Catholic Bishops’ Media Director: Straight Talk from a Sister!

July 27, 2010, 5:46 pm | Posted by

Michael Sean Winters, one of the most intriguing and even-handed writers exploring the intersection of faith and politics, has been running a series of interviews at his recently launched National Catholic Reporter blog, Distinctively Catholic. Among commentators recently profiled on his blog include FPL Executive Director Jennifer Butler, who recently spoke about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform.

Winters’ Q & A this morning with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relations at the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, caught my eye. (Full disclosure: Walsh was my boss when I worked at USCCB.) Winters asked her “what the Shirley Sherrod episode tells us about race and politics in the age of Obama.” Sister Mary Ann blasts what she calls “pseudo-journalists” like blogger Andrew Breitbart, who “broke” the Sherrod non-story, and reminds us that in-the-gutter reporting is not just a recent phenomenon, but a modern-day incarnation of yellow journalism practiced during the late 19th century when newspaper publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer battled for readers.

Walsh compares today’s pervasive “journalistic hit squads” to fringe groups that often claim the mantle of Church teaching and orthodoxy to do their dirty work. In particular, she condemns the Catholic News Agency’s recent claim that Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S bishops’ conference, criticized the Catholic Health Association and Catholic sisters in a closed-door meeting for supporting health care reform:

Journalistic travesty includes more than anonymous attacks. In June, a news agency pursued its agenda by inventing quotes and ascribing them to Cardinal Francis George. When first called on it, the agency defended the story. When top editors realized they’d done wrong, they still did not issue a public correction or apology.

Many such groups claim the word “orthodox” for themselves. They dismiss those who do not agree with them or their approach as “unorthodox.” People of a different opinion or approach are accused of setting up a “parallel magisterium.” These are serious condemnations in a church which holds fidelity to its teachings as paramount. Despite the fact that theology and canon law are matters of careful analyses, these groups bring the subtlety of a meat cleaver to church discussions. In what is not unrelated, many of these groups use such attacks as part of their fundraising apparatus.

As we noted when this story emerged, CNA is more of a right-wing propaganda outlet than a legitimate news source, but such powerful condemnation is rare from the U.S. bishops – influential religious leaders whose teachings are often hijacked by self-righteous zealots with partisan agendas. Deal Hudson, Bill Donohue and Co. should consider themselves put on notice.

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Glenn Beck doesn’t get to decide what a “real” religious issue is

July 20, 2010, 4:34 pm | Posted by

Since Faithful America unveiled its new radio ad last week challenging Glenn Beck’s claims about social justice, Beck has ramped up his attacks. As Media Matters notes, Beck responded to the ad by alleging that issues important to 100,000 Faithful America members had nothing to do with religion, but in fact were the products of “fascism” and “evil.”

While dismissing health care reform, immigration reform and ending war and torture, he directed particular attention to Faithful America’s commitment to addressing climate change. Beck complained:”If your pastor or priest or whoever is talking about social justice and it is, ‘God is telling you that the government needs to solve global warming’, run for your life.”

Beck may not want to believe climate change is a religious issue, but there’s a reason people of faith across the spectrum– from evangelical leaders and the conservative Christian Coalition to the Pope, numerous mainline protestant churches, and Jewish groups– have called for action on this issue. Not only is our current energy infrastructure unsustainable, but it disproportionately harms the poor. As climate change continues to worsen, access to clean water and food supplies deteriorate, and extreme changes in weather uproot entire communities–hitting developing countries the hardest. Our faiths call us to care for both creation and those in need, both of which will be devastated if we fail to act.

Beck’s attempt to appoint himself arbiter of what is or is not a religious issue may make for good radio, but by ignoring the broad religious concern for the issues he’s dismissing, Beck reveals his true ignorance.

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Welfare-to-Work…Not Working

July 20, 2010, 4:20 pm | Posted by

NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby on Capitol Hill, has long been a tireless advocate for those whose voices are rarely heard in Washington’s marbled corridors of power. Their small staff of Catholic sisters and lay Catholics, along with the Catholic Health Association and women religious across the country, literally helped save health-care legislation when prospects for passage seemed bleak.

Yesterday, NETWORK released a sobering new report that should be read by any elected official or citizen concerned about our nation’s fraying social safety net. TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession paints a bleak picture of what happens when the good intentions of “welfare reform” crash into the realities of the worst economy since the Great Depression. For the past 14 years, NETWORK has tracked the monumental public policy experiment that began in 1996, when “welfare as we know it” (as Bill Clinton phrased it ) was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which imposed a strict five-year deadline on assistance and required recipients to enroll in welfare-to-work programs. Welfare rolls declined dramatically in many states. Centrist Democrats and Republicans declared victory. Advocates who work with the poor everyday witnessed a different reality.

