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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.

Catholic Sisters on Trial

May 1, 2012, 1:46 pm | By John Gehring

Don’t expect Catholic sisters to shrink like delicate flowers in the shadow of the Vatican’s recent crackdown. For centuries, women religious in the Catholic Church have been marginalized and often maligned even as they exemplify what it means to be Christians who bring healing to a wounded world. Full of grace and grit, they still keep living Gospel values– healing the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless – as the storms of politics (ecclesial and civil) thunder around them.

Highly educated and fighting for justice in corporate boardrooms and on Capitol Hill, Catholic sisters are not remaining silent as they grapple with the recent scolding from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “When you touch a woman, you touch a rock,” a South African proverb reminds us.

Apologies to St. Peter, but the rock of our Catholic Church today would be more like a house built on sand without the enduring witness of Catholic nuns in the United States and around the world. As R. Scott Appleby, a prominent church historian at the University of Notre Dame, notes in an important interview on this subject – “This is not the way to treat other Christians.” Appleby continues:

I don’t think the church intends to attack women or denigrate women. But the church in its wisdom has to recognize the impact of the way it has conducted its affairs. If certain members of the hierarchy of the church are not intending to denigrate women or to subordinate women or to make them think they are second class citizens, they are not doing a very good job of conveying that message. I think we should err in the church on the side of respect, and praise, and support, and gratitude and acknowledgment of what these women have done.

In an eight-page, “doctrinal assessment” based on an investigation that began in April 2008, the Vatican’s doctrine office blasts the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “promoting “radical feminism” and writes:

While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.

We’ve reached a really dangerous and sweeping definition of what constitutes “dissent” if one can be punished or subject to “reform” solely because of what one is supposedly not doing or saying loud enough. Let’s be clear. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby (also named in the document) do not make it their business to challenge church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. They do not lobby on behalf of pro-choice positions or launch campaigns for same-sex marriage. They are busy defending human dignity and the Catholic notion of a consistent ethic of life by fighting for living wages, quality health care, an end to the death penalty, and laws that treat all immigrants as human beings instead of “aliens.”

By advocating for health care reform and the Pregnant Women Support Act, for example, Catholic sisters strengthen families and in the process help prevent abortions by making sure women have the kind of robust pre-natal and post-natal support they need. This is pro-life advocacy in the fullest sense of the term. In fact, women religious supported health care reform legislation precisely because they view access to quality, affordable medical care as a pro-life position.

Their disagreement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the bill’s final language was not a challenge to the fundamental moral principle of respecting life, but rather over a different reading of complex legislative language balancing an array of competing goods. They applied the Catholic principle of prudence to come to a conclusion about how to best apply a moral principle to the particulars of public policy (a conclusion shared by many independent experts and many pro-life Christians). This should not be read as a power struggle with bishops or creeping heresy. It’s putting faith and reason to work in a pluralistic democracy.

It’s also important to ask why every Catholic organization must have as its primary mission a focus on abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholicism’s institutional muscles are well-honed on these issues at the national and diocesan level. Significant capital – human, political and financial – are leveraged to fight these battles. I would bet if you were to ask most Americans today (including many Catholics) about what the Catholic Church stands for you would likely get an answer describing  what the church stands against (abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage).

Less well known is the Church’s rich social tradition that puts workers’ rights, economic fairness, respect for immigrants, care for the environment and a preference for the poor at the heart of orthodox faith. The perception of a double standard is given when Catholic organizations that ignore or speak in hushed tones about these urgent issues bearing on human life and dignity are given a free pass by church leaders.

Finally, the Vatican move raises enduring questions about “who speaks for the Church?” Explicit in the CDF report is the clear reiteration that bishops are the “authentic teachers.” In one sense, this is undoubtedly true. Bishops have a unique teaching charism and in a hierarchical church they sit atop the organizational pyramid. The Church, we are often reminded, is not a democracy. But institutional leadership is not the same as moral leadership, an attribute that is earned not given. The fact is most bishops are not getting their hands dirty in hospitals, jails, homeless shelters and in blighted communities where titles are less important than leadership by example.

