The Wounded Church: Pro-Life and Social Justice Catholics Remain Divided

If there has been one overused line in the past few weeks, it’s the trope: “The election taught us…”

We didn’t need this election to teach us that our country is polarized or that there is no “Catholic vote.” As commentators have said for years, political polarization shapes the Catholic electorate as much as the general electorate: there is no “Catholic vote,” but rather a “conservative Catholic vote” and a “liberal Catholic vote.”

For decades, the US Church electorate has been divided between “pro-life” and “social justice” camps. For “pro-life” Catholics, abortion defines their political participation, because abortion touches upon the key issue of respect for life. “Social justice” Catholics are interested in a broad range of issues stemming from their commitment to protecting the human person against violations of their rights.

Stated thusly, the two camps seem to have a great deal in common. But pro-life and social justice Catholics tend to be distinguished not just by the policies they emphasize, but by their partisan preferences. Pro-life Catholics have found a home in the GOP, and social justice Catholics tend to be Democrats. The two groups, in other words, have allowed themselves to be defined by our two-party system.

There is no question that the two parties have divvied up the Catholic vote, as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego noted recently:

“The central issues of Catholic social teaching that our society faces at the present moment really bifurcate the partisan divide in our nation,” said McElroy. “The Democratic Party emphasizes certain of those teachings and embodies them more fully, and the Republican Party embodies others. Because political leaders are forced into those partisan molds, particularly during partisan campaigns, they often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”

This division was starkly illustrated by the platforms of the vice-presidential candidates. While they were both strongly influenced by Catholicism, it seemed to be their political ideologies that determined which teachings of the Church they did – and did not – embrace.

A common argument for distinguishing the two sets of issues is to treat opposition to abortion as a non-negotiable principle, and to see most policy issues related to social justice as negotiable applications of principles.

The trouble is, such arguments tend to sharply divide principles from applications, as though principles were Platonic abstractions floating in the ether with no purchase on reality, and the applications mere observations with little theoretical foundation. It then becomes hard to see how our practice and theory mutually influence one another.

But it has always been the Catholic tradition that political reflection sits squarely between theory and practice. As the Jesuit Social Research Institute notes, Catholic Social Teaching has to be both “organic and systematic,” so as to take stock of “social realities, ethical principles, and application of those principles to current circumstances.”

So what do we gain from accepting the balkanization of the U.S. Church?

Pragmatically, pro-life and social justice interest groups deprive themselves of key allies when they don’t see their causes as mutually related.

Intellectually, both “sides” deprive themselves of the full significance of their own arguments when they treat their causes as isolated policy positions.

Most importantly, treating life and social justice issues as separate has wounded the US Church. Reconciliation between the life and social justice movements needs to be a high priority for the Church in the coming years. In the months to come, most Americans will likely go back to ignoring politics. Yet much rides on keeping citizens engaged beyond  “the tired quadrennial debate about whom we can vote for.” Catholics must hold a Trump presidency to its espoused pro-life values, and work towards long-term reconciliation, not short-term goals.

Taking the long view, the Catholic Church cannot depend upon the parties as a credible engine for turning our deepest faith commitments into policy. The parties have gotten us into this mess and are unlikely to get us out of it. Catholics and all people of good will must become better at articulating the basis for what we believe and how it can translate into a better life for all peoples. This will require pulling away from political modes of thought and recovering yet again what it means to be Christian in the first place.

Indeed, when I wrote about being Catholic and Democrat or Catholic and Republican this past summer, the ensuing debate between our readers revealed the misunderstanding, pain and sadly even hate between the two camps. Reconciliation between pro-life and social-justice Catholics will not be easy. It is a long process that requires building trust, becoming open to criticism, and even being willing to criticize ourselves in the pursuit of love-guided justice. That road will not be easy, but it is more necessary than ever to walk down it.

Yes, there are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. But at a time when politics is such a mess, we must pull away from ideological attachments and see ourselves as Catholics. And we must do this not to deny but to affirm the nobility and necessity of politics.

