrition programs and are daily communicants in the church of free-market fundamentalism, Pope Francis rejects trickle-down economics as a moral and practical failure. He writes:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.
In many ways, this is traditional Catholic teaching about economic justice that builds on the foundations laid in the first social encyclical about capital and labor released in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. But to contemporary American ears accustomed to hearing full-throated Catholic arguments only when it comes to abortion and same sex marriage, this unequivocal economic critique of unfettered markets packs a punch.
“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor,” Francis writes in tones both mournful and hopeful.
It looks like elected officials who take great pride in claiming to represent family values and traditional religious principles while undercutting lifelines to the poor have some sober reading to do over the Thanksgiving recess.
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In a lengthy, freewheeling interview released today, Pope Francis again shows that he wants to chart a bold new course for the massive ocean liner that is the global Catholic Church. The headline moments come when Francis declares he’s never been “a right-winger” and dives straight into the hot-button issues. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis says, noting the church’s disproportionate focus on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time.”
Conservative Catholic pundits like George Weigel and Bill Donohue (not to mention a few U.S. Catholic bishops) must be wondering who took the keys away. The spin will begin soon enough from the Catholic right, which will highlight the fact that the pope has made no changes to church teaching. This misses the point entirely. Something far bigger is happening. Pope Francis is rescuing the Catholic Church from those grim-faced watchdogs of orthodoxy who in windowless rooms reduce Catholicism to a laundry list of no’s.
The Francis Doctrine, if you will, is about building a more joyful, merciful, collegial church that opens doors instead of building up walls. I’m reminded of Jesus taking on the Pharisees in all their righteous moralizing and obsession with legalism. This is a pope who recognizes that a church primarily known for what it opposes rather than what it loves is doomed to irrelevance. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
Pope Benedict XVI, a brilliant theologian, nonetheless perpetuated a message that a “smaller, purer” church was the future of Catholicism. With Francis, a “big-tent” Catholicism that emphasizes not simply the hierarchy of bishops and cardinals but the “people of God” is back in style in a way not seen since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.
There is particular resonance in the pope’s more inclusive style for Catholic progressives. Nuns, theologians, Catholic Democrats and social justice activists have been strongly criticized by church leaders in recent years. Conservatives have largely been given a free pass for ignoring or distorting church teaching on war and economic justice. Simply opposing abortion became the de-facto definition of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic.’ The church’s broad social justice agenda took a back seat. The climate became thick with fear and guilt-by-association. The air is starting to clear. A new space is opening up.
Even Catholics who have drifted away from the church – nearly 1 in 10 Americans – are being courted by the pope.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.
The big question? Will U.S. Catholic bishops get on the Francis train? More thoughts on that later.
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Catholic progressives are used to feeling the heat from some bishops who give the impression that abortion is the only life issue. It’s not every day that you hear a Catholic bishop directly challenge self-identified “pro-life” groups for their selective moralizing and crass tactics. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg – a moderate who has also questioned religious leaders’ apocalyptic denunciations of the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirements as part of the Affordable Care Act – jumps into the fray on his blog:
I am convinced that many so called pro-life groups are not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion…We heard nothing from the heavy hitters in the prolife movement in the last week when Florida last night executed a man on death row for 34 years having been diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic
Many priests grow weary of continual calls to action for legislative support for abortion and contraception related issues but nothing for immigration reform, food aid, and capital punishment. And, this is a big one, priests don’t like unfair attacks on things they highly value and esteem, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.
Bishop Lynch is responding to trends I wrote about recently in a new report that uncovers how pro-life groups like the American Life League are waging a relentless campaign to undermine the church’s most respected social justice ministries. He doesn’t beat around the bush:
From time to time, I suspect when these organizations need money, they try to stir up a hornet’s nest or storm by attacking a Catholic organization, usually falsely accusing them of being anti-life, pro-contraception, either pro or soft on abortion, etc. The storms start small enough and then occasionally grow in size. It’s simply a money raising scheme with little regard for the human lives which they allege they seek to protect – well maybe it is only pre-born human life in which they are interested.
It’s refreshing to hear a bishop stand up for the church’s consistent ethic of life tradition in a way that puts public pressure on conservatives who usually receive a free pass from the hierarchy.
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Prominent Catholic university presidents urged Catholics in the House of Representatives today to stop delaying and pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. The high-profile push from the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, The Catholic University of America and more than 90 other university leaders signals a major ratcheting up of Catholic pressure on Congress at a time when the number of Catholics on Capitol Hill has reached a historic high. The leaders of more than a third of the nation’s 244 Catholic colleges and universities were represented on the letter, which also ran as a full-page ad in Politico newspaper.
Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, would be wise to tune out those Tea Party ideologues now backing him into a corner and meet with these university leaders who speak so persuasively about the moral and practical case for reform. While we’re at it, Rep. Paul Ryan could also benefit from some pressure given reports today that he is getting weak knees on a path to citizenship. In contrast, these university leaders are resolute:
Together we represent universities that educate more than 290,000 students. Leaders on Catholic campuses advocated for the DREAM Act, and we stand with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a road to earned citizenship.
Our broken immigration system, which tears parents from children, traps aspiring Americans in the shadows, and undermines the best values of this nation, is morally indefensible…As Catholics engaged in public service, you have a serious responsibility to consider the moral dimensions of policy decisions. Our immigration system is so deeply flawed, and in such urgent need of repair, that inaction is unacceptable.
Along with Catholic college presidents, the letter also includes signatories from 60 Catholic theologians and academics, as well as a retired U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican who worked in the first Bush administration and endorsed Mitt Romney for president.
The effort, spearheaded by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Faith in Public Life, is part of a broader advocacy push by Catholics on immigration reform. Faith in Public Life will be working to bring Catholic university presidents to Capitol Hill in the fall to urge members to pass a path to citizenship. The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops will circulate the presidents’ letter as part of its robust advocacy efforts.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, touted the Catholic presidents’ push in a statement today:
I welcome the support of the Catholic presidents for immigration reform. They are a welcome voice in this debate, as they see the potential and talent in newly arriving immigrants. Immigrants, especially youth, are important for our nation’s future and competitiveness. Educators understand the importance of investing in immigrant youth so they can become tomorrow’s leaders.
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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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