Thursday, November 15, 2012

A fourteen-page hot mess

Abps. William Lori (BAL) and Salvatore Cordileone (SFO)
For every non-Catholic who has felt the Catholic Church focuses too much on sexual issues, it must have seemed a sweet irony.

According to Religion News Service, a special committee was supposed to produce "a short reflection" on the economic crisis for consideration at this year's bishops' conference in Baltimore.  What they got — and they didn't get it until after they'd arrived — was a fourteen-page hot mess "dominated by spiritual terminology that ignored the roots of the economic crisis and did not suggest solutions provided by Catholic social teaching."

Entitled "The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times", reported David Gibson included this critique:

The first draft gave short shrift to a century of social justice encyclicals from the popes, including those of Benedict XVI, and did not even mention the USCCB’s landmark 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All[link mine], which has been hailed for challenging economic injustice in the U.S.
Moreover, there was criticism that the document repeatedly highlighted the church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion and its support for school vouchers in ways that distracted from the economic issues that were supposed to be at the heart of the message [bold font mine].

"Repeatedly" is an exaggeration, made in the confidence that few people will bother to read the full text.  While the document does make mention of the collapse of the traditional family (a factor that does bear on our current economic woes) a couple of times, same-sex marriage and abortion actually get no more attention than any other social illness.  And I don't know where Gibson got the idea that the document "repeatedly highlighted" the church's support for school vouchers when they're not mentioned at all; once the document alludes to the high costs of private parochial schools, but that's it.

Nevertheless, abortion and same-sex marriage appear shoe-horned into the discussion, rather than growing organically from the core of the argument.  Bringing up the collapse of the biological nuclear family as an economic foundational element was a good point; that's where it should have been left, without elaborative discursion.

In any event, many bishops, including Council President Cdl. Timothy Dolan (NYC), wanted to amend the document into something respectable, in the conviction that the bishops really ought to say something about the economy (it hasn't escaped their attention, after all).  The problem with fixing a bad document through amendments is much like duct-taping a Hefty® garbage bag over a broken car window ... it doesn't really improve anything and makes the rest of the vehicle look worse than it did before.  Better to say nothing than to issue the resulting mishmash.

The vote on issuing the statement was 134-85, with 9 abstentions.  In Congress, that would mean a passed resolution.  However, the USCCB requires a two-thirds majority on pastoral statements; 134 was 18 votes too few.  Gaveling the document's defeat, Cdl. Dolan, declared it dead "with obvious disappointment".

Gibson makes one other comment that bears comment:

Yet in a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.
Oh what a giveaway.
Gibson, in supposing a conflict between emphasis on private charity and "traditional Catholic social teaching" (which he indirectly associates with government action), is talking bloody nonsense — private charity has always been part of traditional Catholic social teaching, as has suspicion of the "nanny state" (the latter at least since Pope Leo XIII penned the first social-justice encyclical, Rerum Novarum).  
In fact, the principle of subsidiarity tells us that nothing should be done at a higher level that can be done more effectively at a lower level; under this principle, the federal government is a social-change tool of last resort, not first.  And funding poverty relief through taxation is a poor second to voluntary contributions, not because the latter can raise more money but because the former is accomplished through government coercion.  This is not to say that the Church envisions no role whatsoever for national governments, but rather to say that they are (or should be) the least-preferred agents of change.

Taking Gibson's liberal spin into account, I really don't know how big a role the intrusive comments on SSM and abortion really played in defeating "The Hope of the Gospel".  (How it is that you can take several people with doctorates and master's degrees, put them on a committee, and get back a paper that looks composed by a lazy undergrad, I don't know.)  All I know is, the comments on abortion and SSM were intrusive, and the document as a whole really deserved to be shot down.

But it does leave me with a question:  How do you restrict yourself to matters of faith and not talk about its implications for social justice and the community?  
Because, as St. James points out, faith without action is empty and meaningless:  "If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas 2:15-17).