Posts by John Gehring

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John Gehring
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.

Horatio Alger Turns in His Grave

January 5, 2011, 11:27 am | By John Gehring

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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Catholic Lie of the Year

December 23, 2010, 12:16 pm | By John Gehring

We noted last week that the Pulitzer Prize-winning 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 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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Episcopal Bullying Wins in Phoenix

December 21, 2010, 5:03 pm | By John Gehring

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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Is Civility Overrated?

December 21, 2010, 2:15 pm | By John Gehring

In his Sunday New York Times column, Frank Rich argues that civility and bipartisan common ground are sacred cows worthy of slaying.

The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation. Sure, it would be swell if rhetorical peace broke out in Washington — or on cable news networks — but given that American politics have been rancorous since Boston’s original Tea Party, wishing will not make it so. Bipartisanship is equally extinct — as made all too evident this month by the pathetic fate of the much-hyped Simpson-Bowles deficit commission.

Rich’s column has been stirring in my head this week. Civility and common ground are guiding lights for many faith-based organizations, and religious leaders frequently call for more civil discourse in public life. But are there limits, and possibly even drawbacks, to staying above the fray? I disagree that seeking consensus on difficult issues and treating your ideological opponents with a modicum of respect (instead of, say, calling them fascists) should be dismissed, in Rich’s words, as “childish magical thinking.” Loyalty to narrow partisan interests and scorched-earth rhetorical tactics stoke cynicism about politics and drive us deeper into ideological bunkers. This is especially problematic for people who invoke faith as the grounding of their political beliefs.

But Rich is justified in viewing constant pleas for civility and bipartisan cooperation with skepticism. History teaches that the struggle for justice and progressive social change isn’t a story of kindly worded statements or “bipartisan commissions.” As Frederick Douglas said, power concedes nothing without struggle. Since the founding of our nation, disruptive people who sometimes say prickly things have been at the forefront of justice movements. Those who fought and often died for labor rights and racial equality faced off against fierce guardians of the status quo who were unmoved by civil dialogue or compromise. I’m not suggesting that we need an angrier politics – the Tea Party crowd has that covered – but civility and the quest for common ground shouldn’t take on an improperly exalted status. At a time when Muslims and immigrants are demonized as a threat to our national values, global climate change threatens the lives of millions and the poor drift further behind, it’s reasonable to be, well, a little unreasonable. These injustices should make us angry, and sometimes lofty appeals to civil discourse are just not enough.

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Pastors or Generals?

December 16, 2010, 12:06 pm | By John Gehring

The Arizona Republic reports that the Catholic bishop of Phoenix is threatening to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status tomorrow after earlier this year the hospital decided that terminating the pregnancy of a young mother close to death from pulmonary hypertension – a condition that limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function – was medically necessary to save her life. The decision was made by doctors in consultation with Sister Margaret McBride, the hospital’s vice president, who sits on St. Joseph’s ethics committee.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted condemned the surgery as an abortion and announced this spring that McBride, a Sister of Mercy, had excommunicated herself. In a recent letter to Catholic Healthcare West, which oversees the hospital, Bishop Olmsted fumed with indignation from his episcopal perch like a disgruntled general. “There cannot be a tie in this debate,” Olmsted writes. “Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question.”

In order to retain its Catholic status, St. Joseph’s must now acknowledge that Bishop Olmsted was right in his criticism of the decision, submit to a diocesan review and certification to ensure full compliance with Catholic moral teaching and agree to give its medical staff ongoing training on the Ethical and Religious Directives, a document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This is a classic example of why some Catholic bishops have lost the respect of even faithful Catholics, including those who view abortion as a tragedy that undermines the sanctity of life. An imperial style and dogmatic certitude in the face of the messy complexities of ministering to the sick and dying leaves little room for prudential judgment or nuanced analysis. One can believe abortion is wrong and at the same time recognize that in grave situations moral absolutes often collide with the real world, where life-and-death medical decisions are made in the most ethical way possible against a daily backdrop of ambiguity and imperfection. Unlike most bishops who have spent little or no time serving in hospitals, Sister McBride and other Catholic health-care providers have lived experience and practical expertise that should be respected.

Bishop Olmsted’s black-and-white determination also offers a telling contrast with Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statements about condoms, where the pope acknowledged that while the Church teaches condom use is wrong, “in certain cases” contraceptives can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” This is not situational ethics that violates Church teaching, but practical and humane theology that responds to the world as it is even as we strive to build a world that lives up to our highest ideals. The tragic pandemic of AIDS in Africa, the pope teaches, must have some bearing on the proper application of Church teaching. If it doesn’t, our religious leaders are taking a path radically different from the example of Jesus, who walked among the brokenness and sin of the world not as a moral bureaucrat offering edicts from on high, but as a real person who experienced the human condition in all its frailty.

Bishops are teachers of the Catholic faith. Bishop Olmsted, I’m sure, takes that role seriously. Jesus of Nazareth was also a teacher. But his most pointed words were saved for the Pharisees and Sadducees, those high priests and religious authorities of his time, whose fixation on the letter of the law left them blind to the spirit of the law.

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