Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Home for the "Politically Homeless"

This week, the annual Catholic Social Ministry gathering's taking place in Washington. And with, among other things, the Pope reportedly preparing to unleash a social encyclical in the coming weeks, it's worth noting.

The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen is there and filing away with some of the conference's flavor....

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta's reflections on the USCCB's election-year pastoral on "Faithful Citizenship":
In a Feb. 23 op/ed piece in the Washington Post, former NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd summarized the message of “Faithful Citizenship” this way: “Tap the touch screen for a pro-abortion-rights candidate, and you’re probably punching your ticket to Hell.”

Gregory, however, said that’s not what “Faithful Citizenship” teaches.

“Defending the right to life is obviously a primary concern,” Gregory said. “It’s the point of departure for everything else.”

Nonetheless, Gregory said, it is “at least possible” that a Catholic who carefully weighs the issues could decide that, on balance, a candidate who is not explicitly pro-life is preferable to one who opposes the legalization of abortion but who does not share Catholic positions on other matters of moral importance. Gregory was speaking in the abstract, without reference to any specific candidate.

In that sense, Gregory said, “Faithful Citizenship” cannot be reduced to an absolute obligation to vote for a pro-life candidate, regardless of his or her stances on anything else.

“It’s a complicated document,” Gregory said. “It suggests that people have to think hard about their choices.”

Gregory, a former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, drew attention to another op/ed piece on "Faithful Citizenship," this one in the Feb. 26 Chicago Tribune. It's written by Charles W. Murdock, a law professor at Loyola University of Chicago.

In the piece, Murdock asserts that “Faithful Citizenship” is “far more balanced and nuanced than its critics acknowledge.”

"No one candidate or political party has a monopoly on moral positions," Murdock wrote. "The sooner that liberals and conservatives within the church accept this complexity and find a way to talk about the issues, the better off the Catholic Church will be. And, for that matter, the country."

Adopted during the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, “Faithful Citizenship” addresses the role of Catholics in political life. Beginning in 1976, the bishops have produced such a document regularly during election years.

In his remarks to the Social Ministry Gathering, Gregory encouraged Catholics to carry several messages to Capitol Hill:
• “The lives of unborn children need protection”;
• “Poor children need justice”;
• “Families need affordable health care”;
• “Immigrants need to be treated as brothers and sisters, not enemies”;
• “The hungry of the world need food”;
• “Those living and dying with HIV/AIDS need compassionate care”;
• “The people of the Holy Land need a just peace”;
• “The unending war in Iraq requires a responsible transition.”

Each item on the list drew applause, and Gregory himself received a standing ovation both at the beginning and the end of his comments.

“We are not a lobby,” Gregory told the social ministers, “but a community that serves the poor and vulnerable every day. We are not an interest group, nor are we advocating our own narrow interests, but speaking for the voiceless and standing up for the common good.”

Gregory described the journey to Capitol Hill as “not a secular mobilization, but, in a sense, a pilgrimage.”

We go not to impose some sectarian doctrine,” Gregory said, “but to add our voices and our convictions to the debates and decisions on what kind of nation we are becoming, what kind of world we are shaping.”...

“In supporting the basic right to life, we cannot allow mothers and children to be forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because the resources are not made available,” Gregory said.

Gregory conceded that some people have been surprised and even angered by the bishops’ position on immigration – “including,” he said, “even some Catholics.” He lamented what he called a “coarse and polarizing” debate on immigration policy.

“I would envision another kind of public dialogue,” he said, “where the centuries-old experience of Christianity can help balance the harsh exigencies of law.”
Also among the attendees is Bolivian Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval CSSR of Santa Cruz.....
You came to the United States in part to meet with several members of Congress about U.S. policy towards Latin America, and Bolivia in particular. What have you found?

In general, I would say that the understanding is more theoretical than practical, in part because Latin America is enormously diverse, and that’s not always clear from a distance. I sense an intention to have a new kind of relationship, but they haven’t yet figured out, it seems to me, how to do that in a very practical way.

With regard to Bolivia, because we’re relatively small from an economic point of view, we’re not seen as a country to which the United States should be paying much attention – despite the fact that there are high levels of poverty that desperately need attention. For the people I met, Bolivia is often seen as a card that can be played as part of the larger diplomatic game, especially with regard to Colombia and the desire for a free trade agreement. Obviously, we don’t like to think of ourselves as a lasso that can be used to pull along other issues.
I’ve also tried to encourage people to consider the plight of the Bolivian people and not exclusively the language of the government, which at this stage is fairly hot with regard to the United States. If they cut these trade preferences that we’ve had for twenty years, it will dramatically effect Bolivians, particularly 40,000 small businesses and tens of thousands of people who depend on them. The message that would send to the Bolivian people is obviously not a good one.

At the same time, people have been very kind, very polite, and they’ve listened to what I have to say. It’s not very clear, however, how they intend to advance our case in Congress.

From the outside, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales seems like a left-wing populist similar in some ways to Castro and Chavez. How are relations with the church?