This article by Bill McCormick, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Assisted Suicide Quickly Becoming a Major Cultural Issue for Millennials

While the nation watched the shocking rise of Donald Trump in the Electoral College, much less notice was paid to the passage of a referendum in Colorado. Proposition 106 legalized a terminally ill patient to request from a doctor drugs to end his or her life. Colorado became the sixth state to legalize euthanasia, sparking what could quickly become a national trend.

The measure was controversial, to the point that the Denver Post turned away from its general support of assisted suicide legalization to specifically oppose Prop 106. The measure, in the Editorial Board’s eyes, lacked oversight and “would entice insurers to drop expensive treatments for terminal patients even when medical advances might add months or years more to a life that a patient may wish to take.” The editorial also noted that it would be the doctor that administered the drug who would provide counseling on the decision, which is an extreme conflict of interest. Concerned that the public would not know how the proposition was overseen, and that the law would be abused, this major paper urged voters to vote against 106. Yet it passed with ease.

Last month, an even more troubling vote occurred on the other side of the country. “Death with Dignity” advocates pushed the Washington, DC City Council to consider an assisted suicide legalization bill. The selection of DC as a location to push the legislation was not a coincidence, as advocates noted that DC’s demographics were vastly different than the states where assisted suicide was legal. That is, DC has a major African-American and Latino population, and they did not want the issue to be seen as a white upper class issue.

Euthanasia is always included in the list of non-negotiable issues for a Catholic conscience, usually mentioned in the same breath as abortion. However, assisted suicide lacks nationwide statutory guidance, and until recently, few states had rules on the books permitting the practice. Thus while it always has been a line drawn in the culture war sand, that stance has not been tested for many of us Catholics.

Yet as the practice gains acceptance, it is our fellows Catholics who, again, check their own religious views at the door so as to not impede people from practicing theirs. Jerry Brown, former altar server and lifelong Catholic, signed the California euthanasia legislation when a veto would have stopped it in its tracks. And while the total number of people who participate in assisted suicide annually pales in comparison to the number of aborted children, there are two factors that should trouble anyone who considers how far this movement could spread.

The first is the popularity of assisted suicide, or rather the general permissive attitude towards it. Polling on the acceptance of this issue does not mirror that of abortion, which has consistent support/opposition numbers regardless of the generation polled. Rather, polls show that acceptance of assisted suicide mirrors that of gay marriage, which means the issue is becoming even more accepted as the years pass. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 68% of people approved of allowing a doctor to help a patient end their life, an increase of 16% in twenty years. Among adults aged 18 to 34, that number is 81%. Pro-life advocates are comforted by the fact that our generation is just as anti-abortion as the previous ones, if not more so. Assisted suicide opponents cannot say the same.

The second factor is how easy it is for the category of patients eligible for assisted suicide to expand. In Belgium, an early adopter of legalized euthanasia, doctors for the first time euthanized an underage minor in September. The child reportedly gave consent and was suffering from a terminal disease, but the country had prohibited the mercy killing of minors until two years ago. In fact, the category of who is eligible for assisted suicide grows, with proponents using the argument that they are unable or cannot ethically deny people the right to end their lives simply because they fall into a certain category. The Colorado referendum, allegedly modeled after Oregon’s legislation, actually removed some of the reporting and counseling requirements. The infamous “slippery slope” argument fits quite adequately in the assisted suicide debate.

While abortion will remain a passionate debate for years, the structure of the debate was set in place by the generation who witnessed and grew up in the wake of Roe v. Wade set the tone for the reaction afterward. For Millennials, assisted suicide is the tough moral debate for our generation. While no one wants to witness another person suffer, or force someone else to watch a loved one experience seemingly needless pain, the consequences of legalized assisted suicide are frightening and an anathema to everything the Church values. Rather than strive to provide comfortable, dignified options to help people through a terminal illness, insurance companies and medical practitioners could push patients to the quicker and cheaper assisted suicide route. For the poor who don’t want to burden their family with medical bills, assisted suicide may seem like a compassionate solution, even if the rich would feel no similar pressure. The definitions of terminal, pain, and consent quickly expand and can fit a wide range of categories, encompassing any inconvenient ailment that is easier to solve with a lethal dose of a prescription.

