Bishop McElroy: Catholic Teaching Has Been Hijacked by Partisans

At Loyola University Chicago, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego delivered the second Cardinal Bernardin lecture.

Heidi Schlumpf reports:

McElroy called the current polarization “heartbreaking,” contrasting it to Pope Francis’ “beautiful vision of politics” in his 2015 address to Congress. “Party” has become shorthand for worldview, he said, and party identity leads to a “cafeteria Catholicism” that too often does not foster the common good…

Another example is how the church’s pro-life positions on the unborn as well as the poor and refugees are placed in political opposition in which both sides present “skewed distillations of Catholic moral teaching,” he said.

“Catholic teaching has been hijacked by those who break down the breadth of our social doctrine by reducing it to the warped partisan categories of our age and then selecting those teachings for acceptance which promote their partisan worldview,” he said…

In addition to solidarity, McElroy argued that compassion is a foundational virtue in the Catholic imagination, but it can’t be the hard-hearted “compartmentalized compassion” reserved only for certain groups of people.

“In our overly politicized culture, we have permitted the core unity of human compassion to become fragmented into separate partisan categories, and even worse, we have allowed our own sense of the moral imperatives which flow from true Christian compassion to be distorted by a partisan lens,” he said.

Michael O’Loughlin writes:

Referencing a new apostolic exhortation from the pope, in which he calls believers to holiness and urges them to embrace the full range of Catholic social teaching, including opposition to abortion as well as concern for the poor and marginalized, Bishop McElroy lamented that “in the partisan reality of our day, these two complementary claims of the Gospel are placed in political opposition.”

“Even worse,” he added, “skewed distillations of Catholic moral teaching are deployed by both sides to explain why one set of these issues automatically enjoys a higher claim upon the consciences of believers.”

Bishop McElroy’s views have been interpreted as being part of the “seamless garment” approach to Catholic social justice teaching, a notion advanced by Cardinal Bernardin in the 1980s. For example, Bishop McElroy has said Catholics should approach reducing poverty with the same gusto as fighting abortion, writing in America in 2013, “The cry of the unborn and the cry of the poor must be at the core of Catholic political conversation in the coming years because these realities dwarf other threats to human life and dignity that confront us today.”

Michael Sean Winters writes:

The U.S. bishops need to find a different way of approaching political issues, not only so that they heal divisions within the church, indeed divisions within the hierarchy itself. They need this different approach because the problems that ail our body politic are deeper than the fact that our laws are wrong on this issue or that. The problems require “deep-level conscience formation,” so that Catholics develop consciences that are strong enough to resist partisan efforts to make religiously motivated voters conform to political agendas that betray important socio-cultural values, many of which are rooted in the religious imagination.

Bishop McElroy is not calling for a bland 21st-century iteration of ’50s-style civil religion. Instead, he is calling for an approach to politics in which Catholics remember to put their faith first, not as sectarians but as the ground of a virtue ethics, without which politics is reduced simply to calculations of power. McElroy sees the need for language that is not debased, ideas that are not already corrupted by marketing, values that are resilient because they are perennial, and perennial because they are humane.