Is the pope as Catholic as the president? The Times will tell

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Long, long ago, I covered religion news during the era in which Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was one of the most powerful newsmakers on the beat. At the time, I thought it was interesting that conservative Catholics and mainstream journalists had such similar takes on this complicated man.

Many, but not all, conservative Catholics were truly convinced that the cardinal was a liberal’s liberal through and through and that his “seamless garment” approach to moral theology was a shameless attempt — through moral equivalency — to play down church doctrines on issues such as abortion in order to provide cover for political liberals on issues such as nuclear arms, gun control, minimum-wage laws, etc.

Yes, the cardinal kept stressing, “All life has dignity and worth from the moment of conception to natural death.” But, some conservatives argued, he was really just trying to hand Catholics who were liberal Democrats a trump card they could play in their arguments with Catholics who had moved over to the Republican Party, especially after Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, many journalists appeared to have exactly the same view of Bernardin’s work. They didn’t seem to take his words on abortion, euthanasia and related issues very seriously, either.

The difference, of course, was that conservative Catholics thought this alleged Bernardin strategy was a bad thing and mainstream journalists thought it was a good thing.

Let me be clear: Neither of these camps seem to be listening to everything the cardinal had to say. Today, we could be seeing a similar phenomenon with Pope Francis.

My mind flashed back to all of those arguments while reading that Sunday A1 story in The New York Times that ran under the headline, “The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism.”

The thesis of the article, as I read it, is that once there was a glorious time when Catholic leaders — led by Cardinal Bernardin — really cared about issues like social justice, poverty and human dignity. That’s why so many Catholics in Chicago got along so well with that young social activist named Barack Obama, whose views were so compatible with what the “seamless garment” thinkers were saying. They welcomed him into their churches.

But then things went terribly wrong. Thus, readers are told:

This Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr. Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s Trinity United Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist “kill list.” The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.

A White House accustomed to archbishop antagonists hopes the president will find a strategic ally and kindred spirit in a pope who preaches a gospel of social justice and inclusion.

As opposed to all of those archbishops who, of course, preach a gospel that rejects social justice and inclusion.

Wait, there’s more:

The future president … fit seamlessly into a 1980s Catholic cityscape forged by the spirit of Vatican II, the influence of liberation theology and the progressivism of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

Wait for it.

In 1997, the year Mr. Obama was sworn in as an Illinois state senator, Cardinal Francis George succeeded Cardinal Bernardin as archbishop of Chicago. One of the church’s leading conservative intellectuals, called “Francis the Corrector” by local liberal priests, Cardinal George was emblematic of the bishops installed by John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. Some of them looked with skepticism at the social justice wing that had financed Mr. Obama’s organizing efforts, and later sought to block his election as president by suggesting that Catholics could not in good conscience vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights.

Mr. Obama still won the Catholic vote in 2008. In his campaign, he had held out the goal of finding common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion rights, chiefly by reducing unintended pregnancies and increasing adoptions. Cardinal George quickly dashed those hopes. “The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice,” he said in November 2008 in his opening address as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Raise your hands if you are shocked, shocked to learn that some “liberal priests” in Chicago preferred Bernardin to George.

No, the central points here seem to be that (a) Bernardin didn’t really take abortion all that seriously and (b) that George doesn’t really care about social justice issues. Ditto for the Blessed Pope John Paul II and that awful Pope Benedict XVI.

Thus, Obama can be seen as a shining example of the “Spirit of Vatican II” and the “seamless garment” ethic, perhaps to a greater degree than, well, someone like Cardinal George. Obama is the true Catholic.

Now, I am not arguing that this logic is correct.

I am also not arguing that it is wrong for a major newspaper to write a story that includes this point of view in its coverage of this period of Obama’s life. I am well aware that many people, inside the church and out, would support this point of view. This is a perfectly valid subject for a news feature.

But what about the other side of this debate? There are just as many informed, articulate Catholic voices — if not more — who would not accept this view of the work of Obama and/or Bernardin (and Vatican II, come to think of it). Where are the Catholics who do not accept this template? And let me add: Might it even be argued that this Times piece offers a very unfair and one-sided view of the life, work and faith of Bernardin?

Meanwhile, savvy news consumers already knew where this article was going to end up — with Pope Francis.

Surely there is hope that this new pope will want to undo much of the bad work done by the previous two popes? Thus, might he be willing to look into Obama’s truly Catholic soul and see that the president agrees with him on the essential issues? After all:

… The election of Pope Francis last March seemed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church and, potentially, into the relationship between Mr. Obama and the institution that gave him his start. While far from an ideological progressive, Francis does sometimes appear cloaked in Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment.” His de-emphasis of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and his championing of the poor and vulnerable — articulated in his mission statement, “The Joy of the Gospel” — have impressed a second-term president who argues that income inequality undermines human dignity.

