In recent years, as the role of religion in America recedes and our media institutions especially are populated with people ignorant of or hostile to religion, an informed treatment of a piece of religious news has become almost too much to expect. Take, for instance, one BuzzFeed reporter who informed her Twitter followers that Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria, whom the good Catholic lads at Paddy Power have at 6:1, was ineligible to be elected Pope because he is over the age of 80 (he is ineligible to vote; there is absolutely no age limit on the papabili). Sometimes it’s too much to hope even for coverage that doesn’t betray complete bafflement at the fact that the Pope was Catholic. Take the New York Times today:
For the church’s liberal elements, rather than being the answer to that crisis, Benedict’s election represented the problem: an out-of-step conservative European academic. Many wondered if he would be a mere caretaker, filling the post after the long papacy of the beloved John Paul until a younger, more dynamic heir could be elevated.
As the Vatican’s doctrinal leader, Benedict’s had asserted that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient”; that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem cell research.
This, by the way, was no random stringer — it was the Rome-bureau chief of the New York Times, who has been known on Twitter to mock the Pope and demonstrate that she doesn’t know the difference between papal infallibility and the content of the magisterium.
But the Lewis C. Levin Award for Knowing Nothing about Catholicism, on this big day, really goes to John Stanton of BuzzFeed, for his mindboggling piece “Catholic Left Looks for an Opening with a New Pope.” (First, one has to qualify that by “Catholic Left,” Stanton apparently means Catholics United, a 501(c)(4) that’s affiliated with the Democratic party, since that’s the only group and/or liberal voice he cites in the piece.)
Take the lede:
Pope Benedict’s surprise decision to abdicate the papacy will set the direction for an American church that has increasingly become a key force on the right.
Under the leadership of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the U.S. Conference of Bishops has become a major player in Republican politics in recent years, and should the next pope be cut from the same conservative cloth as Benedict, that position could become solidified for decades to come.
Let’s leave aside the ridiculous suggestion that the “American church” has “increasingly become a key force on the right” and a “major player in Republican politics in recent years.” (And Popes do not “abdicate”; per § 332, 2, of Canon law, they resign.) It makes next to no sense to claim that whether the next Pope is perceived to be as “conservative” as Benedict XVI will determine whether the Church in America remains an advocate for some “right” or “Republican” positions. The idea that Benedict was necessary for the USCCB to stand up for core tenets of the faith, as it has been doing for more than a century, is ridiculous.
A “liberal” cardinal being elected the next Pope would not reverse the Church’s definition of marriage, her stance on homosexuality, her position on abortion, or her defense of conscience rights — which are what make the Church into what Stanton suggests is basically an organ of the American Right. The Church’s positions are rooted in tradition and basically immutable, not subject to change by the man who occupies the Seat of Peter — the unilateral power of papal infallibility can extend to questions of “morals” rather than theology, but it has never been done.
Ah, but Stanton explains that Catholic progressives realize these things won’t change (guaranteeing, of course, that the Catholic Church will continue to be on the right side of American politics on several important issues, despite what he just wrote above), so the Left is looking for a shift in emphasis to “a renewed focus on social justice, women’s equality and climate change.”
How to parse Benedict on these issues? The most prominent works by Popes are their encyclicals, of which Benedict wrote three, two theological and one moral. The topic of the moral encyclical (his most recent)? Charity and social justice. Oops.
He had three apostolic exhortations, also key papal documents. The one of them considering temporal, moral issues? Africae Munus, “a pledge to Africa.” This is the man whom Stanton quotes Catholics United saying really needs to be replaced with a representative from the Global South.
Stanton then makes an abrupt jump from Vatican to American politics, writing:
Because they make up significant parts of swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, white, working-class Catholics have become one of the most sought after voter demographics in national politics, and one that has shifted steadily to the right in recent years.
Measured by the American political spectrum, working-class whites have indeed moved right in recent years. What hasn’t moved right by any useful measure, of course, is their Church, which maintains the same moral teachings it has had since long before American politics existed.
It gets worse, though. Stanton writes that, in order to garner the support of these white working-class Catholics:
Republicans made a significant push, starting last Spring when Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Roy Blunt took up Dolan’s anti-contraception banner.
This is a patently absurd and ignorant statement: While Cardinal Dolan, of course, does oppose the use of contraception, neither Speaker Boehner nor Senator Blunt has “taken up” that banner as a political matter. Rather, they have supported the conscience rights of organizations such as the archdiocese run by Cardinal Dolan not to have to pay for services to which they morally object. That’s probably why Stanton later altered this sentence to reflect this reality, without noting the change (it now reads that they “took up Dolan’s campaign against requiring Catholic employers to pay for contraception”).
Then there is this embarrassing example of slant:
Then in August, Dolan appeared at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, a move that angered Catholic Democrats and raised questions about the Conference’s direct involvement in the presidential election.
