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.
After a steady exodus of Catholics from the church and a clergy-sex abuse scandal that seriously damaged the bishops’ moral credibility, one would think that church leaders might avoid striking a confrontational posture in public life. As media coverage in the run up to the U.S. bishops’ national meeting today in Baltimore shows, the opposite is true. They are hunkered down for a long, hard fight against shifting cultural norms and an Obama administration they have portrayed as hostile to religious liberty. Rachel Zoll of the AP provides a good curtain raiser to the bishops’ annual gathering:
The mood among many U.S. Roman Catholic bishops was captured in a recent speech by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. His talk, called “Catholics in the Next America,” painted a bleak picture of a nation increasingly intolerant of Christianity. “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past,” Chaput told students last week at Assumption College, an Augustinian school in Worcester, Mass. “It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets Monday in Baltimore for its national meeting feeling under siege: from a broader culture moving toward accepting gay marriage; a White House they often condemn as hostile to Catholic teaching; and state legislatures that church leaders say are chipping away at religious liberty.
While bishops have a right and an obligation to sound the alarm when they perceive Catholic institutions being unfairly targeted, it’s hard not to read Archbishop Chaput’s ominous, man-the-barricades warning as the anxious voice of a church fearful of being left behind in an era when institutional religious authority is waning.
As Scott Appleby, a prominent religious historian at the University of Notre Dame, notes in the AP story, many church leaders have recently adopted “a more pugnacious style” at the same time “the church no longer receives deference or the hands-off attitude that it once had for many years.” Are Catholics really a threatened class of citizens today as Archbishop Chaput and other leading bishops insist? This is a tough case to make to the broader public when Catholics hold power at the highest levels of law, government and business.
Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and a church canon lawyer who served as an original member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, sees the hierarchy’s battle with the wider culture as a telling sign that church leaders are grasping to maintain power.
“Another way to look at these issues, the prohibition of same-sex marriage, the criminalization of abortions, is not as issues of the exercise of religious liberty, but as issues regarding the exercise of religious authority,” Cafardi told me. “The bishops might win the first argument. They do not win the second.”
A sizable percentage of Catholics are befuddled by the bishops’ recent high-profile political fights against same-sex marriage and disproportionate emphasis on contraception and other sexuality issues when poverty is on the rise, income inequality is growing to historic levels and millions of Americans are unemployed. I’m afraid bishops are losing touch with the real-life challenges of Catholics in the pews. This is especially sad given the bishops’ proud history of laying the moral groundwork for landmark social reforms like the minimum wage and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed.
It’s not just liberal activists scratching their heads. A former top official at the U.S. bishops’ conference has a hard-hitting op-ed in the Baltimore Sun today asking tough questions for Catholic leaders.
At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News Service headline about the meeting — “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills” — is a disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a powerful voice for economic justice.
The U.S. bishops’ relative silence contrasts with a recent Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth…
I fear the church’s revered social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about the dignity of work and economic justice for all.
Catholic bishops find themselves at a defining crossroads. The path they choose will have major consequences not only for our national values debate heading into the 2012 presidential election, but also for a generation of Catholics who still believe their Church should be a powerful voice for economic fairness and the common good.
Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales), Flickr
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The Washington Post featured a lengthy front page story yesterday about the Obama administration’s ongoing tension with U.S. Catholic bishops. The heart of the current dispute is over the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent decision to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its work against human trafficking. Since 2006, the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services office had provided services to victims, but a new grant was denied in late September. According to the Post:
The bishops organization, in line with the church’s teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptives or abortion. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women for those services. The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny. The fight further sours an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues.
The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to a proposed HHS mandate — issued under the health-care law — that would require private insurers to provide women with contraceptive coverage without charge. On the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS awarded the new grants to the bishops’ competitors despite a recommendation from career staffers that the bishops be funded based on scores by an independent review board, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents.
As Michael Sean Winters points out in the National Catholic Reporter, this is a complicated story that warrants careful thinking rather than sweeping generalizations. By most accounts, HHS at the very least handled the process for denying this particular grant in a clumsy manner. When political appointees at HHS disregard the judgment of career staffers and an independent review board, that’s going to cause legitimate angst among Catholics, including those who have largely supported this administration’s policy efforts and extensive outreach to faith-based and community organizations. But it’s hyperbolic and wrong to throw around the charge “anti-Catholic,” as Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, media director for the U.S. bishops, has done. Walsh skewered the administration in a recent blog post, accusing HHS of having an “Anybody But Catholic” bias.
Some perspective is needed here. You can argue Catholic bishops have a legitimate beef with HHS on this grant, but the Obama administration has not exactly put the freeze on Catholic groups or turned its back on engaging Catholic organizations. As my contacts in the Obama administration have noted, other grants from HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement to the USCCB increased from $27 million in fiscal year 2010 to some $32 million in fiscal year 2011. The administration has increased funding to Catholic Relief Services from $69 million in 2008 to $109 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA received an increase of approximately $120 million in federal funds from 2009 to 2010. Last month, The White House welcomed 150 leaders from Catholic Charities USA to discuss innovative partnerships to reduce poverty.
