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Is this America's 'Catholic moment'?

The editors at Religion & Politics wanted to know, and I answered "yes," though my affirmation was not based on the obvious metrics -- Catholics filling two-thirds of the Supreme Court slots, a Catholic incumbent Vice-President and VP candidate, a Catholic Speaker of the House etc. It's not about Catholics as the new WASPs.

Rather, it is the substance of Catholicism that is having its day, thanks mainly to the elections focus on the economy, the attendant debate about the balance between the American common good and the American ideal of individualism, and how to translate this balance into actual tax and spend policies. From the social justice tours of the Nuns on the Bus to fights over Paul Ryans budget plans, classic concepts from Catholic social teaching are now invoked with a regularity that must astound Catholic theologians. Instead of talking to glassy-eyed undergrads in college lecture halls, Catholic scholars and politicians are debating the finer details of papal encyclicalsconcepts such as subsidiarity and solidarity and prudential judgmenton national cable news shows.

Those topics are also of course familiar to Commonweal readers. But also familiar to everyone here is the paradox of this moment:

Just as the nation debates a vision of the common good that is Catholic at its core, and just as our politics demands Catholic concepts to translate that communitarian ethos into policy, Catholic leaders and Catholic voters cant agree on what they think these Catholic teachings actually mean. Nor can they agree on how, or whether, those teachings might apply to the public square.

My concern is that by overlooking or redefining Catholic social and moral teaching at this crucial juncture, Catholics themselves are missing out on "the Catholic moment." What's more, a nation that is in dire need of this Catholic wisdom may well miss out on it.The piece is called "Is 2012 Americas 'Catholic Moment'? and you can read it all here. Feedback welcome, natch.PS: And yes, I know the academics here never leave their undergrads glassy-eyed.

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Sometimes the popes, when they engage in Catholic social teaching, get carried far away from their sphere of competence and, perhaps not always despite themselves, barge like papal bulls into the realm of partisan politics. Luckily for the survival of the Church, Catholics are not bound to believe that every papal utterance comes directly from the mind of God. Guidance is good, but Catholics, being individuals, are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves and looking elsewhere for guidance, as well. Help the poor, yes, but do it according to your own best lights.

I don't believe Leo XIII and Paul VI would see a "Catholic moment" in Catholics arguing over the individualistic morality of Rand I while agreeing that, whatever happens to social spending, military spending must remain the same or increase.I have trouble seeing a "Catholic moment" in a Supreme Court that has six Catholics, five of whom -- a court majority -- were appointed by the party that says it is pro-life and none of whom are eager to revisit Roe v Wade, without which promises to de-fund Planned Parenthood smack of being promises to violate oaths to uphold the Constitution (which currently permits abortion as it once permitted slavery). Finally, I sincerely hope that the continued shame of Guantanamo and the newly asserted role of the president as assassin-in-chief are not examples of a "Catholic moment" in the United States. For the record, the only presidential candidate I heard denounce drone assassinations was Jill Stein of the Green Party.Your post, Mr. Gibson, recognizes that we may be blowing the "Catholic moment" by our disunity and disarray. You see the glass three-fourths full, though, where I see red-state Catholics and blue-state Catholics defining themselves more by their politics than by their Gospel.

I think another big reason we can't leverage a Catholic position is that American Catholics themselves can't even agree on whether we support "official" Church teaching. This is different than David Smith's point that some particular government act might not be required by Church-teaching or that there is some vagueness as to the actual teaching. I'm thinking more of where we might agree that something is in fact Church teaching, but we think the teaching is wrong and we don't support it. You mentioned masturbation as an example of an intrinsic evil that is not a political issue. I'm sure it is not a political issue for a whole lot of reasons, but at least one might be that no one really considers it an intrinsic evil. But artificial contraception is a political issue. Sort of. (I think those who object to it are losing). Hardly any Catholics consider the responsible use of contraception evil, quite the contrary. And since everyone, including non-Catholics, knows this, how can there be a Catholic political stance in opposition to it?What would be the top 3 issues that Catholics could find some solid majority agreement on? Those Catholics who don't believe government has a role in much of anything, probably can't be successfully brought to the table. But what about all of the rest of us? Is our Catholic leadership (and who is our Catholic leadership?) working honestly to bring the base together? I could get on board with a political platform I didn't entirely agree as long as I had a voice in its formation (or at least had the opportunity to help shape it, even if I didn't choose to take advantage of it). Is anything happening on that front?

