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.
In the wake of the horrific violence unleashed last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School, religious leaders across the country have tried to provide spiritual healing and grappled with profound theological questions about the nature of evil. As the dead are buried and we mourn the loss of heroic teachers and innocent children, the work of faith communities is just beginning. Now is the time for pastors, rabbis and imams in every community to speak up boldly for saner gun control laws.
Pro-life Christians who are a major political force in this country should be leading this movement. If the sanctity of human life in the womb galvanizes evangelical Christians and Catholics to march on Washington, create sophisticated lobbying campaigns and hold members of Congress accountable, there is no excuse for pro-life timidity on this issue.
Sadly, if not unexpectedly, the loudest Christian voices have been from the usual chorus of culture warriors who are again blaming Democrats, President Obama and “godless” public schools for the tragedy. Mike Huckabee, pastor-in-chief at Fox News, thinks if we had a more God-fearing nation this tragedy could have been avoided. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, best known for his homophobic screeds, roared that “we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, an evangelical who apparently believes the Prince of Peace would want us all packin’ heat, recently called for arming teachings and school administrators at a Tea Party event.
The National Association of Evangelicals, a pro-life lobbying force, has sent out press releases this week about how evangelicals are portrayed in the media and the attitudes of younger evangelicals toward abortion reduction, but nothing about the moral scandal of gun violence that kills more than 30,000 people a year. The Southern Baptist Convention has been mum. Back in 2002, Richard Land, the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called a “long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”
This moral cowardice and Christian capitulation to NRA propaganda should turn our stomach.
Catholic bishops, who will help mobilize many thousands of pro-life activists next month for the annual March for Life in Washington, could also put more lobbying muscle behind gun control efforts considering the church’s past statements. As Carol Glatz reports for Catholic News Service:
The Catholic Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership? The answer is resoundingly clear: Firearms in the hands of civilians should be strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated. But you won’t find that statement in a headline or a document subheading. It’s almost hidden in a footnote in a document on crime by the U.S. bishops’ conference and it’s mentioned in passing in dozens of official Vatican texts on the global arms trade. The most direct statement comes in the bishops’ “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” from November 2000.
“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer — especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner — and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” That’s followed by a footnote that states: “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions — i.e. police officers, military use — handguns should be eliminated from our society.” That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops’ 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called “for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”
Catholics in the pews are ripe for mobilization. Among U.S. religious groups, Catholics are the most likely to support gun control. More than 6 in 10 of Catholics — 62 percent — favor stricter firearms laws, compared to fewer than half of white evangelicals (35 percent) and white mainline Protestants (42 percent), according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll.
There is no easy fix for the epidemic of gun violence. Inadequate mental health services, rampant materialism, the glorification of violence and the spiritual alienation of young men and women who are disconnected from community all play a role. We live in a toxic culture. Laws can’t be the only answer for a crisis that is more deeply rooted. But the complexity of this urgent challenge can’t be an excuse for inaction or deferring to an unacceptable status quo.
The religious right will continue to blame the gays, contraception and abortion for the collapse of civilization. But there are far more empty churches in Europe and Canada than in our highly religious society, and mass shootings like the ones in Littleton, Aurora and Newton are a rarity because of reasonable gun laws and a culture that does not mythologize guns. If pro-life Christian leaders need some inspiration they should look to Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, who on the first Sunday after the school shooting in Connecticut said the best way to mourn the Sandy Hook tragedy is “to mobilize the faith community for gun control.”
“The gun lobby,” said Hall, “is no match for the cross lobby.”
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Ever since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, put the dignity of work and the importance of unions at the center of Catholic social teaching, the Catholic tradition has provided a moral bulwark against efforts to defang labor rights. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, goes so far as to describe unions as “an indispensable element of social life.” Pope Benedict XVI has pointed to economic globalization and the “downsizing of social security systems” as reasons why unions and worker solidarity are needed “even more than in the past.”
So when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a flurry of anti-union legislation yesterday Catholic bishops in the state surely protested?
Not so much.
The Michigan Catholic Conference did not send out even a cursory press release. In Detroit, where there are plenty of Catholic union families, the archdiocese has no statement up on its web site. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Snooze. This is a stunning level of silence from a church that for centuries has been at the forefront of worker and economic justice. It’s also emblematic of an increasingly conservative church leadership that has radically narrowed Catholic identity to fights against contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. The old giants of social justice like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Msgr. John Ryan or Bishop Walter Sullivan, who passed away just yesterday, have been replaced by a new generation of episcopal leaders like Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, WI., who gave religious cover to Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-government ideology during the campaign and is now cracking down on Catholic nuns at an interfaith retreat center. It was left to one of the great legends of the Catholic social justice movement, retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, to say what needed to be said at Sojourners blog today:
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Governor Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.
