In a lengthy, freewheeling interview released today, Pope Francis again shows that he wants to chart a bold new course for the massive ocean liner that is the global Catholic Church. The headline moments come when Francis declares he’s never been “a right-winger” and dives straight into the hot-button issues. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis says, noting the church’s disproportionate focus on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time.”
Conservative Catholic pundits like George Weigel and Bill Donohue (not to mention a few U.S. Catholic bishops) must be wondering who took the keys away. The spin will begin soon enough from the Catholic right, which will highlight the fact that the pope has made no changes to church teaching. This misses the point entirely. Something far bigger is happening. Pope Francis is rescuing the Catholic Church from those grim-faced watchdogs of orthodoxy who in windowless rooms reduce Catholicism to a laundry list of no’s.
The Francis Doctrine, if you will, is about building a more joyful, merciful, collegial church that opens doors instead of building up walls. I’m reminded of Jesus taking on the Pharisees in all their righteous moralizing and obsession with legalism. This is a pope who recognizes that a church primarily known for what it opposes rather than what it loves is doomed to irrelevance. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
Pope Benedict XVI, a brilliant theologian, nonetheless perpetuated a message that a “smaller, purer” church was the future of Catholicism. With Francis, a “big-tent” Catholicism that emphasizes not simply the hierarchy of bishops and cardinals but the “people of God” is back in style in a way not seen since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.
There is particular resonance in the pope’s more inclusive style for Catholic progressives. Nuns, theologians, Catholic Democrats and social justice activists have been strongly criticized by church leaders in recent years. Conservatives have largely been given a free pass for ignoring or distorting church teaching on war and economic justice. Simply opposing abortion became the de-facto definition of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic.’ The church’s broad social justice agenda took a back seat. The climate became thick with fear and guilt-by-association. The air is starting to clear. A new space is opening up.
Even Catholics who have drifted away from the church – nearly 1 in 10 Americans – are being courted by the pope.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.
The big question? Will U.S. Catholic bishops get on the Francis train? More thoughts on that later.
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(Washington, DC) – In a sign that momentum for immigration reform continues to grow, 25 Catholic colleges released details today of a joint national advocacy effort in support of comprehensive reform with a pathway to citizenship. From a Mass on the U.S.- Mexico border led by Loyola Marymount University to vigils at Creighton University dedicated to immigrant families, Catholic students and education leaders are hosting dozens of special Masses, organizing Catholic DREAMers, sponsoring text message campaigns and contacting their local Members of Congress at their district offices.
“The advocacy of presidents, students and campus ministers from Catholic universities sends a clear moral message to elected officials that we must act now to fix our broken immigration system,” said Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University. “I hope the many graduates of Catholic universities in Congress heed this call to put human dignity and the common good before narrow-minded partisanship.” The number of Catholics in Congress is at a historic high, including 136 in the House of Representatives.
Today’s announcement of coordinated campaigns, spearheaded by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Ignatian Solidarity Network and Faith in Public Life, follows a July letter from more than 100 Catholic university presidents that urged Speaker John Boehner and the U.S. House of Representatives to fix an immigration system they described as “morally indefensible.”
The flurry of actions, Masses, forums and student organizing is taking place on Catholic colleges representing more than 100,000 students. The fall advocacy effort adds momentum to calls for common sense reform fueled by a broad coalition of religious, business and labor leaders.
“Catholic students put their faith into action when they stand up for immigrant families,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. “Young men and women at Catholic colleges bring vital energy and inspiration to our national movement for immigration reform.” In Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University campus ministry leaders will take students to the U.S-Mexico border for a vigil and Mass on Sept. 29.
The Ignatian Solidarity Network has launched a “Fall Call for Immigration Reform” urging all 28 Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities to take actions in support of humane and responsible reform.
“Campus leaders are fired up and mobilized to make sure no more families are torn apart by deportation and inhumane immigration policies,” said Christopher Kerr, Executive Director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. “Catholic colleges are organized, unified and determined to make an impact. Our grassroots movement is a reminder to those in power that immigration reform is about values and real people, not legislative procedures or political scorekeeping.”
