Friday, August 24, 2012

A New Tithing Standard for the Catholic Church

 Paul Ryan, who according to Madison Bishop Robert Morlino fashions his policies pursuant to Catholic Social Teaching

I am a converted Catholic, having joined the church some fifteen years ago.  I love my church.  That is with a little "c."  What this primarily means is that I love the church's liturgy and the hour or so of reflection at Mass, enjoy my parish, greatly admire my parish priest.  I like going to church in a distant place on Sunday knowing that throughout the world, including back at my parish in Madison, Catholic congregants are listening to the exact same readings and following the same liturgy, albeit in hundreds of different languages. I like the stories of the saints.  I love the good social works done by Catholic nuns and other religious.   I like that the Mayos, father and two sons, were cajoled (and funded by) the Sisters of St. Francis into starting a small twelve-bed hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, that has grown into one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world. 

I freely confess to being a cafeteria Catholic.  I weigh the importance of following the church's positions based on my own conscience, which I hope has become reasonably well-formed through careful reflection and trying to always be open to the church's teachings.  One example of my picking and choosing is that I don't accept the church's teaching that homosexual conduct is inherently disordered and sinful.  I have concluded for myself that God knew what was being placed in motion in the formation of sexual orientation and didn't err intentionally or (God forbid) through inadvertence.  I have little problem with the church choosing in 2012 not to bless gay marriage with church weddings, but I don't agree with the strong opposition the church's hierarchy and many priests have mounted against civil unions or marriages or marriages in other religious denominations being accepted in civil society.  I oppose the church's position on birth control.  It seems counter-intuitive in a world that should always seek to see abortions becoming ever increasingly rare, to tell people they shouldn't take steps to guard against unwanted pregnancies.  I think it is unfortunate that half the population of the church is shut off from the priesthood.  I have experienced good priests and mediocre priests, and I have to believe that among the women members of the church worldwide, many thousands of them could be as good or better priests than male priests I have encountered.  I suspect that with female priests, the Catholic doctrines of Just War and duty to care for the poor would be addressed more frequently in American homilies than now occurs. I find demeaning the constant drumbeat of the importance of "obedience" to the church's hierarchy coming from the bishops.  I  dislike the current effort being made by the hierarchy to intimidate America's nuns into putting aside their own consciences and toeing the line of edicts from a distant Rome. 

I recognize that a religion has to be formed around some basic precepts, structurally and morally.  I spent time attending a Unitarian church in the early 80's and found that it was too free-wheeling for me. To belong to a church means that you are buying into some shared values.  Otherwise you are just going through the motions if not being hypocritical.  The question becomes: What is the duty of a member of a particular church to put aside his or her differences of opinion with the shared community and adopt the values of that community.  Is it moral to join a church that maintains rules that you feel are unwarranted and occasionally silly?  Can one do so with the hope of seeing an evolution in the moral thinking of the church over time?  What about the challenges that this approach brings to the cohesiveness of the church community?  Is a member of a church entitled to prioritize the values of the community and declare himself or herself in agreement with enough of those values, short or even well short of all of them, without being an apostate?   One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church is that all of these concerns have been thought out over time by great thinkers, including some really great thinkers I know that never rose higher than their roles as parish priests.   To the extent I am, in the exercise of my wildest imagination, capable of conceiving an issue in the realm of theology and morality, I can be pretty confident that many thousands of words have been carefully put to paper by Catholic thinkers about the issue. 

While I think and hope that I am a good Catholic, whatever that really means, I am constantly being reminded now that in the views of many of the bishops and cardinals of the American church, I am not.  For I invariably vote for Democrats.  I favor equal rights for people in gay relationships.  I support President Obama.  I favor universal health care that extends birth control coverage.  I support a social welfare safety net that protects the elderly and poor in ways that will help them live fulfilling and economically productive lives.  I oppose changes in our public educational system (kindergarten through college) in ways that will perpetuate the advantages given to the children of wealthy parents.  Though I wish there were no abortions in the world, I consider Roe v. Wade a well-reasoned accommodation among the strong religious or moral beliefs of many, the rights of the unborn,  and the rights of women to exercise free choice, in the application of their own well-formed consciences, not to go through a pregnancy and face raising an unwanted child.  I support free access to birth control. 

