Is “the” Evangelical-Catholic Alliance on Moral Issues Coming Apart?


Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak were some of the important Catholic architects of “Evangelicals & Catholics Together”

National Public Radio religion reporter Tom Gjelten seems to think so.  Here is a taste of his report:

…their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and their common interest in parochial schools, brought them together. In 1994, with a “Catholics & Evangelicals Together” manifesto, leaders of the two faith groups announced they could collaborate as co-belligerents, allied on some issues while disagreeing on others.

That alliance, however, is again coming under strain, in part over their different reactions to the Trump administration’s policy priorities.

Some prominent Catholic leaders worry the country is becoming increasingly divided.

“America has lost her way,” said Archbishop José Gomez, whose Los Angeles archdiocese is the largest in the country. “We no longer know who we are or what our national purpose is,” he said, in a commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

Read the rest here.

Gjelton may be correct, but by comparing the Catholics who signed the 1994 “Catholics & Evangelicals Together” manifesto with Pope Francis or Archbishop Gomez is something akin to comparing apples and oranges.

The Catholics who signed Catholics & Evangelicals Together were conservative Catholics.  Today these Catholics (or at least the ones who are still alive) represent some of the strongest critics of Pope Francis.  Moreover, the evangelical signers of Catholics & Evangelical Together were mostly conservative evangelicals.

So in order to truly evaluate whether Catholics & Evangelicals Together is falling apart in the age of Trump one must compare conservative Catholics and Evangelicals in the 1990s with conservative Catholics and Evangelicals today.  Such a comparison might lead one to conclude that the alliance is stronger than Gjelten’s piece suggests.

Of course there have also been Catholic-Evangelical alliances between more moderate and progressive Catholics and Evangelicals.  I participated in one of them.

Have Evangelicals Replaced Catholics as the Leaders of the Anti-Abortion Movement?

Pro Life Rally

Writing at New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore makes this argument.  He is correct.  This is not news, but it is certainly an interesting exercise in change over time.  In other words, when did evangelicals overtake Catholics as the leaders of the pro-life movement?

He does not have room in his column to develop the complex history behind evangelicals’ embrace of anti-abortion politics.  For that history I would recommend Daniel Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford, 2016).   Williams was also our guest in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Williams describes how American evangelicalism embraced the anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade.  Before that, the pro-life movement was often understood to be a “Catholic issue.”

Here is a taste of Kilgore’s piece:

But there’s no question the religious community that is far more solidly in the anti-abortion camp is white Evangelical Protestants. In a 2017 survey that broke out this particular segment of the population, Pew found that 70 percent of white Evangelicals thought that all or most abortions should be illegal. Less than half of Catholics (44 percent), black Protestants (41 percent), white mainline Protestants (30 percent), and the unaffiliated (17 percent) agreed with this position.

This is remarkable in no small part because unlike Catholics, white Evangelicals have little traditional investment in the anti-abortion cause. They have no formal hierarchy, no teaching tradition, no papal encyclicals, and no “natural law” philosophy leading them in the direction of regarding abortion as grievously sinful. They purport to follow only the Bible, which never mentions abortion and only obliquely refers to fetal life. Evangelicals, moreover, were not as a group actively engaged in state efforts to keep abortion illegal prior to Roe; many (particularly among Southern Baptists, the largest white Evangelical denomination) favored “liberalized” abortion laws back then.

However you choose to explain the white Evangelical shift toward strongly anti-abortion views — as a moral “awakening” after Roe; a general rejection of liberalism and feminism; a nostalgic embrace of cultural conservatism in all its elements (including patriarchy); or a byproduct of a growing alliance with conservative politics — it’s unmistakable, and it has offset the gradual drift toward pro-choice views among Catholics.

Read the entire piece here.

Stanley Hauerwas on the Protestant Reformation

Stanley Hauerwas is in Your FaceAccording to theologian Stanley Hauerwas, the Protestant Reformation is over and the Protestants won.  But the victory has also put Protestants in a state of crisis.  What is a theologian to do?