As a Democrat, the idea that my party could embrace this position after it has already embraced abortion on demand is terrifying. For a party searching for popular policy positions to trumpet, and already comfortable with the idea of “the right to”, November 8, 2016 could one day be the date when assisted suicide reached a turning point in U.S. policy. With slowly building momentum and silent popular support, Colorado this week became another battleground in the next big fight over human life and dignity.

Robert Hay, Jr. (@roberthayjr) is a writer based in Alexandria, VA.


Donald Trump is Now the Standard-Bearer of the Pro-Life Movement. We Should be Ashamed.

Catholics are once again the swing vote that has decided who will be the next President of the United States. Donald Trump has won voters who self-identify as Catholic 52% to 45%, reversing President Obama’s 2012 win. Among Catholics, Trump outperformed numerous past Republican presidential candidates.

Catholic voters in America have given Donald Trump both the presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress. But for pro-life Catholics, one question must be considered: is this the person we want to represent the pro-life movement?

As a college student, millennial, and devout Catholic, I take both my faith and the right to life very seriously. I don’t simply want abortion to be prohibited, but for all people to be supported and for their humanity to be affirmed, dignified, and upheld. I am pro-life for the whole life. This means standing against abortion, the death penalty, unjust wars, and euthanasia. It also means being in favor of a living wage, accessible and affordable healthcare (especially for mothers and their children in times of need), mandated paid maternity leave, and more funding for crisis pregnancy centers. Everything that society can do to protect and support pregnant mothers and their babies should be offered, because this commitment to life and human dignity is what will ultimately end a culture of assisted suicide, abortion, objectification, and xenophobia. This will bring about a genuine culture of life. These are all things I consider when I enter the voting booth.

Many of my friends who are devout Catholic millennials support these same values, and many struggled to determine how they would cast their ballots. Sadly, due to their care for the unborn child, many felt they had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump due to his newfound commitment to appointing judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Personally, I could not bring myself to vote for either major party candidate.  I voted for a whole life write-in candidate. On election night, as my friends watched the results of the election pour in, we looked at each other in disbelief. Many who voted for Trump had thought they were making a protest vote, that he wouldn’t actually become president. But now, he is the President-elect of the United States. Read More


The US Church’s Failure to Stand Against Sexual Assault

A month before the election, a 2005 video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on an Access Hollywood taping surfaced. As I listened to Donald Trump joke about how his celebrity allowed him to assault women without consequence, I felt sick to my stomach.  Here we had a presidential candidate actively boasting about sexually assaulting women, dismissing it simply as “regrettable locker room talk,” and clearly demonstrating that he did not take violence against women seriously.

Violence against women and sexual assault are largely invisible and ignored in the public political discourse from the USCCB and most American church leaders. There was no public outrage from the US Catholic Church over Donald Trump’s recorded joking about sexual assault. No actual acknowledgement that the behavior described is in fact sexual assault. A few bishops lamented that Trump has “disrespected women” but never anything stronger.  In a statement titled, “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas,” Conference President Archbishop Kurtz began with a condemnation of the Podesta emails stolen by Wikileaks, which appeared to be the purpose of the statement, and ended by simply asserting, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.” The strongest statement simply acknowledged that political discourse had demeaned women without any further comment.

These statements miss the crucial element – in the video, Trump was describing assaulting women.  The Department of Justice definition of sexual assault explicitly describes it as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” including fondling.

