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Democrats, Progressives Find Unlikely Ally in Benedict XVI

WASHINGTON — The ink had barely dried on the pope’s newest encyclical when the group Catholics for Working Families used the document to push for the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act.
Has Pope Benedict XVI suddenly become a liberal?
Worker’s rights. Financial regulation. Environmental protection.
They’re all policies that are straight out of the Democratic Party platform, and, in many ways, the heart of Benedict’s third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).
Groups like Catholics for Working Families, along with the AFL-CIO and other liberal Catholic coalitions, say the encyclical gives “new ammunition” to push the bill, which would loosen restrictions on union organizing in the workplace.
To the delight of Catholic Democrats, Benedict’s encyclical champions issues that are ripe for liberal reform — especially regulation of the free market, which the pope says has left the poor and the “least of these” in the lurch.
While the pope restates church teaching on beginning- and end-of-life issues (abortion and euthanasia among them), liberals say it’s Benedict’s support for middle-of-life issues — work, health care, paychecks — that they find so heartening.
Indeed, the church’s left wing suddenly finds itself with an unlikely ally in an otherwise conservative pope and his strong restatement of Catholic social teaching, the likes of which has not been seen in a generation.
“The truth, as Pope Benedict reminded us today, is that an unregulated free market is not acceptable to the church, that the invisible hand of the marketplace is not the invisible hand of God,” said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, which co-directs Catholics for Working Families.
In recent elections, a vocal minority of U.S. Catholic bishops highlighted two points in the church’s social teaching — opposition to abortion and gay marriage — to the chagrin of the U.S. church’s progressive wing.
Now with the encyclical released the same week as President Obama’s first meeting with the pontiff, Catholic supporters of the administration are thrilled at what they’re calling a synergy between the respective leaders of church and state.
“I think that if people on Capitol Hill read the thing closely, they’d find he’s to the left of most of the members of Congress and the Obama Administration on a lot of these things,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit theologian at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.
Though the timing is coincidental, it’s not lost on liberal-leaning Catholic activists as Congress races to act on a slew of bills before summer recess. “From my perspective, it couldn’t be better timed,” said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK.
On Tuesday (July 7), the same day Benedict released his encyclical, Campbell was pushing health care reform on Capitol Hill, an issue highlighted by the pope when he noted the “lack of elementary health care” in the developing world and many urban centers.
Three Catholic groups that have been working on the American Clean Energy and Security Act — the Franciscan Campaign on Climate Change, Catholic Climate Covenant and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns– hope Benedict’s link between the economy and ecology will help them make changes to the bill as it heads to the Senate.
Others, meanwhile, caution against reading too much, or perhaps too much ideology, into the pope’s encyclical. Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute’s branch in Rome, said Benedict’s call for environmental protection, for example, is more nuanced than some might want to admit.
“Benedict opposes the environmentalist dogma that human beings and human activity in general are environmental problems,” he said. “Rather environmental damage is the result of an intellectual problem — seeing nature as something to be abused on one hand or worshiped on the other, when it should be used for the common good.”
To be sure, there’s something in Caritas in Veritate for everyone, and conservatives have already highlighted the pope’s condemnation of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. It is not, they insist, a ringing endorsement of the Obama White House.
But on economic issues, staunch free marketers will find less support from Rome. Calling the current economy one “marked by grave deviations and failures,” the pope repeatedly denounced laissez-faire economics and called for the creation of an international economic governing body.
Conservative theologian Michael Novak, in his blog, dismissed the pope’s economic liberalism as “nostalgia for the European welfare-state.” Joseph Bottum, editor of the conservative journal First Things, asked, “Does the pope actually understand what globalization is, economically?”
While Bottum questioned the pope’s blend of cultural conservatism and economic liberalism as incompatible extremes, others, including Reese, found a reassuring reminder that Catholics have never been one-note, one-issue voters.
“I think that what the encyclical shows is that you can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Reese said, “that you can be pro-life and pro-social justice at the same time.”
(Francis X. Rocca contributed to this report from Rome. Daniel Burke contributed from Washington.)
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • nnmns

    It all depends on emphasis. It sounds like there is content there which, if pushed forcefully, could do a world of good. It could, for instance, encourage legislators around the world to legislate for the benefit of people, not just for those people who own companies, and it could help more such legislators be elected. But if pushed tepidly while his anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality obsessions are pushed hard, liberal legislators will be discouraged and perhaps fewer will be elected and the world will become a still harder place for most of us.
    And I get the impression many bishops like hobnobbing with the wealthy conservatives more than the generally less-wealthy moderates or liberals, so if he really wants this to become church policy he’s going to have to let a lot of powerful people know he’s serious.
    I sincerely hope he does.