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

…Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at its heart, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

But I am still a Protestant, even though I’m not sure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — I was raised Methodist, taught Lutherans (Augustana College), was overwhelmed by the Catholic world, was deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally returned to the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Read the entire piece here.  Hauerwas also wonders why so many of his students have converted to Catholicism.

Michael Gerson on Dianne Feinstein’s “ignorance of religion itself”


Washington Post commentator Michael Gerson has joined the list of Dianne Feinstein critics.  In case you are not up to speed, Feinstein appears to have shown anti-Catholic bias in her recent questioning of federal court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.  She may have also violated Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

We have posted on this case here and here and here and here.

Gerson writes:

Where to start? How about with the fact that Feinstein’s line of questioning was itself a violation of the Constitution? Here is constitutional scholar and Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber: “By prohibiting religious tests, the Constitution makes it impermissible to deny any person a national, state or local office on the basis of their religious convictions or lack thereof. Because religious belief is constitutionally irrelevant to the qualifications for a federal judgeship, the Senate should not interrogate any nominee about those beliefs. I believe, more specifically, that the questions directed to professor Barrett about her faith were not consistent with the principle set forth in the Constitution’s ‘no religious test’ clause.”

How about Feinstein’s indifference to the sordid history of anti-Catholic bias? “Feinstein leapt past 20th-century suspicions of Catholic allegiances,” legal scholar John Inazu told me, “to 19th-century bigotry toward Catholic identity: Who you are as a Catholic is ‘of concern.’ ”

How about Feinstein’s ignorance of religion itself? In defending her animus, she called particular attention to Barrett’s statement that Christians should be “building the kingdom of God.” That would be the kingdom that Jesus insisted is “not of this world,” much to the confusion of 1st-century politicians. It is a description of transformed hearts, not a prescription for theocracy.

Read the entire piece here.

St. Augustine and the Conversion of a Progressive Journalist


Elizabeth Bruenig converted to Catholicism in 2014.  Her decision to unite with the church of Rome came through her reading of St. Augustine.  She describes her spiritual journey in a recent piece at America magazine.

Here is a taste:

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed,in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”

Property entered the equation with sin. Since people could no longer be trusted to honor the original purpose and use of creation, governing authorities were able to maintain order by dividing it up. But the church remained sensitive to the pre-property purpose of creation, and with its own authority (throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, ecclesiastical courts heard many cases regarding property and contracts) and power to persuade states and subjects, it urged vigilance against the tendency of the wealthy to amass more than their due, to the detriment of the poor. Individual actors departed from the counsel of the church, of course, but never succeeded in altering its doctrine to advance their own purposes.

But that changed after the Protestant Reformation. 

Read the rest here, including Bruenig’s comparison of her conversion to those of conservative intellectuals R.R. Reno and Ross Douthat.



Catholics and Patriotic Worship


Apparently it is not just evangelicals who have a problem with patriotic worship services.  This weekend a priest was quite surprised when a patriotic song was played during the communion mediation at mass.

Here is a taste of Father James Martin’s America magazine piece “Should we sing patriotic songs at Mass?  Probably not”:

Yesterday I heard an excellent homily at Mass. The Gospel reading (Mt 10:37-42) had Jesus telling his followers, with the uncompromising language he often used, that nothing comes before God. God comes first, and everything else is secondary—even the love for a mother and a father. In a line that undoubtedly shocked listeners in first-century Palestine and still has the power to shock, he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

As the homilist told the congregation this Sunday, everything must be subordinated to God. Agreed.

That is why it was so jarring to hear the Communion meditation just a few minutes later. It was a song, which I had not heard before, in which the singer pledged her heart to America. Not to Jesus but to the United States of America.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. It was the Sunday before the Fourth of July, and I have come to expect patriotic songs in Catholic churches in the United States, around that time of year, as well as around Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

But it was hard not to think: Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus said in the Gospel? Surely we should all be good Americans and love and honor our country. But especially during the Mass, shouldn’t our hearts be pledged to something, or someone else?

