As Congress debates various tax and spending plans, the United States Catholic Bishops are weighing in with a poweful message about the moral terms of the debate.
In a pair of letters to Senators and Representatives, the Most Reverend Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton, California and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development makes clear that the Bishops stand firmly against any plan that takes aim at the poor to protect the rich:
A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.
In particular, Bishop Blaire identifies the importance of Earned Income Tax Credit and the refundable Child Tax Credit, which Republican lawmakers have singled out for elimination in order to pay for preserving tax cuts for the rich. He calls the tax credits “pro-work, pro-family, and some of the most effective antipoverty programs in our nation,” and specifically urges lawmakers to protect “improvements and extensions” to those credits, referring to the expansions made in the 2009 stimulus bill that helped more families weather the recession.
Over the last few years, Blaire and his committee have consistently condemned legislative proposals that violate this moral criteria, including the Paul Ryan budget plan adopted by House Republicans. And, despite Ryan’s claims to the contrary, Blaire’s letters do represent the official position of the Catholic bishops.
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Catholic leaders have been busy cracking down on nuns and theologians while also keeping a vigilant eye on those wily Girl Scouts. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., is pulling a card from the McCarthy-era playbook by requiring Sunday school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. David Gibson, a prominent Catholic writer, notes in a recent NPR segment that the Vatican is doing all it can to “bring a schismatic right-wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold while at the same time, it’s censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II.”
So when will influential Catholic organizations and public figures feel the heat for ignoring church teaching when it comes to issues like poverty, economic justice and workers’ rights? Why the free pass for Catholic conservatives like Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, who is making the rounds on Fox News defending the aggrieved richest 1 percent of Americans and preaching a gospel of free-market fundamentalism that is at odds with centuries of Catholic social teaching? Fr. Sirco’s public love letters to libertarianism, most recently in his new book – Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy – surely put him in the good graces of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or even the Romney campaign. But one would hope his bishop might at least raise an eyebrow.
A familiar presence on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, Rev. Sirico recently told the New York Times that the church’s historic defense of unions might not apply to labor fights at Catholic universities today. In a lengthy interview with the National Review he praised Ayn Rand and smugly disparaged those non-habit wearing Catholic nuns for having the audacity to challenge a House GOP budget that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described as failing a basic moral test. While the Ryan budget has no chance of passing its been endorsed by Mitt Romney and serves as an ideological blueprint for a conservative economic agenda that insists we must make a false choice between protecting the most vulnerable and being fiscally responsible. Fr. Sirico’s free-market theology and anti-government zeal often sounds more like Tea Party rhetoric than Pope Benedict XVI, who warns about the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, or the late Pope John Paul II who cautioned against an “idolatry of the market.” Vincent Miller, the chair of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, recently wrote in America magazine that Rev. Sirico’s “well financed defense of libertarian economics often rise to the level of self-parody.” Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, offered a detailed theological critique of Rev. Sirico in Commonweal magazine back in 2008.
Some conservatives have questioned the funding of progressive faith groups working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has been dominated by the Religious Right. Much of this criticism is overheated conspiracy mongering from those who live in some imaginary world where religious liberals are more organized and well-funded than a politically powerful Christian conservative movement that has helped elect presidents and until recently ran circles around religious progressives in the media. But if we’re going to play the funding game let’s take a look at who has made it possible for a Catholic priest to build a national media profile churning out paeans to the free market and putting a moral gloss on corporate talking points. Not surprisingly, big business and wealthy Republicans are bullish on Rev. Sirico. The Acton Institute is backed by the DeVos family, prominent donors to the Republican Party and various conservative organizations that lobby lawmakers to slash government programs that help the most vulnerable, lower taxes on the rich and deregulate Wall Street. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” according to Forbes magazine. The billionaire Koch brothers, the most influential conservative donors in the country (they just hosted a lavish fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons and plan to spend $200 million in this election) have also contributed to Rev. Sirico’s Acton Institute in the past, according to the corporate accountability and transparency group Source Watch.
Wealthy conservatives have every right to lobby for a return of trickle-down economics, but popes and bishops for centuries have rejected the blind faith in unfettered markets and radical individualism promoted by groups like the Acton Institute. Last fall, the Vatican released a timely document that calls for more robust global financial reform and offered a sharp moral critique of the kind of laissez-faire economics Rev. Sirico preaches.
The Catholic Church has plenty of room for liberals, moderates and conservatives. We need a spirited debate over how to properly apply Catholic social teaching to public policy challenges in a pluralistic society. But I worry about the message that is sent when nuns, theologians and progressive Catholics are demonized by church officials even as prominent conservative Catholics appear on national television to peddle ideologies that are at odds with bedrock Catholic values.
