When the Catholic Church Was Pragmatic, Not Doctrinal

Editor’s Note: We welcome Kathleen Reeves, another youth voice on our Real Time blog, today!  Kathleen will blog weekly with three other young bloggers.

As someone who attended Mass
every week growing up, I was attuned to the liberalism in the readings
and the Gospels – I remembered Jesus’s compassion for the prostitute,
his inclusion of women, and the constant reminders to love the sick
and the maimed – people we’d now call disabled. But to many of my
peers, the idea of Catholicism as a liberal institution was incomprehensible.
And why wouldn’t it be? My generation does not remember when Catholics
bolstered the Democratic party, when the children of Irish and Italian
immigrants voted with the party of labor unions rather than the party
of factory owners.  

As Catholics became more prosperous,
the battle between workers and owners became less central. And something
else happened, of course: the rise of the Evangelical movement and the
increased politicization of abortion and contraception. To the extent
that, in at least the past two presidential elections, American bishops
declared it a sin to vote for the Democratic candidate. And there was
the very public, appalling refusal of Communion to John Kerry.  

What happened? A New Yorker
article by Peter Boyer
that appeared in September points to Karl Rove’s
instrumental role in the delivery of Catholics to the Republican party
in the 2000 election, with the help of Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic
editor. The piece suggests, though, that things might be changing. Douglas
Kmiec, a Catholic legal scholar who worked for Reagan, endorsed Obama
after some soul-searching on Obama’s stand on abortion. And recently,
Leslie Woodcock Tentler, a professor of history at Catholic University
chided the church’s "single-issue approach to politics," which
threatens to overshadow the traditional Catholic interest in social

An article in the National
Catholic Reporter
recounts Tentler’s January 29th talk,
in which she recalled a statement issued by a council of Catholic bishops
in 1919: 

She said the statement — which later became
practically a charter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "New
Deal" program — called for public policies that would include:

  • A "living wage" for
    all male workers — defined as sufficient to support a wife and family
    in reasonable comfort and provide for savings to sustain him and his
    spouse in old age (she noted that the bishops presumed, in accord with
    the times, that males should be the economic providers).
  • Government requirements
    that employers provide insurance protecting their employees from illness
    and disability and cover health and economic security in old age —
    principles that would eventually be implemented in programs ranging
    from unemployment insurance to the Social Security System.
  • "Publicly subsidized medical
    care" to those that need it, found today in Medicare and Medicaid.
  • "Slum clearance and public
  • "Expansion and more rigorous
    enforcement of workplace safety laws."
  • "An end to child labor"
    by extreme punitive taxing to effectively to reverse a 1918 Supreme
    Court decision that had declared it legal.
  • "State protection of the
    right of unions to organize and bargain collectively."
  • "A tax code that would
    protect the more equitable distribution of income."

American Catholics – many of
them much more comfortable than they used to be – are sorely in need
of a reminder of some of the church’s most basic tenets: tolerance,
compassion for the poor, mindfulness of those who are easily forgotten.
But perhaps the most vital idea in Tentler’s talk was how the Catholic
Church addressed family planning in the past. At the time of the 1919
"Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction," the hot-button issue
was not abortion, but contraception. Part of the reason the bishops
pushed for a living wage was to make large families feasible for low-income
Catholics. In other words, "They always spoke a pragmatic rather than
a religious or doctrinal language," says Tentler.  

If the climate of the Catholic
Church today were what it was in the early 20th century,
might we see bishops taking steps – indeed, recommending legislation-not
to limit access to abortion but rather to make their teaching on abortion
more feasible for Catholics? Would they, in the spirit of pragmatism
and compassion, allow at least a dialogue about contraception? Could
we even imagine them embodying Catholic social justice by empowering
the poor-making sex education widespread and contraception free and

As Boyer’s piece in the
New Yorker
pointed out, Obama drew the attention of a few on the
religious right with his faith-friendly approach. Perhaps the President,
with his remarkable capacity for calm consideration, can help moderate
a discussion between those on opposite sides of the reproductive rights
argument. And perhaps the Catholic Church can bring to this discussion
a renewed, pragmatic dedication to the welfare of all people.

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  • invalid-0

    The church has been wrong multiple times over the centuries.

    In the middle ages it was a crime to dissect a human body; Michelangelo had to study anatomy secretly. Yet today the church operates hospitals where surgery is commonplace.

    And everyone knows of the church’s edict to Galileo, who had the audacity to state the earth revolved around the sun. He was threatened with torture and death if he didn’t recant and then, when he did, was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. It took the church 200 years to admit it’s mistake.

    Today the church is adamant that birth control is wrong and intrinsically evil. Yet something like 70-80 percent of catholics practice birth control, clearly accepting that the church is wrong.

