Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bishop Robert McElroy, "A Church for the Poor": Reframing the Catholic Moral Conversation in Light of Pope Francis's Insistence on Primacy of the Poor

At America Magazine, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Francisco offers an essay entitled "A Church for the Poor."  Bishop McElroy views Pope Francis's stress on the primacy of the poor in Catholic thinking and the Catholic practice of faith as a profound challenge to the way in which many Americans, including American Catholics, think about political issues. Francis's call to orient our thinking about matters of faith and our practice of faith around the poor is an "invitation to cultural conversion."

I'm struck by the way in which Bishop McElroy engages what has become a central argument of Catholics of the right in the U.S. This is the argument that all moral issues have to be subordinated to "non-negotiable" issues centering on matters of what's called "intrinsic evil"--notably, the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. The implication of this argument is that other moral issues, including how we deal with the poor, must take second place to abortion and same-sex marriage as the core moral issues for the church to pursue at this point in its history.

The implication of the argument is also that addressing the needs of the poor, working to change economic systems that enrich a few at the expense of the many, demanding that capital punishment be ended or that we stop waging war are all matters for debate within the Catholic community--they're "negotiable" items, and Catholics can pick and choose among these or simply decide not to let any of these count--while holding a hard line on abortion and same-sex marriage is "non-negotiable."

As I pointed out in my first statement about Pope Francis's interview with his fellow Jesuits published in America last month, an important move that Francis makes in that interview is to draw Catholics' attention back to the hierarchy of truths. As he critiques the "obsession" of some Catholics today with the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception, as if these are the only issues that count for Catholics, Francis notes that "the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent," and that some of us have become fixated on transmitting a "disjointed multitude of doctrines" that we're intent on imposing on others in an insistent way.

The implication of these observations is that we've lost sight of what should really count first and foremost for us as Catholics. We've come to use the notion of "intrinsic evil" and of "non-negotiables" as a weapon against fellow Catholics who point out that how we deal with the poor (a term that can be defined in various ways, if we link it to the concept of marginalization and disempowerment) has to count above all for us as followers of Jesus. How we deal with those shoved to the margins has to form the moral framework within which we view all moral issues, if our moral thinking and practice are to be rooted in the teaching of Jesus and the gospels.

Bishop McElroy seems to me to be pursuing this same kind of analysis in his essay, which is, as he notes, directly indebted to Pope Francis as it looks at the primacy of the poor in Catholic thinking and Catholic practice of faith. As he notes, how we apply our core moral insights, centered on concern for the poor, in the public square requires prudential moral thinking. It requires more than the fundamentalistic drum-beat insistence that this, this, and this are intrinsically evil, and no further moral discussion or moral analysis is necessary.

Bishop McElroy writes, 

There is no single category of sin or evil, social good or virtue, that is the filter for discerning the priorities of the church in the public order. The concept of the common good is multidimensional in its very nature, and any reductionist effort to minimize this quality is a distortion of our heritage and teaching.

This is a direct challenge to a very powerful strand of Catholic thinking in the U.S. today, which imagines that it roots itself in the papal teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and which does not intend and never has intended that concern for the poor frame Catholic moral thinking in the same way that it intends for opposition to abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage to frame Catholic moral thinking. If Bishop McElroy is correct that Pope Francis is calling for us to reframe how we think about moral issues in a way that gives primacy of place to the poor, and which simultaneously calls on us to think prudentially and strategically, and not fundamentalistically, about the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception as we engage the public square, then he's clearly also right to conclude that Pope Francis is inviting American Catholics to "cultural conversion."

And that invitation is going to stir up serious opposition, I suspect, among many powerful American Catholics who are determined to keep the question of where the poor fit into the scheme of things at the bottom of the lowest tiers of Catholic moral thinking, as they continue to insist that only abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage count. Since the two previous popes say so, these Catholics believe.

The graphic: a banner from a protest in April 2012 staged by Georgetown University faculty and groups including Catholics United against Paul Ryan's budget.

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