Friday, November 16, 2007

Rendering Unto Caesar (US Bishop's guide to Citizenship)

Robert Drinan was a priest who was elected to Congress on a platform opposing the War in Vietnam. In 1980, he stepped down when Pope John Paul II demanded that all priests withdraw from politics.

When I was a child, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic President of the United States. In September of 1960, JFK gave a speech in Houston that essentially put to rest a longstanding political fear about Catholics entering politics, the notion that their decisions would be driven by the pope.

JFK used the speech to quell any doubts that he was “American” first and his Catholicism was part of his private as opposed to his political life.

“So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again--not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me--but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Fast forward to 2007. I’m skimming the yahoo headlines when I come across an article about a November 14 document from the US. Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCCB) called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: The U.S. Bishop’s Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life.”

It’s a 34 page guide that tells good Catholics how to vote. The Catholic Church is hardly the only American church playing an overt role in politics. In fact, this may be a matter of America’s largest denominational Church playing catch up with Evangelical American churches that have both grown considerably over the last generation and played a very active role politically. That activism ranges from Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer both having run for the presidency to Karl Rove’s success in the 2004 election in turning evangelical denominations into grass roots Republican precinct headquarters.
The Position Paper takes care not to endorse a particular candidate or party. There’s much about it that I agree with. The Bishops condemn war, torture, and the lack of universal health care. They also oppose profit-motivated control of media and support universal access to an appropriately censored internet. They point out that work is both a spiritual and an economic issue and they say that we should welcome immigrants and treat them with dignity. There are a couple odd items like statements on school choice (Catholic Schools are a source of revenue for the Church) and “contraceptive mandates” for children.

My biggest questions have to do with the paper’s “Culture of Life” rhetoric. The position paper argues that “mortal sin”, which includes abortion, euthanasia, and what sounds like embryonic stem cell research is far more serious and requires much more immediate action than your everyday sins like ignoring billions of poor people, making the planet uninhabitable, or killing thousands of people based on a lie. To their credit, the Bishops don’t like the death penalty either as part of The Culture of Life, but for some reason endorsing the death penalty isn’t as big a no no as being pro-choice. (I don’t want to get into the whole business of how being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean that you personally condone abortion). At one point the Bishops make a point of saying that voters should not choose candidates based on a single issue (abortion), but the paper makes it clear that while all that other destructive stuff has to be considered in context, abortion is essentially non-negotiable. Mmmmm….death penalty+ torture =bad, but not the end of the world for a politician. Abortion or choice=insurmountable sin which conscience can not contemplate. Same sex marriage is also treated as a major no no along with abortion.

There are two bits of context missing from “Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship”. First the American Catholic Church is still clearing up allegations across the country that members of its clergy sexually molested thousands even tens of thousands of children over the course of the last two generations. The Paper doesn’t bother to mention the scandal nor does it mention the many documented cases of the Church “exiling” pedophile clergy to places where they still had access to children while ignoring the victims. If abortion is such a bad thing, what am I supposed to think about the Bishops, some of whom may have voted in that council, who condoned child molesting. Can you imagine being the parent of a child who was impregnated by a priest and insisting that abortion is unacceptable because it’s a mortal sin?
Second, there’s the matter of the Church’s and Pope Benedict’s in particular response to Liberation Theology. While Pope John Paul II took care to distinguish between his support for addressing poverty and the needs of society’s weakest and most vulnerable, he also expressed clear concern about the influence of Marxism on the movement and the whole notion of members of the clergy playing an active role in politics. Benedict has more openly condemned Liberation Theology due to its support for social change (revolution). It happens that President Bush openly applauded Benedict's ascension to the papacy. Somehow, the American Bishops managed to ignore the whole history of Liberation Theology in the western hemisphere. For whatever reason, they are not endorsing political activism as long as “abortion” and “gay marriage” are high on your list of mortal sins. This is a long ways from Dorothy Day's American Catholic Church.

I’m not Catholic, so maybe I shouldn’t say much about this, but I can’t agree with the Church’s political priorities. Put simply, I’d rather vote for a candidate who supports notions endorsed by the Bishops like support for the poor, pursuing peace first before war, the protection of children, health care for all, but who just happens to be pro-choice because he or she believes that it’s a personal question and a matter of individual conscience and not an issue for the state. I wouldn’t vote for someone who endorses mass killing, torture, ignores the needs of the poor and vulnerable, and who prioritizes profit over either the dignity of work and simply having proper health care for one’s self and one’s family, who happens to be “pro-life” (how do you even reconcile that with killing thousands of fully sentient people?) and anti-gay marriage. One could read the Bishop’s directive to conscience as suggesting that a good Catholic could justify supporting the latter. The paper does also suggest that there may be times when one should vote for no one.

