In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, I wrote a letter that was impulsively posted on my social media accounts. “Dear White Christians, We have failed Jesus Christ.”
The letter proceeded to lambaste the Hallmark-card-wrapped-in-a-platitude response that many white Christian leaders preferred to acknowledging the consequences of police brutality. Although I mentioned several prominent Christian leaders by name, it is the leaders of my own denomination, the U.S. Catholic Bishops that consistently break my heart.
I first heard the f-bomb from a working-class, Catholic priest. Fr. Jim was the pastor of the suburban parish where I grew up. He was widely known for his prison ministry and eventually began an employment program for the formerly incarcerated, which operated out of the church basement. I spent countless hours as a teenager volunteering side-by side with Fr. Jim. One year we were distributing turkeys and groceries before Thanksgiving when I realized that he knew the name of every single person with whom we shared food. For Fr. Jim, social justice was always rooted in relationship. Later when a prominent couple publicly left the parish in protest of all the time Fr. Jim spent at the jails, he shrugged off the incident.
“I am never going to apologize for being present to the poor.”
Eventually I was educated and mentored by the Society of Jesus, more colloquially known as the Jesuits. Pope Francis is a Jesuit; and stereotypically, the order is known for its more progressive theology and active participation in social justice movements. The Jesuits gave me the theological language to describe those same ministries that I had seen from Fr. Jim and countless others. Soon phrases from Church documents like preferential option for the poor, dignity of the human person, or solidarity filled my imagination.
My biggest criticism of my Jesuit education is that it largely insulated me from the institutional Church’s worst impulses. During my graduate studies in theology, I prayed, studied, attended marches and drank wine with my lay and Jesuit classmates, many of whom were openly LGBTQ. It wasn’t that I was unaware of Catholic theology. The U.S. Bishops often refer to abortion as the preeminent social and moral issue for Catholics; despite there being no explicit mention of it in biblical or early church sources. Yet, those same bishops always seemed far removed from the reality of my day-to-day Catholic existence.
I consider myself pro-life; I would prefer to live in the world where abortion does not exist. Unfortunately, the United States offers a weak social safety net and many women have to make horrific choices about continuing a pregnancy and say…providing for their existing family or furthering their education. Both sides of the abortion debate seem to neglect the fact that many women, perhaps especially low-income women, perceive that they lack any real choices when facing an unwanted pregnancy. In an ongoing quest to overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Bishops have allied themselves with political and ideological forces that are blatantly antithetical to upholding human dignity. These forces are often pro-capital punishment, anti-immigration, anti-labor and unabashed in their heralding of market capitalism; all of which diametrically opposes Catholic Social Teaching and other aspects of a consistent ethic of life.
Exhibiting its moral depravity, the Trump administration forcibly separated immigrant children, some as young as infants, from their parents. The U.S. Bishops decried the policy. Some of the bishops, many of whom lead dioceses along the border, were particularly vocal in their opposition. Yet, I couldn’t help but note the relative complicity of the U.S. Bishops and those on the Christian right who have seemingly aligned themselves with the G.O.P. for decades. When I sit in a Catholic parish and hear a Fox News talking point parroted as Catholic teaching, I can understand the individual’s ignorance. When peaceful protestors were tear-gassed so that Trump could be photographed awkwardly holding a Bible, all I could think was that this particular moment was the inevitable trajectory of the U.S. Bishops and religious right’s acquiescence.
All of this brings me to Joe Biden. In 2009, I was working for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), a post-graduate service program where volunteers devote a year or more working in low-income communities either domestically or internationally. Joe’s son, Hunter Biden, had served in JVC when he was a recent graduate and had actually met his future wife in the program. With this history, then Vice-President Biden, had agreed to headline a fundraiser for JVC. Our scrappy, perpetually underfunded, organization held its collective breath, praying that the vice-president wouldn’t be drawn into some cataclysmic international event that evening. We should never have worried. Joe Biden was not only present that night but spoke purely and lovingly as a proud father. He shared that he watched his son join JVC, mature significantly, and realize the responsibility that comes with the depth of his own privilege. Joe credited JVC with profoundly shaping his son’s life. His remarks were beautiful, genuine and inspiring.
This is the same man who reportedly carries a rosary with him at all times; who calmed himself by praying it as the Navy SEAL team approached Osama bin Laden’s compound. This is the same man who was known to periodically introduce his “nun friends” to Barack Obama when they were out at public events together. This is the same man who prayed and grieved with Pope Francis in 2015 after the death of his son, Beau. He later said of his encounter with the Pope, that the meeting “provided us with more comfort than he, I think, will understand.”