Read the rest here.

Pope Francis Gives a TED Talk

Pope Francis’s 17-minute videotaped talk was shown today at the international TED conference.  Read all about it in Colby Itkowitz’s article at The Washington Post.

Here is a taste of Itkowitz’s article:

Pope Francis used a world forum dedicated to promoting cutting-edge ideas to spread his own revolutionary message: “We all need each other.”

“When there is an ‘us,’ there begins a revolution,” the world’s most powerful religious leader told the room of scientists, academics, tech innovators, investors and cultural elites in a surprise videotaped message at the international TED conference Tuesday evening.

Keeping with the intent of the week-long conference to share strategies to make the world better, Francis’s contribution to that conversation was to urge the people gathered here to use their influence and power to care for others.

“How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion,” he said to applause. “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”

When Francis appeared on screen, the room erupted in applause, and one woman exclaimed, “No way.” Though he wasn’t standing center stage in front of TED’s signature red blocks letters, but rather seated at a desk at the Vatican, his speech had all the hallmarks of a TED Talk. His began with a personal narrative and wove in big ideas around hope, inclusion and starting a “revolution of tenderness.”

Read the rest here.


Catholic History at the AHA

acsI hope you have enjoyed William Cossen‘s posts from the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver this weekend.  You can read them all here.  

Below is his final post.  He reflects on two sessions on American Catholic History.–JF

On AHA’s third day, I attended a presidential roundtable hosted by the American Catholic Historical Association, of which I am a member, titled “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?”

The first presenter, Boston College’s Peter Cajka, who serves as the Graduate Student Representative to the ACHA’s Executive Council, posed five timely questions dealing with the job market and with the field of Catholic history:

1) Why are there not more positions being created at Catholic schools for junior scholars who specialize in Catholic history, and if there is only one Catholic history position open this year, what else is available for job seekers?

2) How can a scholar make a case for Catholic history when applying to general history positions?

3) Can religious historians apply for theology or religious studies positions?  Furthermore, what is really meant by “Catholic studies,” and how can historians make themselves competitive for positions in this field?

4) How can historians of Catholicism demonstrate the relevance of their research for postdoctoral positions that focus on broader issues dealing with religion?

5) How can Catholic historians articulate what it means to be Catholic and connect this to their research and teaching when applying to religious schools?

The second presenter, Shannen Dee Williams of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spoke about her important research on black Catholic sisters.  Williams described the difficulties involved in locating sources on religious sisterhoods and then gaining access to archives holding these materials.  Looking toward future trends in the field, Williams recommended investigating the transatlantic history of Catholics of color, urging scholars to “look at those who have remained on the margins of the church.”  I have been thinking since the roundtable about a provocative question Williams posed during her presentation that historians of all fields, especially those researching figures who have been traditionally left out of historical narratives, should consider seriously: how can we reconstruct histories that were never meant to be told?

The third presenter, Kyle Roberts of Loyola University Chicago, who serves as Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project, described exciting advances and possibilities in the field of Catholic digital humanities.  Roberts explained that the main activity in Catholic digital humanities has emanated from Catholic archives, which have a done a fine job making more widely available to the public important sources in Catholic history.  My own research has benefited immensely from digitized U.S. Catholic sources, and it is important to note that such popular databases as America’s Historical Newspapers also contain Catholic periodicals.  I was left with one question that I discussed with other audience members following the roundtable.  While many digital humanities projects are freely available, many others (for example, several newspaper and academic journal databases) are not, often requiring an institutional affiliation with access to a research library to utilize the sources they contain.  What can the AHA and other historical societies do to help scholars without access to such institutional subscriptions to make use of important digitized sources and to maintain active, productive research agendas?