    And so it will be with abortion. In another few hundred years abortion will likely be rare but, when necessary, save and legal and uncontested.

    To my mind, these are not just errors or mistakes, they are deliberate exercises to maintain control over the catholic population. The recent threats to catholic politicians not to receive communion if they support abortion are, of course, not intended to change the mind of the politicians. They are intended to maintain and improve the fear and doubt and uncertainty of catholics who will then vote as the church wants.

    I am in awe of the bravery and courage of the Biden’s and Pelosi’s who stand tall and proud, never yielding to the church’s threats. With the election of Obama we have a great opportunity to return our country to a government of the people, by the people and for the people, not government of the christians, by the christians and for the christians, which would be a theocracy.


  • alexm

    YES!!  This is a wonderful piece!

    I have been just as complicit in perpetuating the great divide between the pro and anti choice.  But I am ready to turn over a new leaf, in the spirit of the times.  I truly believe we can move forward into a new consciousness regarding reproductive rights – one that comes from the recognition of a woman’s sole right to decide when and if she will be pregnant.


    The personal is political.

  • invalid-0

    I feel like I am along in feeling this way and I’m so glad to see another Catholic shares my views. Thank you for so beautifully summing up what is such a complex issue.

  • http://www.catholicsforchoice.org invalid-0

    Thanks so much for this posting. As a fellow Catholic I know how difficult it can be to follow my conscience and stand up for my beliefs in the face of the hierarchy of the Catholic church. But I am hopeful that, as we saw in the last presidential election when 54% of Catholic voters cast their ballot for the prochoice candidate, more and more Catholics will find the courage to follow their individual conscience and not the dictates of the church hierarchy and its conservative allies.

    The column made many good and important points, but I thought it might be useful to set the record straight on a couple of things which I feel actually strengthen your case. You stated that “…in at least the past two presidential elections, American bishops declared it a sin to vote for the Democratic candidate.” While it is true that some bishops inferred that voting for a prochoice candidate would go against Catholic teachings, very few bishops outwardly stated that voting for a Democratic candidate was a sin and certainly the bishops as a whole made no such statement. In the few cases where bishops did make such assertion, this was not only a gross misuse of power but also contradicted the Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience. In fact, in two cases after the election, priests who suggested that voting for Obama was a sin and required confession were publicly reprimanded by their bishops. The hierarchy may not be the monolith many fear.

    Additionally, you mentioned “the very public, appalling refusal of Communion to John Kerry.” While a few members of the church hierarchy called for priests to deny communion to prochoice candidates, including Senator Kerry, I can find no instance in which a priest actually followed through with the pronouncement. In fact, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, personally gave Senator Kerry communion in 2006.

    Finally, I think it is crucial to make the distinction between the Catholic church and the hierarchy. The church is made up of all Catholics, and as we can see around issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights, the hierarchy only speaks for a minority of the church.

    Thanks again for this posting, and I look forward to many more.

    Kate Childs-Graham
    Catholics for Choice

  • kathleen-reeves

    Thank you to everyone who’s commented here. Yes, I’ve always felt that Catholics are a more free-thinking bunch than some people give us credit for, and this may be especially true when it comes to issues of sexuality and reproductive rights. I also want to particularly thank Kate Childs Graham for shedding light on the involvement of bishops in Presidential elections, and for making the very good point about the meaning of "the church." It was great to hear your thoughts.

  • invalid-0

    hi Kathleen re the Council of Catholic Bishops in 1919. Sounds like they were ahead of their time, but there is no mention of abortion anywhere in the quote you provide so I don’t really understand why its there. One more quick thing. Your professors will hate anyone who says this to you but FDR’s New Deal was not a good thing. Yes, the unemployment rate went down for a short time but then it went right back up. When WWII started most able bodied men under forty went to work for the military and the women and remaining men rapidly filled the jobs they vacated. Roosevelt got the credit for ending the depression. Remember, question those professors. Right or left, don’t tolerate any propaganda. Your vote is your vote and don’t let any professor tell you how to use it! Good luck!

  • invalid-0

    It’s not a ‘single-issue approach’ when the issue is as overarching as the value of LIFE. Don’t be fooled into thinking that standing up for a major value is wrong just because someone wants to peg you as a single-issue voter. Someone who votes exclusively on the economy is not criticized, but standing up for a moral standard is considered closed-minded or ignorant. Would you vote on the single issue of racial discrimination or another atrocity?

  • colleen

    "It’s not a ‘single-issue approach’ when the issue is as overarching as the value of LIFE."


    I’m sorry but  at this point it’s impossible to take seriously anyone who claims they vote republican because they value life