Hiding the Church's Treasure

Rightward Tilt Clouds the Christian Message

To say that the Belle Harbor neighborhood on New York City's Rockaway Peninsula was slammed by Hurricane Sandy understates the case. Like many other parts of the region, it has suffered the kind of devastation we usually associate with wars.

In these circumstances, people turn to government, yes, but they look first to trusted friends and to neighborhood institutions that combine deep local knowledge with a degree of empathy that arises only from a long connection with residents of a particular place.

Two of my brothers-in-law who have been washed out of their homes are involved in one such group, the Graybeards, a local nonprofit recently featured on the "NBC Nightly News." They immediately took up the task of restoring the city blocks they love. 

And at the heart of the relief effort is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, the epicenter of so many practical works of mercy that it has received a mountain of earned media attention. The Washington Post published a photo last week of a big Thanksgiving dinner organized in the parish gym where I once watched my nephews and my niece compete fiercely on the basketball court. Last week, for a moment anyway, competition gave way to fellowship.

I intend to come back again to the determined struggle of this neighborhood to rebuild. But I also hope the nation's Roman Catholic bishops contemplating the future of the church's public and political engagement notice how the witness of this parish has inspired people far beyond the confines of Catholicism.

During the presidential campaign, many bishops, though by no means all, seemed to enlist firmly on one side of a highly contested election. The church didn't endorse anyone, but some bishops made clear their preference for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was about as clear as he could be short of putting a Romney-Ryan sticker on his car.

"I certainly can't vote for somebody who's either pro-choice or pro-abortion," he told the National Catholic Reporter. On the other hand, he said of low-tax conservatives: "You can't say that somebody's not Christian because they want to limit taxation." No doubt Paul Ryan smiled.

For such bishops, the election came as a shock. I'm told by people who attended the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops post-election meeting earlier this month in Baltimore that many of them had been convinced Romney would win. Yet Romney not only lost; he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote, partly because of overwhelming support for Obama among Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the church.

The fallout: Disarray in the Bishops' Conference. This is actually good news. One person's disarray is another's openness. There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church's tilt rightward over the last several years.

One surprising result in Baltimore was the refusal to endorse a vague statement on the economy after the document came under attack from more progressive bishops for failing to deal adequately with inequality, the rights of unions and poverty. Rarely does a document reach the floor of the conference and then fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. Something is stirring.

There are also influential bishops who now want to work with the Obama administration to secure a compromise on the contraception mandate under the health care law. This too would be a positive break with the recent past and the president should seize the opportunity. He can provide contraception coverage while building on the adjustments he has already made in the mandate to accommodate the church's legitimate conscience concerns. And there's nothing that should stop the bishops from cooperating with the administration and other progressives on behalf of immigration reform.

But above all, the bishops need to learn what I'll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization -- which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing -- clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.

Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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I really appreciate EJ Dionne's ability to speak so civilly of the hierarchs while slipping the stilletto in between the ribs.  The only the thing that the hierarchs' recent political gambit to sabotage President Obama's reelection accomplished was to reinforce in the minds of the faithful and public how flaccid and spent a force the hierarchs are, even among themselves.

John Donne words are eerily appropriate: "Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

An inexorable evolution toward a Peoples Church has been underway for a very long, long time.  The signs are all around us:  the vibrant voices of women in religion, politics and culture; the emptying of the pews; the decay and corruption of the hierarchy and priesthood; the acceptance and even celebration of gays and lesbians as fully our brothers and sisters.  

This new democratic Christianity will not be achieved by politics, diplomacy, or by even theology.  Like the primitive church, Christians today are struggling toward a new enlightenment.  It may take decades, even centuries to reach it, but we will reach it.

What must we do now?  We must do what we have always done:  Teach. Pass on the traditions and stories of the Christ.  Practice the Beatitudes and corporal works of mercy.  Work for the day when new thoughts and new ideas can again be spoken aloud in the church of our birth.

EJ Dionne's assessment of the state of the USCCB after what must have been for most of them a disappoininting election appears both balanced and little doubt largely accurate. His retelling of the response of the Catholic community of Breezy Point and nearby to the ravages of the "frankenstorm" is inspiring. I, as a Queens born, largely of Irish descent, citizen too have peraonal, historical and emotional ties to that largely Irish Catholic community. Dionne, however, curiously, overlooks the yeoman efforts of Archbishop Dolan in rallying the whole of the huge Archdiocese of New York, and Catholics all over the nation, to help not only the residents of Breezy Point, but all victims of the tragedy.

Thanks for sharing!

l<blockquote>There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church's tilt rightward over the last several years.</blokcquote>

followed by at the end

<blockquote>Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.</blockquote>


We are all blinded by our own ideology.




Is it at all within the realm of possibility that the Bishops' response was principled and not political?

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