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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

264: Dec 5th 2020:Social Catholicism must rise to the task of our perilous, yet hopeful moment!

Day 264 December 5th, 2020: Radical, Moderate, and Necessary:

Social Catholicism must rise to the task of our perilous, yet hopeful moment

How can we bring religious progressive thought and action back into the political mix. That's the question I've been grappling with. I'm ashamed of the leadership of my church - for its tragic misconduct when it comes to all things that have to with sex, the abuse of so many minors over so many years, the enslavement of Native Americans, the failure to embrace the amazing gifts of women as equals, the hatred for the LBGTQ+ communities and the singular focus on the issue of abortion all the while being silent when it comes to immigrants, the homeless and those on the periphery. These are tragic failures and hypocrisies which have led our children to abandon the church. Why should they join a church that has moved so far away from the spiritual mission to care for the least?

But I also have hope that if we commit ourselves to acting out our Christian values we can to raise our voices and not concede our values and tradition of acting for the common good. Remember the progressive nuns and priests and catholic college students in the South. The Nuns on the Bus, Sister Helen Prejean, the Sisters in El Salvador and the Amazon and so many other places where they have been tortured and killed for their actions in defending the poor.

Columnist and author E.J. Dione writes:

Catholic social tradition is very progressive. How progressive? Consider: "The present system stands in grievous need of considerable modifications and improvement. Its main defects are three: enormous inefficiency and waste in the production and distribution of commodities; insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners; and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists. "These aren't Bernie Sanders's words. They are drawn from the American Catholic Bishops' 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction that, as the scholar Lew Daly has argued, can be seen in retrospect as having offered the moral underpinnings for what became the New Deal.

The 1919 bishops were writing after a shockingly destructive war, and in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and great economic uncertainty. A century later, public Catholicism in the United States must be up to the tasks of our own perilous moment. This is no time for underperforming." If the church is alive," Pope Francis has said, "it must always surprise." This would be an excellent occasion for surprises. A God of mercy demands no less.

Those inspired by Catholic thinking have always been alive to the importance of balance—between personal responsibility and a concern for community, between individual rights and the common good. This sense of equilibrium could be an antidote to much that is wrong in our public life. But in so many public proclamations by Church leaders, we hear far more about cultural warfare than balance, more about gloom than hope for modernity, more about dangers than possibilities.

The Church's teachings about politics represent a radical brand of moderation that is missing in our discourse—radical, because they offer a sharp critique of the status quo and its assumptions; moderate, because they understand the imperative of weighing competing goods and seeing human beings as fallen but also capable of transcendence and redemption.

The old Catholic concept of the "social mortgage" speaks powerfully to our economic moment and to the reality of growing inequality. It underscores the obligations of those who have achieved financial comfort toward the society that enabled their success, and especially toward those who have the least. The idea that there are "essential workers" has been popularized during the pandemic, and one can say a prayer of thanks for that. The phrase calls attention to the contradiction between our claim to value those who undertake this labor and our failure to stand up for the adequate pay and decent working conditions they deserve.

Again, this reflects Catholic teaching, going back to Rerum novarum, that has always insisted on the dignity of work and the right of workers to organize collectively and to lead ennobling personal and family lives.

And, yes, the family matters, as Catholicism has always taught. But here we come again to the ways in which the Church's leadership so often shortchanges itself, its membership, and the world. That the phrase "family values" is now so closely associated with hostility to LGBTQ people is a shame and a sin. What a dedication to family should be about is the joy we take in the responsibilities of relationships that nurture the next generation. Family values, rightly understood, should challenge prejudices, not reinforce them. An emphasis on family tells us that the work we do in the marketplace is not the only kind of work that matters, nor is it the most important. Family overturns prejudices related to age—all members of the family, from toddlers to great-grandparents, are appreciated for who they are, who they have been, who they can be. And we are called to love members of our families even when their views, their ways of living, and their forms of self-expression might annoy or trouble us.

In that love, we can also learn how to empathize with those outside our families who are unlike us and might disagree with us.

