Call Him ‘Pope-Emeritus’

The following piece originally ran on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog on February 26, 2013, two days before the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect.

The church and the world are still absorbing the shock of the announcement that on February 28th Pope Benedict XVI will become the first in modern history to resign from the papacy (the last two were Gregory XII in 1415 and St. Celestine V in 1294). In the wake of this bold decision, one fact shines through: only he could do this. [Read full article on WaPo blog…]

Papal Transition

This photo slideshow is a backgrounder that just about any media outlet with a website could use at the time of the death of a pope to explain the arcane process of papal transition. Photos courtesy of Catholic News Service. Content adapted from information provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Note: This presentation, produced in the fall of 2012, only acknowledges in passing the possibility of a papal transition sparked by the resignation of a pope. This unprecedented-in-modern-times occurrence would become reality the following February.

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Political Engagement is Every Catholic’s Duty

“Why is the Catholic Church getting involved in politics?”
When uttered aloud, the gut-level revulsion is clearly audible in that question.
It’s a fair question, one that comes up frequently. It’s grounded in history. People ask, “Didn’t the Church get burned time and again through the centuries when it got too cozy with various medieval kings and secular powers? Isn’t that how, at one time, it became so corrupt that it sparked the Protestant Reformation?”
The question comes up today, almost regardless of the issue being addressed by the pope, the bishops or even a parish priest. Sandra Day O’Connor once quipped that the definition of an “activist judge” is “a judge who disagrees with me.” Similarly, the complaint about the Church meddling in politics can fall conveniently along political fault lines. But there’s still something to be said for people being wary of a Church that seems too wrapped up in secular matters and power.
The bishops recognize this and draw several key distinctions. To name a couple, the Church’s focus is on moral principles and how they should influence policy positions. The Church stakes out strong positions on issues, but does not endorse parties or candidates. It recognizes that lay people play a complementary role of more direct involvement in politics that the hierarchy cannot and should not play.
Pope Benedict XVI made this clear in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, stating, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society…is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity.”
The pope uses the word “called,” meaning not just a role, but a duty. Still one could ask, “Doesn’t political involvement seem kind of peripheral compared to my other obligations to the faith like participating in the Sacraments and helping the poor?”

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops respond with a vision of the Church providing society a great service.

“Because we are people of both faith and reason, it is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square,” the bishops write. “We are called to practice Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another’ (Jn 13:34).”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it another way, that it’s necessary for everyone to participate in promoting the common good (#1913-15). Either way, political participation, at its best, is an expression of faith lived out in the world.

The bishops, as pastors and teachers, apply the Church’s moral voice to issues affecting human life and dignity in the public square, and Catholics as a whole engage in the political process through such means as voting and, according to the bishops, “running for office; working within political parties; communicating their concerns and positions to elected officials; and joining diocesan social mission or advocacy networks, state Catholic conference initiatives, community organizations, and other efforts to apply authentic moral teaching in the public square.”

This is a year-round deal, but not in the sense of the perpetual campaign that poisons so much political discourse. Catholics aren’t called to be hyper-partisans waging a scorched Earth campaign for permanent political dominance. In fact the bishops offer the admonition that Catholic shouldn’t let their parties lead them to “neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”

Instead, Catholics are called to be leaven. The duty of the politically-engaged Catholic isn’t just to take sides in the political debate, but to transform it.
This post originally appeared as part of the “Catholics Care. Catholics Vote.” series on the USCCB Blog. Used with permission.

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Poverty and Helping People to Flourish

“The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them,” Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel.

This would, at face value, seem like a fairly open-ended statement. But it gets a pretty heavy degree of specificity from the U.S. bishops in the introductory note to the reissued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, when the bishops cite “an economic crisis … , increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger; increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect those who are poor and vulnerable as well as future generations” as one of their six areas of concern going into the 2012 elections.

If these are issues that are supposed to matter to Catholics, the bishops have certainly led by example in this area. For the Church, political engagement isn’t just about what happens in a voting booth in November; it’s about consistently bringing one’s values and perspective to the public discussion. The U.S. bishops have brought their values to the issues of debt, poverty, unemployment and hunger in numerous letters to leaders in Congress. The Vatican has even tackled the more overarching challenge of financial reform.

Of course, every Catholic is called to engage the political process, as voters, lawmakers, advocates, etc. And all Catholics are called to, as Jesus said, do good for the poor, through whatever means are at their disposal, whether they’re a teacher educating the next generation, a banker engaging in responsible lending practices or a legislator shaping public policy that will impact millions of lives. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI called this the “institutional path of charity.”

