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“Catholics for Equality”: Are US Bishops Undermining Pope Benedict’s Message?

During the build-up to Pope Benedict’s UK visit, several of our conservatice rule-book bloggers expressed dismay at what they saw as the wayward line of Archbishop Vincent Nichols as head of the English Church, and as ordinary for the diocese of Westminster, in allowing the continuation of the LGBT-oriented  Soho Masses. They saw this as in contravention of church teaching, claimed that it was “undermining” Pope Benedict on gay marriage, and expressed a fervent hope and prayer that the Archbishop would be “put right” by the pope. This certainly did not happen in public, and I would be most surprised if it happened in private. As I showed in an extended post yesterday, a close examination of the texts of all the pope’s public addresses during the visit shows remarkable agreement between Benedict and Nichols on the priorities facing the English church. By extension, most of these are probably also the priorities he sees for the church in other parts of the world, and especially the richer countries.

"Justice between the Archangels Michael and Gabriel"(JACOBELLO DEL FIORE)

A major event of the visit for the intersection of religion and public life was the address to the country’s most prominent leaders in Westminster Hall.  As I reflected on the concerns expressed by Pope Benedict during his UK tour, and especially on this thoughtful and important address, I was simultaneously aware of the activities of some US and Mexican bishops. Comparing their words with Benedict, I came to this conclusion: Archbishop Nichols is clearly not undermining the Pope’s views on anything – but the American and Mexican bishops, with their intemperate direct interference in the political process, patently are.

The Westminster address deserves close study for its analysis of the roles of church and state – an analysis that I am unable to provide here. However, I do want to quote extensively from some of the opening paragraphs. After opening with an important reference to the martyr St Thomas More, and the “integrity with which he followed his conscience”, the pope had this to say:

Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

Meeting with Representatives of British Society, Westminster Hall

Catholics for Equality“, then should not be seen as a paradox, an oxymoron. Instead, it should be part of the definition of Catholicism,  this search for equality. As Catholics, says the pope, we have an “overriding concern” to promote and safeguard the “unique dignity” of every human person – not just those approved of by the bishops for conforming to Catholic teaching.  Yet in his response to the formation of this new group of Catholics promoting the cause of equality for the LGBT community,  Archbishop Timothy Broglio simply dismissed them as not a “legitimate” Catholic group.

Whatever does he mean by that? As individuals, they clearly are Catholics, including some very prominent priests, former priests and theologians. (See their “Leadership and Staff” webpage) In acting collectively, they are obviously a group, so obviously they are a “Catholic group”. What makes them not “legitimate”? I recognize that they are not authorized by the hierarchy to speak on their behalf – but they do not claim to do so.   Rather, they are speaking in conscience, out of a desire to promote the very Catholic causes of promoting the dignity and equality of all. They do this, like Thomas More, “even at the cost of displeasing the “sovereign(s)” of the church. I do not know what is meant by a “legitimate” Catholic group, but I do have a sense of what constitutes authentic Catholicism, as praised by Pope Benedict in this address – and this group looks to me to come pretty close to it. I will have more on this group, and their specific aims and activities, later.

Meanwhile, what of the Bishops? How well do their actions accord with the authentic Catholic approach to resolving the delicate balance between promoting secular goals and protecting ethical principles? Let us consider again some words of Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall:

The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason….. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

Meeting with Representatives of British Society, Westminster Hall

Pay attention here: the role of religion is not to “supply the norms” (which I guess means not to dictate the rules), and “still less, to propose concrete political solutions“, but to shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of moral principles. Is this what the US and Mexican bishops have been doing?

I may be missing something here, but I have seen nothing to suggest they are applying any “reason” to the debate – all I have seen have been more rehashing of the entirely fallacious claims, completely unsupported by evidence (which does not exist) that the current understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreating and nurturing children has always been so, “from the beginning”.  This is patent nonsense, as any reference to history or even to the Old Testament would show. (See “An Ignorant Mexican Cardinal, & an Authentic History of Marriage“). However even if you grant (somewhat generously) that the bishops claims amount to the application of “reason”, there is another problem. Their active involvement in vigorously opposing equality legislation most certainly amounts to proposing “concrete political solutions”, which Benedict clearly says is not the proper role of religion. But it gets worse – not only are they actively proposing specific political solutions, they are spending scandalous amounts of money on proposals which will directly work against the progress towards equality and dignity of all, in Minnesota, in Iowa, in Mexico, and elsewhere.

I suggest that Catholics in these states and elsewhere, should be drawing attention to how certain of their bishops are undermining the precepts of Pope Benedict, so recently clearly expressed, on the proper task and methods for the Catholic Church in the political realm.


One Response

  1. Benedict will never correct a bishop over this kind of teaching. He strongly adheres to the doctrine that they have total autonomy in their own dioceses. If a bishop should choose to prioritize sexual teachings over social justice teachings he will never be corrected by this Pope. He is more apt to be pat on the back for doing so.

    Benedict can say what ever he wants for public consumption, but his actions are a far better indicator as to where he really stands. As far as is known he has never corrected a bishop for political statements or actions in support of sexually conservative policies and when it comes to the traditional priesthood he can’t even correct bishops for engaging in criminal behavior.

    On an aside, what I also found interesting about his Westminster speech was his espousing a Vatican I Christology. If there was a message strictly for Catholics, that was it.

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