(Sister Jean Bellini working for just land practices in the Amazon)

If I am disappointed that American Catholicism is not bringing to our politics what Pope Francis has called "the joy of the Gospel," it is an impatience born of gratitude, not bitterness. Perhaps that's why I have used the restrained word "underperforming" to describe what others might fairly see as the scandalous failure of its leadership to speak fearlessly and consistently against the social and moral failures of the Trump presidency. So much of what I believe has been shaped by the Catholicism I learned from my parents, from the Sisters of St. Joseph, and from the Benedictine monks who taught me in high school. It's true that I remain enraged by the scandals and can easily identify with those who have left the Church in disgust; they include many people I am close to. Yet I continue to admire the work on behalf of charity and justice undertaken by so many of the institutions the Church has built. As I have already suggested, I see Catholicism—particularly in its post–World War II form—as offering intellectual resources the democratic world can use at a moment when democracy finds itself in crisis.

This only deepens my sadness over the narrowing of the American Church's public witness and its failure to take advantage of the enormous opening Pope Francis's papacy offers.

Now should be a time for a renewed embrace of a social Catholicism that gave rise to Christian Democracy, a vibrant Catholic role in the labor movement, and a healthy, dialectical relationship with modernity. After 1945, the Church took decisive steps, ratified by the Second Vatican Council, to accept modernity's moral gifts on matters of democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. At the same time, it maintained a critical attitude toward modernity's acids—the contemporary world's slide toward a radical rather than a tempered individualism, and its skepticism of tradition in all its forms. Tradition, as Catholics know as well as anyone, can be stifling, but it can also be liberating and instructive. These Catholic gifts are largely unknown among the young who have come to associate Catholicism with the issues the loudest Catholic voices speak of incessantly—opposition to abortion and gay marriage—and not much else.

This is an enormous problem, both for our politics and for the future of the Church. And this frustration can congeal into anger in response to the insistence by so many right-wing Catholics, including some bishops and priests, that it is a moral obligation to vote for a man who can fairly be seen as the most corrupt, morally flawed, selfish, and bigoted president in our nation's history. These are symptoms of a Church that, far from being the "counter-cultural" force my conservative Catholic friends have recommended as its natural path, has conformed itself to the cultural and ideological wars that have led our country's politics to a dreadful impasse.

The polls show that the primary division among Catholics in 2020, as in 2016, is along ethnic and racial lines. White Catholics offer majority support to Donald Trump, Hispanic and Black Catholics oppose him—which means that Catholics are divided along the same lines as the rest of the country. Perhaps this should not shock us.

Catholics have never been monolithic in their political views. Even Kennedy joked that he had the support of the nuns, while Richard Nixon enjoyed the sympathy of many bishops.

Nonetheless, the polarization of Catholics along white/non-white lines is, to say the least, discouraging, because it means that a substantial majority of white Catholics support a man who traffics relentlessly in racism and nativism. We must confront a disturbing truth: that white Catholics, like white Protestants, are in many cases drawn to rather than repulsed by Trump's appeal to racial backlash.

For the long run, the bishops must come to understand that a political approach centered on an insistence that abortion must become illegal will keep leading the Church into blind alleys. Many Christian Democratic parties have already recognized this. It is not even a promising strategy for reducing the number of abortions, given the likelihood of a high rate of illegal abortions that would also threaten women's lives. This could open the way for creating a genuine culture of life, rooted, as Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny has argued, in respect for both autonomy and solidarity, and a full embrace of gender equality. It would begin with an acknowledgment that poorer women account for about seventy percent of all abortions in the United States. Robust policies to help poor women (which is to say, a far greater degree of social justice) combined with wider access to contraception (which I know is inconsistent with current Church teaching) would substantially reduce the number of abortions.

The paradox is that pushing Catholic social teaching to the forefront will do far more to create a culture of life than the culture-war campaigns of recent decades. And those who insist that faith requires supporting Trump and opposing LGBTQ rights must ponder how doing so closes off so many, especially among the young, to the possibility of dialogue and conversion.

If the church is alive," Pope Francis has said, "it must always surprise." This would be an excellent occasion for surprises. Perhaps Joe Biden and all of us progressive Christians can take on new, joyful responsibilities.

A God of mercy demands no less.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist

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