What Yields When Political and Religious Thought Converge and Conflict?

What Yields When Political and Religious Thought Converge and Conflict? May 17, 2023

In a recent opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Mary Jo McConahay lamented the growing influence “far-right politics of US Catholic bishops.” As a “moderate Catholic,” she sees the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) focus on abortion, gender issues, and human sexuality as a veiled endorsement for “Christian Nationalism.” The piece, full of cultural buzz words, implores US Catholics to choose the “pastoral approach” of Pope Francis over that of the rigidly sexist, racist, and Christian nationalistic views of most US Catholic bishops.

In this article, I address each point of Mary Jo McConahay’s, one-by-one. I ask all Catholics to reflect on the question: what yields when political and religious thought converge and conflict? When presented with a choice between Church teaching and the politics of the age, which do we choose? Do we leave our faith, our worldview, isolated within the four walls of the Church, or do we express our worldview within the public square? All Catholics must answer these questions before God, on their own.

What About Race and Gender?

The religious right has long been identified with white evangelical Christians, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, some 250 men, mostly white and past middle age, ranks among the nation’s most formidable reactionary forces. As a Catholic, I must protest.

Does the race and gender of US bishops matter when it comes to Church teaching? This link contains all the worldwide Catholic bishop conferences, many lead by non-whites. Does McConahay hold the same animus for Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC) that she does for the USCCB? Both the GCBC and the USCCB hold to the same Church teaching. In truth, McConahay has a problem with specific Catholic teaching, not those who teach it. She uses race and gender to shield her contempt for a faithful Catholic worldview that expresses itself in public life. In this, she holds that the religious must yield to the political. And as a Catholic, I must also protest.

Politics on the Right Must Yield to Catholic Teaching

There was a time when I was proud of the principled but often unpopular positions of my faith leaders. During the Cold War, they spoke out against nuclear proliferation. When neoconservatives rose to power in Washington, the bishops issued a powerful letter on the economy, reminding government of its responsibility for making a “preferential option for the poor.” They stood against Ronald Reagan’s support for autocrats in wartime Central America — I was covering the region as a reporter and met several bishops who traveled south to see for themselves before making the policy decision.

Ah, the good ol’ days. Above, McConahay reminisces about a time when the USCCB held conservative politicians to account. If only they still did…wait, they do! The USCCB, as a Catholic organization reflecting the teaching of the Church, still holds politicians accountable. For example, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the recent Letter to Congress Regarding FY 2023 Farm Bill, April 24, 2023. In short, the USCCB does hold conservate politicians to account for policies inconsistent with Church teaching. Likewise, the USCCB also holds liberal politicians accountable. As we shall see, the latter presents a problem for McConahay. Regarding liberal policies, like abortion, the USCCB must keep their Catholic worldview to themselves. In other words, when considering abortion, the USCCB must either stay silent or support individual conscience on the matter. They cannot in any way influence or sway Catholics regarding the Catholic teaching on abortion.

Fidelity Towards Schism

The bishops are driving the U.S. church to the point of schism with opposition to Pope Francis, who emphasizes pastoral care more than doctrine, and who virtually slapped down their attempt to forbid Holy Communion to lifelong Catholic Joe Biden, who is pro-choice.

Allow me to rephrase this: the US bishops, in stressing fidelity to Church teaching and not turning a blind eye to sin through “pastoral care,” are driving the US Church toward schism. Schism from whom? Clearly, given McConahay’s indictment against doctrine (Church teaching), she is not here referring to those in support of said teaching. For McConahay, if the bishops do not alter course and stop stressing Church teaching on issues like abortion, those who “emphasize pastoral care more than doctrine” may break from the Church. Interestingly, past schisms focused on theological issues like justification (faith alone), McConahay’s schism shifts the focus towards cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. If the USCCB fails to cow to pressure from “pastoral” Catholics and keep their collective mouths shut, “pastoral” Catholics will leave the Church.

Wiggle Room on Abortion?  

That highly politicized obsession [with abortion] has put U.S. Catholic bishops sharply at odds with the global church (and public opinion) in their animus to Pope Francis, who calls capital punishment, euthanasia and care for the poor equally important “pro-life” issues.  For moderate Catholics like me, the deviation hits close to home, pushing the U.S. church too far from too much of Christ’s most elemental teachings while engaging in modern culture wars.