“Whether you call that the ‘seamless garment’ or ‘the joy of the Gospel’ or what, I’ve said to the president I consider that a pretty Catholic way of looking at the world,” said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, who is Roman Catholic.

So, Pope Francis, the scribes at the Times are watching you carefully.

Stay tuned. Is the pope as Catholic as Cardinal Bernardin, as envisioned by the Times? Come to think of it, is Pope Francis as Catholic as Obama? We will see.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    LOL Francis has already spoken very strongly about abortion. Much stronger than Bernardin.

    • tmatt

      Yes, in the document cited by the NYTimes. That was strange.

  • FW Ken

    I liked the article, mainly because I didn’t know about the Catholic connection in the president’s early career. It was also nice to find that someone was making less money than me in 1985. I think there were interesting insights into Pres. Obama I’m not sure they wish us to think about. “A parched old nun and 30 brown children”. Really?

    But it’s full of little holes. Of course, Bernadine is good and George is bad, although I notice George retains on his leadership staff Obama’s old mentor. What’s that about? It hints that the president’s religion is more about political usefulness than Faith. That allegation has been raised before and is explicit in the comment that being Catholic wouldn’t help him politically. Interesting.

    And they come close to acknowledging that Fantasy Francis is probably Catholic Francis when you get down to it. My question is how the pope, who seems to bond with ordinary people, reacts to the high and mighty. Perhaps it won’t be about the social issues at all. Perhaps they will come to a meeting on Catholic economic/social doctrine. Perhaps they will talk about Syria, not abortion.

    When all of this is over, it would be an interesting exercise to study how the pope interacts with world leaders, as opposed to the homeless guys he invited to breakfast. I wonder which are the symbolic public gestures.

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1305282.htm

  • Julia B

    From the article: “the call of the Second Vatican Council to focus on the poor ” No, the “preferential option for the poor” did not come from VII – it was from a later meeting in Mexico and was thereafter pushed by the Jebbies, in particular.

    “Benedict, who pointedly offered him a Vatican document on bioethics that condemned abortion and stem cell research.” That line should have specified “embrionic” stem cell research.

    The article neglects to mention what hardened Illinois Catholics against Obama – his refusal to vote for an IL bill to require medical assistance to fetuses (or whatever you want to call them) born alive during late term abortions.

    Many Catholics would argue that there has never been a turn away from efforts to help the poor – the problem is the social activists decision to start emphasizing and justifying abortions as part of the option for the poor.

    In Catholic speak: there is a difference between pastorally considering the pressures on a woman in a difficult situation and a policy that there is nothing wrong with abortion.

    • Almario Javier

      But the preferential option flows naturally out of Vatican II (and the social catechesis of the Popes, too, going back to at least Leo XIII)

      • Julia B

        It may “flow” from VII along with lots of other things, but “the preferential option for the poor” is specifically from that meeting in Mexico. It’s not accurate to say that Vatican II called for it.

  • Julia B

    I’d like to see an article on a big change in Jesuit thinking that I have noticed and not seen addressed anywhere. The Jesuits used to think it was a good thing to educate the elite of a country in order to influence them to work towards the good of the people. [They had other missions, but that was for sure an acknowledged one] Now they are running away from that goal. Why? Is it the changes brought about by non-monarchial systems and democracy? Or a new focus on preparing the underclass in modern society to move up to influential roles instead of the existing elite? What has been the result of that change? Maybe you have to have known Jesuits to understand the questions.

    • Almario Javier

      At least in America, it’s because you never know who might end up in the elite.

  • Bruce Newman

    I believe it won’t be long until the infantile zeitgeist embodied in Obama and many journalists will be enraged by Pope Francis’ failure to align with their sophomoric expectations in toto. Like children they seem incapable of substantive judgements. They specialize in the superficial. Unlike children they are barren of the occasional simple but profound insight.

  • James Patton

    It isn’t that complicated folks. Coalitions are not formed around the differences or negative issues. One needs to find common or similar issues to expand their influence to remain relevant. This is true for any leader or community organizer.

  • fredx2

    Notice the Pope has been speaking of “casuistry” lately. As I understand it, the term means making up seemingly valid reasons for doing things, which are not really valid, they just sound good.