The final presenter, Thomas Rzeznik of Seton Hall University, who serves as editor of the journal American Catholic Studies, asked the audience to consider how we can make articles in Catholic historical journals and the journals themselves more relevant to a wider audience.  Rzeznik also encouraged scholars of Catholicism to think more about what the “Catholic” in American Catholic studies means.  Rzeznik argued that too frequently, historians of Catholicism focus only on the so-called “good” Catholics, an approach which I think not only renders Catholic identity monolithically but frankly makes it much less interesting.  Rzeznik is right to call for scholars to more seriously consider in their research those who he terms “misfit Catholics” as well as those married to Catholics and those who worked or studied in Catholic institutions but were not themselves members of the faith.  This, Rzeznik argues, will “broaden our lens of who is considered Catholic.”  As far as the wider relevance of Catholic history in the historical profession goes, Rzeznik points out correctly that the “field already reflects the diversity the job market wants” due to Catholicism’s transnational, cross-cultural dimensions.  Ultimately, Rzeznik explains, scholars of Catholicism need to remain mindful of the many audiences they serve: the academy; interested lay non-scholars; and the institutional church.

I also delivered a paper Friday afternoon titled “Isaac Hecker’s American Odyssey: Rewriting the Catholic Nation in The Church and the Age.”  I argued two main points in the paper: first, the thought of Catholic convert Isaac Hecker was representative of an emerging movement in late-nineteenth-century U.S. Catholicism that espoused Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in an effort to challenge Protestant hegemony; and second, scholars have paid little attention to Hecker’s and the larger Catholic Americanist movement’s affinity for popular racial theories of the day.  This is part of the larger effort of my dissertation to revise historical interpretations of Americanism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholicism.  I argued in the paper and the dissertation that the Americanists, far from being the benign democratizers of historiography, were comfortable putting a Catholic spin on American colonization of the U.S. West and the Philippines, scientific racial theories, immigration regulation, and exclusionary formulations of the national community, which lends a darker cast to the Americanists than has been previously acknowledged by scholars.  My paper was joined by Erin Bartram’s (University of Hartford) “The ‘Use and Abuse of Reading’: American Catholics and the Debate over Reading, 1860-90” (which also examined Hecker but in an earlier period) and Luke Ritter’s (Troy University) “Where Bigotry Thrives: Know-Nothingism and the Origins of an Inclusive Civil Religion.”  Following our presentation, the panelists and members of the audience had a productive conversation on Catholicism, Americanism, historiography, and the state of the field that extended well into the evening.

This has been another fantastic AHA.  Between sessions, exhibits, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends and to make new connections with other scholars, the AHA and its affiliate organizations certainly fulfilled their goal of exploring cutting edge scholarship and building collegiality across our profession.  Safe travels, fellow historians, and see you next year in Washington, DC!

Preachers on Politics


Check out this recent Pew Research Center study on what churchgoers are hearing on Sunday morning.

A couple of my takeaways

  • 64% of churchgoers claim to have heard a sermon on one of six social issues: religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues, and economic inequality.   This is good.  The Bible and the Christian tradition speak to these issues.
  • When clergy do address social or political issues they tend to focus on religious liberty and homosexuality more than anything else. They focus least on economic inequality.
  • 14% of churchgoers have heard a sermon in support of a particular political candidate.  That is a low number. I am glad to see that a very large percentage of clergy are not using their pulpits to endorse candidates.
  • Clergy, generally, tend to preach in defense of religious freedom, in opposition to abortion, in favor of a more welcoming view of immigrants, on the need to protect the environment, against homosexuality, and on the problem of economic equality (as opposed to a defense of free markets or capitalism).
  • White Evangelicals preach more sermons on religious liberty and against homosexuality than do mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and Catholics
  • White Evangelicals and Catholics preach more sermons against abortion than do mainline Protestants and Black Protestants
  • Catholic priests preach more sermons on immigration than all Protestants groups
  • Catholic priests preach more sermons on the environment than all Protestant groups
  • Black Protestant clergy preach more sermons on economic inequality than white Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics.
  • 40% of churchgoers claim that their clergyperson has encouraged them to vote in November. Black Protestants lead the way on the this front.

