Priests have role in rekindling fire for justice in the marketplace, in public policy, and in the culture.
Just as winter ended, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York revealed that he had been invited by President Barack Obama to discussions on a series of issues, including the controversial provision in the application of the Affordable Health Care Act regarding employer-provided medical insurance and contraception.
Responding affirmatively to the possibility of talking about common concerns, Cardinal Dolan listed for the president a number of matters considered important by the bishops and needing attention. He cited: 1) Reasonable regulation of firearms; 2) Increased attention to the needs of mentally ill people; 3) Immigration reform; 4) Access to comprehensive, affordable and “life-affirming” health care, including care for the unborn, the undocumented and the dying; 5) International assistance to the world’s poorest people; 6) Protecting the environment; 7) Education reform, including parental choice; 8) Developing a financially reasonable federal budget that protects the poor, the sick and the elderly; 9) Peace in the Middle East and ending the war in Afghanistan, and 10) Efforts to strengthen family life and to uphold the importance of fatherhood.
Anyone fully aware of Catholic teaching knows the particulars of what the bishops have in mind in each of these points. None is novel or out of the blue. None is vague or outlandish. Given the details, none is beyond controversy, to say the least.
My immediate reaction after reading this list was to question myself, and then I asked forgiveness. I cannot recall when I last preached, or how often in my priesthood I have ever preached, on any of these questions. I rationalize by telling myself that I preach on the Gospel of the day and stress its spiritual message. Well, this is a valid approach to the priestly privilege of proclaiming God’s holy Word and calling people to God. God forgive me, however.
Go into detail in each item on the list. Find the full development of the American bishops’ collective mind in each case. Face it. The reasoning, and the objective, sought by the bishops in almost all these areas would not draw cheers from most Catholic congregations, although some communities, certainly those composed of poorer Catholic or minorities, would applaud.
In many, many American parishes, including those in which lately I have preached, almost all of these points are hot potatoes or certainly warm, and few among us enjoy being refuted or disliked.
Change has come in the American Catholic culture.
In 1950, if a priest in this country spoke favorably of the Church’s position in any of these areas, the congregation would have been thrilled.
Possibly change began as American Catholics grew more prosperous and less vulnerable to bigotry. Historians said the election to the White House of John F. Kennedy in 1960 was a mighty blow to anti-Catholicism. It undoubtedly helped, as did his performance in office.
Catholics by the tens of millions entered the middle class, fell into step with the general march of culture, for better or worse, and religious practice, even Catholic religious practice, dulled while religion came to matter less and less.
In my experience, although my memory was that of youth, the signal of change — at least in my native environment — was when the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Topeka Board of Education set in motion a wave of revolutionary cultural provisions that set aside the legal separation and categorizing of people by race. Well, maybe it was not change. Maybe it revealed a fault line.
In either case, well do I remember. I was a boy when the bishop of my native diocese, Nashville, announced that henceforward Catholic schools would not be segregated according to the race of students. My father came home from a Knights of Columbus meeting and grimly noted that some others at the meeting, members of the police force, feared that the bishop might be assassinated, and furthermore, because his own Catholics were so furious with him, a Catholic might pull the trigger.
Elsewhere in the country, other questions were important. The overall changes in the Church after the Second Vatican Council had a strong effect. Catholics did not always stand with the bishops, although on balance it may have been better in the past. At least Catholics in bygone days would have felt guilty if they too robustly challenged the Church.
For Catholics more inclined to follow the Church in social questions, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand, and subsequent actions by politicians, upset old alliances. Many Catholics understandably went to the political side that opposed abortion, and now same-sex marriage, but in the process they accepted views or inclinations inconsistent with long-standing Church teaching.
Frankly, also to be admitted, many other Catholics took opposite views on these paramount issues. Maybe it was a change from the past. Maybe again it exposed a fault line already present. I personally believe, from my reading of American Catholic history, that Catholics by and large, once generally, more often than not overwhelmingly, followed the mind of the Church not just in their homes and hearts but in their outlook regarding the culture and official policies.
In writing President Obama, Cardinal Dolan observed, correctly, that the bishops’ positions in the matters listed above are not their personal inventions nor voiced for the first time at this moment. Rather, he said, they pursue, and are part of, a tradition of Church teaching.
Admittedly, and blessedly so, the majority of American Catholics know where the Church stands on the questions of abortion and same-sex marriages. Thankfully, the majority of identified Catholics are with the Church in these concerns. What about the rest of what the Church teaches when it comes to the moral ordering of societies and governments?
If this is the case, how effective is our religious education? Where are we priests? Looking to the future, what are seminaries teaching? How familiar with traditional Catholic thinking in social matters are the people in our parishes? How identified are they with this thinking?
Before fully scolding our people or our priests, visions of hurling bricks at established institutions and tearing down entrenched values lead some, understandably, to pause. Yet, we call our people to be strong in defending Catholic principles in their personal conduct and in their duties as citizens.
If the Church is the Church, the repository of truth and the voice of revelation in the past, then it is the Church, the repository of truth and the voice of revelation in the present.
Its teachings, drawn from Revelation, protected in their authenticity by the Holy Spirit, are gifts from God to us to bring justice and peace, and ultimately the divine perfection, into contemporary life.
Cardinal Dolan, not for the first time, expressed to President Obama willingness to dialogue and to share with each other analyses and hopes in relevant matters.
If American Catholics understand what the cardinal is saying when he relays the teachings of the Church, believe that these teachings are right and for the common good of all, and are willing to join him, then he will be heard.
He will be heard in government circles, and to a considerable extent among the trendsetters of business and the academy, and most certainly in the world of mass communications, when American Catholics significantly express their agreement with him and their determination to stand by their agreement.
The task, therefore, does not belong just to Cardinal Dolan or to any other bishop or even to the episcopal conference in this country. Every Catholic has a task. Priests very significantly have their role also to play in rekindling that fire for justice in the marketplace, in public policy, and in the culture that was for so long a glory in the history of the Church in this land.