Sadly, we’ve seen this movie before. As I blogged about last fall, the Catholic Conference of Ohio also failed to stand up to a wave of anti-union legislation in that state despite a diverse coalition of religious opposition. The Catholic bishops in Ohio remained “neutral” on Issue 2, one of the most important fights over worker justice in the state’s history.
Catholic bishops have clearly demonstrated capacity to mobilize parishioners, pour millions into political lobbying and speak boldly in the media. They flexed their muscles during last summer’s Fortnight for Freedom campaign, largely aimed at the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure women have greater access to contraception, and doubled down on fights against civil same sex marriage during the election. As Michael Sean Winters, far from a lefty commentator, notes in the National Catholic Reporter today.
Lord knows, if Michigan had passed anything to do with contraception we would have heard about it quickly enough. If the bishops of Michigan are not going to stand up and defend 120 years of explicit papal social teaching on the importance of unions, shame on them. If they are not going to defend their own people in the pews from this corporate effort to drive down wages, shame on them. If the bishops of Michigan cannot see that one of the greatest achievements of the Catholic Church in the United States was that we did not lose the working classes in the late 19th and early 20th century as the Church in Europe did, and defend that achievement, shame on them.
It’s nice to see Catholic bishops pushing the sainthood cause of Dorothy Day, but in failing to speak out for those workers and families she championed in her remarkable ministry, the church fails the test of its own proud tradition.
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Archbishop John Myers of Newark just told Catholics in his diocese who support same-sex marriage that they should “refrain from receiving Holy Communion” and calls “a proper backing of marriage” a fundamental issue for Catholic voters heading into the election. Catholics in Minnesota will receive a letter this week from the state’s bishops encouraging them to donate money for television ads asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The new archbishop of San Francisco has said gays and lesbians who are in a sexual relationship of any kind should not receive Communion. In Omaha, the archbishop is encouraging priests to preach against the city’s recently passed sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance. Meanwhile, the Seattle archbishop, who is overseeing the Vatican crackdown on Catholic nuns while he lobbies for an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, cheerily warns that “human society would be harmed beyond repair” by same-sex marriage. Well, at least he is keeping things in perspective. Apocalyptic musings would be so unhelpful.
At a time when one in five children live in poverty and Catholic Republicans like Paul Ryan want to eviscerate effective government programs that help the most vulnerable this is the hill Catholic bishops want to die on? The Newark case, where the archbishop is telling Catholics who even support LGBT equality not to receive Communion, is particularly scary. I missed that section of Catholic social teaching where bishops are deputized as “thought police” free to patrol our conscience and public squares for what Catholics might believe about and do for our sons, friends and neighbors who are gay. A minority of zealous bishops, encouraged by Catholic right activists who deem themselves holier than the pope, are in danger of dragging a religious tradition known for its proud social justice witness and intellectual rigor into the reactionary arms of the Religious Right. Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged the church to engage the modern world with dialogue and a hopeful posture, the flame of pastoral Catholicism is in danger of being snuffed out by a grim fundamentalism that is characterized by fear of what Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington recently described as “the new and virulent secularism.”
Catholic bishops have been unpersuasive in convincing even most Catholics that church teaching on homosexuality makes sense. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics support same-sex marriage or civil unions, and enough Catholics have gay friends and family members to roll their eyes at the church’s insistence that any homosexual relations are “intrinsically disordered,” as the Catholic Catechism teaches. A research study released in March that asked lapsed Catholics in the diocese of Trenton, NJ why they left found that the church’s unwelcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians played a role. Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell found compelling evidence in their meticulously researched book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, that a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none” in part because of Christian leaders’ aggressive political lobbying against same-sex marriage. Here’s Putnam and Campbell writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.
The church’s preoccupation with homosexuality and gay marriage also seems to be misplaced energy given that Catholic marriages are plummeting. Mark Gray, a prominent researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, presented the facts in an article for Our Sunday Visitor last summer. Gray writes: “The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million.”
Bishops have enough housecleaning of their own to do when it comes to strengthening Catholic marriages and rebuilding trust in the face of clergy abuse scandals. They should drop the culture war politics.
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Ever notice that just before a Catholic bishop dives head first into roiling political waters he insists that he floats above the partisan fray? One of the latest wink-and-nod assurance comes from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who in recent years has made an election-year habit out of denouncing Democrats. In a wide-ranging interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the former Denver archbishop who essentially told Catholics during the 2004 election that voting for John Kerry was a sin, now has this to say less than two months before the polls open:
We’re speaking on the night Barack Obama is delivering his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Let me ask flat-out: Do you believe a Catholic in good faith can vote for Obama? I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion. I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. I’m registered as an independent, because I don’t think the church should be identified with one party or another. As an individual and voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances, wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom. Those kinds of issues cause me a great deal of uneasiness.
