The pope vs. the bishops: Challenges to building a church for the poor

Pope Francis has won over many with doctrine-based economic populism. Why is he so alone among Catholic leadership?

Published December 3, 2013 6:35PM (EST)

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)       (Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Andrew Medichini)

In under a year, Pope Francis has managed to rouse and inspire Catholics across the world with his calls of a "church for the poor.” He has done this without making any changes to church doctrine.

Last week, Francis continued his populist charge, releasing a powerful papal exhortation titled "Evangelii Gaudium." The document decries economic inequality as “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation," ideologies, like trickle down economics, that “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

"A new tyranny is thus born," the pope wrote, "invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules."

Again and again, by virtue of his tone and contextual aim, Francis wins over many (including much of the mainstream press). Even non-believers and the disaffected have taken notice. But while much of his popularity can be attributed to his populist charm, there also seems to be an element of surprise in the public’s reaction to his papacy, as if the pope’s simple, Christ-like message of love and inclusion has come as a shock to the system – as something new, unexpected.

Why? Take a look at the agenda items addressed earlier last month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting in Baltimore. The bishops of the richest, most powerful and increasingly unequal nation in the world, convening in a city wracked by generational poverty, talked about pornography, they discussed contraception and gay marriage, and addressed questions of minor liturgical importance. Poverty was not on the agenda.

The image offered up was that of a place where the old guard rules, where reactionary tsk-tskers inveigh on what people can and cannot do in their personal lives, where “liberal” political concerns are mentioned while “conservative” causes are crusaded over.

And if the whispers that some bishops “appear willing to wait out this pope,” or the election of the conference’s new chairman, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, a “smiling conservative” who signed the Manhattan Declaration and cannot seriously be seen as a reformer, are any indication, it doesn’t look likely this image will change any time soon.

Why does Pope Francis surprise us? He surprises us because he seems unlike so much of the hierarchy he represents.

But let’s not jump the gun. A quick spin through history shows it’s not so much Francis who is unlike his church, but his church that is unlike its past, and in attempting to bring Catholicism back-to-the-future, as it were, it’s conceivable that the pope could trigger a significant political shift here in the U.S.A.

Throughout most of the 20th century, American Catholic bishops played a strong role in the development of progressive national public policy, even as many knew them to be politically conservative. (“In my experience, Monsignors and Bishops are all Republicans,” J.F.K. once remarked.) Church leaders helped shape the New Deal. They offered one of the loudest voices in defense of laborers, immigrants and the poor. In the 1980s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued two influential social justice-imbued pastoral letters. The first was titled "The Challenge of Peace," and addressed nuclear war. The second took on the issue of inequality.

This November marked the 27th anniversary of "Economic Justice for All," a groundbreaking pastoral letter that condemned American poverty as a national moral scandal. Seen as a refutation of Reaganomics, the document received substantial media attention (along with severe conservative criticism) when it was released in 1986. Articles were written. Commentators opined. It was nationwide news.

The construction of the letter was remarkably democratic; economists and theologians were enlisted, drafts were released to the public. “The bishops were invited to hold discussions in their dioceses to get feedback,” says Jesuit priest and Boston College theology professor David Hollenbach, one of the letter’s co-authors. As a result, “they got somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 pages of written feedback from around the country,” leading to the inclusion of an entire section on the plight of farmers.

Picking up the torch, one month after the letter’s passage, the bishops of Maryland, the cradle of the Catholic Church in America, met at a soup kitchen in Baltimore to release a statewide plan intended to put its recommendations into effect. ''We want our state's economy to better reflect the principles of freedom, justice and opportunity that have been the foundation of Maryland since 'The Ark and the Dove' landed here more than 350 years ago,” they wrote.

Sadly, "Economic Justice for All" proved one of the last pieces of social justice teaching of its kind. Concerned by its influence, and worried that “national churches,” or conflicting pieces of teaching, might develop if other conferences were left unchecked, the Vatican clamped down and clipped the conferences' wings. By the 1990s, they could no longer publish pastoral letters that held "teaching authority" without near unanimity.