The Author’s Corner with Max Longley

LongleyMax Longley is an independent historian based in Durham, North Carolina.  This interview is based on his new book book For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2o15).

JF: What led you to write For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?

ML: A Catholic convert myself, I realized that I could combine a study of several converts’ experiences with my longstanding interest in the Civil War era.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?

ML: Four men joined the Catholic Church in the 1840s and were in the thick of the Church’s and the country’s disputes over slavery, immigration, nativism, religious freedom, secession and war. I show the interconnection among all these issues, while telling a compelling human story at the same time.

JF: Why do we need to read For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?

ML: It’s surprisingly relevant – After the book came out, there was the controversy about the Jesuit order in Maryland selling slaves in 1838 and giving the proceeds to Georgetown University. There’s a big debate over that history, and it makes my book’s extensive discussion of the relationship between slavery in the American Catholic Church in the Civil War era all the more relevant.

It appeals both to readers’ continued interest in the American Civil War and their interest in religion, and the reader will find the careers of the protagonists very interesting. There is a compelling human story about each of the four converts in the title. William Rosecrans was a West Point trained engineer who became Catholic after a search for the true church, and then sought to share his spiritual discovery with the people around him. He was a Civil War Union general and his military career is controversial to this day. One of the people with whom he William Rosecrans shared his faith was his younger brother Sylvester. Sylvester joined the Church, received training for the priesthood in Rome during a revolution against the Pope, and became a great scholar-priest in Cincinnati. He was a bishop during the Civil War, assisting Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati and becoming a fervent foe of slavery as the war went on. James Augustine Healy was the first African-American priest who served in the United States. Born to a planter father and a slave mother, Father Healy went to Boston and became a key aide to Bishop John Fitzpatrick. Fr. Healy’s duties included defending the Irish-Americans of Boston from the powerful Know-Nothing party, defending the rights of people who often hated his race. Orestes Brownson was a Yankee convert who belonged to many religious and political movements – universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, labor radicalism – before joining the Catholic Church, where he moved between the Church’s liberal and conservative wings while defending the Union and, during the war, becoming a Catholic abolitionist.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ML: As a freelance writer, I found particular fulfillment writing freelance articles and books about historical subjects. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said you should write the books you want to read. And the books I want to read are generally about American history.

JF: What is your next project.

ML: I have two projects right now. I think it’s too early to discuss my first project, but my second project is a biography of Joseph Williams Thorne, a radical Quaker whose career spanned half of the nineteenth century. A schoolmaster and farmer, Thorne was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War Pennsylvania and a “carpetbagger” in North Carolina after the war. I am in search of a trade publisher for this project.

JF: Thanks Max!

The Vatican Congratulates “Spotlight” on Winning Best Picture

Spotlight_(film)_posterOver at Religion News Service, Rosie Scammell is reporting that the Vatican has given “two thumbs up” to “Spotlight,” the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.  As most of you probably know, “Spotlight” is a movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

[“Spotlight”] manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities,” wrote journalist Lucetta Scaraffia of L’Osservatore Romano, a “semi-official” Vatican newspaper.

Here is a taste of Scammell’s piece:

In her column, Scaraffia praised the film for recounting the reality of how, within the Catholic Church, “some are more preoccupied with the image of the institution than of the seriousness of the act.”

Scaraffia also noted Sugar’s acceptance speech, arguing that his reference to the pontiff demonstrated there was still hope in the institution of the church.

“There is trust in a pope who is continuing the cleaning begun by his predecessor,” she wrote.

L’Osservatore Romano’s praise for the movie follows comments of a similar vein by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, who said earlier this month that all bishops and cardinals should watch the film.

“The movie shows how the instinct — that unfortunately was present in the church — to protect a reputation was completely wrong,” Scicluna told an Italian newspaper.

