Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
By this author
"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity." Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare. They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development.
The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons. Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy. Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy. And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting.
So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document.
Last Tuesday Paul Baumann posted “An unbroken tradition?”—an analysis of an article by Ross Douthat in The Atlantic. Paul’s post drew almost a hundred comments. Some expressed indignation that anyone claiming intellectual credibility might say anything positive about Mr. Douthat. Others advanced to a lengthy and very substantial discussion of Catholic teaching on marriage. All too belatedly I reintroduced one of the main points of Paul’s original post. By that time, of course, virtually everyone had moved on. Allow me to try again:
For four out of five Americans, earnings from capital gains amount to well under 1 percent of annual income. For the richest one percent, on the other hand, these gains from investments amount to over a third of their income and for the top tenth of that one percent, about half their income. No surprise, then, that these gains are taxed at much lower rates than ordinary wages. And no surprise that questions have been raised about the wisdom and justice of that differential.
When liberal politicians raise those questions, they are of course waging class warfare. When Laurence D. Fink raises them, he is, well, he is Chairman of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, overseeing something approaching $5 trillion of investments.
Last week Mr. Fink sent a letter to the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. His basic point was that instead of using corporate earnings to build up productive capacities—like “innovation, skilled work forces, or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth,” he wrote—too many corporate leaders were buying back stock and paying out dividends, even with borrowed money, to please shareholders and aggressive investors with quick returns.
A major incentive for this short-term outlook, Mr. Fink argued, is the capital gains tax advantage.
Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom? I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week—and now reportedly up for revision—is a good measure. I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom.
That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples. Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.”
No doubt some conservatives would invoke anything short of global warning as a last-line defense against same-sex marriage. But is it really beyond imagining that many conservatives and non-conservatives, too, might be genuinely agitated about religious freedom for its own sake? Certainly beyond imagining by Hillary Clinton, who was quick to tweet, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.” Beyond imagining by all the technology, business, and sports and entertainment eminences now bullying Indiana with boycotts, not that these folks ever cared much (or knew much) about religious freedom in the first place.
The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor. It did spare two paragraphs for a quote from Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost church-state scholars. “The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” he said, rejecting the anti-gay sentiments being attributed to it.
“When Liberals Blew It” was the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s March 12 column in The New York Times. The headline referred to the moment fifty years ago when liberals treated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist for proposing in a Labor Department report—eventually known as the “Moynihan Report”—that family disarray and the growth of single-parent households among African-Americans were reaching what would now be called a “tipping point.” The leading factors countering black poverty—primarily male employment—were in danger of losing traction. National action was imperative.
That Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty has been acknowledged all over the place—half a century too late, some might say, but in fact the acknowledgements have come steadily over the decades. Kristof, one of our best columnists, was condensing a complicated story into a brief column, which didn’t do justice to all the details. One liberal voice, for instance, that didn’t “blow it” was Commonweal’s.
Obviously the biggest recent story of "religion, politics & culture" -- Commonweal's "specialty" -- occurred in Paris in the last week. There have been a number of intelligent comments and more are needed.
At Mass this morning, we remembered Mario Cuomo in our prayers. May he rest in peace. He was a brilliant, thoughtful, gifted politician, and a good man. He could powerfully articulate ideals and also mediate compromises, no small abilities and all too seldom found together. He also maintained an extensive, friendly, always civil although not always harmonious relationship with Commonweal. No wonder he is being remembered as the very model of a liberal Catholic. About that, however, I have my doubts.
Of course, we won’t know the truth about this complex individual until his private papers can be plumbed by biographers, and even then I wonder if there will be one sufficiently versed in Catholic matters to get beyond the idea that anyone who disagrees with bishops about abortion is ipso facto a liberal Catholic. Especially if he or she uses words like ipso facto.
Liberal Catholic is a stance built in good part on some important distinctions about how religiously grounded moral beliefs relate to law and the state. Here Cuomo doubtlessly qualified. He made important statements about those subjects. But it was not always easy to reconcile his statements with his actions as a political leader. The difficulty became most striking in the contrast between his courageous defiance of public opinion and political expedience in the case of capital punishment and his equivocating conformity in the case of abortion. The contrast led some people to consider his views hypocritical, others to consider them just incoherent. I think that they made a lot more sense if one recognized that, for all his quoting of Teilhard de Chardin, Mario remained an old-fashioned pre-Vatican II Catholic, a variant of what Jay Dolan, writing of Catholic immigrants and their offspring, termed “devotional Catholicism.” When it comes to discerning moral teaching in this view of the church, there is a sharp division of labor. The hierarchy teaches; the laity apply—with prudence. In this view, when confronted with a complicated moral problem, one does not think with the church, one agrees with the church. It took me awhile to learn this lesson about Cuomo.
During my half century of life in New York City, race relations here have gone through many ups and downs. One reliable contributor to the downs has been the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton is to racial understanding what Rupert Murdoch is to the news media or steroids to batting records. Others have drawn larger conclusions about Sharpton’s ascent from a demagogue inflaming the tragic Tawana Brawley fraud to Official African-American Leader at the side of Mayor Bill de Blasio or President Obama. For myself, I can only say (1) nothing else can inject doubts in my mind about some case of apparent racial injustice as quickly as Sharpton’s arrival on the scene, and (2) this cat really does have nine lives.
The latter reality is being demonstrated by Sharpton’s casual dismissal of a New York Times report that he owes millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, to say nothing of other debts—and Mayor de Blasio’s rush to his defense. “I know a lot of good people who ran into one kind of problem or another with their taxes.” A million here, a million there, good to have a mayor who stands up for the little guy.
Despite my criticism of Ross Douthat’s history of recent American religion, I look forward to his columns in the Sunday New York Times. Even when seriously wrong, they are almost always usefully (and enjoyably) contrarian to the paper’s dominant worldview. Compared to the portrait of the Synod appearing elsewhere in the Times, for example, Douthat’s analysis last Sunday was certainly contrarian. And no less certainly also seriously wrong.
Let’s review Douthat’s argument before offering a critique.