Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
~John F. Kennedy/September 12, 1960
Question #1 du jour: Have you ever wondered why American voters in 1960 were so concerned about a Catholic becoming president?
On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted (168-55) to clarify whether the church should prohibit politicians who support abortion rights from participating in the holy sacrament of communion. Although not mentioned by name, the vote was seen as directed at President Biden who, throughout his career, has had to reconcile personal views with political stances on issues which pit him against Catholic doctrine. You could not follow this story without coming upon a variation of the following response to the bishops’ action. “The church has no right to deny Biden communion until it denies communion to pedophile priests.” True, but not the core issue.
During the 2012 vice-presidential debate, Biden explained his position as follows.
I accept my church’s position on abortion as what we call de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. I just refuse to impose that on others.”
The American bishops, in their communique, are saying just the opposite. Perhaps they overslept and missed the seminary class on the synoptic gospels. You know, the one where Jesus says, “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22.21) Ironically, a majority of Catholics agree with Jesus. According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research, 56 percent of declared Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Instead of punishing those who share this opinion, the bishops should honor Biden’s example of making personal choices consistent with Catholic doctrine regardless of national policy.
Equally ironic, many protestants, especially white evangelicals, who feared papal influence over American politics seem to turn the other cheek when it comes to their own denominations. Consider the most recent example. On the same day the bishops raised the communion question, former vice-president Mike Pence was called a traitor and heckled during a speech at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference in Orlando. In response, Pence declared, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” For someone who wants to be the next president, you would think “being an American” should appear somewhere on that list. Imagine the outcry if JFK had opened his 1960 campaign speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, “I am a Catholic, a liberal and a Democrat in that order.”
Question #2 du jour: Why are “former Catholics” the fastest growing religious denomination in the United States?
One day earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated how a unanimous decision in one’s favor can actually be a major loss for the same party. The plaintiff in the case was a Philadelphia-based Roman Catholic adoption agency with which the city refused to contract because Catholic Social Services (CSS) refused to work with same-sex foster parents. The opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, focused on the establishment clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution, pointing out the local government’s actions violated CSS’ free exercise of religion. The Court does not rule 9-0 unless the constitutional principle on which the case is decided is on solid ground.
How could this then be viewed as a loss for the Church? Because it again exposed what may be the single most significant fallacy in the Catholic modus operandi, the dogma of papal infallibility. I do not mean to offend Catholics, but consider the following description of papal infallibility in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Papal infallibility, in Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine that the pope, acting as supreme teacher and under certain conditions, cannot err when he teaches in matters of faith or morals.
Sorry, but the term “supreme teacher” conjures comparisons with autocrats like Kim Jung-Un. Or reminds me that our own country was governed for four years by someone who claimed he never made a mistake.
The recent Court decision is just the latest example of the conflict between allegiance to an individual and the teachings which are the core tenets of Catholicism. On one hand, the Church preaches that the gospel is the divine word of God delivered to the people by his only son Jesus Christ. Yet, nowhere do the gospels refer to discrimination against same sex couples. In fact, one could argue it says just the opposite. “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26/King James Bible)
So where did this ban against same-sex foster parents originate? Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality are contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A tome with such a formal title must date back many centuries if not millennia. Hardly. It was commissioned by John Paul II in 1986, drafted by 12 bishops and cardinals and personally approved by the Pope on June 25, 1992. I hate to keep making analogies, but how is this different from the Florida Board of Education proposing a Catechism of American History in response to the 1619 Project which will eventually be blessed by Pope DeSantis?
What does this have to do with an 18 percent decline in Catholic affiliation over the past two decades? Rather than looking to the Church for moral guidance, more and more Americans are relying on their daily experience. And attitudes toward the LGBT+ community is the clearest example. The Church’s attitude toward homosexuality is contained in the 1992 Catechism.
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
In contrast, a June 8, 2021 Gallup report documents an increase in support for same-sex marriage from 27 percent in 1997 to 70 percent today. Support among young adults, age 18-34, is 84 percent. To paraphrase FDR, “The only thing you have to fear is what the Church teaches you to fear.” Instead of familiarity breeding contempt, in this case, it promotes acceptance.
The Catholic Church is not unlike many corporations who believe their own propaganda and are mired in old ways of doing business. In response, you often hear a CEO suggesting “it is time we return to our entrepreneurial roots.” Academic management research suggests changing the culture of a large organization takes years if not decades. This is one area where the Church, because of papal infallibility, may have an advantage. In the right hands, absolute authority could accelerate change.
Despite pushback from conservative bishops and cardinals, Pope Francis has challenged some traditional teachings from the past. For example, he acknowledged even atheists can go to heaven (that’s a relief). He has promoted economic justice and challenged corporate greed and trickle down economics. And just this weekend, he cautioned the American conference of bishops about their rush to judgment on who is worthy of communion.
During a strategic planning exercise during my time at the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, I asked to see the file of Mr. K’s handwritten notes on which he based the charity’s endowment. It gave me an entirely new perspective about his intent and how I should approach my own work. I imagine the Catholic Church might have the same epiphany if it went back to their founding entrepreneurs’ original notes.
For what it’s worth.