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.
Rep. Paul Ryan’s Catholic problem isn’t going away.
In a pointed letter today, nearly 90 Georgetown University faculty have called him to task for his continued misuse of Catholic social teaching in defending a GOP budget that is increasingly under fire from Catholic bishops, theologians and social justice leaders.
The letter comes just two days before Ryan visits the Catholic campus in Washington to deliver the Whittington Lecture. The signers – including over a dozen Georgetown Jesuit priests and professors of theology, history and government – do not object to Ryan speaking on campus, but offer a stinging critique of his distortion of Catholic values.
We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.” In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University who spearheaded the letter along with other Georgetown faculty, said: “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”
The Georgetown scholars will also be mailing Ryan some early summer reading – a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by the late Pope John Paul II, so he can brush up on his Church teaching.
Ryan has frequently defended his budget in explicitly Catholic terms and cites the principle of subsidiarity as justification. The letter challenges that political spin as inconsistent with the Catholic social tradition.
While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.” Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.
The Georgetown pushback comes on the heels of a recent letter to Ryan from prominent theologians, priests, nuns and social justice groups. That group of Catholic leaders — including a former high-ranking U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops official, a priest in Rep. Ryan’s district and the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas — called on Ryan to “reconsider his radical budget proposal and refrain from distorting Church teaching.”
Catholic bishops have also sent a flurry of letters to House committee chairman protesting cuts to food stamps and other programs that protect the most vulnerable. Bishops have consistently urged Congress to pass a budget that protects the poor and said the GOP budget proposal “fails to meet these moral criteria.”
You have to wonder how long it will take Ryan and other conservative Catholics like House Speaker John Boehner to get the memo. A budget that takes food away from hungry children and asks the most vulnerable to sacrifice even more so that the wealthiest few can have tax breaks they don’t need isn’t courageous. It’s immoral and irresponsible.
The full letter to Rep. Paul Ryan with signatories can be found here.
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A recent front page story in the New York Times calls attention to a troubling trend I’ve frequently noted – how a mobilized Catholic right targets social justice organizations and religious progressives to advance a narrow ideological agenda.
In this latest case, the victim is a small nonprofit organization in rural southwestern Colorado that helps poor Hispanic immigrants with basic needs. The group, Compañeros, was recently told by the Diocese of Pueblo that its financing from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign was in danger because it’s also a member of an immigration advocacy umbrella group which opposes discrimination against LGBT immigrants and supports same-sex civil unions.
The Times reports:
The Catholic Campaign, which doles out $8 million annually to about 250 groups nationwide, has been under increasing pressure from conservative Catholic groups to ensure that it is not unwittingly aiding organizations that run afoul of church positions on issues like birth control and marriage… Since 2010, nine groups from across the country have lost financing from the campaign because of conflicts with Catholic principles, according to the campaign’s director, Ralph McCloud.
Compañeros was told that unless it withdrew from the coalition, Ms. Mosher said, the group would lose money it got each year. “I was shocked that our money was all of a sudden in jeopardy, and confused about why,” Ms. Mosher said. “We have no reason to believe that we are in any way going against Catholic teachings. If they are willing to defund our program based on an affiliation, it sends a clear message of divisiveness.” Debate over the church’s vaunted antipoverty campaign, which was begun by the bishops’ conference in 1970, has taken a more contentious turn in recent years. Conservative Catholics, with the help of search engines and other Web sites, have become more aggressive in tracking the activities of groups that receive funds from the campaign, while some groups have found themselves forced to defend their work.
The news that Compañeros faces potential defunding comes just a month after the Sacramento Bee reported that the city’s Catholic diocese will no longer fund programs at Francis House, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless, because its executive director (who is not Catholic) has expressed support for abortion rights and gay marriage. In recent years, conservative Catholic activists who fancy themselves defenders of orthodoxy have even gone after Catholic bishops and prominent staffers at the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, correctly warns that the Catholic Church also risks undercutting vital interfaith efforts to address poverty by putting rigid purity tests before service to the poor.
With so many mainline and even evangelical Christians having discerned different responses to disputed moral questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage, how could any Catholic organization possibly partner in joint projects of Christian service? It is one thing to insist on strict adherence in the public sphere to Catholic teaching for one’s own employees, but to impose it on others as a condition of partnership is a step too far. The Diocese of Sacramento’s decision is a poor one, pure and simple, reflecting the narrowest possible approach to Catholic engagement with the world around us. It is a choice that places ideology over service to those most in need, and it diminishes the church’s moral standing as an advocate for and servant to Jesus’ most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Catholic progressives are mobilizing in response. Catholics United has launched a new campaign – With Charity for All – that is collecting donations to help offset the potential loss of funding to Compañeros.
We’ve reached a sad place if the Catholic Church’s historic commitment to social justice and the common good is jeopardized by culture war politics and guilt-by-association tactics at a time of growing income inequality and staggering poverty.
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If it’s spring that means another round of commencement culture wars. The latest discouraging news is out of Massachusetts. A small Catholic college has been forced by Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester to withdraw a commencement invitation to Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, because of what the bishop describes as her association with “political and social organizations that promote activities and points of view that are contrary to fundamental church teachings.”
The Boston Globe reports.
Anna Maria College in Paxton, west of Worcester, released a statement…placing the decision at the feet of Bishop Robert J. McManus and saying it still believes Kennedy is an appropriate choice. However, the statement continued, “after hours of discerning and struggling with elements of all sides of this issue, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees decided with deep regret to withdraw its invitation.
By all accounts, Kennedy takes her Catholic faith seriously and has been deeply engaged with social justice work on many issues. She has been honored by two Catholic colleges, spoke at the Catholic Charities USA centennial gathering in Washington two years ago and serves on the board of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, an organization of Catholic leaders devoted to promoting improved management of financial and human resources in the church.