Unfortunately, McConahay creates the animus between the USCCB and Pope Francis concerning abortion, which she laments. Contrary to her claim, Pope Francis and the USCCB stand united against the evil of abortion. What McConahay hopes to gain with her “equally important ‘pro-life’ issues” is wiggle room to vote for pro-abortion politicians. Pro-abortion politicians attract Catholic voters by giving lip-service regarding the vulnerable poor while passing polices that endanger the most vulnerable, and mostly poor children, with extreme abortion laws. Furthermore, some of the most extreme euthanasia laws originate from the political Left. In the US, Democrats govern almost all “right-to-die” states.

Therefore, the same politicians that support abortion most likely support euthanasia. For the record, the USCCB equally stands against both abortion and euthanasia. When one political party seeks to deprive life to the most vulnerable (those in the womb and those weakened by advanced age), the USCCB must call it out.

Pope Francis on Sexual Sin

About sexual orientation, Francis, who recently celebrated 10 years as pope, famously said, “Who am I to judge?” but U.S. bishops rail against the “intrinsic disorder” of homosexuality. They ignore his urgent call for action on climate change and its existential threats.

McConahay, once again, creates an artificial divide between the USCCB and Pope Francis. Recently, in clarification of a comment he made regarding the criminality of homosexuality, Pope Francis reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching on the topic. In a letter to Fr. James Martin, Francis stated:

As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said, ‘It is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage. This is to speak of ‘the matter’ of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin.

Moreover, Pope Francis nowhere uses the words “disorder” in his letter to Fr. Martin, the Pope uses the word sin. Sin, as the Church teaches, can either injure or destroy one’s relationship with God. The Church identifies two types of sins: venial and mortal. Sex outside of marriage is the “matter of sin.” This “matter” may ultimately separate one from experiencing the New Heaven and Earth when God restores the environment.

Civil Liberty vs. Religious Liberty

Mary Jo McConahay’s final (and most concerning) point, after calling the Church historically racist and dominated by rich, white men, concerns the tension between religious and civil liberty. She states:

Perhaps of greatest concern, the USCCB has been increasingly willing to render the wall between church and state a mere gossamer curtain. Invoking novel theories of “religious liberty,” the bishops have fought legislation and court decisions most Americans support, notably laws protecting same sex marriage and access to contraceptives.

What “novel” theories do the USCCB invoke? She does not elaborate. One may infer from the paragraph above that religious liberty becomes “novel” when Catholics express their political will, a political will informed by their faith and fidelity to the Church. What seems “novel” to McConahay is a faith lived beyond the four walls of the Church.

Conversely, Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D wrote of religious liberty in 2011:

In short, religious liberty pertains to the whole person – it is not simply the freedom to believe and to worship but to shape our very lives around those beliefs and that worship, both as individuals and as a community, and to share our lives, thus transformed, with the world around us.

Faith transforms our lives. It changes the way we look at ourselves and “the world around us.” To express a political will contrary to one’s beliefs is by definition hypocrisy. If Catholics REALLY believe the Church teaches the truth about reality, they must engage the world accordingly.

What Yields When Political and Religious Thought Converge and Conflict?

In conclusion, when presented with a choice between Church teaching and the politics of the age, Mary Jo McConahay appears to selectively choose the latter. Her indictment of the USCCB centers on their fidelity to Church teaching, teaching that stands in stark contrast to the popular liberal politics of the day. To her, such a faith, a worldview, must isolate itself within the four walls of the Church. A faith safely removed from the public square. Conversely, if Church teaching affirms liberal political positions, McConahay celebrates and encourages this convergence of faith and politics. In these cases, the door is open to the public square.

In short. according to McConahay, the USCCB becomes problematic when Church teaching converge with conservative political positions. For example, when a convergence occurs, like with abortion, the Church must yield to liberal abortion politics. On the other hand, if Church teaching converges with liberal politics, like environmentalism, the Church need not yield. Furthermore, if the USCCB policy positions continue to converge with conservative politics, Catholics like McConahay may have no choice but schism! I am sure Pope Francis wants nothing to do with this sort of dichotomous thinking.

Thank you!

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