After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a dozen women came forward to accuse and detail different incidents of sexual harassment and assault by Trump. And still, there was no added concern from the public voice of the American Catholic Church. Speaking to the Boston Globe, theologian James Bretzke, SJ called the silence “deafening.” Many bishops and priests continued to privately and publicly advocate voting for Trump.  In America Magazine, Michael O’Loughlin details just a few cases where parishes were told that Clinton “hates Catholics.” In my own diocese, the Bishop released a letter that came very close to outright calling Donald Trump the “prolife, pro-family, pro-truth” candidate. Read More


Bring on the Revolution of Mercy

To celebrate the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, I have tried to complete all of the Works of Mercy during this past year.  As it turns out, it is a lot easier to feed the hungry and visit the sick than it is to counsel the doubtful or to bear wrongs patiently.

Last weekend, just a week before the close of the Jubilee on the the Feast of Christ the King, I completed my seventh and final corporal work.  The seven spiritual works have proven to be more elusive.  This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve said here before that I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.

Some of the works have been spontaneous, and others were planned well in advance.  I didn’t plan to feed the hungry on the night I did, for example.  It was a bitterly cold New England winter night, and I was driving to my then-girlfriend’s apartment when I saw a panhandler in his usual spot.

I typically drove right past him without a second thought, but this night was particularly frigid.  No one, I thought, should be outdoors tonight.  A short ways down the street was a pizza place, and so I picked up a couple of slices and a large coffee.  It wasn’t a grand gesture, but he certainly did appreciate it. Read More


How Sexism and the Desire to Blow the System Up Led to Trump’s Victory

So the election is over, and Donald Trump will be president. What do we make of what transpired?  There are many takeaways from this election, but I’d like to reflect on just a couple of points.

The first is that sexism and misogyny are alive and well in the United States of America.  Let us go back to 2008 for just a moment; imagine if it came out that then GOP nominee John McCain had been recorded using repulsive racial slurs in reference to black people. Then, picture African-Americans coming forward and accusing John McCain of openly racist behavior towards them.  How would the public respond to the blatant racism of a candidate running for President of the United States, especially when that person is running against the first African-American nominee?  Disqualifying perhaps?  A national outrage?  Then imagine that John McCain, after having said and done all those racist things, beats Barack Obama, an African-American.  What would we think about America then?

Now let’s go back to the present.  The GOP nominee for President of the United States, Donald Trump, has been recorded calling women “fat pigs,” “slobs,” “Miss Piggy,” rating women’s bodies on a scale of 1-10, and bragging about using his money and his fame as an excuse to sexually assault women by “grabbing them by the pussy.”  Then a slew of women came forward to confirm that he had, in-fact, sexually assaulted them just as he publicly had said that he did.  Donald Trump was running against the first major party woman nominee for President, Hillary Clinton. Trump even went so far as to say that Hillary Clinton did not have the “look” of a President.  None of this was problematic for American voters.  Donald Trump beat the first woman nominee for President after being openly sexist and misogynistic, and even after sexually assaulting women and bragging about it.

Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton despite the fact that Trump had zero political experience, along with no military experience (the first nominee of either major party to have neither), while Hillary Clinton was President Obama’s Secretary of State and a former Senator from New York.  Americans did not seem to care about Trump’s lack of experience in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s years of public service; of even greater importance, Republicans, who in 2008 argued that then-Senator Barack Obama lacked experience to be President, did not care that Donald Trump lacked any political experience to be President. Whether you agree with her positions or not, Hillary Clinton was an exceptionally disciplined candidate who studied policy deeply, while Trump refused to prepare legitimate answers on numerous policy questions and even lacks a basic understanding of the role of the president.  America does not seem to be troubled by this.

The second point is about the growth of fear and desperation in America.  Some might argue that “white fly-over America” voted based on their naked self-interest.  They unleashed terror on America’s most vulnerable by giving in to race-baiting and a politics of fear and hatred.  I do not doubt that there is an element of that in this election.  However, we also must recognize that Middle America suffers and feels just as unwanted and unwelcome in this country.  People in Flint, Michigan—black, white, and everyone else–continue to drink poisoned water while their means of livelihood have been eliminated either via automation or globalization.  People who live in coal country and former steel workers are losing their jobs while their towns dwindle to near non-existence.  All the while, the costs of basic necessities have risen, the cost of educating their children have sky-rocketed, drug addition and overdoses plague their communities, and no one seems to give a damn about them.  Worse yet, they are lectured about their “white privilege” while drinking water contaminated with the poisonous run-off from coal mining in West Virginia.

