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Saturday, October 22, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s first salary as a community organizer was paid by a Catholic group and his earliest social justice work was rooted in Catholic social doctrine. He identified with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then Chicago’s archbishop, whose consistent ethic of life encompassed a dedication to the poor, a concern over the human costs of war, and opposition to the death penalty.

You could imagine that at his meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday, the president was tempted to ask: Why can’t these American bishops get along with me? Or, perhaps more humbly: Holy Father, what can I do to make these guys happy?

It is a sign of how politicized the American Catholic Church has become that its different factions were lobbying hard over the message the bishop of Rome should send after meeting with the president of the United States.

Catholic conservatives hoped that Francis would again condemn abortion by way of upbraiding the pro-choice Obama. They were also seeking strong language supporting the campaign spearheaded by the more conservative bishops against the contraception mandate in the health care law.

Catholic progressives were looking for Francis to push the president to move more forcefully against poverty and inequality, around the world and not just at home. They hoped for some of the pope’s searing criticisms of global capitalism by way of reminding Obama that the Catholic Church is well to his left on economic matters.

Both sides, in other words, want Francis to bless their own positions inside the American Catholic struggle. The progressives believe they now have a friend in Rome and conservatives worry the progressives might be right. After all, as Michael Sean Winters pointed out in the National Catholic Reporter, “the American bishops who are most aggressively hostile to Obama are also the American bishops who have been most resistant to Pope Francis.”

But this meeting underscored something else: While Francis has decidedly moved the church back toward the social justice Catholicism that Obama connected with as a young man, Francis’ worldview is plainly not American. Efforts to shoehorn him into our debates will always have a distorting effect. And the Vatican — which itself is divided into factions — has other things to think about besides the contention within the American church.

From everything he has said, Francis is, in our terms, a social conservative. Yet the issues about which he feels a genuine sense of urgency involve the hundreds of millions around the globe who suffer from extreme deprivation and oppression. From this standpoint, the political and theological skirmishes that consume so much energy among believers in wealthy countries might seem a form of self-indulgence.

Francis didn’t leave conservative U.S. bishops out in the cold in their contraception battle, as the Vatican statement after the meeting made clear. But it’s difficult to see the pope joining them at the ramparts. The veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen has documented attacks on religious liberty from state-sponsored persecution, including the outright murder of Christians. In light of this, the American uproar over a requirement that contraception be subsidized in health insurance policies seems disproportionate. That’s especially true since the government-led health systems in many predominantly Catholic countries routinely cover contraception.

As for foreign policy, the Vatican has an approach of its own. It has often found itself allied with Obama — for example, on his quest for Middle East peace — but has also opposed him, as when he threatened military retaliation for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Conservatives have ignored or downplayed the Vatican’s relative dovishness, except when it provided them with another club to use against Obama.

But this highlights the larger truth that Francis defies many currents of American thinking. Francis is anti-consumerist and anti-materialist. That is quite at odds with an American ethos that turns the mall into a religious shrine and shopping into a sacrament. The pope preaches a code of sacrifice that is not widely celebrated in our society outside the realm of military combat. He extols the simple life, a value popular in sections of the environmental movement, but not a big seller in a country obsessed with stuff and gadgets.

It would be good if Francis encouraged the parts of the American Catholic leadership most alienated from the president to stop treating this former church employee as an enemy. But the pope’s main job is to pose a radical challenge to our complacency and social indifference. In doing so, he should stir an uneasiness that compels all of us — and that includes Obama — to examine our consciences.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