This is the man that the U.S. Bishops seek to silence.
The history of Catholic Christianity is often defined by parallel tracts. On one side, the institutional Church is represented by the papacy and the bishops. Yet, it is no coincidence that many of Catholicism’s greatest holy people came to prominence in symbolic opposition to the institutional Church. Against all the fervent Islamophobia of his age, St. Francis of Assisi crossed Crusade lines to break bread with Malek al Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. A century later, St. Catherine of Siena, waded through papal hubris to bring an end to the Avignon papacy and restore the Christian unity of her era. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, offered his life in exchange for that of a Jewish father in Auschwitz. This single act of faithful courage stands in contrast to Vatican’s official neutrality during World War II.
In many ways, Pope Francis has subverted this historical paradigm. From the moment he opened the doors on the balcony of St. Peter’s and embraced the gaze of the world, he asked the people of God to pray for him. Pope Francis’ vision for modern Catholicism is one that emphasizes mercy and is predicated on collective humility. Though I personally wish that Pope Francis do more to dismantle the misogynist structures embedded within the institutional church, I recognize that the Pope devotes his energy to many existential threats, such as forced migration, climate change and more recently, COVID vaccine equity. It is a grace that many of the prime concerns of affluent Catholic countries are rarely at the forefront of his ministry.
Pope Francis has returned to an earlier Christian understanding of the Eucharist. That it is “not a prize for this perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
It was unsurprising that the Vatican issued a letter to the U.S. Bishops on May 7 of this year, urging extreme caution in drafting a proposal to deny Eucharist to Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians upholding abortion rights. Underlying the Vatican’s statement is likely the concern that many progressives Catholics share, that this action will be perceived as a mere power play, one that falls squarely along ideological and political lines. Most exit polls in the 2020 election suggest that Catholic voters were split evenly between Biden and Trump. If the Bishops’ decision was simply about reminding American Catholics about the Church’s stance on abortion, why target politicians? Furthermore, why take extreme step of denying Eucharist for the sake of a single moral stance, while not doing the same for other Catholic teachings? This decision is alienating not only to Joe Biden and other Democratic Catholic politicians, but to those Catholics who voted for them; guided as we were by our own moral consciences.
Why do I stay Catholic?
It is the question I see in the eyes of friends and family; the quizzical look and the perceptible eyebrow raise when religion comes up in conversation.
In a country that is increasingly siloed by geography, race, or education, Catholic churches often find themselves in the unique position of having large multiethnic communities. The average suburban Catholic parish might still be a place where people encounter individuals who do not look like them, who do not follow the same media and who do not vote like them.
As I look around a church council meeting, I cannot help but think of Jesus’s disciples. For a group of Jewish men from first century Palestine, they were about as diverse as imaginable. Yes, there were fishermen, who we would consider the working-class laborers fundamental to the agrarian economy of Galilee. There was also a tax collector, who was largely reviled by other Jews for being a sell-out to the Roman Empire. There was also a Zealot, basically a political terrorist intent on destroying the Roman Empire. Like many modern American Catholics, these individuals had little in common…except for the ability to recognize something fundamental and true in Jesus Christ.
I respect many faithful people who have chosen to leave the Church in response to institutional sins. This mass exit was especially palpable after the sex abuse scandal the bishops’ own culpability in ensuring that the offending priests go unpunished. More recently, I have had friends who have left in support of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Anecdotally, many Catholics who leave opt not to join other churches, instinctively recognizing that there is no faultless denomination.
At the end of the day, I would rather be in community than not. I would rather be grappling with the big moral and ethical questions of how to authentically live my Christian life, alongside other people of prayer and discernment. I would rather continue to be guided by the wisdom of Pope Francis; and in doing so acknowledge that I am human being, prone to the sins of my own judgments. I do not have all the answers any more than the U.S. Bishops do.
I stay Catholic because the Church belongs to people of God; is in fact, made of the people of God.
I continue to see God through these relationships with people like Fr. Jim – just and prayerful people who are doing their best on behalf of the common good. There are a myriad of incredible Catholics, clergy, religious sisters and lay people, all committed to following the example of Jesus Christ’s radical inclusion. I stay Catholic to be guided by that ideal.