    Now look at Bernardin’s seamless garment:
    “…the archbishop of Chicago, who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

    And the effect of which was to reduce the emphasis on abortion.
    In other words, casuustry

    • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

      If that were the case, then Pope John Paul II would be the supreme
      casuist. I mean, he actually wrote in his encyclical Evangelium
      Vitae
      (1995) not only about abortion and euthanasia, but the
      death penalty as well. He even went so far as to talk about other
      threats to human life such as this: “And how can we fail to consider the
      violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes?” (EV 10).

      The truth is, he was the Pope, he was talking Catholic teaching. Because a consistent ethic of life or “seamless” garment approach” IS Catholic teaching. That was also Cardinal Bernardin’s point. We must be consistent about all of our teaching on human life and dignity, or none of it will be credible. Let me give you some advice: If you want to know what Card. Bernardin said, read his writings, not what the NY Times says that he said. That would be like reading the Times to find out what Pope Francis really said. Because it ain’t going to be there.

      Bernardin, by the way, was very solidly pro-life, as witnesses by his 1976 testimony together with then Cardinal Cooke of New York in favor of the Human Life Amendment, and his words on many other occasions as well. He was grossly misunderstood by many and said so. He insisted his work had been misused by those on the social justice side who wanted to downplay abortion.

      The solidness of JPII and Bernardin’s views is easily demonstrated. “Pro-choicers” will say to me, “if you were really pro-life, you’d be against the death penalty, and for social programs, etc.” It is good to be able to say to them, “I’m a Catholic, and yes, I’m against the death penalty and for those social programs within reason. However, I’m also dead-set against abortion. Just get the Democrats to drop their abortion support and I’ll be back in the ranks.” It really stymies them. It takes away their main excuse.

      Yes, the “seamless garment” has been hijacked by the left, no question. All the more reason for us Catholics to hold to the true version. But it is right, and good, and correct and consistent, and just about unanswerable.

      Hmm, three guesses why the New York Times piece never mentioned Evangelium Vitae, and why they draped Pope Francis but not JPII with Cardinal Bernardin’s mantle? The same reason they go on writing nonsense and calling it news — to serve a narrative. One we don’t need to fall for.

  • rod mason

    You know, you’d have to be a pretty uninformed Catholic not to realize most of the points raised by Mr. Mattingly in this post; moreover, one would have to be a much younger Catholic AND uninformed as well. For me, I’m Pre-Conciliar, Conciliar, and now Post-Conciliaor Catholic, and I’ve seen and pretty much experienced the whole enchilada. From the close of Vatican II to the advent of Blessed Pope JP II, the Catholic Church was in a mostly bloody mess, with a few bright spot here and there. But especially around the late ‘eighties when the crop of new priests started to emerge, and were vastly different than the ‘sixties and dreadful ‘seventies types of “socially conscious” and. it turns out, deviant like in homosexual, priests (see Fr. Enrique Rueda’s seminal book from around 1982, “The Homosexual Network”) did we see, finally, some excellent priests coming down the ecclesiatical pike. My response to Mattingly’s post would have to be book-like in order to adequately comment on this most enlightening article. Well done, Mr. Mattingly.

  • HowardRichards

    “Now, I am not arguing that this logic in correct.” That is either a typo for “Now, I am not arguing that this logic is correct” or for “Now, I am not arguing that this logic is incorrect.”

    By the way, the following statement is unsupported: “Let me be clear: Neither of these camps seem to be listening to everything the cardinal had to say.” “Everything the cardinal had to say” includes how he said it, when he said it, what he left unsaid, etc. Anyone who says anything worth hearing always hints at things that are not said bluntly.

    Is your idea of good journalism “Mark Antony: Brutus an Honorable Man”?

    • tmatt

      Typo: is.

      Will repair.

  • Stacymarie DePinto Sattely

    No to both. As a conservative, cradle Catholic, who grew up and educated in VII ideology. I don’t believe there is a correlation. In all honesty, if you permit me, as a real Catholic, I did not vote for this man ever and I find him to be a terrible leader. Yes, I said it. A Catholic is culpable to sin in their choices. Such as voting for a candidate who has beliefs that are against the tenants of our Church. The Catholics that elected Obama and agree with Bernandin are laxed Catholics. Catholics in name only. The Church always taught to stand for the poor, but when did our Church teach it was OK to steal from the hard workers, and give to the sin of sloth, and take that money and possibly use it to commit the sin of murder on the unborn? Just asking? In my opinion, it is irresponsible for persons not to know or understand the candidates that are running for an election. Your faith should guide always and you should always be aware when you enter a voting booth. I get itchy when journalists try to make Obama and the Pope appear to be on the same page. The Catholic obsession with Obama disturbs me greatly. This is proof that the dark one is still a fan of man, quoted by Robert Deniro from the movie The Devil’s Advocate.


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