Friday, January 20, 2012

Minority Report: Catholics in Society (updated)

This year, the US bishops are taking turns (region by region) to visit the Pope. This is more than just a coffee clatch with guys in skullcaps: the bishops bring detailed reports (to the Holy Father and to the various Vatican offices) with statistics about the general population in their diocesan area, the Catholic population, numbers of parishes, priests, baptisms, Catholic weddings, etc. They share with the Holy Father their biggest concerns, their plans, their reasons for hope. While the local bishop is presenting his perspective, though, the Pope is hearing that in the context of the picture given him by bishops from very different territories. This allows the Pope to get a sense, from the ground up, of the whole Catholic picture around the world.
So when the Pope reflects back, in his talks to the bishops (as well as in those messages "to the city and the world" on Christmas and Easter), he is able to give more of the "big picture" than any one bishop or bishops' conference could come up with.
Just yesterday, in speaking with the bishops from the mid-Atlantic region, the Pope told them that, in view of the serious threats to religious freedom in the United States, the pastoral priority had to be on lay Catholics' being better instructed in the faith and in its implications for society, and empowered to witness to it in the public square.
The challenge here is for Catholics to "come out of the closet" of limiting their religious expression to a matter of where they go to worship on Sunday. It means being unafraid and unintimidated by accusations that they are "forcing their beliefs" on others.  In one sense, our democratic traditions tend to pressure minorities to surrender before the power of numbers, but even a minority has the right to proclaim what it holds as unfailingly true. And even though Catholics are a substantial percentage of the US population (as are fallen-away or alienated Catholics), it can be hard to recognize them in a society with such homogenizing tendencies as our consumer culture.
How can ordinary Catholics begin to awaken to the need to bring society into conformity with the whole truth about the human person?

Read the Pope's full talk here. 

Afternoon update:
In case you thought this was "yesterday's news," today's brings us back to the Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to provide full medical insurance coverage for contraception, sterilizations and other morally repugnant services. This mandate acknowledges only the slimmest "religious exemption," one which basically only covers parish-level ministry personnel. The White House has offered Catholic institutions a generous extension of one year to get with the program. Cardinal-designate Dolan summed up the administration's position: "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences."
Here's the rest of the story; here's the official statement from the US Bishops (confirming the Pope's observation yesterday of "grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism "); here's Cardinal-designate Dolan speaking as head of the US bishops:

Archbishop Timothy Dolan on HHS Conscience Regulation from Rocco Palmo on Vimeo.


Kristen said...

It seems to me that there is a deeper issue of understanding of WHAT IT IS to be a religious college, or social service agency, or whatever the relevant institution is.

One of my sisters is a social worker, and determined quite early on in her career that she could NEVER work for Catholic Social Services because they're restricted from talking to their clients about birth control. She felt quite adamant that to be working with at-risk teenage girls without talking about birth control was (1) professional malpractice, and (2) flat-out immoral.

But here's the thing -- there didn't seem to be any other significant differences between being a social worker for Catholic Social Services or being a social worker anywhere else (this was some years before the gay-adoption thing was hitting all the headlines). That strikes me as a big big problem. What we need, and very rarely have, is a rich and deep understanding of 'what it is to be a social service agency, or be a university, or be whatever it is, as people of faith, how we honor and celebrate all that is good and beautiful and wonderful about what our secular counterparts do -- which is a lot! -- and yet we bring an all-encompassing perspective that surpasses it.'

Too often -- and believe me I speak more in sorrow than in anger -- we don't have that vision. And when the only major differences seem to be that 'they exclude gay families' or 'they won't cover basic birth control' then we have a problem that goes way beyond PR or 'persecution.'

I hope that the Pope's call was to develop and express this wide-ranging vision, in which distinctive approaches to sexuality are part of an integral whole. And I REALLY hope it ends up blossoming that way. (And there are signs! A friend of mine teaches at a Catholic college -- not a particularly 'traditional' one -- and there's a big push to be deliberately integrating the 'Catholic intellectual tradition' in all their classes. A challenge for her as she teaches math! Though actually she's doing it in some really interesting and exciting ways.)

But I have to say, sadly, that I'm not holding my breath. Asserting our 'rights' will not win us a lot of friends when it comes across so much as the 'right' to be petty and narrow. And I know that's really not a fair descriptor but man it comes across that way a lot.

Sr Anne said...

I suspect the bishops are resorting to "rights" talk not because that sums up their only argument, but because it seems to be the only language Americans understand.

I think you're right that we have to be able to tell our story (what makes our institutions and their services different, even when the look like so many others), or else we allow the dominant voices in society to define who we are and what makes us different. And so far, society has been the one to say that the only thing that sets a Catholic institution apart is its incomprehensible attitude toward matters everyone else takes for granted.

There is so much that is, as you say, "all-encompassing" within the Church's teachings on the sanctity of life that it is probably tempting to resort to sound bytes like "forbidden" or "prohibited" or even "exclusion." But those are short-cuts, not the actual teachings.

So how do we tell the whole story without being ponderous about it?

Fred Kaffenberger said...

Kristen— The Church is the defender of conscience as something inviolable, rooted in the individual human person's direct relationship with the infinite. What's at stake here above all is the Church's freedom to educate, to form consciences open to the truth. Your sister can practice social work outside the Church, but the Church may no longer have this freedom. If the Church no longer educates, the most significant advocate for conscience will have been silenced (at least at the institutional level).

The credibility of a Church whose people and institutions are not markedly distinct from those people and organizations outside the Church is a profound challenge that is only beginning to take root in the Christian formation of the New Evangelization…