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It’s a strange experience to watch the Catholic Church I love and have served in different capacities over the years publicly hang me out to dry. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, my employer for a brief period, has essentially done that in a recent advisory that accuses me of “telling Catholic bishops how to guide the church” and maligns Faith in Public Life as a sinister outfit doing the bidding of a “billionaire atheist.” So I must have done something really threatening to provoke such a bristling reaction from the nation’s most powerful church? Not exactly.
To get those of you who have been busy with more important matters up to speed, here’s a summary. As part of my regular interactions with the media on various Catholic issues, I recently sent out a background memo to reporters addressing the U.S. bishops’ high-profile “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. This national effort, which culminates with a special mass in Washington on the Fourth of July, reaches across many dioceses and aims to mobilize Catholics against what the bishops describe as ominous threats to religious freedom, in particular the Obama administration’s requirement that women have contraception covered by employers without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act. The church’s religious liberty initiative has garnered national headlines and plenty of coverage that lacks nuance or critical analysis that challenges simple storylines.
Among other things, the background memo I sent to the media included important context, examples of some bishops who have used inflammatory rhetoric and a list of commentators — Catholic scholars, theologians and other experts — available for interviews. These commentators were identified because they are well-positioned to offer reporters informed analysis, and are also moderate-to-progressive Catholics who have genuine concerns that the bishops’ religious liberty campaign is in danger of being distorted by a zealous tone and anti-Obama fervor. Did the memo have a point of view? Yes, in the same way prominent Catholic conservatives and bishops quoted in the media have a point of view and frame public debates. Good journalists seek out a diversity of perspectives from the Catholic community and don’t rely on church officials for a one-sided view.
While a few on the right hyperventilate about some perceived conspiracy of deep-pocketed religious liberals, that’s laughable. Faith in Public Life is a small organization with a handful of committed people of faith working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has long been dominated by the Religious Right. Our budget and ability to mobilize campaigns and command media attention, for example, pales in comparison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council.
The voices of progressive religious leaders and commentators in the media are not exactly drowning out those poor, under-funded conservatives. In fact, the marriage of convenience between the Religious Right and the GOP has been a powerful alliance that has helped elect presidents, influences media coverage and until relatively recently ran circles around religious progressives. While coverage of liberal faith perspectives has improved, many reporters still caricature Catholics and evangelicals and identify “values voters” as Republicans who view abortion and same-sex marriage as the only moral issues.
This tempest in a teapot over a simple backgrounder for reporters started after Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – a frequent TV commentator known for a bullying style and sweeping condemnation of all things progressive – quickly pounced with his usual manufactured outrage. He depicted me and Faith and Public Life as trying to “subvert the bishops’ message.” Mr. Donohue, who sees anti-Catholic bigotry lurking around every corner, was incensed that I offered a point of view to reporters. An interesting bone to pick considering this is a man who blasts out press releases on the hour and is no stranger to sharp-edged punditry on cable news. My inbox has been flooded with hate mail from the Donohue fan club assuring me I’m going to hell, kindly offering to meet me “on the battlefield” and attacking me as an “enemy” of the church.
I ignored these ugly attacks and the gotcha tone of right-wing bloggers who requested comment because to even dignify this supposed “expose” from the Catholic League seemed ridiculous. It’s not exactly breaking news that advocacy organizations (liberal, moderate and conservative) provide a perspective and resources to journalists.
So I was surprised when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ media relations director, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, picked up where Mr. Donohue left off. (Full disclosure: Sr. Walsh was my colleague when I worked in the USCCB media office). As she is employed to do, Sr. Walsh counters my analysis with the bishops’ positions. She offers some relevant counterpoints that should be part of a reasonable, civil debate between people of goodwill. But her critique also makes some strange points and has a snarky tone unbecoming of an institution that represents pastors. She oddly takes pains to explain why one bishop I cited, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois – roundly criticized for suggesting that the Obama administration shares some ideological similarities with Hitler and Stalin – has just been misunderstood. A free media tip for bishops: keep murderous dictators out of your analogies if you want to avoid being confused with extremists. And if bishops can’t resist the temptation, it’s probably best for the church’s communications officials not to try and justify those outlandish statements.
The USCCB release also describes the bishops’ religious liberty campaign as a simple “educational” effort. But is that the impression sent when the Catholic bishops of Kansas held a religious liberty rally at the state capitol that featured Republican Governor Sam Brownback? I’m guessing the Romney campaign was pretty happy with this type of education. Bishops have every right and indeed an obligation to make their case, but when the nation’s most powerful religious institution revs up its well-oiled lobbying and PR machine over contested issues with President Obama a few months before an election, it’s moved well beyond simple education. Even some moderate bishops have raised warnings about the religious liberty campaign getting dragged through the political mud. America magazine, a respected publication edited by Catholic priests, did the same in an eloquent editorial.
