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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This week, over 18,000 Faithful America members signed a petition asking USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan to turn down an invitation to appear at the Values Voters Summit — the annual gathering of Religious Right figures and right-wing politicians. The signees were particularly concerned that in this election year, Dolan’s appearance would amount to an implicit endorsement of Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan at what essentially will be a Republican campaign event.
Today, the Archdiocese of New York confirmed to Bold Faith Type that Cardinal Dolan will not be attending the Summit. Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling said the Cardinal’s office did not even receive an invitation as far as they could tell, but that His Eminence would not be going either way.
Unfortunately, Dolan appears to be turning down a pseudo-partisan electoral event for the real thing, agreeing to give the closing Benediction just after Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention next week.
Dolan’s office is attempting to qualify his appearance as “not an endorsement” but simply a “priest at prayer.” Unfortunately, at a time when the Cardinal has presided over a highly-politicized national campaign against the current administration, called VP candidate Paul Ryan a “great public servant” who he is “anxious to see…in action,” and walked back his own conference’s criticism of the Catholic congressman’s draconian budget plan, Dolan doesn’t need an official endorsement to send a loud and clear message.
This hyper-partisanship represents a real split from the recent approach of the Catholic Church in America, which has taken pains to stay above party politics. Past leaders have recognized that Catholics fall across the entire political spectrum and direct engagement with electoral efforts of any one party runs the risk of alienating millions of adherents who identify with the other.
Dolan’s decision to do exactly that, at a time when Americans and Catholics are more deeply politically polarized than ever, exemplifies just how far the American bishops have gone in uniting church hierarchy with Republican politics.
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Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential choice is an insult to many Catholic leaders who have consistently challenged Ryan’s claims that coddling the rich while expecting the working poor and middle class to bear the burden of deficit reduction reflects the values of Catholic teaching. A presidential candidate aggressively courting Catholic voters – including with this scorching ad that accuses President Obama of waging a “war on religion” – has now picked a running mate who is the most vociferous champion of an economic agenda that makes a mockery of Christian values. There is nothing Christian, “pro-life” or courageous about policies that gut effective programs that help pregnant women, the hungry, the jobless and low-income children.
Catholics are steeped in a religious tradition that puts community and the common good before extreme individualism. Ryan’s libertarian love affair with Ayn Rand and his Tea-Party flavored anti-government zeal is alien to this Catholic worldview. His proposals find no endorsement from centuries of Catholic social teaching or the Gospel. I expect a sizable swath of moderate Catholic voters in key states to roll their eyes at Ryan’s lofty appeals to the wonders of the free market and privatization. Some of these working-class voters might not be staunch Democrats, but they know that Medicare helps their grandmother and food stamps are often the difference between paying the bills and sending the kids to bed hungry. They might ask why Ryan, who benefited from his deceased father’s Social Security survivor benefits to pay for college, now wants to pull the rug out from other families who can be given a hand up by effective government programs that for decades helped grow the middle class.
In a flurry of letters to House leaders, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has unambiguously denounced Ryan’s budget proposal – the ideological blueprint for the GOP’s economic agenda – as failing a basic moral test. Catholic nuns recently highlighted the immorality of the Ryan budget (now the Romney-Ryan budget) during a nine-state bus tour. These Catholic nuns recently joined the Franciscan Action Network – an organization made up of priests, nuns and lay Franciscans – to invite Mr. Romney and Rep. Ryan to spend time at agencies that would be decimated by their policies.
Here’s my question for Catholic bishops. Will you expend even half as much institutional energy educating Catholic voters about Rep. Ryan’s deeply un-Christian economic plans as you have on flogging the Obama administration over contraception coverage? Letters to Capitol Hill are important, but most voters don’t read them. When will we see a parish bulletin insert about the devastating consequences of Ryan’s economic plans from the U.S. bishops’ conference? Unlike the recent two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign, launched with special Masses and great fanfare in dioceses across the country, I haven’t seen any bishop strongly challenge the GOP’s war on the poor and middle class. Bishops could draw some inspiration from their own history, and the example of another Ryan.
Back in 1919, Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John Ryan, a Catholic priest whose thinking on labor and social inequality were widely read in the decades following World War I, to write their Program for Social Reconstruction. This was a bold plan for what at the time were visionary social reforms: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. The bishops’ proposal and Ryan’s rising star in Washington laid the groundwork for New Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the following decades.
It’s tragic that nearly a century later influential Catholics like Rep. Paul Ryan, flush with cash from billionaires funding the Tea Party movement, are now promoting Darwinian policies that betray this proud legacy.
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Analyzing the Catholic dimensions of the 2012 Presidential race now that Paul Ryan has joined the Republican ticket, Catholic conservative Deal Hudson attempts to minimize the critique of Ryan’s budget plan levied by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hudson decries that media who covered the critical letters from the USCCB failed to note that they came from only two bishops, suggesting that their concerns only represent some bishops, not all.
That’s the same defense Ryan employed when questioned about the bishops’ rebuke earlier this year. Unfortunately for both Ryan and Hudson, the conference definitively shot down their excuse.
Responding to reporters who inquired about Ryan’s apparent discrepancy in understanding, the USCCB said:
“Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level. The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity.”
While there might be individual bishops who disagree with these committees’ criticisms of the Ryan budget, they (and Hudson and Ryan) do so as dissenters from the official position of the U.S. Catholic Church.
Photo from the National Catholic Reporter
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