At the University of Notre Dame, which recently announced it will admit undocumented immigrants, campus leaders are organizing a text message campaign – NDream – to help students mobilize campus events and contact Members of Congress.
“I am inspired to see the passion our students have shown in support of immigration reform,” said Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame. “Many stand with Catholic bishops in calling for Congress to pass humane and responsible immigration reform.”
At Loyola University in Chicago, campus and student leaders have created a “Safe Spaces” support network for immigrants that include training and resources. In June, the university’s medical school became the first in the country to allow undocumented students to apply under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“Young aspiring Americans bravely face the consequences of our failed immigration system each day,” said Pedro Guerrero, President of the Unified Student Government Association at the Loyola University Chicago. “We can’t be silent while these outdated and inadequate policies inflict havoc on our friends, neighbors and families. As students with a stake in our democracy and as future workers who will compete in a new global economy, we urge Illinois’ Congressional delegation to give us a vote on common-sense immigration reform with an earned pathway to citizenship.”
The following is a list of advocacy actions, Masses and events at Catholic universities.
- 20 Catholic colleges are planning special Masses for immigration reform, including Georgetown University, Boston College, Cabrini College, Canisius College, Creighton University, Fairfield University and Loyola University of Chicago.
- Students are launching a text message campaign to build events on campus and contact their Members of Congress at Cabrini College, Misericordia University, Neumann University, Notre Dame University and Villanova University.
- Immigration reform town hall meetings were held at Creighton University (Sept. 4), the University of St. Thomas in Houston (9/12), and forums are being planned at Fairfield University and Misericordia University.
- The University of San Diego, Canisius College, Fordham University, Loyola University of Maryland and the University of San Francisco have organized postcard writing drives for students on campus.
- Film screenings on immigration themes will be staged at the University of San Francisco and Villanova.
- Vigils dedicated to immigrant families are being planned at Creighton and the University of San Diego, where on Sept. 25 students will hold a vigil and Mass.
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Catholic progressives are used to feeling the heat from some bishops who give the impression that abortion is the only life issue. It’s not every day that you hear a Catholic bishop directly challenge self-identified “pro-life” groups for their selective moralizing and crass tactics. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg – a moderate who has also questioned religious leaders’ apocalyptic denunciations of the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirements as part of the Affordable Care Act – jumps into the fray on his blog:
I am convinced that many so called pro-life groups are not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion…We heard nothing from the heavy hitters in the prolife movement in the last week when Florida last night executed a man on death row for 34 years having been diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic
Many priests grow weary of continual calls to action for legislative support for abortion and contraception related issues but nothing for immigration reform, food aid, and capital punishment. And, this is a big one, priests don’t like unfair attacks on things they highly value and esteem, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.
Bishop Lynch is responding to trends I wrote about recently in a new report that uncovers how pro-life groups like the American Life League are waging a relentless campaign to undermine the church’s most respected social justice ministries. He doesn’t beat around the bush:
From time to time, I suspect when these organizations need money, they try to stir up a hornet’s nest or storm by attacking a Catholic organization, usually falsely accusing them of being anti-life, pro-contraception, either pro or soft on abortion, etc. The storms start small enough and then occasionally grow in size. It’s simply a money raising scheme with little regard for the human lives which they allege they seek to protect – well maybe it is only pre-born human life in which they are interested.
It’s refreshing to hear a bishop stand up for the church’s consistent ethic of life tradition in a way that puts public pressure on conservatives who usually receive a free pass from the hierarchy.
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Last Saturday, my friend Troy Jackson of Ohio Prophetic Voices and fellow Ohio clergy led a 500-person march to House Speaker John Boehner’s office in Springfield, Ohio, to call on the Speaker to pass immigration reform including a roadmap to citizenship. Their message was simple: a path to citizenship is smart, moral and urgent. Earlier in the week, hundreds of evangelical leaders from 27 states met face to face with their Representatives on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to pass immigration reform.
