When I was a newly ordained priest in 1966, a classmate, Vin Maynard, observed, “Kiley, you preach the same sermon every week: social justice through the liturgy.” The assessment was probably valid.
President Johnson had inaugurated his war against poverty. Neighborhoods established Community Action Programs. The Model Cities Program was not far off. Grape boycotts were fashionable. Bishop McVinney had graciously permitted Henry Shelton to establish inner city centers in metropolitan areas. Urban renewal, both structurally and culturally, was the rage.
These thoughts came to mind as I turned the pages of Kerri Kennedy’s new book, “Being Catholic Now.” In a series of two- or three-page essays, Kennedy offers the considerations of contemporary Catholics ranging from Bill Maher to Cardinal McCarrick. Largely Irish, largely political, some still practicing, some long disenchanted, the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Dan Ackroyd, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Frank McCourt, Martin Sheen, Peggy Noonan as well as Nancy Pelosi and E.J. Dionne reflect on their Catholic heritage. The contributors remember their Catholic childhood fondly for the most part, although clergy abuse sadly enters a few histories. A number were born into or have entered into mixed marriages, adding a broader dimension to their religious experience.
But the overwhelming theme of practically all of these stories is right out of the 1960s: the equation of Christianity with social justice. Frank Butler: “Catholic social justice is the essential part of the Gospel. …” Gabriel Byrne: “… the crux of Christianity, which is love thy neighbor as thyself.” Susan Sarandon: “I’d sell off most of that stuff that’s in the Vatican and eradicate poverty and disease.” R. Scott Appleby: “The Gospel of Luke has always been very important to me because it’s about God’s agency in siding with and caring for the poor, the underdog, the marginalized.” Mary Jo Bane: “Now I attend services at the Paulist Center, a little haven for progressive Catholics; it’s very much oriented toward service and social justice.
The notion that social justice is integral to the Gospel message is nothing new. The Church has always been the “defender of orphans and widows.” Wages and wars are important Christian concerns. But issues that were unthought-of and even unthinkable in the 1960s are now major items. The list is sadly familiar: abortion, stem cells, reproductive experimentation, contraception, woman priests, optional celibacy, same-sex unions, gay lifestyle, HIV & condoms. Sadly, the Church’s consistent and clear teaching on these topics is overwhelmingly rejected or unhappily tolerated by the prominent American Catholics highlighted in this book. Anna Quindlen: “Then I would lift the ban on artificial birth control. …” Andrew Sullivan: “… I’m openly gay because I’m Catholic, because I was taught not to lie. …” Cokie Roberts: “The first thing I would do if I were pope is ordain women and then married men.” Donna Brazile: “As far as the pro-life/pro-choice issue … I believe it’s essential for women to have a choice.” Nancy Pelosi: “I’ve always been pro-choice.” And so on and so forth.
Frankly, the doctrinal aberrations of these prominent Catholics are not as disturbing as the failure of the clergy to convince this generation about the inviolable beauty of unborn life, about the compelling insights of natural family planning, about sexual complementarity and openness to life in marriage, about the priesthood of Jesus Christ “who was and remains a man,” about the unique dignity of women, about the supernatural elements of celibacy. Our American ancestors in the faith, Cardinal Gibbons, Msgr. George Higgins, Dorothy Day, exemplified an admirable tradition of social justice for the Catholics of the pre-World War II era, a tradition that has endured as Kennedy’s book testifies. Today’s Catholic clergy must eloquently preach and effectively teach regarding the life and lifestyle issues of the third millennium. The pervasive secular perspective that exalts individual choice, eschews Christian sexual discipline, scorns sacramental tradition and refuses papal instruction must be exposed as profoundly unChristian. Apparently a lot of talented and influential American Catholics are clueless regarding the full Christian message. Today’s challenge is daunting but clear.