American Catholic Polarization Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 30 July 2008 07:26
h/t: the ever thoughtful Clarity Daily:

George Wesolek, Director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco's Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns, has a thought-provoking guest editorial in Catholic San Francisco about the upcoming election, the bitter polarization between US Catholics that our elections inflame, and how politicians have taken advantage of this polarization.

"Structural decisions made 34 years ago by American Catholic Church leaders - bishops, clergy, religious and laity - are a primary cause of these circumstances today. The fruit of these decisions continues to be an obstacle to American Catholic unity of thought and purpose and the cause of bitter division and partisan infighting.

When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set up a separate Pro - life ministry with its own staff and network right across the hall from its office for Social Development and World Peace ( Justice and Peace ) , it set in motion a chain of developments that has compartmentalized Catholic social teaching and helped to create two Catholic constituencies. Instead of establishing one office of Catholic social teaching which would expound one message - clearly and consistently about the human person from the unborn through the life cycle right until death - the decision makers set up parallel structures, each with its own message. These structures resulted in dysfunction and confusion that continues to this day.

Each message has created a constituency around it. These two constituencies often have little in common; have opposite world - views regarding culture and politics and, frankly, dislike each other.

More problematically, by dichotomizing the essence of the message of Catholic social teaching, it has allowed Catholic constituencies to pick and choose their favorite Catholic social teaching concept and discard or trivialize other important elements. In the present political climate, it has allowed "cover" for Catholics, especially Catholic politicians. With faith and values all the rage now in both political parties, it is clear Catholic politicians will continue to claim the mantle of faith by using terminology, sometimes taken directly from the "Compendium on Catholic Social Teaching," to describe their beliefs about the poor, the unborn and the like. Unfortunately, all too often, they will proclaim only part of the teaching, not all of it.

I cannot help but wonder what the present American political theater would look like if the Catholic Church had been teaching a unified, clear and consistent message for more than 30 years. Could it be that legalized abortion would be a thing of the past? Could it be that healthcare and housing would be available to all? If a core group of 65 million Catholics understood the Church's full message and acted on it, would there be the a Democratic Party today which still considers pro - life Democrats as somehow unfaithful? Would Planned Parenthood still have a stranglehold on the party? Would the Republican Party have a different slant on those who live on the margins of society as more than just collateral damage of Adam Smith's "invisible hand"? Could it be that with a unified and consistent message taught more than three decades, there would actually be a true "Catholic vote" in the U.S.?

The structural dysfunction caused by separate structures negates and distorts the fact that Catholic social teaching is seamless. The teaching of the Church does not have different principles for different social issues. There is no set of Catholic teaching that applies only to life issues or only to issues of economic or social justice. Each of the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching is immediately applicable to all situations that involve the human situation, both personal and social. At the core of the teaching is the anthropological assertion that every human being has a dignity that is sacred - that every person is made in the imago Dei regardless of race or creed, whether rich or poor, smart or not, athletic or disabled. That principle extends from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death and includes everybody in between. It is the basis for our concern and legislative advocacy about the African who lives on less than 65 cents a day, for the millions of children with no medicine who die before the age of five, for those with no food or shelter both abroad and in our own country, for the unborn and the vulnerable elderly.

The precipitating event that instigated this structural course of action was the advent of Roe vs. Wade. What had been presumed as unthinkable became a legal reality - abortion on demand, for any reason to anyone, more available even than some common medical interventions. After some 48 million abortions to this day, the attacks on this fundamental human freedom, the right to life, become more widespread with the possibility of assisted suicide becoming legal in more states than Oregon.

The structural response by the Church after Roe was to institutionalize the educational and advocacy efforts to overturn the decision and to stop the tide of other dehumanizing legislation akin to it. At the time, it perhaps seemed logical to set up a separate office to meet this threat. Many dioceses followed the model.

The two separate constituencies created and galvanized by this structural framework began fighting early and still wage war in a cultural and political context. "Justice and Peace" constituents quickly grabbed onto Cardinal Joseph Bernadin's "consistent ethic of life" metaphor implying if not asserting outright that certain Catholic politicians who were pro - abortion made up for it by being good ( and therefore acceptable under the Catholic mantle ) on a host of other issues on the spectrum: poverty, health care, etc. Many in the pro - life community, on the other hand, developed a tunnel vision approach, which would not even mention any other issue regarding the poor other than abortion. Their passion for this issue drove them completely into the embrace of the Republican Party. This embrace brought with it support for no tax - and - spend policies and a philosophy of government that does not align with classical Catholic social teaching and Vatican encyclicals of the last 100 years. The other side, the classic "economic justice" Catholic ( most of whom are now in their waning years ) will overlook a Catholic politician's perfect 100 percent rating by NARAL ( National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws ) and do anything to elect them with an equal amount of passion. Although it is now difficult ( one hopes ) to maintain Catholic identity and be "pro choice," they survive by winking and nodding at the abortion issue, basically trivializing it.

A unified structural model of social action works. Both the life constituency and the peace and justice constituency get the same message. The action on behalf of justice at the "Walk for Life" and at the Conference on Global Poverty model to them the completeness of the Catholic social teaching message. Pro - life people are becoming aware and supporting action for the poor, supporting the end to the death penalty, while "justice" people are marching at the West Coast Walk For Life.

Over the course of these 30 - plus years, there has been a gradual evolution of the bishops' clarity on Catholic social teaching. The confusion about abortion and euthanasia being "one of many issues on the spectrum of life" has been rejected. The bishops now state: "The direct and intentional destruction of human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed." ( Faithful Citizenship 2007 )

The bishops are also clear that: "Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care." ( Living the Gospel of Life )

So now the catechesis is whole and integral again. The structures and educational strategies to communicate them are not."

I would certainly agree that separate structures has perpetuated separate factions. But I think the author doesn't go back far enough in history. The separate factions already existed and were driving the whole debate about abortion in the early 70's.

The one factor that Wesolak has not mentioned iis the huge cultural upheaval of the 60's. Timing is everything. By the time the Roe V. Wade decision was made in the early 70's, political discourse in this country had already radically changed. Peace and justice issues, including racial justice and opposition to the Vietnam war, had already become inexorably tied to the sexual revolution and so had the right to abortion through the early feminist movement. If Roe V Wade had been handed down in 1963, before things became so polarized, the Catholic response might have progressed very differently.

Conservatives who opposed abortion were simultaneously resisting the sexual revolution (and remember, often opposing racial justice and supporting the Vietnam war) and in midst of an even more charged climate than we have today, naturally came to associate the advocates of social justice with the opposition. It was a kind of political and pastoral civil war. The structures of the US Bishop's Office reflected a divide that had already torn apart the entire country.

As Wesolak notes, it has taken 45 years for the US Bishops to reintegrate the disparate strands of Catholic social teaching into a coherent whole. But the echoes of our social civil war still drive so much of our political realities and it is those realities, not Church teaching, that drives most of our Catholic discourse on the subject.