Three weeks ago, while sitting in my church pew in Manhattan, and skimming through the weekly bulletin, I came across a short notice promoting a church-hosted workshop that would demonstrate the moral and Constitutional shortcomings of the Obama administration's health care reform legislation.
The notice was entitled, "A Threat to Your Religious Liberty" and referred parishioners to the activist website (backed by Catholic radio personality Al Kresta), www.StopHHS.com. Below is the email I sent to my church in response to the advertisement. I've lightly edited it, mostly to keep the parish anonymous. Three weeks later, I'm still awaiting a response. My fingers are crossed that one might arrive in the comment section here.
To Whom it May Concern:
As a progressive lifelong Catholic, I was disappointed that, in our weekly bulletin, our parish has singled out the health care reform act as the main offense to our religious liberty. After all, isn't my religious liberty imperiled every time I'm compelled to pay taxes to fund unprovoked or preemptive military adventures (including the Iraq war, which Pope John Paul II publicly opposed) or to underwrite enormous and usurious financial institutions whose reckless lending practices endanger the financial security of the most vulnerable among us?
I try to separate my religious and political beliefs as much as possible, knowing that the Catholic Church is, well, catholic (in the small "c" sense -- i.e., that it's inclusive) and that my fellow parishioners have diverse political opinions. As someone who's served both as an alter boy and as a staff member for two Democratic presidential campaigns, and whose Democratic and Christian values have been instilled in me from an early age, this is no easy feat.
Diversity of political opinion seems to be a challenge that the Church is grappling with institutionally, as well. With the new health care reform law, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is emphasizing the sanctity of life implications of the insurance mandate in their opposition to it, and many in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (i.e., the nuns) have emphasized the compassion inherent in universal care in their support for it.
The doctrinal ambiguity over this debate (and my personal support for the law) aside, I'm concerned that the church is applying Cardinal Dolan's "new evangelism" not just to religious and moral issues, but to political issues, and it is advertising "legal" education in the workshop it's hosting. Just as I'd be uncomfortable with my political leaders interpreting the Bible for me, I'm dubious about the prospect of learning about American Constitutional law from Church leaders, with due respect. I suppose my more ultimate concern is that, as the Church continues to emulate the evangelical Christian movement in its political activism, it may risk losing salience with those of us whose reading of scripture (and our understanding of the homilies we hear each Sunday) inspires a Christian worldview that underpins a progressive political philosophy.
My question is this: Should the Catholic faith not remain larger than -- and transcend -- the vicissitudes of national politics? Or does the church expect its followers to regularly look to it for their beliefs on matters of public policy and legislation that have religious or moral implications (but, then again, don't they all)? To invoke St. Francis, please know that I seek not so much to be understood as to understand.