Let’s first acknowledge that when archbishops speak, especially with news outlets, they are never just offering their “personal” views. Archbishop Chaput is not any Joe Voter hit up by a reporter for a man-on-the street interview. His words and identity are inextricably linked to the institutional church he represents. Chaput goes on to give some handy political cover for Paul Ryan, a Catholic vice presidential candidate who is the architect of a GOP budget that draws 62 percent of its savings from slashing food stamps, nutrition programs for women and infants, and safety nets that protect the elderly. Ryan continues to justify his libertarian, trickle-down economic philosophy in specifically Catholic terms. This is a bit like McDonald’s trying to sell Big Macs as a weight loss option. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described Ryan’s radical budget proposal (tax breaks for the rich, increases in Pentagon spending and cuts to safety nets ) as failing to pass a “basic moral test.” Theologians and Catholic scholars have challenged Ryan to stop distorting Catholic social teaching. This doesn’t bother Chaput and a few other bishops who insist that the church can only speak with authority when it comes to the “non-negotiable” issues like abortion.
Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic…You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.
Mitt Romney’s campaign must love to see this convenient argument. If Republicans say the right things about opposing abortion church leaders will give you a free pass. Never mind the pesky details of economic policies that undermine human dignity and the sanctity of life by making it harder for struggling families to access health care and food. We’re a long way from the days when Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin championed a “consistent ethic of life” that framed respect for life not as a single-issue, but as a “seamless garment” that recognized myriad threats to human dignity. George Weigel and other prominent conservative Catholics are cheerleading the death of that era.
A new generation of Catholic bishops like Chaput have all kinds of detailed things to say about sexuality, marriage and abortion. When it comes to the real life implications of budgets and other economic policies not a few church leaders bow out with references to “prudential judgement.” Catholic bishops who were deep in the legislative weeds when it came to opposing the final health care reform law because of their technical legislative interpretations suddenly withdraw from economic debates with profound moral consequences or at trumpet Republican talking points about that evil Leviathan of government.
Chaput’s breezy reference to Jesus not telling us “government” has to take care of the poor or “that we have to pay taxes to take care of them” ignores several facts. Jesus didn’t tell us specifically how to handle many policy challenges a modern society faces. As Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics pointed out in his 2008 Commonweal essay, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free Market Theology,” Jesus didn’t talk about a lot of things – including free markets or democracy. “Catholic biblical scholarship and magisterial teaching have rejected the fundamentalism of “If the Bible doesn’t say it, it shouldn’t be done,” Finn wrote. Even more relevant to the particulars of Chaput’s “let them have charity” approach is the fact that churches, faith-based agencies and other charities are already strained to the breaking point. When the free market has little interest in anything but being profitable and social service agencies are barely able to meet existing demand, I’m curious to know who Archbishop Chaput thinks is going to pick up the slack? David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said it well a few months ago:
Some representatives even argued that feeding hungry people is really the work of churches, not government. But churches can’t be solely responsible for feeding poor women, children, seniors and disabled people. We also need strong government programs. In fact, all of the food churches and charities provide to hungry and poor people in the United States amounts to only about 6 percent of what the federal government spends on programs such as SNAP and school meals for students. The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. Some congressional leaders are essentially saying that every church in America — big or tiny — needs to come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts.
It’s also worth noting that as much as Chaput and some other bishops have a visceral dislike for government, the Catholic Church’s vital social service infrastructure would be a shadow of itself without government funding. A lengthy analysis of the Catholic Church’s finances in The Economist magazine estimated that 62 percent of Catholic charities’ $4.7 billion annual revenues comes from local, state, or federal government agencies. While Catholic bishops battle with President Obama over contraception funding, his administration has not exactly been miserly when it comes to the church. More than $1.5 billion in government funding went to Catholic organizations over the last few years. This includes an increase in USDA food assistance to Catholic Relief Services from $12.4 million in 2008 to 57.8 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA saw an increase from just over $440 million in government aid in 2008 to more than $554 million in 2010. Let’s have a robust debate about the proper role of government, not a cartoonish battle that pits “big government” v. “free markets.”
When it comes to Catholic voters and a candidate’s position on abortion things are also more complicated than Chaput’s approach suggests. Read Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent piece, “The Single Issue Trap,” in Commonweal. I agree that the Democratic Party should be more open to “pro-life” voices (as many Catholic Democrats argued persuasively at the Democratic National Convention). Some Democrats like Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan have shown real leadership in pushing abortion reduction legislation that focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. More of these efforts are needed. Democrats running for office (or those working to hold on to seats) are frequently fearful of having fundraising spigots turned off by pro-choice lobbying organizations if they stray too far from the party’s ideological orthodoxy.