This report is NETWORK’s third close look at TANF, and first since the economy tanked and unemployment soared. More than 800 interviews were conducted at 70 social service agencies, including food pantries, family centers and homeless shelters in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The findings are instructive if unsurprising. TANF’s “work first” emphasis poses major challenges when jobs are scarce. If middle-class college graduates are struggling to find work, a single mother without a high school degree is going to have serious difficulty. Over two-thirds of respondents were not working at the time of the survey, and one-fourth reported being laid off in the past year. Lack of child care and transportation were identified as major barriers to finding and keeping work.

NETWORK staff offers sensible recommendations to strengthen TANF, most notably changing its measure of success from reducing caseloads to reducing poverty. They also call the five-year limit on benefits “unrealistic” – especially during a time of high unemployment. Increasing access to education is also highlighted as a significant need that must be met if those on public assistance hope to improve their chances of finding work.

At a time when the debate on Capitol Hill is dominated by calls to reign in a ballooning deficit and cash-strapped states are tightening fiscal belts, politicos often forget about those barely holding on. “It’s easy for those in Washington to talk about numbers, percentages and graphs,” said Simone Campbell, NETWORK’s Executive Director. “But this is not just about numbers or a mythical safety net. It’s about the real struggles of families.”

Amen, sister.

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Case closed

July 19, 2010, 6:23 pm | Posted by

Last week, Dan debunked the latest attack on health care reform using false information about abortion funding. Today, health law expert Timothy Jost elaborates on that argument in a detailed rebuttal to health care critic Helen Alvaré. After refuting each of Alvaré’s claims, Jost asks a larger question:

“I ask Professor Alvaré, What purpose does your argument actually serve? What Alvaré has written is essentially a brief that could be used by an abortionist claiming that community health centers must cover abortions. This is a very strange argument for a prolife advocate to be making. It is an argument that seems to have more to do with opposition to the Affordable Care Act than with opposition to abortion.”

Jost is right. The issue of federal funding has already been resolved. It’s hard to imagine why anybody would seek to re-litigate other than to stir up tired culture war fights to distract from and demonize successful implementation of the reforms so many people of faith worked tirelessly to achieve.

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More Catholic than the Bishops?

July 13, 2010, 6:10 pm | Posted by

Deal Hudson, the editor of and George W. Bush’s former Catholic outreach advisor, specializes in slicing and dicing Catholic social teaching to serve his partisan agenda.

Earlier this year, he called for a Catholic Tea Party movement. In this scenario, “real” Catholics – Hudson demeans those who disagree with him as “fake” Catholics – should challenge the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a big-government style bureaucracy Hudson and other arch-conservative Catholics believe has drifted to the political left over the last three decades. This logic may seem bizarre given the bishops’ high-profile opposition to abortion, gay marriage, President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame and, most recently, the final version of health care reform. But welcome to the Catholic right subculture, where the only explanation for the USCCB’s focus on poverty, nuclear weapons, immigration and climate change is that a lay staff of liberals has hijacked the conference and distracted bishops from their true priorities.

Now Hudson is using the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” to do political cheerleading for New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie. In a column earlier this week, he praises the Christie administration for reigning in spending and touts his administration’s plans to privatize many state functions. He argues that Christie’s agenda of limited government and free-market solutions reflect the essence of subsidiarity, which prioritizes local institutions and smaller agencies over a centralized authority. “Gov. Christie represents a pro-life, pro-family Catholic politician drawing upon the principle of subsidiarity to make budgetary and policy choices that look to the private sector, not the federal government, for solutions to pressing problems,” Hudson writes.

As Vox Nova points out, touting the notion that “subsidiarity” is a blanket Catholic endorsement of anti-government sentiment and free-market fundamentalism is a favorite tactic of many Catholic conservatives. It’s also a profound misreading of Catholic teaching, which highlights the essential role of government and the perils of economic systems that put profits before human dignity. Ever since Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, the Catholic Church has advanced a positive vision of government serving the common good. In 1919, U.S. Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John A. Ryan, a priest whose analysis of social inequality was widely read in the decades following World War I, to write their Program for Social Reconstruction. The program called for what at the time were radical measures: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly and unemployed. Many of these ideas helped inspire Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Just last summer, Pope Benedict XVI released a timely encyclical responding to the global economic crisis that offered a sober critique of unfettered capitalism that left some Catholic conservatives scrambling to downplay passages that take a skeptical view of unregulated markets. Indeed, the Pope goes where many U.S. politicians fear to tread in his call for a more just distribution of wealth and robust protections for workers against the whims of market excesses. If the Pope were running for political office in the U.S., you can imagine Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck slamming him as a socialist.

Hudson has every right to be a fan of Gov. Christie. Neither political party is aligned perfectly with Catholic teaching. But it would be easier to take Hudson seriously as a commentator if he didn’t dress up his Republican cheerleading in Catholic clothing.

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