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The Catholic civil war

U.S. Catholic bishops listen as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a Mass on June 14, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

It was a strength of American civil society in the last decades of the 20th century that the Catholic Church was not aligned with our secular politics. On  social issues — abortion and GLBT rights above all — Church leaders stood with the Republicans. On economic and foreign policy, they sided with the Democrats.

In recent years, however, this constructive bipartisanship has been under assault, largely from the Catholic right.

Economic thinkers led by the late Michael Novak have persistently claimed that the Church’s social teaching is far more friendly to unfettered capitalism than it is. Neoconservatives have backed a degree of anti-Muslim bellicosity not shared by the Vatican.

Despite the Church’s longstanding support for universal health care, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops managed to come out against the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in exempting religious institutions from having to provide female employees with contraceptive coverage.

There have also been efforts to pretend that the Church is not all that opposed to the death penalty and all that supportive of gun control, and notable inattention to Pope Francis’ stern warning on the dangers of climate change.

In other words, the campaign has been to turn the Church into a spiritual doppelgänger of the Republican Party. And it was well on its way to succeeding.

But Francis has thwarted these well-laid plans — by his powerful restatements of traditional Catholic social teaching and by his appointment of bishops and cardinals who share his views.

The result is what amounts to an ecclesial civil war that has sucked all issues confronting the Church into it, most prominently whether to permit communion for the divorced and remarried. On one side is the Party of Francis and on the other, the Party of, well, Reaction.

Rome is as much of a battlefield as the United States.

There, Francis has moved against prominent hierarchs who have shown themselves resistant to his agenda. Three years ago, he removed Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Vatican’s highest court. Four months ago, he declined to reappoint Cardinal Gerhard Müller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

And two weeks ago, he issued a remarkable reproach to Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office. Sarah had boldly claimed that the pope’s recent order to return responsibility for vernacular translations to national bishops conferences did not actually do that. Oh yes it did, said Francis.

Unabashed, Sarah gave a speech at a church conference in Warsaw a week ago supporting the immigration restrictions imposed by Eastern European nations contrary to the policy of the EU. Countries have a right, the black African prelate emphasized, to distinguish between political and religious refugees and those emigrating for economic reasons.

“Some people exploit the Word of God to justify the promotion of multiculturalism and gaily take advantage of the excuse of hospitality to justify the admission of immigrants,” Sarah said.

Unsurprisingly, the speech was seized upon by alt-right-ish media in the U.S., both Catholic and secular, from LifeSite News to Breitbart and the Daily Caller. Breitbart pointed out that the pope has himself distinguished between policies for refugees and for migrants, but it’s nonsense to imply that Francis, who has made opposition to anti-migrant populism a centerpiece of his papacy, would associate himself with Sarah’s remarks.

As if to dress down the cardinal once again, on Thursday Pope Francis told a group of children from Houston “that one of the nicest things is to welcome a new culture that comes from somewhere else, be enriched through dialogue with that culture, and welcome the other,” according to Crux.

“And it’s not me who says this, someone much more important than I said it: God said it, and in the Bible it’s clear. Welcome the migrant, the refugee, because you were a migrant and refugee in Egypt,” he said. “Jesus, too, was a refugee.”

Thus far, the American bishops have maintained their staunch support for undocumented immigrants, backing a path to citizenship and, most recently, strongly condemning President Trump’s decision to end the DACA program. But there are those in the Church who, on this issue too, disdain the pope in favor of the now Trumpian GOP.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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