Catholic Winter, Catholic Spring

I have rarely seen such high chutzpah as with the reaction to the Wikileaks emails between Democratic operatives lamenting the influence of the political right in American Catholic circles. For sure, some of this banter was tedious and predictable. But to my surprise, some of it was also highly perceptive—including the fact that these right-wing elements distort and misinterpret concepts like Thomism and principles like subsidiarity, and that they foment a “bastardization of the faith” that neglects the long and noble history of Christian Democracy. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

And yet…the very people condemned for bastardizing the faith are now in all-out attack mode, insinuating a Clintonite anti-Catholic conspiracy. But this is akin to Donald Trump calling out other men for sexual assault—it merely invites us to turn the tables on the finger pointer. So let’s do that. Because the right-wing dominance of American Catholic thought is no accident. Rather, it is part of a deliberate strategy to mute the social justice tradition and align Church teaching with free market individualism. In other words, the accusers did exactly what they accuse their political opponents of doing. Isn’t imitation the best form of flattery?

A little history: how many people today have heard of the Powell memorandum? Probably too few, given its outsized influence on the evolution of political institutions and norms. Basically, Lewis Powell—whom Nixon would appoint to the Supreme Court—argued that corporations and the free enterprise system were under attack, and that big business needed to organize and fight back. And so it did, in a remarkably successful strategy. This helps explain the rise of powerful corporate-funded think tanks like Heritage, Hudson, and American Enterprise Institute. It helps explain the emergence of Fox News and the alternative media universe. It helps explain the tight ideological network overseeing business and economics education.

This strategy also had a Catholic dimension. Concurrent with these trends, there was a concerted effort to fight back against what some saw as a leftist economic drift within the church, especially after the council. Thus William Buckley could openly disdain a papal encyclical, Catholic intellectuals could safely use Catholic principles to defend economic libertarianism, and a whole movement could seek to marry Catholic with right-wing evangelical concerns. (Of course, Roe v. Wade was the best gift they could have possibly received.) This strategy over the past few decades has been well-documented in John Gehring’s recent book.

Sometimes this strategy is interpreted as the simple prioritization of issues like abortion and human sexuality. This was part of it for sure, but it’s much more sophisticated than that. The goal was nothing less that the delegitimization of the orthodox Catholic position on the economy, and to suggest instead that Catholics were advised to support advanced American financial capitalism, complete with its consumerist and individualistic underpinnings. This was based partly on the fallacious view that John Paul II somehow developed doctrine toward a full-throttled embrace of free market economics. It allowed people like George Weigel, Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and Robert Sirico’s Acton Institute to enjoy outsized influence in the public debate. But let’s not forget: this was all part of a well-planned and well-funded strategy. This strategy includes libertarian efforts to influence Catholic education, as is well documented by John Gehring. And it is no accident that Acton gets funded by libertarian and fossil fuel interests.

The result was that theological orthodoxy came to be equated with political orthodoxy…to the Republican Party. This was based on the tried-and-trusted (but deeply flawed) division of issues into negotiable and non-negotiable. The “non-negotiable issues,” of course, included abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty (but not for Muslims, it would seem). And “negotiability” gave license to fully embrace the libertarian agenda predicated on what Pope Paul VI called “erroneous autonomy.” It allowed Catholics to safely defend trickle-down economics, the evisceration of safety nets and workers rights, and climate change denialism. It even gave them safe ideological space from which to support a ruinous war in Iraq and the legitimization of torture. Not surprisingly, the same characters showed up as MCs at this new party—Weigel and Novak provided cheap Catholic cover for the war, while Sirico went on EWTN to defend (and joke about) torturing people.

Sadly, too many U.S. bishops were wiling participants in all of this. A new wave of culture warriors prioritized only the “non-negotiables”, and were perfectly willing to make the kinds of strategic alliances that ended up selling out traditional Catholic social teaching. And on cue, the most outspoken of these culture war bishops—and leader of the anti-Francis wing among the American bishops—thundered against the “anti-Catholicism” of the leaked emails and condemned groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, all the while remaining eerily quiet about the grave damage being done by their right-wing counterparts.