There is a full court press being put on by the American church hierarchy to oppose Barack Obama and any other politicians that don't accept the church's doctrine on abortion, gay marriage, and public access to birth control.  On a national level, this push has reached its apogee, at least for now, in the announcement this week that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the Archdiocese of New York, and the top prelate in the American Catholic Church, will deliver the closing prayer at the Republican national convention in Tampa next week.  Anyone who thinks this is not intended as a partisan act by Cardinal Dolan is a possible mark for the re-sale of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Dolan has even endorsed Mitt Romney's running mate, whom he knows well from his stint as Archbishop of the Milwaukee diocese.  According to the Washington Post,  Dolan recently told a radio program that he "was happy" to see Paul Ryan on the ticket and considered him "a great public servant."

Madison's Bishop Morlino has for some time been on an intense anti-Obama, anti-Democrat kick.  His weekly columns in the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Herald, have over the past months had the quality of a recording loop, playing out week after week the message that no self-respecting Catholic voter can give a second thought to voting for the President come November.  This week's column was the most clearly partisan to date.  Among the thoughts shared by the Bishop, with emphasis supplied. were these:
It is the role of bishops and priests to teach principles of our faith, such that those who seek elected offices, if they are Catholics, are to form their consciences according to these principles about particular policy issues.
However, the formation of conscience regarding particular policy issues is different depending on how fundamental to the ecology of human nature or the Catholic faith a particular issue is. Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.
Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil — that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever. These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception. The violations would be: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.
In these most fundamental matters, a well-formed Catholic conscience, or the well-formed conscience of a person of good will, simply follows the conclusions demanded by the ecology of human nature and the reasoning process. A Catholic conscience can never take exception to the prohibition of actions which are intrinsically evil. Nor may a conscience well-formed by reason or the Catholic faith ever choose to vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.
However, a conscience well-formed according to reason or the Catholic faith, must also make choices where intrinsic evil is not involved. How best to care for the poor is probably the finest current example of this, though another would be how best to create jobs at a time when so many are suffering from the ravages of unemployment. In matters such as these, where intrinsic evil is not involved, the rational principles of solidarity and subsidiarity come into play. The principle of solidarity, simply stated, means that every human being on the face of the earth is my brother and my sister, my “neighbor” in the biblical sense. At the same time, the time-tested best way for assisting our neighbors throughout the world should follow the principle of subsidiarity. That means the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible — that is, the level closest to the people in need. That again, is simply the law of human reason.
Making decisions as to the best political strategies, the best policy means, to achieve a goal, is the mission of lay people, not bishops or priests. As Pope Benedict himself has said, a just society and a just state is the achievement of politics, not the Church. And therefore Catholic laymen and women who are familiar with the principles dictated by human reason and the ecology of human nature, or non-Catholics who are also bound by these same principles, are in a position to arrive at differing conclusions as to what the best means are for the implementation of these principles — that is, “lay mission” for Catholics.
Thus, it is not up to me or any bishop or priest to approve of Congressman Ryan’s specific budget prescription to address the best means we spoke of. Where intrinsic evils are not involved, specific policy choices and political strategies are the province of Catholic lay mission. But, as I’ve said, Vice Presidential Candidate Ryan is aware of Catholic Social Teaching and is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord with the principles mentioned above. Of that I have no doubt. (I mention this matter in obedience to Church Law regarding one’s right to a good reputation.)
Here is Bishop Morlino's message to the faithful of his diocese in a nut-shell, obviously as I interpret it:
1.    Forget about the importance the Catholic catechism puts on the careful formation of one's own conscience through being open to reason and the Holy Spirit.  Instead, in matters of politics, I'd prefer for you to think as I tell you to.

