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.
As we pause to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of pushing our nation to live up to its highest ideals, it’s easy to sanitize his radical call for economic justice and ignore his prophetic words about war. We prefer King as a safe icon behind history’s glass case. When his words are quoted these days, we rarely hear the righteous anger of a preacher who denounced the Vietnam War and described America as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” We ignore his warnings about the arrogance of American foreign policy. We avoid an honest grappling with his stinging critique of capitalism as a system that permits “necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
At 35, King had already met with presidents, traveled the globe as a hero of nonviolent resistance and become the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But in his final hours King traveled to Memphis for a sanitation workers strike, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with forgotten workers who struggled to earn a living picking up trash.
Our nation has made substantial progress since then, but the racism, poverty and militarism that King shined a moral spotlight on in his time persist. The gap between the rich and poor has reached Depression-era standards. African Americans earn less, die earlier and are far more likely to be imprisoned than whites. A memo from the Center for American Progress, The State of Minorities in the New Economy, shows that African Americans and Latinos are falling even further behind during the economic downturn. King recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required addressing the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His vision for a “Poor People’s Campaign” bringing together a multiracial coalition united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us was groundbreaking, but it fizzled after his assassination in 1968.
Religious leaders and faith communities have a particular responsibility to take up his call anew. One of King’s most important contributions was his sweeping vision of what it would take to build a just society. Racism, poverty, and militarism were not isolated social ills, he understood, but interrelated evils that required a deeper social transformation to overcome. King knew that building the beloved community required us to make connections and confront the American infatuation with individualism because our fates are tied together in a “single garment of destiny.”
King’s challenge is often hard to hear. But an honest reckoning with his words and actions can inspire us to build a new common-good movement for racial and economic justice today.
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New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has not been shy about weighing in on controversial issues, taking to his blog recently and defending Catholicism’s Culture Warrior in Chief Bill Donohue and blasting the New York Times for its coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandal. The new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops now has another opportunity to address a hot-button issue emerging from his own backyard. Rep. Peter King, a Catholic who represents heavily Catholic Long Island, has announced that as the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee he will hold hearings next month on the “radicalization” of the American Muslim community.
This hearing will likely be typical political theater, full of furrowed brows and heavy doses of demagoguery. This could all be easily dismissed if not for the rising tide of Islamophobia that brands Muslims as sinister outsiders hostile to American values. Sound familiar, Catholics? It wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, when Catholic immigrants were demonized as threats to democracy. Irish Catholics were caricatured with vile stereotypes, Catholic Churches were burned and political cartoons savaged the bishops’ allegiance to Rome. It’s easy to forget that ugly history today when influential Catholics serve in the highest echelons of government and media.
We can find smart solutions to stop terrorism and other threats to national security (whether they come from Muslims, Christians or non-religious extremists) in ways that also preserve our values. Eboo Patel suggests in a recent Washington Post “On Faith” column that along with learning more about why a small percentage of Muslims become terrorists, Rep. King should also help educate the American people about a lesser known fact:
Peter King can shine a light on the role that the mainstream Muslim community has played in these attacks. By and large, it has been to help prevent them. Mainstream American Muslims have been vigilant against extremists in their communities – confronting their views, flushing them out and if need be reporting them to law enforcement. A Muslim Public Affairs Council study found that American Muslim communities had played a central role in helping law enforcement prevent seven of the last ten Al Qaeda related plots. How did the FBI get turned on to Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the young man who planned to attack the Christmas Tree Lighting in Portland? His Muslim father reported him.
Archbishop Dolan, who serves in one of the world’s most diverse and vibrant cities, occupies a powerful pulpit. When he speaks, both privately and publicly, his words are taken seriously. When the archbishop calls politicians and other city leaders, you can bet he is not put on hold. The archbishop is by all accounts an affable guy, a consensus builder who prides himself on his ability to defuse tensions. A meeting with Rep. King should be on his schedule.
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It’s one of our nation’s most inspiring creeds: anyone can achieve the American dream. The accidents of class or race are no match for ambition and entrepreneurial drive. Celebrated stories of rags-to-riches success (see Winfrey, Oprah or Obama, Barack) keep this up-by-your bootstraps ethos burning brightly in the starry firmament of the American imagination. While it’s no great surprise to most of us that social inequality and the stubborn persistence of poverty conspire to circumscribe the life chances of many, the opportunity gap is widening. Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times:
Opportunity in America isn’t what it used to be either. Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6% make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution. We think of America as a land of opportunity, but other countries appear to offer more upward mobility. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States.
These grim findings raise tough questions for leaders across the political spectrum, especially conservatives who wax poetic about American exceptionalism and the abundant opportunities presented to those who simply work hard and play by the rules. The ascendant libertarians who demonize government and romanticize the “free market” seem either uninterested in grappling with inequality of opportunity or offer unpersuasive arguments. (Chris Beam offers a lengthy and damning dissection of libertarianism in this New York magazine essay.) For most market fundamentalists, private charity is equal to the task of caring for those who don’t flourish in the Darwinian jungle of unfettered capitalism. But charity that simply responds to unjust social structures is inadequate. Just this week, Catholic Charities of Wichita announced that because of declining donations it can no longer help people with rent or utility payments. Charity is essential, but government also has a vital role in ensuring opportunity and serving the common good.