  • Nate W

    I’m not sure why he’s called an “unlikely” ally. With the exception of a few issues like abortion, Catholic Social Thought has always had a lot more in common with the Democrats and progressives than they have with the Republicans, even the “Religious Right” (and I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that Democrats can’t be pro-life). I don’t know why people want to map the political categories of the United States of the last 30 years or so onto people like the popes. It just doesn’t work. Traditional Catholic thought is quite different from either conservatism or liberalism in their popular American forms and can be an ally of either in different circumstances; Benedict, as a Catholic traditionalist (“conservative” is a misleading word), is not an “unlikely ally” of progressives on things like economic issues. Anyone who knows anything about Catholicism shouldn’t be surprised at all.

  • jestrfyl

    Party alliances aside, this is the sort of thing I recall reading from RCC Liberation Theologians. Though b16 and I may disagree on many of the sexuality issues, I think we could easily share a cool glass of wine talking over the economic and environmental points (not that I am expecting a call from Camp Vatican any time soon). I believe that this document may deserve some time and careful reading. Is it available online?
    O sure, go messing with my preconceptions! I think he just wants to keep us all guessing. If this is the result – good!

  • Dan Bryan

    Democrats, Progressives not inline with Benedict XVI, they are out, but just don’t know it!
    Contributions are down, way down from the most wealthy of nations! Ask the Bishops, they will tell you, just because they were once counted as the faithful many have left the RCC but remain on the rolls. Something like an empty shell game! If the real Catholics were to stand up and be counted how many of them would there really be? 10 million faithful? Certainly not 35-40 million.
    Has Pope Benedict XVI suddenly become a liberal? No, he hates our form of government. Any government that sets itself up higher and writes moral code contrary to the RCC is a mortal enemy. As an enemy anything he can do to supplant or weaken the government is a good thing.
    He has seen the American church slowly start then decline into a liberal cabal. The Pontiff and Bishops choose the republican party as the party that best represents the church and the un-faithful vote democrat. More USA Catholics use abortion services than their Protestant counter parts.
    Also in the mix we find the RCC’s opinion on immigration in the USA
    • The U.S. does not have an inherent right to limit migration.
    • Every human has a right to migrate to the U.S. and take up residence there — to seek better living conditions.
    • The Catholic Church rejects the concept of national sovereignty.
    • All immigrants and their offspring have a right to keep their native tongue.
    • Immigration restrictions are immoral.
    • The Catholic Church rejects the U.S. government distinction between political and economic refugees.

    So you see, the ‘RCC’ demand open US borders is in hopes of reviving a dying church by bringing in a ‘new set’ of loyal Catholics, but to the dismay of the RCC, large numbers of these not-so-legal immigrants are converting to Evangelical Christianity.
    It is disingenuous to believe that the Pope and Bishops look at their church as somehow having a ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing. If you were to truly to receive their sentiment you would find them telling you that there are the faithful and religious and all the others that need to ‘Find There Way Home’
    If you think that the Vatican accepts a ‘Progressive Wing’, you’re delusional.
    I think that it is wrong to think that the Vatican is looking for some type Church-State relationship in the USA. In the current Constitution the church is shut out. They realize that the only possibility for Pontiff oversight would be for our government to collapse. One must also keep in mind that the ‘Holy See’ is ‘Church and State’ already. They however are under a delusion that some how world governance and church governance should be subjected to Rome. This has never changed.
    The Vatican is a Johnny-Come-Lately to Environmental Issue. It must jump on the band wagon or become more irrelevant. One of course would expect them not to take the same side as the Eco-World view ad this would mean it woud be in contradiction to their doctrine of life. Even Pat Robertson is now on the Eco-Bandwagon……..Today we cannot seen to be able to win souls for the kingdom! Saving souls is hard work, let’s us save the planet instead!
    I contend the Vatican does not care what form of government, global or individual, socialist or capitalist, as long as it is subservient to Rome, after all they are the ones of the cloth, the word, and the tradition.

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