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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.

Words Have Consequences

October 16, 2010, 4:30 pm | By John Gehring

The ubiquitous Fr. James Martin — Jesuit, author, blogger and unofficial chaplain of the Colbert Report– has an important commentary up at America magazine that challenges the Catholic Church to improve its outreach to gays and lesbians. Here’s Martin writing in his post, “What is a Catholic Response to Gay Suicide?”

We Catholics, at least as I see it, can do a better job in reaching out to young gays and lesbians. On the positive side, the USCCB’s document “Always Our Children” is a fine start, especially for parents who have homosexual children. And many large dioceses and archdioceses, like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, have excellent outreach programs for gay and lesbian Catholics…But often the Catholic message to gay and lesbian Catholics starts off with the “Thou shall nots” instead of the “Thou Shalls.” We invariably start off with “Thou Shall Not Have Sex” instead of “Thou Are a Beloved Creation of God,” or “Thou Art a Full Member of the Community,” or “Thou Have Much to Bring to the Church.”…. Simply speaking about outreach to gays and lesbians brings forth such swift and terrible condemnations in some Catholic circles these days that it surely must make the gay Catholic want to say to his or her church, as Jesus said to St. Peter, “Do you love me?”

This kind of message clearly needs to be heard more universally in the Catholic Church. In Belgium, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, has set off a firestorm of criticism in his new book, where he describes AIDS as “a kind of immanent justice, somewhat like ecology and the environment: as when we have to pay the bill for what we have done to the milieu.” Later he remarks: “If we act inappropriately with physical nature, nature in turn will mistreat us. And when people deal inappropriately with the deeper meaning of human love, that brings catastrophes at all levels.”

The archbishop’s comments have been denounced by many public officials in the country, and some parliamentarians are even calling for a re-examination of the legal tax status of the Belgian Catholic Church. As Nick noted in an earlier post, those who fight for LGBT equality sometimes take a hostile view of religion and faith leaders. This is — as animosity can be rooted in unfair generalizations — but also unsurprising given that such offensive statements from leaders like Archbishop Léonard make it hard to hear the voice of compassion and love at the heart of our faith traditions.

Over the last month, we’ve seen a horrific spate of young gay men committing suicide and being tortured and murdered. All of us should do what we can to combat homophobia and reach out to those who feel rejected or lost because of society’s lingering prejudices. But those who have the privilege of the pulpit assume a special responsibility to consider how their words can either nurture human dignity and compassion or simply give moral cover to bigotry.

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Taking a stand

October 8, 2010, 11:25 am | By John Gehring

I admire people who have convictions and follow their conscience even when the consequences are difficult. Fr. Michael Tegeder, the pastor of St. Edward Parish in Bloomington, Minn., is clearly one of those people with a clear mind, a generous heart and an even stronger backbone. He recently went public with a disagreement he has with his boss: Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

First, some context by way of background. The archbishop is featured in a new DVD video message, developed by the state’s Catholic bishops, criticizing same- sex marriage and urging Minnesota voters to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Over 400,000 Catholics in the state have received the DVDs, mailed just a few weeks before Minnesotans go to the polls to vote for a new governor. Two candidates running support same-sex marriage and one doesn’t. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, the archbishop noted that this was the first time the diocese has used a mass DVD mailing to inform Catholics about specific church teachings. He referred to the DVD as a “teaching tool,” not a political statement, and said an “anonymous donor” funded the campaign.

Fr. Tegeder wrote a letter to the editor published in Minnesota’s largest newspaper, The Star Tribune, asking why this issue demanded such fervent advocacy from the diocese.

In every serious study, poverty is the top reason for marital breakdowns. It is very hard to make the case that a small percentage of the population who bond with members of their own sex and seek to live in a committed relationship could have anything but a positive effect on the general population’s appreciation of stable, faithful, life-giving unions…The bishops themselves are not united on how to approach this new reality of gays and lesbians claiming a right to have their own families publicly recognized with corresponding rights and responsibilities… Just recently the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, the main author of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and friend of the pope, publicly stated that the church needs to look differently at committed same-sex relationships. His fellow Austrian bishops concurred. These are thinking, serious church leaders. They listen. The constitutional amendment being promoted by the archbishop does not allow even for civil unions, and it would limit current rights enjoyed by our gay and lesbian citizens. We as Catholics can have our own beliefs about marriage. But we must recognize that people of other faiths and of no faith have conscientious beliefs as well. Most scandalous is that Archbishop Nienstedt has compromised his office with the use of anonymous money to fund this effort. The constitutional amendment is a very political issue. The impression is given that political funding is at work here.

It’s not clear what the consequences will be for Fr. Tegeder, but this archbishop toes a hard line. He recently denied communion to about 25 college students and community members at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., because they were wearing rainbow buttons and sashes in protest of the church’s stand on gay relationships. Tegeder is not alone in his public disagreement. The artist in residence at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis for the past 15 years was recently suspended from that position when she expressed her opposition to the DVD mailings. A group of Catholics in the diocese launched a Return the DVD campaign and to date has collected over 1,500 DVDs to be sent back to the diocese. Every time they receive a DVD, the group makes a donation to St. Stephen’s Human Services and Episcopal Community Services — non-profits working to help fight poverty and end homelessness in Minnesota.

Polls show that Catholics and other people of faith hold diverse views when it comes to LGBT issues. Your position on whether gays and lesbians should be able to marry probably has as much to do with your age as your political views. The Catholic Church has every right to articulate its position on marriage in the public square, regardless of the changing winds of popular opinion. But a campaign funded by an anonymous donor just weeks before an election hardly seems to be a simple “teaching tool.” Most Catholics know what the church teaches about marriage, but many rightly wonder why a pastoral approach is often replaced by an aggressive and politicized call to arms. At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and the number of people living in poverty has reached its highest level in a half century, how about a few DVDs on hunger, homelessness, the dignity of work?