Those actions were just a preview of what faith leaders will do during the critical August Congressional recess. Republican lawmakers now face a clear choice: heed the moral authority of families and faith leaders calling for citizenship, or continue to let Rep. Steve King set the party’s immigration agenda. While some GOP leaders distanced themselves from King’s recent accusation that DREAMers being drug smugglers (a claim faith leaders who work on the border forcefully rebuked), don’t forget that an overwhelming majority of Republican House Members voted in favor of King’s recent bill to resume mass deportation of DREAMers.
Not your father’s pope
Since his election to the papacy this spring, Pope Francis has earned headlines and widespread praise for symbolic gestures and substantive remarks about a variety of issues. His bold message about the dignity of immigrants and his damning indictment of both the values and the effects of unfettered global capitalism have resonated around the world and energized the faithful here in the U.S. As a Presbyterian minister, I believe his influence is already stretching well beyond the Catholic church.
For a personal reflection on the impact Pope Francis is having on people in the pews, check out this Washington Post On Faith essay by my colleague John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director.
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Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a Catholic, revealed the ignorance and prejudice behind his anti-immigrant policy stances (again) last week, saying about DREAMers, “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that — they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
After being rebuked by Democrats and House Republican leaders alike, King defended himself by claiming that his views were rooted in his experience traveling along the US-Mexico border. On Monday, Catholic leaders who serve immigrant populations in border communities and have expertise in immigration policy pointed out that King’s views are as ill-informed as they are offensive.
Sister Rosemary Welsh, Executive Director of Casa de Misericordia in Laredo, TX, which provides shelter, legal assistance and other crucial services for immigrants, said
“These hateful remarks demean the immigrant families I work with every day and have no place in debates about the urgent need for smart and humane immigration reform. I invite Rep. King to spend time with us on the border, read the Gospels and reflect on his faith’s teachings about the dignity of immigrants. Now is the time for constructive solutions not offensive rhetoric.”
Father Sean Carroll of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, AZ, which provides humanitarian assistance and education in border communities, said
“Through my ministry on the U.S./Mexico border, I witness firsthand the courage and dignity of those who dream of a better life for their families. I urge Congressman King to remember Jesus’ words that ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25:35), and to stop obstructing just and humane immigration reform.”
Father Rafael Garcia, S.J., of Immaculate Conception Church in Albuquerque, NM, said
As a former pastor of a border parish in El Paso for 13 years, I find Rep. King’s caricature narrow-minded at best. Hopefully he will apologize for his derisive comments — and better yet, have a change of heart.
Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, A Catholic Social Justice Lobby, which organized the Nuns on the Border tour earlier this summer that highlighted the work of Catholic Sisters in border cities from Texas to California, said
“Rep. King is simply out of touch with the reality of migrants’ experiences and chooses to ridicule women, children and families trapped in a broken immigration system instead of joining with business, labor and faith leaders working for practical and moral solutions. His reckless and irresponsible approach is not in keeping with the values of our nation or our shared Catholic faith.”
Rev. Thomas Greene, S.J, the Secretary for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference in Washington, DC, said
“At a time that when our nation needs elected officials to engage in reasoned, well-informed conversations about the urgency of immigration reform, Congressman King chose to inject inflammatory and ill-informed remarks into the debate. Such statements demean the millions of hard-working immigrants in the U.S. and are a mean-spirited attempt to derail long overdue comprehensive immigration reform.”
In addition, the Sioux City Journal reports that the Catholic bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, which is in King’s district, rebuked the Congressman Monday:
“I am disappointed by Rep. King’s remarks, which speak of migrants in a way that undermines their human dignity and the respect owed them as children of God,” Rev. R. Walker Nickless said in a statement. “While Catholics may disagree on the specific approach to reforming the immigration system, they should agree that the immigration debate should be conducted in a civil and humane manner.”
It will take more than words alone for House Republicans to distance themselves from King’s hateful rhetoric. If they want Americans to believe King doesn’t speak for them, they need to pass reform that includes a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans who remain trapped in the shadows.
This post has been updated since first publication.
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