  • Ann-Marie Poli

    As a lifelong Catholic I have been very concerned by the church’s move to the right in recent years. Unlike many other Christian faiths, the Catholic Church I grew up in tended to vote Democrat. At a time in history when the country had become very polarized, and older white men (like our cardinals and bishops) had moved to the right, Pope Benedict left the door open for the clergy to become a little more political for the purpose of opposing abortion. I think it was misused by many who went far beyond Benedict’s intention. He did nothing to put the brakes on them
    The Catholic Church began following the path of some other Christian churches, focusing more on “moral” issues than social justice. I often heard people discussing the separation of church and state, rarely getting it right, and completely oblivious that we were inviting it into the church in a way that was dividing us. My daughter was a member of the Catholic campus ministry during Obama’s first election. Most of the kids identified themselves as Republican and said things like, “you can’t be Catholic and vote Democrat”. By and large a lovely man who did a wonderful job with the kids, the priest tweeted right wing politics. These things should not have been. When my daughter sought his advice on voting her conscience, I have to say he was very objective and did not allow his personal views into it, but she was very confused because the church had become so centered on one issue.
    I am bombarded by horrible right wing political emails sent to me by choir members. They say things like, “I know this is wrong but…” then they attach an Obama as a chimp joke. We should never have gotten here! As many Christian churches are engaging in hateful public speech and opinion, People are rejecting faith of all kinds. I can’t blame them. Pope Francis is the perfect man at the perfect time to lead this church back to Christ. The survival of his church and the souls of his flock depend on him not getting too political with the president. He needs to continue doing as he has done, focusing on the love of Christ and social justice. He needs to gather us up first. We have been wandering far from our home.

    • guest

      Absolutely! Excellent Post! Couldn’t have said it better! However, it didn’t go quite far enough as this is not limited to Catholics. In fact, the (so-called) Fundamental Christians, especially in the south, are even more in need to hear what you wrote than even the Catholics!

      • Ann-Marie Poli

        Thank you so much for your kind response. Commenting on faith in today’s climate is a bit intimidating, so it is nice to hear positive feedback. I originally did mention other specific Christian faiths, but decided it was best to stick to my own experience in my own faith. I have learned not to worship “The Church”, but rather the faith of Jesus. I would bet you anything that this Pope, himself, is not really sure where he is going with many of the issues that have been forefront. I think he is truly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and going where He takes him. So far, that is to be united in the love of Jesus and one another. Jesus’s two greatest commandments.

    • whodatbob

      Ann- Marie, thank you for a magnificent post. Catholic Democrats seem out of place in today’s Church. The Church in which I grew up Republicans were outcast. Times have changed.

      • sallysue

        I am always dismayed with the suggestion that, as you said, “you can’t be Catholic and vote democratic”: As I assume that has everything to do with abortion and contraception (something most of my catholic friends/family have practiced with their 2 child families). I too receive hateful emails about Obama-the-baby-killer and am floored by the senders lack historic perspective. Consider that 5 of the 7 Supreme Court justices who approved Roe v. Wade were republican appointees, and that in 1967, six years before its passage, California passed the Theraputic Abortion Bill, which took the state from about 500 abortions a year to well over 100,000. The bill was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan. When abortion/contraception is thought of in purely political party terms, many people end up voting against their other interests, like social equality, and a progressive agenda that equals the economic playing field for all of us.

        • whodatbob

          You put words in my mouth. “You can’t be Catholic and vote Democratic.” That was in Ann Marie’s post, but I get your point. Many of my fellow parishioners are hard working blue collar Democrats. Little conservative BS is spewed from the pulpit. Our Priest knows his flock.

          • Ann-Marie Poli

            To be clear, I was repeating someone else’s words there. It is a sentiment I totally disagree with.

      • Dominick Vila

        I am a former Catholic, and in my opinion the reason for what you and Ann Marie described is because many of today’s s called Christians are anything but Christian. They believe in a peculiar interpretation of the Bible that is inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and simply use his name to justify their misdeeds or find spiritual solace where evil prevails.

        • whodatbob

          You keep us on our toes! My attempt to dance around stating that so many Christians including Catholics are unchristian in thought and behavior.

          Your last sentence is a perfect summary of the warped thinking those who pick and chose Bible passages to reinforce their actions.

        • Sand_Cat

          I like lots of the things attributed to Jesus, but there’s the problem: what did the real man actually say, and how can you choose it from the mutually-contradictory pronouncements attributed to him?