First of all, citing Pelosi and Biden as public examples of Catholics is laughable and deserves no further comment. Next is the notion that there is such a thing as a doctrinaire Catholic Social Teaching. Catholics who tend toward the Left politically, also tend to think more dogmatically about social justice; that it is their way or the highway. Catholics who tend toward the Right politically, tend to be quite doctrinaire when it comes to pro-life issues.The difference of course is that the Church is quite clear and straightforward when it comes to abortion and euthanasia, whereas she leaves a lot more room for variance when it comes to social justice.Catholic social teaching involves many prudential judgments. The Catholic doctrine about pro-life is much more simple and straightforward.

David G, it's a great insight - maybe this really is a "Catholic Moment".Maybe I'm rowing against the tide of opinion here, but I don't think it's especially important that Catholics be united politically. In my opinion, our role is to be salt for the earth and light of the world within our respective political parties. For conservatives, I think our great Catholic tasks are to shore up support for the social safety net and ensure that war is a last resort. For liberals, there are three that come to mind: promote policies that respect the sanctity of life; urge government to live within its means; and protect religious liberty.

Great piece, David.Contributing terms for a debate never guarantees that the subject will be debated well or decided wisely, but it is worthwhile nonetheless, if only because it sends thoughtful people searching along lines that can be productive.

An interesting split is developing already. Irene Baldwin says..."I could get on board with a political platform I didnt entirely agree as long as I had a voice in its formation (or at least had the opportunity to help shape it, even if I didnt choose to take advantage of it)." I agree with that with only the proviso that the impetus for the platform should come from the Gospels and not from reading the Gospels backwards into the needs of a party's candidate. I don't see this as a call for a Catholic Party like the Center Party in old Germany but more like a platform from which the parties' pathetic attempts can be viewed and criticized.On the other hand, Jim Pauwels already is promoting a leaven approach instead of a united platform. I would need more provisos before going along with him. I believe the Republicans need not only a strong dose of social justice but also a basic renunciation of the individualism ("I built it") and materialism on which their whole platform rests. By their basic predisposition for freedom for guns and corporate persons, they might be expected to be in favor of abortion, and I can't help suspecting they will be on the day we succeed in turning the Democrats were against it.What the Democrats need, along with a brain transplant, is more love and respect for people who don't live on the upper West Side but are, anyway, more than a manipulable voting bloc. Both parties need a strong dose of belief in peacemaking, which will have to be applied from the outside because they stand in fear not of God but of being called "soft on national security."If we were to choose the leavening approach, though, would it still be a "Catholic moment"?

I agree with Jim P., we Catholics should act as leaven in political discussions. As a Catholic Republican, I routinely come up against a train of thought that amazes me regarding social justice issues like war, immigration and capital punishment. I try my best to get hard-right types to see that their hearts are not really that hard; that we can and should go a bit easier on our fellow man. It seems then that likewise, Catholic Democrats have the challenge of showing their fellow Democrats how they can and should soften their hearts when it comes to abortion, euthanasia etc..

"For the record, the only presidential candidate I heard denounce drone assassinations was Jill Stein of the Green Party."Ron Paul, a Congressman from Texas's 14th District, who participated as a candidate in the Republican Party presidential primaries in 2012, ran on a foreign policy platform which included, in pertinent part, ceasing the war crimes you are referring to as well as other ongoing war crimes Vice President Biden's administration is participating in such as allowing third-parties to torture Muslim civilians on his behalf.

I'd like to leaven the discussion by just seeing if all Catholic's could agree to a 'basic renunciation of the individualism' in both parties. The 'right to choose' and 'I built it' are equally individualistic IMHO.

MAT, not to be contentious, but Ron Paul is not on the presidential ballot in my state, and Vice President Biden's administration was, last time I had the radio on, still Barack Obama's administration to which the vice president is just an appurtenance. I hoped I had subsumed rendition, a/k/a torture, under Guantanamo since it is one of the outrages that spans two administrations -- so far. And it will continue for the next four years either likely way.