Latest Issue of *Pennsylvania Legacies* Focuses on Pennsylvania Catholics

From H-Net:

In anticipation of the historic visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania takes a look at the history of Catholics and Catholicism in Pennsylvania in its latest issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, now available in print and online. The contents of the issue are:

Book and Website Reviews
by Rachel Moloshok

Information on Legacies can be found at Legacies is available as a benefit of membership in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and by subscription. Individual issues can be purchased by emailing Rachel Moloshok at

A Quick Analysis of Canon Law Regarding Papal Resignations

Here are the rules, compliments of Mark Movsesian at the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York.

It just shows you. Even an institution as ancient and traditional as the papacy still retains the ability to shock. Pope Benedict’s announcement today that he will resign for health reasons, effective February 28, seems to have taken everyone, including Vatican insiders, by surprise. It is the first papal resignation since the year 1415.

Canon law on papal resignation is surprisingly – or, come to think of it, unsurprisingly – brief. Canon 332(2) of the current Code of Canon Law provides simply that “ If it happens that  the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” A leading commentary notes that Canon 332(2) does not specify the person or persons to whom a pope must manifest his resignation. Some scholars argue that the college of cardinals, as the body that elects the pope, is the proper recipient. But that’s not entirely clear; anyway, in Catholic understanding, the pope has authority to determine such matters for himself. Most likely, today’s announcement at a consistory, in which the Pope stressed that he was taking this step voluntarily and in full recognition of its gravity, will suffice. Anyway, the college of cardinals will no doubt have a chance to receive the resignation, if that action is required, before it elects Pope Benedict’s successor, most likely next month.

“First Thoughts” blog has some good coverage of Benedict’s resignation here and here and here and here and here and here.

Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

Patrick Deneen does not think so.

The Georgetown University politics professor (soon to be a Notre Dame politics professor) believes that the phrase “progressive Catholic” does not make sense. He makes this argument in a very insightful piece that critiques his colleague E.J. Dionne’s use of terms such as “progressive Catholic” and “social justice Catholics.”

It seems that Deneen is right when he suggests that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not “map” very well on our current political landscape.  I have always wondered about this–both as a former Catholic and as a student of American religion.

Why don’t I ever hear so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics defend the Church’s teaching on abortion and gay marriage?  In the last year or so I have spent some time with administrators and professors at Catholic universities and colleges who sound no different on these moral questions than any liberal academic. They all talk a good game on the “social justice” front, but they are rarely proactive in discussing the Church’s position on some of the issues that have become talking points for political conservatives.

And why don’t I ever hear conservative Catholics, such as those of the First Things variety (where Deneen published his piece), talk about social justice issues.  Instead, they extoll the virtues of capitalism, defend a pro-life position on abortion, and rail against gay marriage and stem-cell research. I rarely  hear them speak about poverty, the role of government, or other issues that have become talking points for political liberals.

Deneen’s piece is helpful on this front.

A taste:

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic”—a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God—progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description—“Social Justice Catholic”—appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life—born or unborn—any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

Catholics and Evangelical for the Common Good: Part Two

For the first post in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good click here.

After a reception, dinner, and welcome from Georgetown president John DeGioia, we discussed an excellent paper by Notre Dame theology and law professor Cathleen Kaveny on the place of “prophetic indictment” in political discourse. 

Kaveny argued that those engaged in the public square should use prophetic language with caution.  When not employed carefully, prophetic language results in a loss of nuance, ad hominen arguments, a dualistic world view that sees politics as a battle between good and evil, and a failure to be constructive.  When both sides of a particular issue speak in prophetic tones it usually gets us nowhere.

She then offered a few suggestions toward a “just prophecy” or a “prophecy without contempt.” Kaveny applied the lessons of Catholic Just War Theory to the use of prophetic language in public discourse.  Those who use prophetic rhetoric should be held accountable by the larger religious communities of which they are a part.  She also suggested that prophetic language should only be used when there is a good possibility that its use will result in success. Finally, she insisted that prophetic language should not target children, families, or other “non-combatants.”

