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A Spotlight on the uses and abuses of Catholic Social Teaching

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Captains of a drifting ship

This column, published on the religion page of the Bennington Banner, on Dec. 4, 2010, is an expanded version of my previous blog post here:

Mark Rondeau

We live in strange times. The recent release of a book excerpt in which Pope Benedict XVI indicates his opinion that use of condoms to prevent the spread of the HIV virus can in some circumstances be a moral action set off a media extravaganza.


Clearly, what the Catholic Church holds and teaches still matters, or at least generates wide interest, especially with anything dealing with sexuality.

Yet, the response of many, not only outside the church but almost equally within -- at least in the West -- is too often to nod and dismiss the pronouncement as irrelevant.


John J. Dilulio Jr. has an excellent column in the Nov. 29 issue of "America," titled "Blending In." He notes that when it comes to voting, U.S. Catholics are pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of the population. "On nearly every public policy issue on which there is good national polling data...Catholics as a group come as close to any religious denomination does to mirroring what most Americans believe."


This could be seen in their voting patterns in the last two national elections: Democratic in 2008, Republican in 2010. Long gone are the days when John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency, and Catholics were somehow seen as less than fully American. Yet, the march into the political and cultural mainstream has come at a price, Dilulio writes.


"The country’s Catholic bishops face a flock that includes large numbers of people who hold positions at odds with church teaching (on abortion, the death penalty, programs to assist the poor and many other issues)."


My belief, buttressed by much of what I have seen, read and experienced in recent years, is that a majority of Catholics let their politics lead their faith, rather than using their faith to determine their politics. This is true of both liberals and conservatives, but is most striking, and disturbing, in the U.S. on the right.


For instance, I do not have polling data, but I can easily imagine several hundreds of thousands of Tea Party Catholics, totally at odds with church teaching on war, the universal destination of goods, the preferential option for the poor, the common good and the death penalty, reverently invoking the notions of Ayn Rand, who believed in radical selfishness and that the individual was god.


Dilulio concludes on a somber note: "Have American Catholics been folded so completely into the nation’s political and cultural mainstream that they can no longer be its political salt and cultural light, or so divided among themselves that they can never speak truth to power in one faith-filled voice? I pray not, but I fear so."


Teaching doesn’t register


Clearly, Catholic teaching about economic justice, the environment, war and life -- while still influential (and often distorted) in some spheres -- is a pretty much a cipher to the average American Catholic. And by all indications it will remain so. Not only do the U.S. bishops speak with a muted voice compared to the past, they are moving increasingly to a focus on abortion and gay marriage to the exclusion of all else. Economic justice, war, the death penalty, be damned.

As an editorial in the Nov. 26 issue of the National Catholic Reporter regarding the recent U.S. bishops’ national meeting notes, "Just how deeply insular and inward looking the [U.S. bishops’] conference has become was apparent in the fact that the agenda for this year’s meeting, conducted amid the greatest recession since the Great Depression, contained no mention of the poor, the jobless or the state of the economy."


This is ironic and sad, for the social teaching of the Catholic Church is considered part of its evangelization effort. In his social encyclical issued 23 years ago, "On Social Concern, ("Sollicitudo Rei Socialis"), Pope John Paul II wrote that "the teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the church’s evangelizing mission."


He adds, "The condemnation of evils and injustices is also part of that ministry of evangelization in the social field which is an aspect of the Church’s prophetic role."


But, judging by the priorities of the U.S. bishops, endless wars, rising inequality, massive unemployment while corporations make record profits, governmental gridlock on climate change, and a whole host of other concerns hold little merit. In a further irony, Pope Benedict, just last year, laid out a bold vision for the future and broke new ground in Catholic social teaching with his encyclical "Caritas in Veritate."


Have the bishops made a wide effort to promulgate this encyclical? No. To apply it to the situation in the U.S.? No. To hold widely publicized discussions of it at Catholic colleges and universities? No.


The sad fact is that the Catholic Church in the U.S. -- particularly the hierarchy -- seems exhausted. Statistics point out that among native-born Americans, the Catholic Church keeps losing members to other faiths and to no faith at all.


In their recent book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell report that "All things considered, roughly 60 percent of all Americans today who were raised in America as Catholics are no longer practicing Catholics, half of them having left the church entirely and half remaining nominally Catholic, but rarely, if ever, taking any part in the life of the church."


First things first


The influx of Catholic Latinos, which boosts the total number of active U.S. Catholics, seems to give many bishops an excuse to hop on the merry-go-round called denial. I would love to see the church’s rich, but widely underappreciated, social teaching used as a tool for evangelization among those across the political spectrum. But first the Catholic Church needs to be leading its people -- especially the young -- to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the first and supreme requirement of evangelization.


With more and more given this solid and indispensable foundation, then perhaps Catholics would let their faith determine their politics and find a common set of priorities and a new voice, a voice free from the enforced conformity of political ideology at either end of the spectrum.


Mark E. Rondeau is the religion editor of the Banner and a Catholic.



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