When you couple this political position with the Church’s child molestation scandal it does make outsiders like me wonder about moral bankruptcy.

Times have changed since JFK. There’s currently a Catholic Majority (5 justices) on the U.S. Supreme Court. Two members of the court seriously considered the Seminary, Thomas and Roberts. In 2004, the Democrats nominated John Kerrey, another Catholic from Massachusetts for the presidency, who happened to be pro-choice. During the election, a Bishop publicly said that Senator Kerrey should not be given communion because of his stance on the issue. Despite the Bishops protestations of non-partisanship, I'm not aware of any American Bishops threatening to cut off Republicans from communion for condoning torture.

Since the Republican party added a constitutional amendment banning abortion to its national platform in 1976, the party has drawn an increasingly large percentage of Catholic voters despite Republican positions on virtually every other policy matter listed in the Bishop’s Guide to Conscience.

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they included the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment at least partly because they were all too aware of the last two centuries of wars and persecutions that were the direct result of the pairing of two ideas, the creation of the nation state and the belief that religious tolerance essentially condoned immorality. I think JFK was right in 1960. I fear that the Bishops, even though they state their position very very carefully, are headed in a very dangerous direction.

Consider this. They oppose war in general, but don’t necessarily condemn the war in Iraq because they allow for reasonable responses to terrorism. They call for a “responsible” solution. They make no mention of the evidence that our nation was misled into that war, that there’s little evidence to support Iraqi involvement in 9/11, and that the current administration has never specifically proposed a "responsible solution".

The evangelicals like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” The American Empire has come to resemble the middle to latter stages of the Roman Empire. I wonder if the American bishops ever ask themselves “What would Peter do?”

If you're interested in the odd mixture of Democratic Governments and the Catholic Church in Italy, I recommend Charles Lambert's blog where he often writes humorously about the subject. Be warned though, I get the impression that the fellow lives in mortal sin.



At 11/17/2007 11:05:00 PM, Blogger AHP said...

The fact that certain Catholics said that clergy should stay out of politics is ironic. If anything, organized religion is as political as it gets. That's why you see support for visible issues to rally their churchgoers around rather than working to tackle more pressing issues such as hunger and genocide.

At 11/17/2007 11:19:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

it wasn't a certain Catholic, it was the last Pope.

At 11/18/2007 08:05:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

I was raised as a Catholic and was a devout church goer all the way up until my second year in college. Was it that "liberal" education that may me stray from the church? No. In actual fact, I still believe in a lot of the church's stances. It was two things that made me reconsider the church - the pope's decree at the time against Liberation Theology (which I really agreed with), comments he made at the time against the idea of women and married men as priests and the fact that the pope turned a blind eye to the Reagan Administrations support for the Contras in Nicaragua as well as their support for the death squads in El Salvador, both which had been tied to the slaughter of the poor, nuns and priests.

I tried going back to church for a while about five years ago, but was further disgusted by comments made in the church that struck me as so naive, pro-capitalism and pro-Republican party.

I strongly believe that the church of my childhood has lost its moral compass due to its blindness toward power and money.

At 11/18/2007 09:03:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

good to see you back here. The current Church seems to have lost touch with the strain of American Catholicism that included Dorothy Day and Caesar Chavez.

The Church's stance on liberation theology during the Reagan years is especially painful when one remembers that it was Maryknoll nuns working in El Salvador who were killed and raped by the death squads who may have been supported, trained, and supplied by the Americans.
Somehow the American Church has turned the unborn into "martyrs", but doesn't seem to remember Maura Clarke.

At 11/19/2007 07:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll begin to respect a Religion when its adherents tirelessly protest against all wars and tirelessly protest for the concrete wellbeing of the poor.

As for abortion. Let's start with birth control. Then I remember a good friend of mine in high school 45 years ago hemorrhaging just short of death (We didn't dare tell anybody because it was all so dreadful and forbidden)on my dorm room floor. I can still smell all the blood and we buried the sodden bath towels we used to soak up the blood. This was before legal abortion. She was just lucky she didn't die. She had tried to abort herself with a knitting needle. Desperation led to this kind of madness and would again.

It's astonishing. It's ok for born children to starve and have no health care and no wonderful education and be mutilated in wars. The forgotten born. Now that's a mortal sin.

At 11/19/2007 07:48:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I do think the Buddhists actually do that. The Quakers also protest against all wars which is one reason the current Administration has been investigating them.

I have the same problem with the Bishop's priorities as you do.

At 11/22/2007 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Marianne said...


I hope you get a moment free today to check out my blog, which is about "161 Meme", and I've tagged you as one of my five other bloggers to keep this thing going:

Are you having turkey?

-- M.

At 11/22/2007 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks for meme-ing me Kanlaon.


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