Kaveny concluded that prophetic indictment must be tempered and informed by a spirit of humility.  Before calling down the wrath of God on one’s enemies Christians must remember that they ARE NOT Old Testament prophets.  She cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln (particularly in his Second Inaugual Address) as examples of this kind of prophetic humility.

Kaveny’s paper inspired some excellent discussion, most of which centered around King’s use of the prophetic voice.  Though it did not get much discussion, I was most intrigued by a question about the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington D.C.  Does this monument serve as a prophetic message to the rest of the world?  I would argue that it does not.  Rather than being a prophetic piece of material culture, I argued that the King monument, set amongst all the other monuments in Washington dedicated to great Americans, is more a sign that King’s message had been co-opted by a larger national story.  And if I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail correctly, I think King would have wanted it this way.  His Letter, as I am often reminded by my Messiah College colleague Jim LaGrand, was an appeal to the story of the nation.  King wanted African-Americans to be considered a part of that story.  His letter placed the cause for civil rights in a national narrative that began with the Pilgrims and continued to unfold during the American Revolution.

It is thus fitting that King’s monument shares the Tidal Basin with Jefferson.  Unlike more militant black activists, MLK did not criticize or prophetically condemn the nation Jefferson helped to create.  Instead he longed to be an equal part of it.

Look for a full-explication of Kaveny’s argument in a forthcoming book.

Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good: Part One

“Have you ever been involved in Catholic and Evangelical dialogue?

This was the question Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, a longtime professor at Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Seminary), and author of the classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977), asked me before the first session of this weekend’s Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good (CECG).

I told him that I spent the first fifteen years of my life as a Catholic and served on the board of the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and Arts, an ecumenical network of Catholic and Protestant colleges designed to strengthen church-related higher education, but I had never participated in a Catholic-Evangelical dialogue for the purpose of promoting the “common good.”

CECG is now in its sixth year.  This year’s meeting was held on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington D.C.  The purpose of these discussions is to think together about how Catholics and Evangelicals might work together to defend a “consistent ethic of life,” alleviate poverty, promote a civil society, protect the environment, and engage in a host of other social justice initiative for the “common good.” The conversations are not focused on theology.

Most (but not all) of the discussion during the weekend centered around two documents.  One of them was entitled “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.”  It was produced in 2004 by the National Association of Evangelicals.  The other was entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007).  It was written in 2007 by the United States Catholic bishops.

Attendees at the meeting included:

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick: former Archbishop of Washington D.C.

Ronald Sider:  President, Evangelicals for Social Action

Michael Gerson:  Former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist

John Borelli: Catholic theologians and special assistant to the president at Georgetown.

Mark Rodgers: former aid to Rick Santorum and principal of The Clapham Group.

Thomas Banchoff: Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown

Stephen Monsma: researcher at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College.

John Carr: Director of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Cathleen Kaveny:  John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Paul Alexander: Director of Jesus & Politics for Evangelicals for Social Action

E.J. Dionne: Fellow at The Brookings Institution and columnist for the Washington Post.

Galen Carey: Vice President for Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals.

Richard Cizik: President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Jack Downey:  Ph.D candidate in American Catholic History at Fordham University and a visiting scholar at the Berkley Center.

Daniel Finn:  Clemens Professor of Economics and Liberal Arts at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN.

Anne-Elisabeth Giuliani:  Office of Campus Ministry, Georgetown University

John Fea: Messiah College

Bryan McGraw: Assistant professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College

George Monsma: Professor of Economics Emeritus at Calvin College

Timothy Shah: Associate Director, Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Cheryl Sanders, Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and Pastor of the Third Street Church of God, Washington, D.C.

Amelia Uelmen, former Director of the Institute on Religion, Law, & Lawyer’s Work at Fordham University and Visiting Lecturer in Georgetown Law School.

My responsibility was to present a paper on the recent history of evangelical social and political engagement as a background to the discussion of “For the Health of the Nations.”

 Stay tuned.

Pictured above:  The Riggs Library at Georgetown, the site of our conversations.