At the same time, Republican pro-life rhetoric is rarely matched by public policy decisions that help women and families. Many Republicans limit their pro-life advocacy to railing against Roe v. Wade while ignoring the fact that even if it was overturned many states would not criminalize abortion. This means that building a “culture of life,” as Pope John Paul II argued, must go deeper than a legalistic approach and include robust social and economic supports for pregnant women and vulnerable families. When it comes to policies like universal health care that can actually help reduce the abortion rate, most Republicans these days punt and fall back on free-market bromides and a libertarian philosophy of radical individualism. Consider that abortion rates in Massachusetts have gone down since the state implemented health care reform in 2006, an awkward fact for Republicans since Obamacare is based largely on the Massachusetts model that one former governor now vying for president can’t run away from fast enough.
Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have an obligation to raise moral questions in a political context, but they erode the church’s credibility in the public square when they reduce Catholic teaching to a single issue and give political cover to a Republican Party that is out of sync with Catholic teaching on many issues.
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Catholic leaders have been busy cracking down on nuns and theologians while also keeping a vigilant eye on those wily Girl Scouts. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., is pulling a card from the McCarthy-era playbook by requiring Sunday school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. David Gibson, a prominent Catholic writer, notes in a recent NPR segment that the Vatican is doing all it can to “bring a schismatic right-wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold while at the same time, it’s censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II.”
So when will influential Catholic organizations and public figures feel the heat for ignoring church teaching when it comes to issues like poverty, economic justice and workers’ rights? Why the free pass for Catholic conservatives like Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, who is making the rounds on Fox News defending the aggrieved richest 1 percent of Americans and preaching a gospel of free-market fundamentalism that is at odds with centuries of Catholic social teaching? Fr. Sirco’s public love letters to libertarianism, most recently in his new book – Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy – surely put him in the good graces of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or even the Romney campaign. But one would hope his bishop might at least raise an eyebrow.
A familiar presence on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, Rev. Sirico recently told the New York Times that the church’s historic defense of unions might not apply to labor fights at Catholic universities today. In a lengthy interview with the National Review he praised Ayn Rand and smugly disparaged those non-habit wearing Catholic nuns for having the audacity to challenge a House GOP budget that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described as failing a basic moral test. While the Ryan budget has no chance of passing its been endorsed by Mitt Romney and serves as an ideological blueprint for a conservative economic agenda that insists we must make a false choice between protecting the most vulnerable and being fiscally responsible. Fr. Sirico’s free-market theology and anti-government zeal often sounds more like Tea Party rhetoric than Pope Benedict XVI, who warns about the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, or the late Pope John Paul II who cautioned against an “idolatry of the market.” Vincent Miller, the chair of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, recently wrote in America magazine that Rev. Sirico’s “well financed defense of libertarian economics often rise to the level of self-parody.” Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, offered a detailed theological critique of Rev. Sirico in Commonweal magazine back in 2008.
Some conservatives have questioned the funding of progressive faith groups working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has been dominated by the Religious Right. Much of this criticism is overheated conspiracy mongering from those who live in some imaginary world where religious liberals are more organized and well-funded than a politically powerful Christian conservative movement that has helped elect presidents and until recently ran circles around religious progressives in the media. But if we’re going to play the funding game let’s take a look at who has made it possible for a Catholic priest to build a national media profile churning out paeans to the free market and putting a moral gloss on corporate talking points. Not surprisingly, big business and wealthy Republicans are bullish on Rev. Sirico. The Acton Institute is backed by the DeVos family, prominent donors to the Republican Party and various conservative organizations that lobby lawmakers to slash government programs that help the most vulnerable, lower taxes on the rich and deregulate Wall Street. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” according to Forbes magazine. The billionaire Koch brothers, the most influential conservative donors in the country (they just hosted a lavish fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons and plan to spend $200 million in this election) have also contributed to Rev. Sirico’s Acton Institute in the past, according to the corporate accountability and transparency group Source Watch.
Wealthy conservatives have every right to lobby for a return of trickle-down economics, but popes and bishops for centuries have rejected the blind faith in unfettered markets and radical individualism promoted by groups like the Acton Institute. Last fall, the Vatican released a timely document that calls for more robust global financial reform and offered a sharp moral critique of the kind of laissez-faire economics Rev. Sirico preaches.
The Catholic Church has plenty of room for liberals, moderates and conservatives. We need a spirited debate over how to properly apply Catholic social teaching to public policy challenges in a pluralistic society. But I worry about the message that is sent when nuns, theologians and progressive Catholics are demonized by church officials even as prominent conservative Catholics appear on national television to peddle ideologies that are at odds with bedrock Catholic values.
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