We have to understand their struggle, and it appears that we have failed to do so.  Their vote for Donald Trump was a vote to destroy a system that they see as having abandoned them.  They pulled the pin on the Trump grenade because they saw no other way forward.   He may be a conman, his policies are probably not in their actual economic interests, his values are probably not their values, but he promised what no other candidate promised them: to blow the system up.  I cannot condone their vote for Donald Trump, but I can understand why they chose to do it.

Nevertheless, while those who live in bright blue America need to do a better job of encountering Middle America, that does not absolve white Middle America from doing what they did.  I have seen a lot of social media posts from friends who are apologizing for white America and asking how white people could betray their brothers and sisters of color, their Muslim neighbors, and other vulnerable communities.  They have a valid point in that “fly over country” America voted for a man who insulted and threatened basically every ethnic and minority group in the country.  He threatened to separate immigrant families with deportation, to round up Muslims, register them, and monitor their Mosques, and promised to create “law and order” in minority communities.

The people who Donald Trump has insulted now feel a legitimate sense of terror.  They legitimately feel as if they are unwanted and unwelcome.  Worse yet, it seems as if the election of Trump has made it acceptable to be a bigot again.  Muslim women are being taunted and threatened; Latinos are being harassed in schools as their classmates shout “build the wall;” gay, lesbian, and transgender students at many colleges are afraid to leave their dorm rooms because they might be assaulted.

Rust Belt America needs to encounter ethnic, racial, and religious minorities.  America is become more and more diverse, and white America needs to realize that diversity and multiculturalism are not values that liberals push on people—they are the basic facts of life.  The United States of America is not going to get less diverse just because they want it to.  Globalization is not going away just because they want it to. America is constantly evolving, and just because you do not like it that does not make it wrong.  These two Americas need to engage each other, learn from each other, and find away to co-exist in this country.  How that happens, I have no clue.


Life after the Election: The Jubilee Year of Mercy was Just Practice


Lies we tell ourselves, when recognized as lies, tend to leave us feeling shocked or emotionally raw. I thought it was not possible for Donald Trump to be elected president, and in the shock that steadily mounted from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 2:30 Wednesday morning, I was forced to recognize that belief as not only a lie but a kind of moral superiority. I, like half of my fellow Americans, believed that the portion of the population which saw Donald Trump as a savior, even a flawed savior, had to be a minority because the America I knew could not so easily support the violence and careless cruelty of his personality and policies. The “America” I thought I knew was a lie; it was the lie that Americans truly are better than the rest of the world. Sure, the Philippines could elect Rodrigo Duterte, but America could never trust a strongman like him with the presidency. Turkish citizens could support that widespread crackdown on thousands of fellow citizens by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Americans could never be capable of lashing out in violence on the basis of fear and suspicion. All lies, and the truths to replace them proved to be a bitter medicine.

Yet the longer I sat with the outcome of the election, the more the bitterness of that medicine turned stale. The most banal fact of American politics is that we are divided and politicized and incapable of compromise. Everyone knows that. And everyone believed in a savior, whether it was the Supreme Court or Congress or the president, who could ultimately vanquish any opponents who posed a threat to the very identity of the great American Experiment. Numerous Democrats believed in President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, in the Obergefell ruling, in the Affordable Care Act; all of these and more were a hope against the forces of bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance. As we have seen to the shock of all those who repudiated Trump’s rhetoric and worldview, many Republicans saw Donald Trump and his future appointees to the Supreme Court and a Republican-controlled Congress as the salvation of freedom, economic independence, and the American ideals of success. Almost every American saw this election and their politicians at its forefront as the only hope for the rebirth of the American Dream, and they saw the opposition as the death-knell of all that is good in this world. Dramatic, yes—but  new? No, this is normal, and has been normal since I can remember starting to pay attention to politics in the 7th grade. Read More