Surely, one can’t deny the fundamental disagreements between this administration and Catholic bishops, but the Obama administration is not going out of its way to poke Catholics in the eye. As Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary points out at Washington Post On Faith, this issue highlights a genuine difference, both in policy terms and in worldview, over how to best serve exploited women who in many cases have faced cruel sexual violence, including rape.
While Catholic bishops strive to float above the partisan fray that clouds Washington, they are not without a political agenda either. Even retired bishops such as Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco and prominent Catholics such as Nicholas Cafardi, a former chair of the bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, have cautioned the bishops for appearing too cozy with the Republican Party.
Just weeks after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Catholic bishops gathered for their annual national meeting and spoke in apocalyptic terms about the supposed threat posed by Freedom of Choice Act. Bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to lobby Congress and the White House against this bill that was never even introduced. After weeks of frenzied lobbying and action alerts, even the bishops’ own Catholic News Service felt the need to tamp down worst-case scenarios of Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions as unsubstantiated rumors.
Many Catholic bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, more than a few echoing the strident talking points of Catholic Republicans such as Deal Hudson.
And the bishops’ long advocacy for universal health care stalled last year when they opposed historic health care reform over a misguided belief that it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion, a flawed policy analysis according to the Catholic Health Association, independent experts and the courts.
Even President Obama’s executive order banning federal funding of abortion did not mollify bishops’ concerns, some of whom went on to publicly chastise Catholic sisters and lay Catholic organizations that supported health care reform.
The bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services office is one of the Church’s great treasures, helping to resettle over 20,000 refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Burma and other ravaged countries in 2010 alone. This vital ministry, as in most of the Church’s global outreach, does not simply benefit Catholics in need but also provides help for any vulnerable person. We should support, not undermine, partnerships between the federal government, church institutions, non-profits and other civil society groups that provide this kind of noble work.
But in a pluralistic democracy it’s also inevitable that there will be times when the particular moral beliefs of a religious organization clash with a government agency tasked with providing public funding drawn from taxpayers who don’t share those views. The effort to navigate that complex legal and ethical maze is difficult and not always done well. But it’s a real disservice to the essential task of both church and state when we reduce those clashes to shouting matches and ugly charges of bigotry.
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Occupy Wall Street, False Idols and a Moral Economy
By John Gehring — National Catholic Reporter, Opinion
Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace said last week that the “basic sentiment” behind the protests aligns with mainstream principles of Catholic social teaching on the economy.
Religion at Occupy Wall Street
By Kim Lawton — Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
For the Occupy Wall street protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park, it’s become a familiar sight–religious groups offering spiritual and moral support.
Evangelical opposites to hold discussion on 2012 presidential race
By Michelle Boorstein — Washington Post
Experts on evangelical voting say the discussion Wallis and Land have called Wednesday night at the National Press Club reflects a major change in the landscape of white evangelicals, who make up nearly a quarter of American adults.
By New York Times, Editorial
Being poor and needing public assistance is not a crime. Yet some states and cities, including New York City, are gratuitously inflicting punitive measures on people who seek government help.
Bill Gates’s plan to assist the world’s poor
By Bill Gates — Washington Post, Opinion
We’re providing strategic investments that link up with many other investments to systematically make a better, more prosperous and safer world. If we do it right, we can keep shrinking the number of countries where aid is needed to zero.
Interfaith group seeks help from banks in housing crisis
By Jeremy Borden — Washington Post
Members from more than 40 religious institutions across Northern Virginia are asking some of the country’s largest banks to commit to helping rebuild neighborhoods that have been devastated by housing foreclosures.
The fallacy of ‘secure communities’
By Kristin Lewis — Politico, Opinion
…the first data analysis of the program…found startling figures that question the program’s effectiveness and legality. Clear patterns of racial profiling, absence of due process and cases of mistakenly detained U.S. citizens were all evident…
Religion leaders see immigration as ‘God’s call’
By Russell Contreras — Associated Press
Religious leaders [are] holding rallies, walking in the Arizona desert, gathering testimonies from immigrants. The leaders fast, get arrested, and sometimes put their own health on the line in an attempt to draw attention to what they see as inhumane treatment of immigrants…
South Carolina immigration law sparks suit from Justice Department
By Josh Gerstein — Politico
The Justice Department filed suit Monday against South Carolina over a recently-passed state law intended to step up local law enforcement efforts against illegal immigrants.
UMW joins Tar Sands Action
By United Methodist Board of Church and Society, Faith in Action
United Methodist Women (UMW) will join with other organizations Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2 p.m. in an action against the proposed transcontinental Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project intended to ship oil from Canada to the United States.
Federation making strides in improving its record on women, but kinks remain
By Dan Klein — Jewish Telegraphic Agency
The federation is hardly alone in its record on women’s issues. A survey published by the Forward in 2010 found that only nine of the 75 largest Jewish organizations were led by women. In 2009, the number had been 11.