If bishops don’t want to be viewed as cheerleaders for a conservative political agenda – and most church leaders don’t – it would help if they toned down the alarmist rhetoric and turned up their moral megaphones on a broader range of justice issues at the heart of our Catholic social tradition. This includes defending workers’ rights now under assault in many states and challenging tax policies that coddle the wealthiest few. In 1986, Catholic bishops released Economic Justice for All, a powerful pastoral letter that in many ways challenged the “trickle down” economic theories that perpetuated income inequality during the Reagan era. But when Catholic bishops met for a national meeting last fall economic issues and poverty were not on the agenda. Bishops failed to even acknowledge the 25th anniversary of that document. Meeting last month in Atlanta, bishops finally got around to agreeing to draft a message tentatively titled “Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” Bishop Stephen Blaire said that such a statement was “not only timely, but perhaps overdue.” It won’t be released until after a presidential election that will hinge on economic issues.
The Catholic justice tradition challenges the anti-government zeal and free market fundamentalism that guides the Republican party these days, but you don’t hear much about that from bishops. Letters to Congress are helpful – bishops have sent a flurry criticizing the House GOP budget – but most Catholics in the pews are only hearing about the church’s tussle with the Obama administration. This sends a distorted message to voters. When you have high-profile Catholic leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan touting an economic vision that is plainly contrary to Catholic teaching, you would think that might inspire Catholic bishops to respond in a more full-throated way.
The USCCB response also attempts to demonize Faith in Public Life by calling into question our funding. Sr. Walsh describes FPL as being “founded with help from a pro-abortion group.” The Center for American Progress helped incubate FPL in our nascent days. It happens to be one of the nation’s most respected policy organizations providing advocacy and analysis on issues such as economics, national security, immigration reform, energy independence and health care. Describing CAP as a “pro-abortion” group” is reductio ad absurdum, an obvious smear. It also ignores our work with a range of pro-life and pro-choice leaders in calling for policies that support pregnant women and reduce abortions. Sr. Walsh also mirrors the breathless outrage of Bill Donohue and others on the far-right when she describes FPL as receiving funding from “billionaire atheist” George Soros. FPL receives funding from a diverse range of foundations and philanthropies, including the Open Society Institute. Mr. Soros does not show up at our staff meetings or dictate what we work on. As far as Sr. Walsh’s description of him as an “atheist,” I didn’t realize that only people of faith are viewed as legitimate actors in the public square. I expect that kind of demagoguery from Glenn Beck, not my church.
Beyond the particular details of the USCCB response, I’m most struck that a simple background memo from a small organization of progressive people of faith has provoked such a defensive and disproportionate reaction. It speaks volumes about the anxious, embattled posture of some Catholic leaders these days when faithful Catholics who are progressive because of the inspiration we draw from the Catholic social tradition are portrayed as threats to our church.
I believe in a “big tent” Catholicism where liberals, moderates and conservatives can disagree over politics but still share a common faith and break bread together. I believe in an intellectually vibrant, culturally relevant Catholicism that engages with a pluralistic society. In recent months, Catholic leaders have made news for cracking down on Catholic nuns, eminent theologians and that nefarious anti-Catholic organization known as the Girl Scouts. In this tireless effort to sniff out supposed subversives in their midst, I worry that some religious leaders are unwittingly dragging a church I love deeper into the fog of culture wars and farther away from the spirit of the Gospel.
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In an interview with the National Catholic Register about last week’s Supreme Court decision, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia appeared to break with the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ official stance of not supporting repeal of the Affordable Care Act:
NCR: What does the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform legislation now mean in the struggle to defend religious freedom?
CHAPUT: I think it’s a disappointment on the part of many of us in the Church because we had hoped the decision would make our lawsuits unnecessary.
The USCCB, of course, released a statement yesterday explaining that while they take issue with certain parts of the law, they have “not joined in efforts to repeal the law in its entirety, and [they] do not do so today.”
Expounding on his views, Chaput further demonstrated how far he is from the position of his conference:
NCR: The U.S. bishops have spoken in favor of a universal right to health care.
CHAPUT: The bishops really do believe it. Health is a basic human right; we have a right to be healthy. There’s no declaration on the part of the Church that that has to be accomplished through government intervention.
There are many ways of approaching health care, and I think it’s very important for Catholics to understand the fact that the Church, seeing health care as a basic human right, does not mean [to say] there’s a particular method of obtaining that [right that’s] better than another.
Chaput’s assertion here isn’t a remotely convincing argument against the law. Just because Church teaching doesn’t require a governmental role in healthcare doesn’t mean it rejects it. The Bishops concerns about the Affordable Care Act were about particular policies, they had no objections to the general framework of the bill.
Even for those who are opposed to the law on principle, advocating for repeal is incredibly irresponsible. A sudden reversal would put millions of people at risk of health crises and financial ruin.
Chaput’s argument sounds more like that of a Tea Party politician than a Catholic prelate. As his fellow bishops attempt to tamp down appearances of partisanship, Chaput’s comments don’t help the situation.
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