Polarized nation, polarized church

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Mark E. Rondeau

Those who aren't Catholic, and those who are but don't pay much attention to inner-church news, may not realize that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is just as polarized between energized right and left factions as is our politics.

The two men who are now running for vice president, incumbent Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican, are useful examples in illustrating what is going on. Both are practicing Catholics and hold much different visions of what constitutes the common good, an important principle of Catholic social teaching (CST).

First, Biden. As those on the Catholic right will point out, he is pro-choice on abortion, at odds with the teachings of the Church. Biden also this summer unexpectedly came out in favor of gay marriage on a network news program, basically forcing President Obama to make a statement of his own in favor of it. Biden is more in tune with CST on issues of economics, unions, taking care of the poor, and much else.

Ryan, on the other hand, is almost the mirror-opposite of Biden. His abortion position as a Congressman was to seek to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape. And he also opposes same-sex marriage. On the other hand, his famous proposed House budget would have cut aid to the poor so severely that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many other faith-based groups objected to it. Ryan rose to defend his budget using the language of CST.

However, Ryan's new-found interest in explaining in Catholic terms his take-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich economic philosophy is in my view suspect. His decades-long devotion to the writings of atheistic libertarian Ayn Rand -- even crediting her as his inspiration to get into politics -- is well documented, not an "urban legend," as his apologists now try to label it. A philosophy which exalts selfishness is not in tune with a religion which emphasizes putting others first.

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How the Catholic hierarchy views these two Catholic men is telling. Appointed over three-plus decades by two conservative popes, the U.S. hierarchy is much more conservative than it was as recently as the 1980s. An obvious result is their increasing and overriding emphasis in political life of just two issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. This doesn't mean that the Church isn't concerned with issues of poverty, economic justice, health care, non-violent solutions to international conflict, and even climate change. Among many of the most prominent bishops and cardinals, however, these initiatives are downplayed or ignored.

Indeed, the U.S. bishops' conference has been largely silent about the economic crisis and the greed and folly that led to it. But opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion have become the overriding preoccupations of the most outspoken bishops, with threats to freedom of religion, some real, some hyped out of all proportion, a distant third.

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In this environment, Ryan gets a seal of approval from many in the Church because he is "right" about the two most-emphasized issues. Worshiping a false god called the "market," judging the poor as less virtuous than the rich, not caring about the environment, and hostility to unions apparently don't matter.

Biden might be in accord with CST on "lesser" matters, such as the rights of workers to unionize, humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, and climate change; he might support policies such as healthcare reform which in practice lead to fewer abortions than Tea Party Social Darwinism. Even so, some bishops might deny him Communion if he attends Mass in their diocese, a denial Ryan won't experience.

(One good things about the Biden and Ryan dichotomy, however, has been the extent to which usually ignored aspects of CST have become part of the national conversation).

As might be obvious, I tend to favor the Democrats on all economic and most social issues but I am not a Democrat, precisely because of the abortion issue. Added to this, I think both parties are far too eager these days to go to war, and both Ryan and Biden voted in 2002 to authorize George W. Bush's unnecessary, reckless, and expensive Iraq War.

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U.S. Catholics are polarized in much the same way as our politics, I think, partly because many place their political priorities over the dictates of their faith. There are no doubt many other complex reasons, including poor leadership, ever-increasing secularism, social fragmentation, and the scorched-earth mentality of movement conservatism.

Beyond secular politics, polarization in the church also includes tension about such things as the new Mass language, the ordination of women, the role of nuns, contraception, the nature of the priesthood and the role of laity. The very nature of the reforms of Vatican Council II is up for grabs. Inspiring leaders with vision and courage are sorely lacking.

Both in U.S. political life, and the Catholic Church, there are no easy answers to severe institutional ailments. But I'm not giving up on either, especially the Church, for I believe, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew 24:13, "he who holds out to the end will be saved."


I want to invite readers to check my new blog as Banner religion editor, World of Faith. Find it on the Banner website. Under the Opinion menu, go to Blog Southern Vermont and choose World of Faith from the menu on the right.


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