There is no mention of the fact that Cardinal Dolan also offered a prayer at the Democratic convention. Either Stanton is extremely eager to paint Cardinal Dolan as a Republican partisan and ignores this fact, or he is letting whatever liberal Catholics he spoke to about this article spin him, and he hasn’t bothered to investigate Dolan’s actual “involvement in the presidential election” (he later says a Catholics United representative “point[ed] to the cardinal’s direct involvement in the Republican National Convention last summer). Either way, he should be embarrassed.
But this bizarre take on politics and Catholicism is just getting started:
Of course the Catholic Church’s rightward shift is not a direct result of Benedict’s papacy or the work of Dolan. In the 1980s Pope John Paul II began a concerted effort to marginalize adherents of liberation philosophy — a radical understanding Catholic teachings that stresses social justice and a battle against oppression espoused by Latin American priests, most notably the martyred El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.
First of all, I have no idea if such a thing as “liberation philosophy” exists, but the Catholic movement is called “liberation theology,” and Archbishop Romero was not an adherent of it, certainly not the “most notable” one. Romero, as a Church leader in El Salvador, was absolutely an outspoken supporter of the cause and rights of the poor, but he was actually regarded as an orthodox, conservative replacement for his predecessor as archbishop. Before he was gunned down while celebrating Mass, Romero certainly leaned left, having become a critic of the United States’ role in Latin America, but he was never considered an advocate of liberation theology.
If Stanton actually knew anything about the topic, he’d know that Pope Benedict, as Bishop Ratzinger and head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, actually was an outspoken critic of liberation theology, one of the Church’s appointed enforcers — so if rejecting a radical, Marxist leftward shift is a rightward shift, then yep, Benedict was definitely part of it.
According to Stanton:
That push dovetailed with the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Central America, where the U.S. often found itself in conflict with local Catholic leaders in supporting dictatorships fighting communist insurgents.
While John Paul II’s anti-Communism did dovetail with “the Reagan administration’s foreign policy” generally, it didn’t really in Latin America: JPII was a strong supporter of various anti-Pinochet movements in Chile, in opposition to America’s policy. His bishops were strong critics of Paraguay’s military dictator Alfredo Stroessner, another U.S. ally, going so far as to excommunicate members of the Stroessner regime. Anyone familiar with the Pope’s visits to Latin America during this time would know that they hardly “dovetailed” with Reagan’s policies. As I just explained, too, the Catholic hierarchy in El Salvador, while staunchly anti-Communist, with the Pope’s support spoke out against the abuses of the military and American influence in the country. The Catholic Church opposed Communism before John Stanton or Ronald Reagan were born, and the latter knew it, I imagine.
Next, there’s this:
Still, the activity has increased dramatically in recent years, and the Holy See not only knew about the increasing partisan activities of the Conference, but seems to have explicitly endorsed it.
In a papal letter to the Knights of Columbus last summer, Benedict argued, “By defending the right of all religious believers, as individual citizens and in their institutions, to work responsibly in shaping a democratic society inspired by their deepest beliefs, values and aspiration your Order has proudly lived up to the high religious and patriotic principles which inspired its founding.”
I honestly have no idea what argument Stanton is trying to advance. But I will take issue with his premise, that the USCCB is engaged in “increasing partisan activities.” It wouldn’t be very easy to assess exactly, subjective as it is, whether the USCCB’s political activities are increasing (I’m inclined to think they are not), but it is absolutely laughable to assert without any evidence except a liberal Catholic organization’s complaints, that they are doing so in a way that’s especially “partisan,” as Stanton repeatedly claims.
Anyone familiar with the politics of the Catholic Church and the positions of the USCCB is well aware that they are hardly partisan — they’re probably more “bipartisan,” with preferences all over the political spectrum, than any other similarly prominent group in America. Anyone who actually follows the work of the USCCB or has spent any appreciable time in a Catholic church over the past few years would know that they’ve been all over the map — for instance, supporting President Obama’s goal of universal health care, but opposing the specific bill both because it could provide coverage for abortion and violate conscience rights and because it doesn’t extend coverage to illegal immigrants. That’s the strong right arm of the Republican party right there. Or take conscience rights — Catholic institutions have taken the U.S. government to court over the past few years over the president’s health-care law, which forces Catholics to provide services against their conscience; and against Alabama’s immigration law, which prevents Catholics from providing services due to their conscience — to illegal aliens.
But just to try to quantify the balance, I looked at the USCCB’s archive of its news releases, an easily browsable page which goes back to January 2010. There were, by my count, 63 announcements favoring causes typically and currently identified with the Democratic party (immigration reform, the anti-war movement, nuclear disarmament, promotion of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, universal health care, government spending for the poor, foreign aid, environmentalism), and 47 favoring causes typically and currently identified with the Republican party (conscience rights for health-care providers, anti-abortion measures, traditional marriage, moral objections to homosexuality).
Anyway, look, you don’t need to take my word for it. You have John Stanton’s misinformed BuzzFeed article and the arguments of the Catholic liberal lobby. But I repeat myself.