When President Obama proposed legislation that would require Catholic institutions to include contraception in their employee health plans, the hierarchy went ballistic. In our diocese, the bishop wrote a very forceful letter, which every pastor was required to read at Mass, urging all Catholics to contact the White House and express opposition to the proposal. Under a banner of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, Catholics raised such an outcry that the President backed down and moderated his proposal.
Pope Paul VIâ€™s encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, explicitly forbade artificial contraception. That ban is still part of Catholic teaching, and bishops must promote it, especially when some of what falls under the label â€œcontraceptionâ€ involves abortion, but the vigor of the hierarchyâ€™s campaign against the Obama proposal raises serious questions of moral priorities.
The last time an episcopal letter was read in all the parishes involved the issue of gay marriage, and the time before that involved abortion. Again, the Church has clear teachings on these issues which bishops are obligated to articulate, but the degree of opposition given to them dwarfs other concerns.
A friend of mine once mused, “I think you have to pay fines for your sins to get into heaven: a half million dollars for killing, ten thousand for stealing, a hundred for lying, and a quarter for masturbation.” The hierarchy seems to be standing this paradigm on its head.
Jesus never talks about sexuality in the Gospels, save a description of marriage as a man and a woman becoming â€œone flesh.â€ However, Christ does repeatedly tell His followers to eschew violence, wealth, and greed, while embracing service of the poor, prayer, and work for justice. The evangelical centrality of nonviolence is underscored by Jesusâ€™ rejection of violence and insistence on forgiveness from the Cross itself.
And yet, when our nation went to war in Iraq, a war Pope John Paul II called â€œimmoral, unjust, and illegal,â€ no church statements were read in all the parishes. Quite the contrary, American churches were festooned with yellow ribbons and the names of soldiers were included in weekly prayers at Mass. Many parishes displayed soldiersâ€™ names on the altar in a kind of sanctification of their actions. Holy Cross Collegeâ€™s Saint Josephâ€™s Chapel honors fallen World War I veterans under Saint Ignatiusâ€™ motto â€œTo the greater glory of God.â€ Anyone who knows the history of that war has to wonder how any of it could have given glory to God.
So weak and muddled is the episcopal voice on war that the term pro-life has come to have little credibility outside Church circles. Similarly, despite excellent papal and episcopal letters on the rights of workers and economic justice, the bishops have not gone to the mat during recent campaigns in Wisconsin and Ohio to degrade union rights. A recent Republican proposal to strip the right to minimum wage and overtime pay for thousands of workers in the floral industry did not elicit any episcopal outcry. Catholic teaching on immigration is similarly progressive, but just as likely to be kept on the back burner as the broad-ranging Catholic critique of capitalism.
Of course, there are some exceptions, but the full-court press Obama is facing on contraception is very rarely employed for peace and economic justice. In the context of the widening economic gap between rich and poor and almost obscene dependence of nations on war preparations and war-making, Catholic leaders who fail to trumpet the broadest range of Church teaching with equal vigor risk a loss of credibility amounting to social irrelevance.
The myopic focus of the hierarchy on sexual issues is especially worrisome now because it is an election year. Consider Senator Santorum. He supported the Iraq War from its outset, likening it to â€œThe Lord of the Rings.â€ He did not support the US withdrawal from Iraq and would continue the war in Afghanistan. During the Iowa presidential caucuses, he said that if he were president he would bomb Iran. On the campaign trail in Michigan, a state with 9.3% unemployment and a 15% poverty rate, Senator Santorum said he supports the huge American wealth gap, â€œbecause people rise to different levels of success based on what they contribute to society and to the marketplace and thatâ€™s as it should be.â€ He opposes benefits for undocumented people, comprehensive immigration reform, and supports building a border fence and making English the national language. On February 7, he said, â€œIâ€™ve never believed in the hoax of global warming.â€ He is also a partial supporter of the death penalty. But none of these anti-Catholic positions will matter should he win the nomination because, for conservative Catholics and the hierarchy, abortion, gay marriage, and contraception are the issues which trump all others. The Church is as likely to virtually endorse him or someas they did Ronald Reagan, with equally bad consequences. Under Reagan, the rich got dramatically richer, civilians were killed in Grenada, Libya, Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, while abortion, the issue for which Catholics sacrificed most of their values, remained the law of the land. The only difference during the Bush years was that Catholics were duped at an exponentially higher cost in civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But such a pessimistic assessment of Catholic social impact has a flaw. It depends on a top-down vision of the Church. The Catholic Catechism, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, defines The Church as â€œthe People of God, established by Christ â€˜as a communion of life, of charity, and of truth… sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.â€™â€ (LG, 9). Metanoia, the turning to God in our lives, should be accelerated by wise pastors, but is primarily dependent on the Holy Spirit, which enters individual hearts and invites us to holiness. In our struggle to enflesh that sanctity in our day-to-day actions, we can find guidance in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the lives of the saints, the pastoral letters of popes and bishops, and in the Catholic Catechism.
When nurses went on strike at Worcesterâ€™s Saint Vincent Hospital, a sympathetic priest told us that the bishop had asked clergy not to walk the picket lines, but this did not prevent individual Catholics from marching under banners quoting scripture and the pope on the explicit rights of nurses not to be forced to harm their patients and family lives with mandatory overtime. Similarly, Catholic teaching moves many to host undocumented people, to support the Occupy Wall Street Movement, to call for a living wage, to defend the environment, and to protest against war. As the Catholic Workerâ€™s co-founder, Peter Maurin, liked to say, â€œWe need to blow the dynamite of the Catholic Church.â€ We should pray for leaders like Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, but we cannot wait for their appearance before becoming salt of the earth. In these times, it is up to the people in the pews to put sexual ethics in the context of a broad passion for making a world where there is more love and less suffering, a world where it is so much easier to be good.
Reprinted from The Catholic Radical, 52 Mason St, Worcester MA 01610.