"MAT, not to be contentious, but Ron Paul is not on the presidential ballot in my state..."I was not suggesting you (or anyone) consider voting for him; I was just mentioning that there was a legitimate presidential candidate from one of the major political parties who rejects the legality of many of the "fruits" of the 2001 AUMF. I referenced the Vice President since he is Catholic and the author says "it is the substance of Catholicism that is having its day". To my mind, that may or may not be true on the issues the author references, but by its omission from the essay, it appears to me it is not the case with respect to torture and the other crimes the Vice President is currently participating in."I hoped I had subsumed rendition, a/k/a torture, under Guantanamo since it is one of the outrages that spans two administrations..."Interesting. I did not realize that. I like to treat the detention of alleged alien enemy combatants separate from torture for reasons which are not related to the scope of this response but I will certainly conform to the convention.

David Gibson: For a Catholic moment to emerge centering on Catholic social teaching, non-Catholic Americans would have to be interested in Catholic social teaching. Is there any evidence that suggests that non-Catholic Americans are interested in Catholic social teaching, or in learning more about Catholic social teachings?For a Catholic moment to emerge centering on Catholic social teaching, informed journalists such as yourself and Peter Steinfels and others would have to write and publish articles about Catholic social teaching in influential secular newspapers and magazines such as the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, so that non-Catholic Americans can learn more about Catholic social teaching as presented by Catholic lay authors.So why don't you and Peter Steinfels and other informed journalists conspire with one another to organize an effort to publish pieces about Catholic social teaching in influential secular newspapers and magazines?

Thomas Farrell:I believe that a fair number of Catholics would profit from such articles too. That is to say, I have strong doubts about this being a "Catholic moment."Yes, there are more Catholics in high judicial and legislative positions. Some practicing, some not. Some influenced by Church teaching, others very little at best.

"Catholic Democrats have the challenge of showing their fellow Democrats how they can and should soften their hearts when it comes to abortion, euthanasia etc.."It should be possible but Republican based Catholic pro-life groups used large amounts of money to defeat pro-life Democrats in 2010.

John is right; this is not a "Catholic Moment".

Don't you think it a slight bit hubristic to think that the public at large has the remotest interest in CST qua CST? Individual items might hold a momentary interest to a smallish group of them, and attempting to interfere in US politics under the mantle of CST will certainly raise the hackles of many of them. But CST in general? Really??

As to whether this is a "Catholic moment," I would argue that yes it is. To my mind the great debate of this election is about the economy and social justice, and the common good versus individualism. Those are topics that are central to Catholic thinking about the world, and Catholicism has a lot to say on those topics. Moreover, Catholicism has the language to discuss and defend the promotion of social justice and the common good. That many Catholics do not do that is the problem, it seems to me.

John Page: I have no quarrel with your statement that "a fair number of Catholics would profit from such articles too." I am sure that is correct.Like you, I also "have strong doubt about this being a 'Catholic moment.'"But such doubts can be self-fulfilling.So instead of expressing my doubts, I chose instead to challenge David Gibson and Peter Steinfels and other informed Catholic writers to take action by writing and publishing articles in the secular press about Catholic social teaching.If such articles were to succeed in stirring up interest in Catholic social teachings among non-Catholics and Catholics alike, such a positive response might even galvanize further interest and further articles and perhaps some healthy pro-and-con debate about Catholic social teaching.So in this respect, I intended my statement, as I intend the present statement, as a challenge to David Gibson.Give it a try, David Gibson!Better to have tried and failed to galvanize a Catholic moment than not to have tried at all!Strike while the iron is hot, David Gibson!The two Catholic vice-presidential candidates will quickly fade from memory after the election results are in.(Because Fr. Komonchak prefers not to see bishop-bashing all-the-time, I want everybody to note that I have avoided bishop-bashing by explicitly calling on David Gibson and Peter Steinfels and other informed lay Catholics to go to work to bring about a possible Catholic moment in American culture centered on Catholic social teaching.)

