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

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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.

News Religion

Catholic LGBTQ Group Not Allowed to Hold Events in Catholic Church

Martha Kempner

"The reality is, the official policy of the Vatican dating back to 1986 is that any group that does not adhere to official Catholic teaching on homosexuality cannot use church space," said the group's executive director.

Equally Blessed, a coalition that seeks to educate Catholics to take action on behalf of LGBTQ people and their families, was recently told that events it had planned for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia could not be held in a Catholic church.

The World Meeting of Families is a gathering of Catholic families held every three years since 1994, and sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family. This year it is being held in Philadelphia over the three days before Pope Francis arrives in that city, and will spill over into the Festival of Families and the papal visit.

Events during the meeting include daily mass, devotions, keynote addresses, and breakout sessions. There are also special exhibits and coordinated events around the city.

The events that Equally Blessed is holding during the meeting—including a workshop for parents, a reflection session for LGBTQ families, and a workshop on gender issues—were never part of the World Meeting’s official agenda, but the group had secured space at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. In late August, however, the archdiocese stepped in and told church officials that it did not want the group using church space.

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Though she was disappointed, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, which is a part of the Equally Blessed coalition, she was not surprised.

“The reality is, the official policy of the Vatican dating back to 1986 is that any group that does not adhere to official Catholic teaching on homosexuality cannot use church space,” she told Rewire.

In fact, Equally Blessed has been refused space many times before. In a statement, the coalition noted that “this is yet another instance of the kind of exclusion LGBT Catholics and supporters have endured for decades. Bishops have refused to allow us to meet in our own Churches, retreat centers and colleges.”

The group is being allowed to meet in a nearby Methodist church. Duddy-Burke said that the fact that other churches step in “points to the disempowerment of everyday Catholics. Catholics are overwhelmingly affirming and welcoming of LGBT people. They don’t like to see us not welcomed. But they don’t believe they have the power to change that. So for the last 30 years, other churches, Methodist, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Unitarian, have been offering us hospitality where our own church has not.”

Though the Catholic Church’s official position on homosexuality has not changed, Pope Francis has made some comments that seemed to suggest he would like the church to be more welcoming.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person,” Pope Francis said in a 2013 interview. He suggested that the U.S. Catholic church is “obsessed” with issues like homosexuality, abortion, and contraception.

It’s unclear if that message has carried through to other leaders in the church. The World Meeting of Families, for example, includes only one session on LGBTQ issues. The session will feature a speaker who identifies as a gay Catholic committed to celibacy. His mother will also speak as part of the session.

Duddy-Burke says his is not a representative voice.

“Our problem with this session is that the call to celibacy, the gift of celibacy, is an appropriate and healthy lifestyle for a very small minority of people,” she said. “Without addressing the possibility of living a faithful, spiritual life in a healthy and loving relationship, the church is ignoring the reality of the vast majority of gay Catholics around the world.”

A schedule of “LGBTQI-themed events” is available on the coalition’s website.

News Religion

Catholic Bishops Take Divergent Public Stances on ‘Personhood’ Measures

Jason Salzman

Catholic bishops in Colorado declared a "neutral stance" on this year's Colorado's personhood amendment, while bishops in North Dakota urged voters to approve a "personhood" measure its November's ballot. Both were defeated on Election Day.

The day after North Dakota voters overwhelmingly defeated a much-publicized “personhood” measure on the November ballot, the Bismark Diocese, led by North Dakota Bishop David Kagan, issued a statement expressing optimism that “society will, one day, value and protect life decisions at every level,” but disappointment that the measure “failed at the polls.”

Colorado’s Catholic bishops, on the other hand, were silent after a “personhood” amendment was defeated in their state. They’d publicly taken what they called a “neutral stance” in the weeks before Election Day, like they had on Colorado’s “personhood” amendments in 2008 and 2010.

Kagan’s Diocese in North Dakota worked hard this year to pass Measure 1, distributing campaign literature, homily notes, and a DVD to all parishes, according an October 11 Bismark Tribune article, which quoted Tara Brooke, coordinator of the Diocese of Bismarck’s Respect Life ministry.

Another North Dakota Bishop. Rev. John T. Folda, campaigned for Measure 1, saying in a North Dakota Campaign for Life YouTube video that Measure 1’s language is “remarkably similar to the stated beliefs and teachings of the Church.”

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“Don’t be afraid to stand up for life in a public way,” Folda says at the end of the video. “Go to NDChooseLife.com and share the link to the video you just saw. Be a witness to the truth about Measure 1. I hope you’ll join me in voting yes for measure 1 this fall, so that North Dakota might continue to move toward a culture of life.”

Colorado’s bishops articulated their position on “personhood” amendments in 2008 when activists first placed the measure on the ballot.

At the time, the bishops stated their support of the amendment’s goal but worried that its passage could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to “actively reaffirm the mistaken jurisprudence of Roe.”

“While the Church respects those promoting this personhood amendment, the Catholic Bishops of Colorado decline to support its passage because it does not provide a realistic opportunity for ending or even reducing abortions in Colorado,” read the Colorado bishops’ statement.

Asked by Rewire for her analysis as to why bishops in Colorado and North Dakota had different positions on “personhood,” Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, director of domestic programs at Catholics for Choice, said Colorado’s bishops gave their tacit support for the Amendment 67 in Colorado, allowing local parishes to campaign for its passage.

“The bottom line is less that they had a different position on personhood than a different tactic,” said Ratcliffe, whose work opposing Amendment 67 was denounced by Colorado’s bishops.

“North Dakota is a much smaller and less diverse population,” said Ratcliffe, pointing out that the measures in Colorado and North Dakota were presented differently. “There are different constituencies in the two states. It’s about the reality of the electorate and the voting power the conference.”

“We know that the history of Catholic teaching has never declared when personhood begins and that the disagreements across the centuries have something to do with why bishiops won’t come out for it,” Ratcliffe said. “The power of the bishops is an illusion. For us, regardless of whether the bishops are pushing a personhood amendment from the front lines or behind the scenes, Catholics are not in agreement with the bishops and vote against it.”

“We considered it a life measure as opposed to personhood,” said Sonia Mullally, communications director of the Bismark Diocese, when asked why North Dakota bishops spoke out on the measure. “As Catholics we’re called to protect the sanctity of life at every level. To protect the laws that were already on the books, that’s what compelled our bishops to comment.”

“This measure protected not only ‘pro-life’ state laws, but moving forward too, there are bound to be more challenges,” Mullally said. “This tried to provide a baseline as more challenges come to life issues in North Dakota.”

The Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents Colorado’s three bishops, did not return an email seeking comment.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that John Folda campaigned against Measure 1. In fact, he supported passage of the measure. We regret the error.