On this path, Catholic teaching places a crowded cast of characters, all with their own responsibilities: government, businesses, churches and other organizations, and individuals. The Church’s vision for society involves all of these stakeholders working together in a way that allows people to flourish, living life with a sense of dignity and reaching the potential God intended for them. In Catholic terms, everyone has a responsibility to promote the common good. To keep this from becoming stifling or chaotic, the Church prescribes principles like solidarity and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is the recognition of the responsibility of everyone in society to care for those who are poor and vulnerable. (The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 put this in perspective by saying that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. are requirements for entering the kingdom.) Subsidiarity is the principle that says care for the poor — and all human problems, in fact — should be addressed at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. It promotes the robust network of relationships in society, from the individual to the global. It can be seen at work when, for instance, funding from the federal government goes to finance anti-poverty programs that are regulated and administered at the state or local level, often by charities, sometimes by Catholic charities.

The goal is always human flourishing. The tangled, interconnected mess of joblessness, the economy, poverty, etc. is a political concern for the bishops because it impacts the lives and dignity of so many. “Work is more than a way to make a living,” the bishops write in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” And as so many people struggle in financial hardship to regain that part of their lives, it becomes apparent that “The poor you will always have with you” isn’t a license to ignore the poor or assume they will disappear when times improve for everyone. Rather it’s a reminder of a duty shared by everyone and articulated by the bishops:  “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.”

This post originally appeared as part of the “Catholics Care. Catholics Vote.” series on the USCCB Blog. Used with permission.

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Immigration Reform and a Reasonable Church

It’s popular in some circles today to portray the Catholic Church as the opposite of reasonable.

One example: When the Church insists that its charities, hospitals and universities be allowed to carry out their mission without being forced by the government to violate Catholic teaching, it’s depicted as attacking women’s health care, despite the Church being a strong supporter of health care for all people. Another example: Recent years have seen the rise of more strident, outspoken atheists who, with evangelical fervor and more than a touch of hubris, declare that only their like-minded brethren are freethinkers and that people of any faith are superstitious children at best and hate-filled bigots at worst. Their favorite buzzword: reason.

Of course Pope Benedict XVI and others have long maintained that no conflict or competition exists between faith and reason, that the two in fact work together harmoniously as people engage the world around them. A great example of this is the position the U.S. bishops take on immigration reform, one of six priority issues raised in their reissued document on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

When the bishops speak out on immigration, it’s not the shrill rhetoric of partisan politics or ideology. It’s not even a dense and lofty theological pronouncement. Instead, it’s the calm, educated advice of people who understand an issue, care about it and want to see it resolved for the benefit of everyone involved. It’s the pairing of values rooted in faith with arguments rooted in logic and common sense. It’s humanitarian, and it’s reasonable on numerous levels.

For instance…

When a country is saddled with immigration policies that have resulted in 12 million people living under the radar, it’s reasonable to say, “Everyone recognizes the system is broken; let’s move forward and replace this broken system with something that works so that everyone can benefit.” Hence the bishops’ calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Conversely, the approach of digging in further with the same enforcement-only approach that has been used for the last two decades is an example of repeating the same practice and expecting different results. It’s also reasonable to recognize that one simply cannot deport 12 million people, with the costs, economic disruptions and logistical difficulties making it beyond impractical.

It’s reasonable to question practices like raiding workplaces, separating families and holding people in prolonged detention as a proportionate response to non-violent offenders whose only offenses were motivated by need and, to be blunt about it, family values. It’s reasonable to recognize that a tension can exist between two important values–in this case, the right of a country to secure and guard its borders and the right of people to emigrate to seek a livelihood for themselves and their families–and realize that a creative accommodation can alleviate that tension, whether that means increasing the number of visas given annually to meet demand or removing roadblocks to naturalization for young people who had no choice in coming.

It’s reasonable to want to understand and address the underlying causes that drive illegal immigration. When people risk their lives and leave their families to come to a foreign land, the humane and logical response is to find out what forces compelled them to do such a risky, oftentimes desperate thing. The answer is usually some combination of systemic poverty, economic instability and political or religious persecution, issues the United States can work to alleviate in collaboration with its neighbors.

This is a humanitarian challenge for the United States, but it’s also an opportunity and even a gift. It’s reasonable to look to the historical context, to the tremendous energy and productivity infused in American culture by every subsequent wave of immigrants (most of which occurred under very different immigration laws, rendering moot the popular “well my ancestors came here legally” argument).

And so it’s reasonable not only to know one’s history, but to know oneself, especially as a politically-engaged Catholic. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently noted, “We are a church of immigrants, so we’re particularly sensitive to the rights of immigrants.” This should compel Catholics to approach the challenges of immigration reform not punitively, but as people of compassion, faith and reason.

This post originally appeared as part of the “Catholics Care. Catholics Vote.” series on the USCCB Blog. Used with permission.

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Temptations and Voting

Nowhere do the issues of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ call to political responsibility, get more delicate than when the document tackles questions of voting.