Jimmy Mac, it might be hubristic, but what the heck, say I. I think promoting the common good, toning down the denunciations, mitigating polarization, protecting the vulnerable and all those things CST can do are worthwhile endeavors. Whether we have to make it an explicitly "Catholic" campaign or not doesn't matter so much. We remain a Protestant culture, by default, I think, for good and sometimes not so good. I'd be for changing that a bit. Thomas Farrell, thanks for your exhortation and encouragement! I wish I had such expertise, or influence, or such access to write such articles in such outlets. We do what we can. But whatever I do, Peter Steinfels can do much better, or likely already has, and with greater authority. I am in the retail business when it comes to this stuff. I don't make it myself. But yes, always good to push it out there.

Fair enough, David. You don't have the expertise to write about Catholic social teaching. I understand.However, that difficulty may not be insurmountable. For example, you could interview someone who does have such expertise. Or perhaps more than one expert.As to having influence, what you need to find is an interested editor of a secular outlet. Or more accurately, you would have to lobby an editor to help him or her become interested in what you might be able to write up. Yes, to be sure, if you already had such connections, that would be an easier task. But you don't already have such connections. So don't let this impede your efforts. You'll never succeed if you don't try.Now, in terms of sequencing these two endeavors, I would urge you to find an expert to interview first. Start with the Catholics who signed the document titled "On All Our Shoulders."If the interview goes well and you've gooten a lot of good stuff from the interview to write about, then start beating the bushes for an editor of a secular outlet -- before you actually write up your planned piece. Let the editor guide you about writing it up and about its length.I'd urge you to shoot for the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE first. Because Peter Steinfels used to work for the NYTimes as a columnist, perhaps he could help you figure out who to contact about a piece in the MAGAZINE.

That Catholics differ on social justice can be mainly traced to Augustine of Hippo. Augustine catered to the rich while trying to stay faithful to the gospel. Thus the rich did not have to sell all to get into heaven. They had to "expiate" their sins by alms giving, by bequeathing their estates to monasteries. This distinction made it ok to be rich contrary to the words of Jesus which stated that it would be very difficult for them to enter heaven. So even today the wealthy are persuaded that it is better to build 100 million dollar churches than to give to the poor. This is why Romero is ignored and empire builders are made saints. Augustine justified the rich while Jesus said it would be difficult for them to enter heaven. One could see how this translated in the Middle Ages to alms giving through indulgences which virtually purchased heaven. Thus the centuries continual courting and easing the conscience of the rich by the bishops. Cardinal Hayes ostracized the ambitious Spellman for getting to close to his rich friends. Cardinal Spellman knew the game well. Yet. largely ignored, is the action that Augustine asserted should accompany alms giving---forgiveness of enemies. How one was strongly held on to while the other practically forgotten suggests that the rich used the advice to justify holding on to their wealth. While using the artifice of Augustine to justify riches many today go to the extreme of saying that the poor deserve their misery because they are lazy. Dives never looked so good. Augustine and Ambrose owed their positions to rich Romans and they apparently never forgot it. Augustine's dalliance with Pinianus and Melania showed his willingness to ease the conscience of the rich. All of this does not mean that Augustine did not express concern for the poor in innumerable passages. What it says is that when it came to confronting the wealthy Augustine buckled. As he did when he consented to the use of force to compel Christians to enter the orthodox church. This is why wealthy, partisan bishops can continue without opposition in many quarters. Augustine made it easy for them.

ISTM that Alasdair MacIntyre has proven that Catholic (Aristotelian-Thomistic) ethics is indeed of interest in the U.S., at least among people who read books. There are now non-Catholic ethicists who subscribe to some of the A-T principles and defend much of Aristotle. It is true, however, that the unwillingness of Rome and the bishops to even *talk* about the hot-button issues makes many non-Catholic thinkers think that the Church has nothing to offer that makes any sense.It also seems to me that one reason that you don't find the middle-aged Catholic journalists writing about Catholic social teaching is because after Vatican II Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy was pretty much dropped from the philosophy curriculum at Catholic universities (even as it was entering some secular schools), and in many cases those middle=aged graduates scorned and still scorn what they don't know. (No, Vatican II was not all good, and the neglect of Aquinas by VII was very bad.)In fact, in philosophical circles Thomas has returned as an respected thinker. And, wonder of wonders, Thomas Nagel's new book, which keeps being compared to Aristotle, argues against materialistic science and the neo-Darwinians has been extremely well-received. This shows a willingness on the part of some contemporaries to start taking Arisotle seriously again. My point is that when Catholic ethicists are extremely competent, as is MacIntyre, they are indeed listened to, and now with Nagel (an atheist) making teleology interesting again, I think the opportunities for Catholic ethics are blooming. This assumes, of course, that the bishops who don't know Catholic ethics don't get in the way.