Progressives don’t have a monopoly on good ideas for addressing inequality. We also need serious thinking from conservatives. But as the Tea Party drags our debate further to the right and even mainstream Republican leaders throw around absurd cries of socialism, I’m left wondering who will stand up for those watching the American dream turn into a mythical memory. As a new season of political posturing begins, religious leaders and diverse faith communities will once again make sure debates over the deficit and spending are not abstract arguments or political footballs but profound moral issues central to who we are as a nation. The question is which elected officials will show the courage to resist partisan orthodoxy and begin the task of making the American dream a reality for more than just the privileged few.
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We noted last week that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.com gave its Lie of the Year award to the myth that health care reform legislation represented a “government takeover” of the health care system. This has me musing over what the biggest Catholic lie of the year was in 2010. I’m picking the laughable effort that Deal Hudson, the CatholicVote.org crowd and other conservative Catholics made to brand Tea Party ideology as all nice and cozy with Catholic social teaching. This effort was so transparently partisan and willfully ignorant of centuries of Catholic social teaching that it runs away with the award like Cam Newton and the Heisman.
The idea that the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” fits lockstep with anti-government rhetoric, free-market fundamentalism and lower taxes for millionaires and billionaires is a stunning distortion of papal encyclicals and Catholic social teaching through the ages. The always insightful Vox Nova blog says it well.
Fundamentally, subsidiarity is all about letting human dignity flourish by creating the space for social relations to take place at the most personal level. It is meaningless when stripped away from solidarity. It has nothing to do with low taxes, minimal regulation, or low spending. In the economic sphere, solidarity calls for government intervention in certain core areas (such as determining working conditions and support for the unemployed), while subsidiarity calls for the government to create favorable conditions for the common good to flourish. That, by the way, means correcting the problems that come with the free market. This was patently clear to Pius XI, the intellectual architect of subsidiarity, when he railed against the injustice created by unregulated large corporations, especially in the financial sector. Properly understood, subsidiarity provides a bulwark against both the centralizing tendencies of socialist collectivism, and the decentralizing tendencies of the free market.
Deal Hudson and Thomas Peters might want to put down those Republican talking points and dust off their Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004, the Compendium describes the “common good” as “the reason that political authority exists.” In Catholic teaching, government has an essential role in helping to create the conditions of a just society where human dignity can flourish. The Catholic Church is not a spiritual subsidiary of the Cato Institute. The Church’s call to reject excessive individualism and warnings about the dangers of unregulated markets don’t sound anything like the Tea Partiers.
Even on the prickly political issues of taxes, Catholic teaching is not shy about urging a more just distribution of wealth (see Church teaching on the “universal destination of goods”). Church advocates for “a reasonable and fair application of taxes,” according to the Compendium, “in which burdens are “proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing.” As Vincent Miller, the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton, writes in a recent Washington Post “On Faith” commentary “the late Pope John Paul II, that resolute opponent of communism, nonetheless repeatedly insisted that private wealth was subject to a ‘social mortgage’ to be used for the common good.”
Catholic conservatives have every right to support the Republican Party, embrace Tea Party libertarianism and believe in less regulation of business. These are political arguments I find lacking, but they are longstanding views subject to debate in the robust marketplace of ideas. But anointing them with the imprimatur of Catholic Church teaching is wrong.
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UPDATE: Last week, I blogged about Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who threatened to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after earlier this year the hospital determined that a surgical procedure resulting in the termination of a pregnancy of a young mother close to death was medically necessary to save her life. The decision was made by doctors in consultation with Sister Margaret Mary McBride, the hospital’s vice president, who sits on St. Joseph’s ethics committee.
Bishop Olmsted called a news conference today and said this, according to breaking news from the National Catholic Reporter.
It is my duty to decree that, in the Diocese of Phoenix, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, CHW [Catholic Healthcare West] is not committed to following the teaching of the Catholic Church and therefore this hospital cannot be considered Catholic. The Catholic faithful are free to seek care or to offer care at St. Joseph’s Hospital but I cannot guarantee that the care provided will be in full accord with the teachings of the Church. In addition, other measures will be taken to avoid the impression that the hospital is authentically Catholic, such as the prohibition of celebrating Mass at the hospital and the prohibition of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel.
This is episcopal bullying, and a truly sad development. The hospital is standing firm. In a statement posted on its web site, hospital president Linda Hunt said the hospital will remain “steadfast” in fulfilling its mission.
Consistent with our values of dignity and justice, if we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case. We continue to stand by the decision, which was made in collaboration with the patient, her family, her caregivers, and our Ethics Committee. Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.
Bishop Olmsted’s stunning decision to also end celebration of Mass at the hospital adds another element of outrage to this story. Executing his “duty to decree” (Olmsted’s imperial language) and proving his power in the diocese apparently takes precedence over ensuring that patients and the families of the sick and the dying have spiritual refuge during times of crisis. As Michael Sean Winters notes on his NCR blog, Distinctively Catholic, this case is a failure of episcopal leadership on multiple fronts.
During this holy week of Christmas, my thoughts and prayers are with Sr. McBride and the dedicated staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a proud Catholic institution.
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