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This article cross-posted from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and National Catholic Reporter
Even as some pundits and politicos dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement as a fleeting burst of activism from the far left, Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace said last week that the “basic sentiment” behind the protests aligns with mainstream principles of Catholic social teaching on the economy.
“Wall Street is considered to be a big engine house — a big financial structure whose power extends all over the world,” the cardinal told Catholic News Service after the release of a new Vatican document that calls for more robust regulation and ethical grounding of the financial sector. “People who suffer from the way the financial markets currently operate have a right to say, ‘Do business differently. Look at the way you’re doing business because this is not leading to our welfare and our good,’” he said.
This is the spirit animating Occupy Wall Street — also called the “We are the 99 percent” movement — that includes a significant presence from the faith community. James Salt, executive director at Catholics United, and Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, recently joined hundreds of people for an interfaith worship service at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, N.Y., to reflect on the condemnation of greed throughout Scripture. A golden calf that Salt and other progressive religious activists built was carried at the front of a procession through lower Manhattan. The response in the streets and in the media has been powerful. Images of clergy carrying the golden calf have appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, in national news programs and even in the heady pages of that secular Bible, The New York Review of Books. People are responding to this timely critique of radical individualism and greed that has long been a centerpiece of the Catholic social tradition.
Even since Pope Leo XIII ushered in modern Catholic social teaching with an 1891 encyclical challenging the excesses of a savage capitalism that exploits workers for maximum profit, the Catholic Church has been on the frontlines of the struggle for economic fairness. During the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan touted “trickle-down” economic theories that disproportionately benefited the richest 1 percent, Pope John Paul II warned against an “idolatry of the market” and insisted that private wealth was subject to a “social mortgage” to benefit the common good.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, called for an economy that serves the “dignity of the human person” and responded to the era’s anti-tax orthodoxy (which remains a powerful force today with the tea party) by urging that “the tax system should be continually evaluated in terms of its impact on the poor.” Pope Benedict XVI denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” in his 2008 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and called for a more just distribution of wealth. And last week’s Vatican document, widely covered in the U.S. media, spoke clearly about “the primacy of being over having,” of “ethics over the economy” and of “embracing the logic of the global common good.”
George Weigel and other conservative Catholic commentators who have arrogantly dismissed church teaching on economic justice and income inequality for years should dust off their copies of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The compendium is clear that “the Church’s social doctrine requires that ownership of goods be accessible to all.” It points out that the church has “never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable” — insisting that a “universal destination of goods” is inextricably linked with a “preferential option for the poor.”
As Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University has frequently pointed out, the Vatican’s consistent calls for a radical rethinking of global capitalism is far to the left of the most progressive Democrat in Congress. While this causes heartburn for those self-styled defenders of orthodoxy on the Catholic right who think they have a monopoly on Catholic identity, it just might be the kind of moral medicine we need today.
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An important document on financial reform released today by the Vatican’s justice and peace office is a timely challenge to conservative political leaders eager to carve up the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law passed last year. For that matter, the 41-page document – “Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” – is far to the left of almost any politician in the United States (short of Sen. Bernie Sanders) and should also give pause to Democrats whose fundraising coffers spill over with contributions from a financial sector that has been allowed to run amok over the past three decades.
If deregulation and free-market fundamentalism have largely defined the American posture, the Vatican is challenging world financial and political leaders to rethink structural systems and the moral foundation of neoliberal economics. Showing that Vatican officials think in centuries but also read the morning headlines, it addresses “the speculative bubble in real estate,” and calls for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” – pointing to “rapid, uneven growth” that has arisen because of the “overall abrogation of controls on capital movements and the tendency to deregulate banking and financial activities.” Catholic News Service has the most complete coverage so far.
The document cited the teachings of popes over the last 40 years on the need for a universal public authority that would transcend national interests. The current economic crisis, which has seen growing inequality between the rich and poor of the world, underlines the necessity to take concrete steps toward creating such an authority, it said. One major step, it said, should be reform of the international monetary system in a way that involves developing countries. The document foresaw creation of a “central world bank” that would regulate the flow of monetary exchanges; it said the International Monetary Fund had lost the ability to control the amount of credit risk taken on by the system. The document also proposed:
– Taxation measures on financial transactions. Revenues could contribute to the creation of a “world reserve fund” to support the economies of countries his by crisis, it said.
– Forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds that make support conditional on “virtuous” behavior aimed at developing the real economy.
– More effective management of financial shadow markets that are largely uncontrolled today.
In the next Republican presidential debate someone should ask Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both proudly Catholic, whether they support the Vatican’s call for more robust financial reform. While we’re at it let’s keep challenging House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, both Catholics, on why their economic plans depart so dramatically from Catholic social teaching. Catholic conservatives who like to puff up their chests as valiant defenders of orthodoxy might find themselves tight-lipped for a change.
The Vatican’s timely call for global economic justice should also inspire U.S. Catholic bishops, scheduled to gather for a national meeting next month, to start offering a bolder critique of economic libertarianism and anti-government ideology now ascendant in our nation’s politics.
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