As judged by St. Francis of Assisi’s famous admonition – “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words” – Catholic sisters are undoubtedly “authentic teachers.” The fundamental question about who “speaks for the Church” is too frequently framed as a simplistic struggle: Bishops v. Catholic Sisters. Bishops v. Theologians. Bishops v. Laity. The reality is many people speak for the church in different capacities and at different times. But that’s a heretical proposition for some conservatives and not a few bishops who seek a smaller, purer church. As a powerful America magazine editorial captured so well in the wake of the Obama-at-Notre Dame controversy:

In the United States today, self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy, like Randall Terry and the Cardinal Newman Society, push mightily for a pure church quite unlike the mixed community of saints and sinners—the Catholic Church—that Augustine championed. Like the Circumcellions of old, they thrive on slash-and-burn tactics; and they refuse to allow the church to be contaminated by contact with certain politicians. For today’s sectarians, it is not adherence to the church’s doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program and fierce opposition to any proposal short of that program. They scorn Augustine’s inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics, who will not know which of them belongs to the City of God until God himself separates the tares from the wheat. Their tactics, and their attitudes, threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States, the effectiveness of its mission and the credibility of its pro-life activities.

Catholic sisters have been given the back of the hand when they deserve sustained applause. Let’s hope Archbishop Sartain, tasked with overseeing the work of LCWR for the next five years, will seek in whatever way possible to move forward with greater respect for those who are true heroes of our church.

Photo credit: Catholic Courier/Tamara Tirado

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The Conservative Backlash Against Catholic Bishops

April 24, 2012, 5:19 pm | By John Gehring

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, a former George W. Bush speechwriter who has defended torture as justifiable in Catholic teaching, is now taking a few swipes at Catholic bishops challenging Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal as deeply immoral.

Thiessen’s argument is such partisan boilerplate that it’s almost hard to respond without laughing out loud. It seems that Thiessen thinks the bishop who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic justice committee is in the bag politically for Barack Obama and should just stop picking on poor Paul Ryan, whose budget bullies the poor by slashing food stamps and other vital protections so the wealthiest few can have more tax cuts. He writes:

Using Obama’s campaign rhetoric, Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, recently wrote to Congress declaring that Ryan’s budget “fails to meet [the Church’s] moral criteria” because it does not require “shared sacrifice,” which Blaire [like Obama] defines as tax increases and cuts to “unnecessary” defense spending. Some of the proposed spending cuts in Ryan’s budget, Blaire said, are “unjust and wrong.” Blaire has it backward. What is “unjust and wrong” is this bishop’s attack on a good Catholic layman. Put aside for a moment the fact that “shared sacrifice” appears nowhere in the catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a reelection slogan for the Democratic Party.

By directly challenging Bishop Blaire, Thiessen adopts Ryan’s latest desperate strategy of seeking to divide Catholic bishops and fuels the perception that only a few lone voices in the hierarchy have problems with the GOP budget. This is absurd. Bishop Blaire was elected by his brother bishops (over 200 of them) at a national meeting. As The Hill newspaper confirmed in a call to the U.S. bishops’ conference, he speaks for the bishops on these matters.

Thiessen’s lazy armchair theology is just as bad. He notes that “shared sacrifice” appears nowhere in the Catechism. It’s interesting that Theiessen of all people now fancies himself an expert on the Catechism given the swift blowback he received from both Catholic across the political spectrum several years ago when he argued that torture was just nifty according to Catholic teaching. Is he now arguing that he can interpret Catholic social teaching better than bishops can?  “Shared sacrifice” is simply shorthand for centuries of Catholic teaching that puts the common good before ideology and narrow partisan agendas.

Catholic apologists for trickle-down economics and anti-government zealotry are poor students of history. At least since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Catholic social tradition has advocated for just tax policies, union rights, a positive role for government and a healthy suspicion of free markets – all fundamental principles of Church teaching that give conservatives heartburn but can’t simply be wished away.

In fact, if Thiessen really wants to get into it, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published under that leftist papacy of John Paul II, talks about a far more radical concept that would make the most liberal Democrats in Congress blush. Catholic teaching on the “universal destination of goods” reminds us that public policies should contribute to the welfare of all even if that challenges notions of private wealth and ownership. You’re not about to hear this at the next Religious Right pep rally for Republicans:

Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.

It’s refreshing to watch Catholic conservatives in Congress and the punditocracy trip all over themselves to rationalize Darwinian economic policies that are an affront to Christian moral teaching. After years of getting away with reducing faith in politics to abortion and same-sex marriage, a real values debate is finally upon us.

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Georgetown Professors to Ryan: Stop Distorting Catholic Teaching on Budget

April 24, 2012, 2:12 pm | By John Gehring

Georgetown UniversityRep. 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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Catholic Guilt by Association: Colorado Poverty Organization’s Funding in Jeopardy

April 11, 2012, 4:57 pm | By John Gehring

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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Vicki Kennedy and Catholic McCarthyism

April 9, 2012, 10:43 am | By John Gehring

Ted and Vicki KennedyIf 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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