This morning’s Washington
Post made me choke on my coffee:
“Catholic Church Gives D.C. Ultimatum.” The Catholic Archdiocese is playing political hardball by threatening to cut off social
services to the city’s poor–including the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and
children–if D.C. expands gay and lesbian civil rights and recognizes same-sex
That’s right. The
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is holding poor people hostage in
order to keep gay and lesbian persons from getting married. They are willing to trade the indigent for getting their theological way.
I don’t like to criticize other people’s religious faiths or
churches. There’s plenty enough to
criticize in my own Protestant tradition.
In the last year, however, we have witnessed a new authoritarian
activism on the part of the Roman Church hierarchy that has an impact well
beyond the Catholic Church. This new coercive Catholicism is akin to the development of the Christian Right in
evangelical churches in the early 1980s–a religious-political movement that
reshaped American culture. This is everybody’s business.
In the last year, new Catholic politics emerged in the Prop
8 campaign in California where the church invested vast resources of money and
leadership to overturn gay marriage; and then did the same in Maine. Last week, in a political maneuver
worthy of Tom DeLay, authoritarian Catholic bishops forced a Democratic
Congress to adopt the Stupak Amendment undermining the legal right to choice
by threatening to torpedo health reform. Now they threaten the D.C. City Council? Using the lives of poor people as a
I don’t want to be alarmist about this. Nor, in this ecumenical age, do I wish
to be seen as a nativist calling for a new anti-Catholic crusade. That would be a terrible misrepresentation of these concerns. Nor do I want to offend Catholic friends and family. But it is profoundly disturbing that
the Roman Catholic Church appears to be using threats and fear to manipulate a
democratic political process to enforce Catholic doctrine regarding abortion
and human sexuality. There seems
to be a political pattern developing that should cause broad-minded
citizens–Catholics included–to ask some serious questions regarding what is
happening within the Catholic hierarchy.
Recently, Congressman Patrick Kennedy did just that. In an argument with his own bishop
about health care, Kennedy reminded the Bishop of Rhode Island that American
Catholics have a long history of diversity and dissent regarding formal Catholic
teaching. Disagreement with the
Catholic Church was, Kennedy argued, part of the dynamic of being Catholic in a
democratic society. Here’s the
“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not
make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does.
Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the
teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue
like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their
unity with the Church. This principle is based on the Sacred Scripture and
Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents.
For example, the “Code of Canon Law” says, “Lay persons are bound by an
obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine
adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with
that doctrine.” (Canon 229, #1)
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says
this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’
the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their
pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)
It is worrisome that a Roman Catholic bishop would remind a member of
the Kennedy political family that “docility” is the primary calling of faithful
Catholic laity. What about courage, compassion, and creativity?
Oddly enough, Roman Catholic leaders have adopted a strategy of
authoritarian engagement with the body politic at the very moment at which
their church is declining. One in ten Americans is now an ex-Roman Catholic, with numbers
dwindling, churches closing, a decline in the number of priests and religious,
and with only immigration holding the number of communicants steady. With the
church clearly in crisis, the bishops apparently have chosen to use the sick,
poor, homeless, children, the faithful laity, and marginal as tools to increase
their public power and influence by coercing public policy to fit their
theology. You’d think that they
would be looking inward to see what is eroding Catholic congregations instead
of lobbying Congress and threatening politicians.
This is not what John F. Kennedy would have imagined for his beloved
church when he so courageously broke through the boundaries of anti-Catholic
prejudice to become the nation’s first Catholic president. The eternal flame at his grave in
Arlington witnesses to the ancient Catholic vision of universal peace, justice, and love. The new authoritarian Catholicism is not
only playing politics but it is replacing a more generous vision of historic Catholic
faith–the traditional one that sides with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast–with a vision of political power. For that, I am deeply sad. Coercive religion should have no place
in a church or a pluralistic, democratic nation–much less in City Hall or the
halls of the United States Congress.