The most lamentable aspect of this is that Chaput is echoing the language and tone of some of the worst of these right-wing fronts, including the self-styled “Catholic Vote”—which desperately tried to tie the Wikileaks emails to “anti-Catholic views of Hillary Clinton Campaign insiders.” But let’s be clear what Catholic Vote is. It was founded within the last decade to support tea-party candidates inspired by hard-edged libertarian ideology—deeply antithetical to Catholic social teaching. The fact that they faced so little pushback showed how deep the rot had spread by this point.

Yet this whole game became much more complicated with the election of Pope Francis, who made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t accept this false dichotomy of values, and who spoke clearly, forcefully, and eloquently in defense of traditional unified Catholic social teaching.

In his speech to Congress, for example, he prioritized welcoming immigrants and refugees, ending the death penalty, embracing global solidarity to end hunger and poverty, protecting our common home from human-induced environmental degradation, ending the arms trade, working for peace between nations and religions, and orienting the economy toward the common good. He didn’t even mention abortion. And in his address to U.S. bishops, he asked them to prioritize “the innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature.”

For Pope Francis, these are not separate issues. They are all connected, and all rooted his conception of the throwaway culture. In Laudato si’, for example, he notes that how we treat the earth and how we treat the poor are deeply related. They both reflect a flawed mentality of self-centeredness and self-absorption. This is why he speaks out so much about the ideology of the market—because it can lead to the habituation of a culture of acquisitiveness that cannibalizes social norms and devours social capital. The ideologues understand none of this.

This also explains why treating abortion as a stand-alone issue is so misguided. The ideologues conveniently ignore its link to poverty and healthcare on one hand, and to a culture of individual satisfaction and instant gratification on the other. There’s a reason for this, of course. Opening up this discussion would force them to admit that the economic system they laud leads to massive exclusion and that its anthropological underpinnings encourage people to treat others as commodities to be used and discarded as needed. They would be forced to admit that the greatest future threat to the unborn comes from climate change and environmental devastation. This is why abortion has been reduced to a bumper sticker, a rallying cry, or a fundraising device. It’s not actually about the unborn at all. They are merely used as front-line cannon fodder for each new phase of the culture war (which itself is partly a Trojan horse for the financial interests of the wealthy).

It’s no wonder, then, that Pope Francis makes the ideological right uncomfortable. Their reaction has been to minimize him—to claim that this insular Argentinean doesn’t really understand the reality of American capitalism, and that his teachings on climate change and the environment amount to mere opinion that can be safely ignored.

Thus Robert Sirico can waltz into Congress and pronounce that the pope was to be followed on abortion but not on climate change. He can even quote libertarian godfather Hayek to make his case, without shame. In this charade, Sirico proved a willing tool for the GOP, placed before the camera in full clerics (without any expertise in the topic) as evidence that Catholic opinion on climate change was not monolithic at all…implying that it was safe to ignore Pope Francis.

And today, Catholic Vote still pushes GOP-approved tax cuts for the wealthiest, supports taking healthcare away from 20 million because it amounts to “big government,” and defers to Marco Rubio on the environment—a man who publicly opposes Pope Francis on this singularly important issue. Even worse, they send out ominous letters declaring that “the radical left…wants to replace God with the Almighty State” and that “the primary purpose of Obamacare was always to advance the anti-Christian Left’s radical social agenda.” Accordingly, they warn in vaguely apocalyptic terms that “America’s political leaders will pay a heavy price in the 2016 Elections on November 8 if they have participated in Barack Obama’s, the ACLU’s, and the radical left’s assault on the religious and moral traditions that made America great.” Recognize the slogan? And ask yourself: what is remotely Catholic about any of this?

The bottom line, then, is when I read about the calls for a “Catholic Spring,” all I could think of was the genuine need for a corrective balance—a rejection of this false turn and a return to the true anthropology and principles of Catholic social teaching. In other words, a call for something very much like the agenda of Pope Francis. And it’s fair to say that Pope Francis did indeed bring a form of “Catholic Spring.”

Ask yourself this, then: which entity is closer to the vision of Pope Francis? Catholic Vote and the Acton Institute? Or the much-maligned Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good?

I think the answer to that question is pellucid. And I think entities like Acton and Catholic Vote—as well as the bishops that enable them—need to look in the mirror and do some serious soul-searching. Because if Pope Francis brought a Catholic Spring, they are very much emblems of the Catholic Winter. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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