First of all, not everything that seems like it’s leaning left necessarily is left-wing. It’s clear, however, that Bolivians have put their faith in a change that was absolutely necessary. There was tremendous injustice that had endured for centuries, and it was important to open that up to make possible greater opportunities for the majority of Bolivians. Unfortunately, what they’ve done is to focus on what happened in the past, and they’ve tried to make such a clean break with the past that it’s leaving a lot of people out of the march towards the future. For example, there’s a deep tension between those who live in the highlands of Bolivia and those who live in the plains that is being provoked in the current political situation. The government doesn’t like it when we say it, but they really are losing a historical moment to move forward and to combat some of these injustices.

So far relations with the church have been fairly good, and they don’t go after us very frequently. There have been some moments of tension, but by and large the church is still quite respected....

Another source of tension in Latin America these days is the coming election in Paraguay, and the candidacy of Bishop Fernando Lugo for the presidency. As you know, Lugo requested laicization but the Holy See refused, telling him to stay out of politics. He’s running anyway on a left-wing populist platform, and the polls suggest he could well win. How is he seen by the Latin American bishops?

I don’t think we see it as a real source of worry, or as something that demands a major response from us. Even though he’s very committed and dedicated, Lugo doesn’t seem to have been able to draw from the wells of his faith to figure out how to advance his goals from within the context of his episcopal ministry, so he’s decided to go into politics. We hope that he manages to achieve a balanced vision, and that he also avoids some of the temptations that always seem to come with being in a position of power.

If he’s elected, how will CELAM [the conference of Latin American bishops] react?

I don’t think the mere fact of him being a cleric involved in politics will, in itself, generate a huge reaction, because as you know we’ve seen it before. At the same time, we won’t feel limited or intimidated because there’s now a bishop, or an ex-bishop who’s now in elected office. We’ll still speak our mind and advocate for our issues as we always have, and as we would with any regime.

But you wouldn’t refuse to deal with him until he resolves his canonical problems with the Holy See?

You can’t ignore the president of a country. We’d interact with him as we would any elected official.

What policies could the United States adopt that would be of greatest help to your people?

What we’re looking for is a gesture that expresses the values, the good values, that we know the American people have. We’re also asking, despite some of the conflicts that go on at the level of governments, for you to think about the poor people in Bolivia and extend a hand to them. What we need to see from the United States is that you’re not so worried about these words that provoke conflicts among leaders, and that you’re really on the side of life and the life of the Bolivian people.

The trade preferences we spoke about a moment ago are very important in this regard. What extending them would show is that the United States is concerned about Bolivia, a poor country still struggling to escape its poverty. It would show that the United States really does want Bolivia to advance, not to fall back.
And John Carr -- the longtime justice-and-peace director for the nation's bishops -- said that, in reality, American Catholics seeking to be faithful to the church's teaching end up being "politically homeless":
“We don’t fit with the right or the left, with Democrats or Republicans,” said John Carr, who directs the office for Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Referring to the annual Social Ministry Gathering, Carr said, “I sometimes think of us as a self-help group for the politically incorrect, for people who insist on standing both with the unborn and the undocumented.”

Nevertheless, Carr said this morning, this makes it “a great time to be a Catholic preacher, teacher or leader, because no one can accuse us of being shills for a partisan position.”

Carr, a veteran staffer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that a genuinely Catholic approach to politics cannot "cherry-pick" or be "selective."

“Catholic progressives ought to be measured by how they stand up for human life,” he said, “and Catholic conservatives by how they defend human dignity.” The “consistent ethic of life,” Carr said, “doesn’t give any of us a free pass.”

Describing the political context for Catholic social ministry, Carr spoke of tremendous polarization in Washington.

“The debate used to be within the 40-yard-lines,” Carr said. “Today everybody’s in the end zones.”

Carr related, for example, that when the U.S. bishops were recently asked to meet with members of Congress to discuss the war on Iraq, they requested that the session be bipartisan – only to be told, Carr said, “that’s not how we do things here.”

Carr described a sort of hyper-individualism on both the political right and left that both obstruct compassionate social policy.

“On the right, there’s the individualism of the market,” he said. “On the left, there’s lifestyle individualism, so that choice becomes the defining virtue of public life.”...

Carr argued that the recent document from the U.S. bishops on Catholics and politics, “Faithful Citizenship,” provides a template for “lifting up our church and changing our nation.” It deliberately does not tell people how to vote, he said, but it seeks to form consciences in accord with the full range of Catholic teaching.

"We don’t need Catholic Pat Robertsons or Jesse Jacksons,” Carr said. “It’s not about religious leaders telling people how to vote.”

In that connection, Carr referred to a Feb. 23 op/ed piece in the Washington Post by former NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd, who suggested that “Faithful Citizenship” marked a “right-wing lurch” by the conference.

Carr was among the drafters of the document on behalf of the bishops’ conference.

“Ironically, you could write an identical column about how ‘Faithful Citizenship’ sold out the unborn and provides a roadmap for voting for a pro-choice candidate,” Carr said. “But you know, and I know, that our reality is much more complicated.”

Carr’s address was frequently laced with humor. For example, expressing astonishment on the overwhelming vote in favor of the “Faithful Citizenship” document at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, he said: “It’s not clear that even the Trinity would pass with only four negative votes.”