2.    Certain political positions are so inherently evil that no Catholic may ever vote for a candidate advocating them, notwithstanding a sincere and careful effort by the Catholic voter to balance the pros and cons of all the positions brought to the public by the contesting candidates.

3.    Public access to birth control or the ability of gays to enjoy civil unions or civil marriage are policies so intrinsically evil, that no true Catholic may ever vote for a politician that supports these positions.

4.    On the other hand, letting the poor go hungry by reducing access to food stamps,  or letting the poor or elderly suffer debilitating illnesses by cutting back on access to public health care like Medicaid or Medicare are matters that are not the concern of Catholic bishops and priests, and are appropriately left to "lay people" and politicians to sort out in the exercise of good faith in order to achieve a "just society."

5.    A gay person's ability to be honored and enriched by a committed spousal relationship recognized by civil society is, in the exercise of human reason and "human ecology," simply not an ability that implicates whether a society should be considered just or not.

6.   Social welfare programs, which necessarily involve the redistribution of assets from the wealthy to the poor, at some point invariably cross the line and become collectively "socialism,"  an intrinsically evil condition.

7.   As your bishop and spiritual leader, I am not going to tell you anything about when the line is crossed into intrinsically evil socialism, as to attempt to do so is to concede that the line can't be defined by reference to a common sense of natural law binding on all human minds.  

8.   Nevertheless, rest assured that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to be a lot less likely to cross the line into intrinsically evil socialism than Barack Obama and Joe Biden. 

9.   I am not going to provide you my insights into another intrinsic evil, "government coerced secularism," but am counting on you to understand, at a minimum, that intrinsically evil "government coerced secularism" includes laws, administrative rules or executive orders requiring certain Catholic institutions to provide health insurance benefits which include free birth control pills and other devices. 

10.  Rest assured that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to be a lot less likely to cross the line into intrinsically evil government coerced secularism than Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

11.   When I say "subsidiarity" I mean "keep the Feds" out of the picture and make the decisions of how to best care for the poor and elderly and sick at the most local level possible.  (You might recognize this as a Republican position, like the Ryan voucher plan for Medicare, or block granting health care money to Republican governors to spend as they like.)   If this approach means that the poor move from Mississippi and Alabama and Texas, and flood into Wisconsin and Minnesota and New York and Massachusetts, collapsing the ability of those states to deal with the poor, at least there has been a genuflection in the direction of the principle of subsidiarity.

12.   Don't listen to what a broad range of Catholic social thinkers are saying about Paul Ryan's budget and its devastating effect on the poor.   I personally know Paul Ryan.  He is our diocese's native son.  I have no doubt that he will always be guided by Catholic social teaching, unlike the other party's candidates.
13.   Vote for Romney and Ryan in November!
But if you have read the entire column by our bishop, you might point out that the column could not have been intended as a partisan message, since the bishop said it wasn't intended to be partisan at the very beginning of his column:
 It is not for the bishop or priests to endorse particular candidates or political parties. Any efforts on the part of any bishop or priest to do so should be set aside. And you can be assured that no priest who promotes a partisan agenda is acting in union with me or with the Universal Church.
To this I can only say that the Bishop's column spotlighted just a few intrinsically evil acts under  Catholic doctrine.

I'll end by noting that I was curious to see what Paul Ryan's tax returns looked like since they were released after he was picked to run for Vice President.  Ryan only released his 2010 and 2011 returns as he didn't want Governor Romney to look silly by releasing more than Romney had agreed to release.  The 2010 return of Paul and Janna Ryan showed adjusted gross income of $215,417, and charitable deductions of $2,500, which presumably captured all the contributions made by the couple to the Catholic church, assuming there were any.  Thus their charitable contributions were just a smidgen over 1 percent of their adjusted gross income.   Since Paul Ryan is, according to the bishop, "very careful to fashion and form his conclusions"  "in accordance with" "Catholic Social Teachings," presumably a new standard for gifts by faithful Catholics to the church has been set. 

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