Maybe an anonymous donor could even pick up the tab.

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Faithful Hypocrisy

October 7, 2010, 10:16 am | By John Gehring

Dan and Nick have ably dissected the numbers in a new poll about the Tea Party movement from Public Religion Research Institute. I attended the release at the Brookings Institution earlier this week and was struck by comments from panelist Michael Gerson – a WaPo columnist, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and influential voice of moderate Christian evangelism.

I appreciate Gerson’s consistent lament that the extreme tail wagging the Republican dog these days has negative long-term consequences for a party unlikely to find lasting electoral success alienating Latinos, embracing Tea Party extremism and generally making it harder to create a big-tent conservatism. His elegant writing and often lonely call for Republicans to recognize the generational and ideological shifts shaping the broadening evangelical agenda make me one of those annoying liberals who stand up for him at parties with progressive friends.

But at Tuesday’s panel, Gerson set aside his nuanced pen and put on his partisan hat. He continued an argument from his WaPo column that morning, which criticized President Obama for abandoning his creative engagement with religious voters that characterized his faith-based outreach on the campaign trail and blamed his administration for sparking a new “culture war over the role of government.” Instead of Fox News misinformation, blatant examples of Tea Party racism and endless Republic obstructionism, he pointed to the Obama administration for the extreme ideological polarization dividing Americans. Here’s Gerson writing in his column:

But Obama has mainly employed his faith-based office to defend federal initiatives, particularly health-care reform. “Get out there and spread the word,” he recently told faith leaders.. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.” Such obvious political manipulation only feeds skepticism. Instead of creatively reaching out to religious conservatives, Obama has driven them toward an ideological decision. America is accustomed to culture war arguments on abortion and family issues. The president has provoked a culture war debate on the size and role of government. If the choice is between bureaucratic centralization and Tea Party revolt, most evangelicals will choose the latter.

So let me get this straight. George W. Bush, Gerson’s old boss, promoted perhaps the most aggressive, politicized Christianity ever seen in the White House –including a Christian triumphalism that undergirded his quasi-messianic view of interventionist foreign policy — but it’s this president who is engaging in “political manipulation” by encouraging faith leaders to spread the word about health care reform many of them worked tirelessly to achieve as an urgent moral priority for decades?

This is an empty argument from an intellectual heavyweight who usually gives us more to chew on.

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Pope Benedict XVI: A Tea Party Catholic?

September 29, 2010, 10:18 am | By John Gehring

As David Gibson at Politics Daily noted recently, some conservative Catholics are trying to use Catholic teaching to endorse the Tea Party.

“The pope and the tea party – these are not unrelated things. They shouldn’t be, anyway,” writes Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online. Lopez develops her position at, a Catholic site sponsored by the Knights of Columbus:

The tea party movement . . . isn’t an explicitly religious movement, by any strength. But if you talk to people who show up to the rallies, if you listen to some of the candidates who have showed up to run for office this year — to serve — it’s hard to escape this is a cultural movement of people who feel called to something greater than themselves. They dare to hope, to believe that we can be better than we have been. Of course, they dare to hope that we can be better when it comes to government spending, better when it comes to seriousness about homeland security, better when it comes to making people freer to make choices that are best for their families, and so on.

Lopez specifically touts Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and House GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, both Catholics and Tea Party heroes, as “among those who give a most compelling voice to people’s fears about the future of the American idea, the experiment that Pope Benedict spoke with respect and admiration of when he came here to visit” in April 2008.

Making a connection between Tea Party principles and the words of Pope Benedict XVI is a stunning distortion of Catholic teaching about government. Catholic teaching is unequivocal about the essential role government has in serving the common good and warns about the dangers of markets that fail to protect human dignity. In fact, the pope’s latest encyclical calls for a fundamental rethinking of economic systems that solely benefit multinational corporations at the expense of citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable. Lopez also might want to dust off her Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:

The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason the political authority exists. The state, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression…The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life…To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice.

Sure doesn’t sound like a bold endorsement of Tea Party ideology or the warmed-over talking points about small government found in the Pledge to America.

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Are taxes a moral issue?

September 16, 2010, 5:48 pm | By John Gehring

The fierce debate over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts has become front-page news and provoked a steady stream of punditry as the midterm elections approach. It seems that faith leaders have an important voice to raise on this issue. While some might think this is an unlikely topic for pastors and faith-based advocates, diverse religious traditions have a proud history of advocating for a just economy, and Catholic social teaching in particular has some pretty specific things to say about how taxes relate to the common good. In fact, the Catholic Church calls for “a reasonable and fair application of taxes” in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a long and daunting title for the encyclopedic volume of the church’s centuries-old social justice teachings:

Tax revenues and public spending take on crucial economic importance for every civil and political community…Public spending is directed to the common good when certain fundamental principles are observed: the payment of taxes as part of the duty of solidarity; a reasonable and fair application of taxes; precision and integrity in administering and distributing public resources. In the redistribution of resources, public spending must observe the principles of solidarity, equality and making use of talents. It must also pay greater attention to families, designating an adequate amount of resources for this purpose.

Let’s hope Catholic leaders in states like Ohio, home to House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner – now an influential evangelist in the Church of Trickle-Down Economics – can weigh in with some timely values messaging about the role of taxes. Faith leaders nervous about entering this critical debate that strikes at the very core of what ends our economy should ultimately serve have a good example in Pope Benedict XVI, who last summer called for a dramatic rethinking of the global economy in ways that recognize the moral and practical perils of free-market fundamentalism. Religious leaders, it’s time to lift up your economic justice positions, sharpen your talking points for the media cycle, and go make some news!

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