THE BLOG
05/09/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Catholics and Religious Progressivism

Our Twitter Pope, Pope Francis, tweeted a message a week or so ago that seems to summarize so much about his papacy: "Inequality," he taught his tens of thousands of followers, "is the root of social evil."

And this was merely the opening act. He followed this message up with an urgent call for the "legitimate redistribution" of wealth to benefit the world's destitute.

These teachings are in accord with the lesson Pope Francis has been delivering since that day in March, 2013, when he chose the name Francis. "Don't forget the poor." On the day of his election, Pope Francis recalled, his good friend the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes spoke to him in those very words. And it is clear that Pope Francis has taken those words very much to heart.

The Pope's call for economic justice happily coincides with the publication of a new report, authored by E.J. Dionne, William Galston and others. Published by the Brookings Institution, the report ("Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressivism") recognizes that historically there has been a close relationship between progressive thought and the Church. Before the Civil War, in the early nineteenth century, it was progressive Protestants -- especially Quakers and Unitarians -- who raised high the banner of the anti-slavery movement.

For most of the twentieth century, from the early 1900s to the 1980s at least, American Catholics provided steady guidance and support for progressive causes. That pantheon of heroes included Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945). He was a "Right Reverend New Dealer" according to his biographer. Msgr. Ryan popularized if he did not actually invent the term "living wage." He argued relentlessly over decades for the adoption of the minimum wage.

And then there is the saintly Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Day was responsible for consistently calling attention to the plight of America's neediest. Nor should we forget the bishops who in 1919 issued their "Proposal for Social Reconstruction." Among other policy recommendations, they urged the United States to adopt a program of "comprehensive ... insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age."

Catholics once broadly shared these progressive ideals. In 1948, the liberal candidate Harry Truman won 65 percent of the Catholic vote. And in 1964, Catholics gave the liberal Lyndon Johnson 78 percent of their vote in the year he signed landmark civil rights legislation and launched the War on Poverty.

The Dionne and Galston report celebrates this past, but also asks important questions about what happened to the once powerful alliance between Christians and progressives. They trace the splintering of this alliance to the 1980s and the rise of the religious right.

The religious right began as a reaction to the shifting sexual ethics of the 1970s. But the religious activists who aligned with the Republican Party in seeking the reversal of Roe v. Wade may have failed in that goal, but they nevertheless remained unshaken in their new political allegiance. They have now broadly accepted a right-wing agenda, including suspicion of the social programs once so widely supported by believers.

At the same time, Dionne and Galston poignantly note that the religious right gave rise to a reaction against its agenda. Americans have become more secular, at least partially because of what they see as the excessive judgmentalism and hypocrisy of the religious right. And this has paradoxically made it more difficult for religious progressives to find political refuge, since many in the Democratic Party, their ancestral home, now find all religious claims suspect.

Still, I find the Dionne and Galston report an important development in rebuilding the connections between religious progressives and electoral politics. Their suggestions, indeed, comport well with Catholic social thought. I'd like to identify three areas where Catholic thought could help support and sustain religious progressive ideals:

(1) Dionne and Galston call for greater attention to be paid to the poor. And this must always be the focus of progressive concerns. Jesus, after all, ministered first and foremost to the poor. But even while we never lose sight of the poorest among us, we should also broaden our vision to support the rights of labor.

This is in keeping with Catholic social thought. Pope Leo XIII in his famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (literally, "On Revolution"), condemned the mistreatment of the working classes. Thanks "to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition," Pope Leo lamented, workers have been forced to endure conditions "little better than that of slavery itself" (paragraph 3). Leo insisted that it was the solemn duty of Catholics to respect the rights of labor and alleviate these outrages.

Forty years later, in 1931, his successor, Pope Pius XI, seconded this clarion call by insisting on the adoption of comprehensive legal codes protecting and ensuring workers's rights: Society must adopt "laws [which] undertake the protection of life, health, strength, family, homes, workshops, wages, and labor hazards" (paragraph 20, Quadragesimo Anno).

Generations of religious progressives found inspiration in these paragraphs by Leo and Pius as they labored for the rights of the oppressed. We would do well to turn to them again.

(2) Dionne and Galston also cite the need for immigration reform. Millions of undocumented women and men, many who know no other home than the United States, inhabit a legal netherworld, where they are not only subject to economic exploitation but live in continuing fear of deportation. These hard-working, law-abiding people must be put on a path to citizenship. Reform is urgently needed.

Here, too, Catholic teaching provides valuable resources. St. John XXIII described immigrants as members of "the human family," men and women who enjoy "citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship" of persons. Pope Francis has lived out his pontificate with this admonition very much in mind. He has mourned the tragic loss of immigrant life and has asked wealthy societies to welcome these weary survivors into their midst.

Some members at least of the American Catholic hierarchy are taking these lessons to heart and all Catholics should do the same. The American economy would benefit, as would American society. And so would the millions of immigrants who now proudly call America home.

(3) Finally, Catholic social thought can help in yet another way: Catholicism has developed a deep and rich notion of the common good which all progressives might call upon. American political speech has been coarsened in recent decades by a debased Ayn Randian individualism. We inhabit a world in which the public financing of health care and education, for instance, are routinely denounced as "socialism."

This debasement of language by the right needs to be countered. And, again, we can turn to the words of that good and great Pope, St. John XXIII. The whole purpose of the State, he wrote "is the realization of the common good in the temporal order." And that must include protecting the rights and meeting the needs of "its weaker members."

Health care is a right. Education is a right. The vocabulary of Catholic social teaching permits us to make that case. A revitalization of the language of the common good would allow progressives -- whether secular or religious -- to confront the more noxious elements of Randian right-wing thought.

We seem to stand at the threshold of the re-invigorating of progressivism. This is true in the secular as well as the religious world. In the Vatican, there is a Pope who now gives voice to the principles of social justice. Young people seem more altruistic today than perhaps ever before. E.J. Dionne and William Galston may find the timing of their report propitious. I, for one, look forward to the rebirth of religious progressivism.