The Francis Factor in Catholic Politics

Like pretty much everybody else in the world who would like to see the Catholic Church play a more constructive and above all humble role in politics and society, I’ve been pretty impressed with Pope Francis. It’s important not to over-interpret his change of tone and priorities for the Church as some sort of papal Vatican III. But we’re beginning to see that he has emboldened Catholic reformers, viz. this very impertinent editorial from the National Catholic Reporter lecturing the U.S. Conference of Bishops to get with the program:

[I]n the spirit of Francis, we would challenge them to move from a disembodied intellectualism into the concrete realities the church must face today. We would suggest the following as starters:

* Resolve their dispute with President Barack Obama over the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. They need to embrace the exemptions and accommodations that Catholic colleges and hospitals say are workable and abandon their support of exemptions for for-profit employers, a fight they never should have picked in the first place. This dispute has disrupted too much critical business of the bishops’ conference. The Affordable Care Act is the closest we have gotten to a health system that cares for all citizens. Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities should be among the leaders in signing people up for coverage, and the bishops should be directing their staff to find ways to make the program better.

* Ditch their unrelentingly harsh criticism of same-sex marriage. In state legislatures, courtrooms and polling places, they have lost the civil battle over same-sex marriage. The bishops need a realistic pastoral plan to address marriage equality that honors the civil law and their Catholic faithful.

* Censure bishops who have violated the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Among the bishops are at least three active members who have seriously violated the Dallas Charter: Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., John Myers of Newark, N.J., and John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis. The majority of church leadership are doing a credible job protecting children and holding themselves accountable. Some bishops and chancery personnel continue to obstruct investigations and cover up crimes. They must be dealt with publicly.

* Stand with the poor. The closure of the government last month and the once again forestalled fight over the federal budget are manifestations of a deeper debate about what the government should do for its citizens and where a nation should invest its riches. We fear that poor people and the near-poor have no advocates in that debate. Two years ago, the bishops, working with a coalition of liked-minded organizations, built a “Circle of Protection” and successfully defended the most basic social safety net. We urge them to move forward with that same coalition to build an active movement that insists on investment in people. Jobs, health care and education should be their rallying call.

I’m sure Rick Santorum would consider such an agenda actively satanic, but that’s the point: U.S. Catholics and their leaders have for too long let people like him pose as representative of their tradition and their views.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.