When the Catholic Church Was Pragmatic, Not Doctrinal

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When the Catholic Church Was Pragmatic, Not Doctrinal

Kathleen Reeves

If the climate of the Catholic Church today were what it was in the early 20th century, might we see bishops taking steps not to limit access to abortion but rather to make their teaching on abortion more feasible for Catholics?

Editor’s Note: We welcome Kathleen Reeves, another youth voice on our Real Time blog, today!  Kathleen will blog weekly with three other young bloggers.

As someone who attended Mass
every week growing up, I was attuned to the liberalism in the readings
and the Gospels – I remembered Jesus’s compassion for the prostitute,
his inclusion of women, and the constant reminders to love the sick
and the maimed – people we’d now call disabled. But to many of my
peers, the idea of Catholicism as a liberal institution was incomprehensible.
And why wouldn’t it be? My generation does not remember when Catholics
bolstered the Democratic party, when the children of Irish and Italian
immigrants voted with the party of labor unions rather than the party
of factory owners.  

As Catholics became more prosperous,
the battle between workers and owners became less central. And something
else happened, of course: the rise of the Evangelical movement and the
increased politicization of abortion and contraception. To the extent
that, in at least the past two presidential elections, American bishops
declared it a sin to vote for the Democratic candidate. And there was
the very public, appalling refusal of Communion to John Kerry.  

What happened? A New Yorker
article by Peter Boyer
that appeared in September points to Karl Rove’s
instrumental role in the delivery of Catholics to the Republican party
in the 2000 election, with the help of Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic
editor. The piece suggests, though, that things might be changing. Douglas
Kmiec, a Catholic legal scholar who worked for Reagan, endorsed Obama
after some soul-searching on Obama’s stand on abortion. And recently,
Leslie Woodcock Tentler, a professor of history at Catholic University
chided the church’s "single-issue approach to politics," which
threatens to overshadow the traditional Catholic interest in social

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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An article in the National
Catholic Reporter
recounts Tentler’s January 29th talk,
in which she recalled a statement issued by a council of Catholic bishops
in 1919: 

She said the statement — which later became
practically a charter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "New
Deal" program — called for public policies that would include:

  • A "living wage" for
    all male workers — defined as sufficient to support a wife and family
    in reasonable comfort and provide for savings to sustain him and his
    spouse in old age (she noted that the bishops presumed, in accord with
    the times, that males should be the economic providers).
  • Government requirements
    that employers provide insurance protecting their employees from illness
    and disability and cover health and economic security in old age —
    principles that would eventually be implemented in programs ranging
    from unemployment insurance to the Social Security System.
  • "Publicly subsidized medical
    care" to those that need it, found today in Medicare and Medicaid.
  • "Slum clearance and public
  • "Expansion and more rigorous
    enforcement of workplace safety laws."
  • "An end to child labor"
    by extreme punitive taxing to effectively to reverse a 1918 Supreme
    Court decision that had declared it legal.
  • "State protection of the
    right of unions to organize and bargain collectively."
  • "A tax code that would
    protect the more equitable distribution of income."

American Catholics – many of
them much more comfortable than they used to be – are sorely in need
of a reminder of some of the church’s most basic tenets: tolerance,
compassion for the poor, mindfulness of those who are easily forgotten.
But perhaps the most vital idea in Tentler’s talk was how the Catholic
Church addressed family planning in the past. At the time of the 1919
"Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction," the hot-button issue
was not abortion, but contraception. Part of the reason the bishops
pushed for a living wage was to make large families feasible for low-income
Catholics. In other words, "They always spoke a pragmatic rather than
a religious or doctrinal language," says Tentler.  

If the climate of the Catholic
Church today were what it was in the early 20th century,
might we see bishops taking steps – indeed, recommending legislation-not
to limit access to abortion but rather to make their teaching on abortion
more feasible for Catholics? Would they, in the spirit of pragmatism
and compassion, allow at least a dialogue about contraception? Could
we even imagine them embodying Catholic social justice by empowering
the poor-making sex education widespread and contraception free and

As Boyer’s piece in the
New Yorker
pointed out, Obama drew the attention of a few on the
religious right with his faith-friendly approach. Perhaps the President,
with his remarkable capacity for calm consideration, can help moderate
a discussion between those on opposite sides of the reproductive rights
argument. And perhaps the Catholic Church can bring to this discussion
a renewed, pragmatic dedication to the welfare of all people.

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