          • Dominick Vila

            That is, indeed, a problem considering the opportunities for wealth and power that so many of his contemporaries and future generations had as a result of his deeds. I also have a problem with the supernatural attributes given to him. I believe he was a man ahead of his time, who set a moral example for us to follow, but I don’t think he was a God or a son of God, whatever our interpretation of that celestial force or being may be.

      • Haymitch Abernathy

        Today’s democrats have changed. The democrat party of today is a wholly marxist party. The intellectual vanguard of it, Sunstein, Seidman, Ayers, etc. is 100% marxist.

        What kind of party boos God at its convention? Today’s democrat party.

    • FredAppell

      Thank you for showing me that my grievance isn’t with all Christians. I hope your journey is filled with love and peace.

      • Ann-Marie Poli

        From the bottom of my heart, thank you for saying that. Peace to you, as well!

    • Haymitch Abernathy

      The democrat party today is not the democrat party of the past.

      Keep in mind that, in a deliberate act of anti-Christian bigotry, delusional marxist Hussein Obama nominated three pro-abortion ambassadors to the Vatican.

  • latebloomingrandma

    There are some wonderful letters posted here. As a life long Catholic, I was never so unsure of my church until the clergy scandal, then Obama’s presidency. All this prejudice came out of the woodwork with Obama, and right wing verbiage existed in place of a homily and I had to change parishes. I got called some pretty harsh names for voting for Obama. It was all about his stance on abortion, as if no one in the prior 40 years thought the same way. Someone even chastised him in a nasty way for being a hypocrite about his , in my view, very sincere concern over the murdered Sandy Hook children. Then homophobia reared its ugly head. Nuns on the bus were viewed as misguided, and some say that we liberals are misinterpreting Pope Francis. I think they’re nervous that their little closed minded right-wing fundamentalist world is being challenged, and they don’t know what to do. Well—get used to it. If we had to put up with conservatism for the last 60 years, then they can learn to put up with a new way of looking at things. They may even get to meet Jesus in a new way.

    • Haymitch Abernathy

      It seems that John Adams was correct when he noted that our sacred Constitution could only be preserved by a moral and religious people.

  • pisces63

    As a protestant, I have never understood our acting as if the pope means something to us. He doesn’t to me and never will. The Catholic church has a history of treating blacks less than. One man wanted to become a priest and was denied admittance to a seminary and when one finally relented it was with the proviso he could only work in Africa. HUH!! An American. He didn’t, to his credit, he went to Chicago to a tiny black congregation of 30 who were allowed to worship in the basement of a Catholic church. Tolton died died of a sunstroke and was denied treatment at a catholic hospital at only 44. The catholic church had segregated areas, either in the sanctuary, or blacks had to sit in the basement, etc. Even had separate communions served by completely different priests. Separate confessionals. Some priests stood in their door way to prevent black entrance. As late as the ’50’s and ’60’s leaders of the church called MLK an extremist na d outsider. The brave priests, nuns and lay people who marched with us were called an embarrassment by the heirachy. Many blacks left the Catholic church after they were thrown out of white churches. So, when I see this bogus attack about birth control, I see another attack against black people.
    Eleven O’Clock on Sunday morning… the most segrated hour in Christian America. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. One wastes one’s time and money in the administering to blacks….what reason can there be that you are so solicitous for the negro. A preist cited in the Miserable Condition of Black Catholics in America,. As for the Souther Baptists, count the crosses of Spartacus’ slave army, it would not touch the lynchings of blacks by these people. I don’t trust either, now and their treatment of this president has solidified that.

  • Haymitch Abernathy

    Attacking Christianity is one of the primary tactics used by today’s liberals in their reactionary war against Western civilization:

    • Allan Richardson

      Pretending that God, rather than the prejudices of small minded people who claim to speak for God, is being attacked by liberals, is one of the primary tactics used by reactionary pseudo-Christians who turn the Prince of Peace into a warrior god, to demonize honest scientific inquiry, equality of opportunity, separation of church and state, and social and economic justice.

      • Haymitch Abernathy

        Hussein Obama’s criminal marxist regime has actively denigrated other countries’ religious beliefs because they’re contrary to its own cultural marxist agenda.