(In America, however, the bishops did reiterate the tenets of "Economic Justice for All," once in 1995 with a message, "A Decade After 'Economic Justice for All,'" and again in 1996, with a statement, "A Catholic Framework for Economic Life.")

From then on, things started to change around the bishop’s conference. More and more doctrinally conservative bishops were being appointed. The culture wars were raging. Then the sexual abuse crisis hit, and hit again, and the wagons circled. When the conference reemerged, it was smaller (its budget had been slashed), “purer” and decidedly more conservative.

This is where it gets tricky. Ask any bishop if he is in favor of advocating for the poor, if he is against the death penalty, he will tell you that he is. Ask him if he is against abortion, for traditional marriage, and he will tell you that yes, of course, he is. The politics of Catholicism is in theory as liberal as it is conservative.

But no one can plausibly deny that that the dominant voice of the American church has become one focused on polarizing social conservative issues.

Restrictions to pastoral statements notwithstanding, the bishops found other ways to assert their influence.

In 2004, 16 publicly stated that pro-choice presidential candidate John Kerry should not receive communion in their diocese. In 2008, 57 asserted that the most important issue for voters in the 2008 presidential election was abortion, with some suggesting that you could not be a good Catholic and vote Democratic; in 2009, 82 objected to President Obama’s speaking at the University of Notre Dame, arguing that it would weaken the school’s Catholic identity. The next year, in 2010, the USCCB opposed the Affordable Care Act, arguing that it might conceivably lead to federal funds for abortions. The year after that, in 2011, Paul Ryan's budget came out, cutting $3 trillion from programs for the poor. The then-chairman of the USCCB, Timothy Dolan, sent a public letter to Ryan that many thought gave him cover for his budget. In the 2012 election cycle, Dolan went further, referring to Ryan as “a great public servant.” Prior to the election year, the USCCB unanimously voted to declare religious freedom its 2012 strategic priority. In June of 2012 and 2013, periods of prayer dubbed the “Fortnight for Freedom” were held in response to perceived threats to religious liberty.

Imagine if the bishops had flexed just half as much muscle for certain “liberal” causes, equally deserving of Catholic concern, as they did for pet “conservative” ones.

Of course, conservative bishops will tap-dance around and say they did. One can’t help it if the media chooses to focus on hot-button issues, they argue. The conference has committees that wrestle with social justice, they insist.

This ignores some facts.

For one, the bishops aren’t dummies. They know what grabs headlines and what doesn’t. (And honestly, have we ever heard of a Fortnight for Economic Justice?) Two, the conference agency that deals with anti-poverty work, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development? It’s under attack from within.

In June, a report was released detailing the emergence of a "small, but well-funded network" of conservative, Tea Party-like Catholic organizations pressuring bishops to gut the funds of community and anti-poverty outfits carrying any whiff of involvement with groups supporting same-sex marriage.

Then there is the bishops’ ballot box. In 1986, "Economic Justice for All" passed by a vote of 225 to 9. In 2012, a far less robust declaration on the economy, known as a “message,” and titled "Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy," was scuttled when 85 bishops voted against it. Why?

Whatever one's politics or cultural inclinations, it’s clear things would be better off if our neighbors and loved ones weren’t losing their mortgages, their faith in, or shot at, the American dream; their limbs, minds in faraway wars, their lives here at home, to drugs, gun violence and super-charged environmental disasters. This is so obvious. This too is Catholic. So how is it that the bishops haven’t been stronger, more forceful, louder in their stance on social justice when that voice is so badly needed?

Perhaps Pope Francis can provide an answer.

“The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens,” he says. “Ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

By Vinnie Rotondaro

Vinnie Rotondaro, a Catholic, is a writer living in Brooklyn and Editor-at-Large at Narratively.

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