I'd not count on Catholic Social Teaching carrying any weight with anyone on the outside. Non-Catholic intellectuals have more or less the same thing from plenty of other sources, and the common folk who don't read books - and who are generally despised for it by most of the good folk who blog and comment here - don't care a fig for academic philosophizing. For the common folk, one needs to show, not tell. And American Catholics are doing very little showing these days. Nuns have vanished and priests are thinning out and being badly overworked.

David S. --Look again. Alasdair MacIntyre is now one of the most respected ethicists, and his After Virtue was very popular outside of academe as well as in it. And I should add that Charles Taylor, the Canadian social and political philosopher, is among the most highly regarded in his field -- AND his works Sources of the Self and A Secular Age have been quite popular both in and outside of academe. Both are Catholics.Get with it.

"and the common folk who dont read books " Isn't that a little disdainful of the common folks? Check out your branch library and see who is there.

With public "Catholics" like Pelosi and Biden, it is no wonder few non-Catholic Americans give Catholic social teaching much thougthful consideration.We would need a man like old Bishop Sheen on TV every week for ten years to explain Catholicism and Catholic social teaching properly - I liked watching him then, and I still really enjoy listening when they replay the audio of his shows on our local Catholic radion station (in CA). He was a man "the common folk" like me could understand.

Catholic social teaching is one of the most under-reported and discussed doctrine of the Church. When it is discussed, it is compelling. For example, during Iraq you heard a lot about the just war principles and prudential judgements.The just war provides a VERY useful framework for any politician or leader of any faith or none to consider when contemplating options. Economically and politically notions such as subsidiarity (which Ryan emphasizes), common good and preferential option for the poor (Biden) are very important to really understand. The thing is, though, that the doctrine should be parsed to fit into a libertarian or more socially democratic type ideology. The doctrine challenges both political and ideological spectrum in different ways and that is a good thing.I believe that there is indeed a demand for Catholic social teaching and given its predication on natural law (not that I am a fan of natural law but that aside), it is easy to discuss in the public square.

Obviously any social justice doctrine or social teaching that is too complicated for the common man to understand is of no value. How can he employ it if he cannot understand it?That is why Catholic social teaching (based on natural law) can and for many years was, such a good fit with the more general American social mores.In spite of the failings of Catholic clergy and Catholic laity, Catholic teaching is still correct.The fact that American social mores have in recent decades drifted away from Catholic social teaching means only that Americans mores are wrong; Catholic social teaching is still correct.

Irene --As an old public librarian I have to agree that most Americans don't read much beyong Maeve Binchy and Steven King. in fact, most Americans don't read more than one or two books of any sort a year.I was very surprised when I went to Merida, Mexico about 15 years ago to find at a street fair some works by the existentialists on a table of used books that were for sale. Can't imagine that in the U. S. though maybe some select suburbs might have some. And, I"m told, a goodly number of the French read heavy stuff.

Ken --You underestimate what people can learn. When ordinary people are highly motivated to read something (when they know it's *really* important) and when it is taught in small enough increments they can learn a lot more than even they think.

My concern is that by overlooking or redefining Catholic social and moral teaching at this crucial juncture, Catholics themselves are missing out on the Catholic moment. Whats more, a nation that is in dire need of this Catholic wisdom may well miss out on it. (Commonweal)Yes, this could well be, should well be, Americas Catholic moment. The question is whether American Catholics will be part of it. (Religion & Politics)Overlooking, redefining, and the need for Catholics or the nation or beyond are all tools, (among many other tools) which will make the Catholic moment, keep ticking for its survival and necessary evolution and metamorphosis in the twenty-first century. The metamorphosis (and it will be a metamorphosis) occurs through studying the relevant information, taking the required action for a post-axial age faith and moral agency, and sustaining our evolutionary journey that was our indicator from the beginning of the universe. The experts, facilitators, and resources are or potentially are out there in our world ready to go. Its a matter of political will to make it happen. Occupiers where are you? We need you.

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.