In the document, the bishops describe at length a Catholic moral framework that encompasses their priority issues for 2012abortion and threats to human life and dignity, religious freedom concerns, efforts to redefine marriage, immigration reform, international peace, and domestic poverty, unemployment and the economic crisis. They describe the nature of these issues and why each is a concern for the Church, essentially why Catholics should care about them.

But then comes the inevitable question: how should Catholics put the pieces together when they go to vote? On this question, it’s best to let the document speak for itself: “The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues.”

This prompts the question, “Wait, so Catholics aren’t supposed to be single-issue voters?”

The bishops answer this squarely, asserting, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.” But then it gets even more interesting: “Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”

Per the possibility of bringing a candidate back from a disqualified state, the bishops say, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” They state that this is not a flippant matter: “Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preference or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”

Of course a voting Catholic’s responsibilities don’t end at avoiding evil; they must also do good. As the bishops note, “a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues of human life and dignity.”

So a candidate who passes the test on big issues doesn’t get a free pass on every other moral question. The bishops list “unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy” as “serious moral issues that challenge our conscience and require us to act.”

The delicate balance of all of these issues is best summarized as what could be called the “Two Temptations” of Faithful Citizenship:

1. To say that all issues are morally equivalent with no ethical distinctions. This simply isn’t so, say the bishops. For instance, “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life…is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.”

2. To say that only certain issues matter or, as the bishops phrase it, “the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.”

Suddenly the challenge of the Catholic voter becomes comparable to navigating a speeding car down a slippery road at night without falling into the ditches on both sides of the road, or like the children’s board game “Operation,” where players use tweezers to remove ailments from a patient without touching the metal sides, setting off a buzzer. This may sound like a daunting task, but it’s a responsibility the bishops have entrusted to every U.S. Catholic. Voting may be only one way Catholics can answer the call to live out their faith in the public square, but accepting its challenge is a powerful way to show that they care.

This post originally appeared as part of the “Catholics Care. Catholics Vote.” series on the USCCB Blog. Used with permission.

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Keeping Love in the Debate

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops’ call to political responsibility, is a high-profile document. One reason is that it deals with issues that have major ramifications for the lives and well being of people everywhere. Another is that it provides a guide for the intersection of the values of faith and the world of politics, certainly a tall and delicate order. But another reason it draws so much attention is probably the fact that it covers an area–politics–that everyone likes to fight about.

People like having their arguments validated. And what greater validation is there than to be able to say that the bishops–and by extension, God–agree with this political view or that? This gives rise to regarding Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship not as a guiding tool for understanding Church teaching and forming one’s conscience by it but like a Catholic Rubik’s Cube with a secret code to crack, a code that provides the definitive Catholic ideological view. And from such a vantage point, of course, a person is then free to attack every other ideological view and the people holding them.

And therein lies a problem. Catholics have a duty to be advocates for issues affecting the common good, both at the ballot box and year round. But they also have a duty to carry out this advocacy in a way that’s worthy of their faith. This means not giving into the cultural mentality that it’s okay to engage in the scorched earth, zero sum game that American politics have become. In Catholic teaching, ends do not justify means.

In a video on civility in public discourse (part of a series of videos promoting Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship), Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington lists “falsehoods, lies, distortions, half-truths” among the sort of things Catholics should not be saying/spreading. He instead challenges Catholics to “speak the truth with love.”

In the worlds of cable news, the blogosphere and comment boxes, both parts of this can be a challenge. Even when one manages to find the truth, there’s the added challenge of not using it as a license to be a jerk.

Pope John XXIII famously reiterated a guiding principle that has been attributed to St. Augustine and others: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” While the first two items fuel endless debate as to what’s essential and what’s doubtful, “in all things, charity” trumps the rest. The Christian can never stop loving, even when engaging in intense debate over life-and-death issues. The person who does so risks becoming, in the words of St. Paul, a banging gong or clashing cymbal, something that gets attention by being loud and obnoxious, but ultimately lacks meaning or the ability to connect to people.

When Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein in 1998, he recalled that she went so far as to insist, “Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth.”

As Catholics engage the world of politics in 2012, they should view the truths of the Church from the perspective of love: Catholics care about immigration reform because they love immigrants. Catholics care about threats to human life because they love the unborn, the sick and the elderly. Catholics care about marriage because they love the family. Catholics care about religious freedom and domestic poverty because they love the poor and vulnerable and want to serve them freely. Finally, Catholics care about world peace because they love every person on the planet as part of one big, interconnected family.

The sheer importance of the Church’s belief in the dignity of each person is what compels Catholics to take their faith into the public square. It follows then that this belief, essentially “Love thy neighbor,” should also be translated into how Catholics treat the people they encounter in the public square, even fellow Catholics, no matter how heated the discussion or sharp the disagreement.

It’s a challenge to live up to the standard first mentioned in the Gospels: that the rest of the world would recognize the followers of Jesus by their love.

This post originally appeared as part of the “Catholics Care. Catholics Vote.” series on the USCCB Blog. Used with permission.