But according to diocesan spokesman Raymond Delisle, Bishop McManus, who refused to meet with Kennedy to discuss the issues, appears to have a narrow focus for his decision.
From the National Catholic Reporter:
Delisle told NCR that McManus acted because of Kennedy’s “positions on pro-choice versus pro-life and the sanctity of marriage, his [the bishop's] defense of marriage between a man and a woman.”
“I don’t know what specific things he looked at,” Delisle added. “He just said to me those were the two areas that he talked to the president of the college about.”
Kennedy did write a 2004 Washington Post op-ed expressing concern about what she described as “the threatened denial of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians,” a tactic also rejected by the vast majority of bishops. And at a private fundraising event two years ago Kennedy gave an introduction to a gay rights activist. But she has not been a leading public voice for either same-sex marriage or pro-choice organizations. She is also a board member of Catholic Democrats, a national organization representing a Catholic voice within the Democratic Party.
Her graceful reaction to Bishop McManus’ episcopal strong-arming surely resonates with many Catholics deeply troubled by a hierarchy where selective moral outrage over contraception and other divisive social issues threatens to drown out a broader Catholic social justice agenda.
I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office, nor am I a candidate for public office. I have not met Bishop McManus nor has he been willing to meet with me to discuss his objections. He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith. Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College, he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.
Sad, indeed. A vocal minority of Catholic bishops who selectively scold Catholic Democrats while giving a free pass to Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan diminish their credibility as moral leaders and offer a distorted image of the Church’s witness in public life.
When is the last time you heard about a Catholic bishop singling out a conservative Catholic politician who defends the use of torture, the death penalty or pre-emptive war? No bishop raised an eyebrow when Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were demonizing the poor or when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a prominent Catholic, defended the use of the death penalty on Catholic moral grounds at Duquesne University. The selective outrage is hard to stomach even for many faithful Catholics who have served the Church, let alone a broader public less immersed in the specifics of Catholic theology.
The ugly tactics of censorship and guilt by association that defined the McCarthy era should have no place in a Church whose renowned universities aspire to educate students not only to defend orthodoxy, but to intellectually engage an increasingly diverse world.
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A New York Times story about the advocacy groundswell around the Supreme Court’s review of the Affordable Care Act notes that “Catholic and anti-abortion groups” oppose the health care law because of concerns about federal abortion funding. This is a sweeping generalization that misses the mark.
While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic Health Association –representing over 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care facilities– publicly supported the law and was instrumental in securing its passage. So did a national network of Catholic nuns representing thousands of women religious across the country. Over 20 prominent Catholic sisters even filed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in this case supporting the law.
In fact, many Catholic social justice leaders backed this historic law precisely because they believe access to quality, affordable health care is a pro-life issue bearing on human dignity. The Catholic Health Association and independent analysts came to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act does not provide federal funding for abortion. President Obama signed an executive order to provide additional assurances that existing limits on abortion funding remained in place under the law. None of this is mentioned in the article.
These omissions do a disservice to readers and perpetuate a false narrative that Christian conservatives who parrot GOP talking points have an exclusive claim on our public debates over values and public policy.
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So let me get this straight. When the Catholic bishops met this summer in Baltimore for a national meeting economic justice issues failed to even make it on the agenda. Despite rising poverty, scandalous levels of income inequality and political attacks on worker’s rights that all offend the Catholic justice tradition, a Catholic News Service headline before the bishops’ meeting said it all: “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills.”
Fast forward a few months. CNS now reports:
The U.S. bishops have urged Catholics and “all people of faith” across the nation to observe March 30 as a day of prayer and fasting for religious freedom and conscience protection.
The bishops said that among current threats to religious liberty is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces employers, including religious ones, to provide coverage of contraception/sterilization in their health plans. Prayer resources have been posted on the USCCB website
Here’s a headline in the Des Moines Register this week: “Iowa bishops call for spiritual battle against HHS mandate.”
And the Philadelphia Inquirer reports: “Catholics and pro-life supporters plan to rally at Independence Hall at noon in opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate.” The director of the Respect Life office in the Philadelphia archdiocese acknowledged that the use of traditional Lenten practices (prayer and fasting) was “unusual” but told the newspaper that “extreme situations call for extreme responses.”
Interesting. I don’t remember U.S. Catholic bishops mobilizing a similar national response when the U.S. began dropping bombs on Baghdad with a “shock and awe” campaign. Surely this qualified as an “extreme situation” given the threat to human life and dignity. Despite the late Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war, the bishops preferred written statements to civil disobedience or national calls for protest and fasting.
Just imagine if the Catholic cardinals of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago had joined the massive protests that attracted millions of Americans during those days when the dark clouds of war were gathering. This may not have stopped an immoral war, but given the political clout of Catholics in the U.S it would have had a major impact on the tenor of political debates and media coverage. Instead, Catholic neo-cons like George Weigel and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus beat the drums of war in Catholic journals and in prominent media outlets.
The bishops had reasonable concerns with the initial Obama administration ruling on contraception coverage. It was roundly criticized not only by conservative Catholics, but also by Catholic justice leaders and liberal Catholic pundits like E.J. Dionne who broadly support the administration’s policy agenda. In the face of these objections, the Obama administration has worked hard to find stronger accommodations for religious institutions while also protecting women’s health. The Catholic Health Association and other Catholic institutions that provide direct service have expressed confidence that the White House is making a good faith effort to respect religious conscience.
The bishops seem to prefer a more pugnacious posture. Lathered up with prophetic zeal, Bishop William Lori – the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty – even lashed out at a prominent Catholic publication that raised relevant questions about the bishops’ tactics.
The moral outrage and institutional muscle that have been missing from Catholic bishops on matters of war and economic justice are now on full display.
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