Well into the second year of Pope Francis’ papacy we reflect on how the effects of this seismic shift in Catholic leadership – both the unprecedented resignation of Pope Benedict and the selection of a pontiff from the global south – affects the church throughout the world. In my context of the Catholic Church in the United States I see a number of ways in which clear lines or divisions are drawn in a longstanding cultural battle with ecclesial, theological, and ethical consequences. The papacy of Francis brings to the fore a division in the U.S. Catholic church along the lines of how we have come to understand the preferential option for the poor in the U.S. context. This division is not new. Historically, we have preferred our U.S. brand of Catholicism to be more in synch with national interests – economic, cultural, social, political – than in tension with them.
Two stories illustrate this divide for me. During the presidential election of 2012 the U.S. saw the historical occasion of having two Roman Catholic vice-presidential candidates. However, Senator Paul Ryan and now Vice-President Joe Biden had very different views of how their Catholic faith informed their sense of political responsibility, their definition of the common good, and the role of government in establishing, nourishing, and protecting it. Besides differences in their read on the common good – a central tenet of Catholic social thought (CST) – they also differed significantly on how to interpret other key elements of CST with clear implications on their policy agendas as reflected during their campaigns.1
Specifically, there was a stark contradiction between their vastly different visions of solidarity and subsidiarity (two perspectives on how this was discussed at the time appear here and here). What stood out for me during the run up to the election were not the widely divergent versions of these two concepts. Rather, I was astounded at the lack of effort put by the leadership of the church to provide any clarity to the faithful on this matter, clearly affecting our thought and decision making as an electorate. A number of U.S. Catholic theologians saw it pertinent to provide clarification on the points in which the Ryan budget proposal at the time was in distinct contradiction of several CST principles (statement against the Ryan budget can be found here; “On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good” is available here).
As a result of this very contentious conversation on Catholic teaching and public policy in the U.S., carried out in ways that I found highly unhelpful, I established the Facebook group “Catholic Social Thought, Politics, and the Public Square”, a place where open conversation on Catholic teaching and the public square could be encouraged, supported by the expertise of Catholic ethicists and theologians around the globe. With over 1,500 members, this page illustrates the Ryan/Biden divide of 2012 in the ongoing and sometimes contentious debates among people of faith from all walks of life trying to answer questions regarding human rights, the common good, free will, the role of government, love of neighbor, and, most importantly, the option for the poor. Specifically, conversations in this page try to address how best to advocate for and enact policies addressing issues throughout the spectrum of life, including poverty. Strong disagreements abound, especially as to how Christians are to promote the well being of the poor within the context of a liberal capitalist democracy.
The second insight comes from my revisiting the U.S. Bishops 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” on its 25th anniversary. This opportunity caused me to take a critical look at a document that I have used again and again in coursework as an example of a Catholic critique of the economy and the ways it participates in, sustains, and even creates conditions of injustice. However, this time around I simply asked the question “who is still missing?”. This led me to discover that both the 1986 document, as well as the 1995 pastoral message“A Decade After “Economic Justice for All”: Continuing Principles, Changing Context, New Challenges,”do not adequately speak to the way our economy requires a migrant, largely undocumented labor force. In an essay reflecting on this insight I suggest that a key reason why migrant labor, 1980s sanctuary movement, the United Farm Workers grape boycott, or other migrant labor movements, do not make it into either one of these documents is the intrinsic and almost wholesale support of the bishops for the American experiment.2 Since its origins, Christian support for the constitutional, human rights centered, democratic and capitalist project of the United States as a nation has been part and parcel of Christian life in this country. While there are periods in U.S. history during which some Christian churches stood in resistance to particular policies or practices (for example during the anti-slavery or the civil rights movement), we have for the most part offered our support and blessing to the American project. While recognizing its still incomplete commitments to freedom and equal worth and opportunity (something the bishops acknowledged in 1986), U.S. style democratic capitalism is perceived as the political vehicle through which central elements of the Christian vision of the human person and life in society can be achieved and sustained.
I believe these stories highlight two critical elements of Catholic life in the U.S., vis-a-vis engagement with the public square. First, for the most part Catholics in the U.S. have joined other mainline Protestant churches in non-critical support of our political and economic systems. Second, because a deeper religious critique of the American experiment is not available from church leadership, the faithful placing their faith in conversation with public life are left on their own to bicker about how best to tweak or change the policies they perceive as counter to Christian life. Without guidance on how to have these critical conversations about policies and politics in a way that reflects both charity in engagement and unity around the central ethical concepts of human dignity, option for the poor, and the common good, these conversations are divisive, excluding of opposing views, and capitalized by both media and politicians in order to further their popularity and profit driven agendas.
Pope Francis’ incarnational approach
At the heart of the stories above is the historical unwillingness of the church to deal with the conflict experienced in human history, to authentically take the side of the victims this conflict creates, and address historically (culturally, politically, etc.) the dynamics that create conflict. I believe this is something that Pope Francis, in his approach, sensibilities, and grounding on the option for the poor understands and encourages in the local and the global church. Francis’ first acts as pontiff evoke for me what I describe as the preferential option for the poor as the incarnational principle of Divine love. That is, the option for the poor is that Christian principle by which we seek to concretely imitate God’s act of becoming incarnate in our own poverty and humility as frail and mortal human beings through acts of becoming present in transformative ways in the suffering of others. Washing the feet of inmates at a prison, saying mass among migrants at Lampedusa, stopping both at the wall of separation between Israel and Palestine and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – these are all acts of becoming incarnate in the suffering of the victims of historical conflict. In the face of these moments conflict is approached, not as a source of exclusionary positions or antagonistic political and media agendas, but as opportunities for accompaniment, embrace, and prayerful resistance of that which divides. The Pope’s invitation to both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a joint prayer session at the Vatican and its actual occasion is a visible and salient example of how Francis’ engagement with conflict is driven by the demand to become fully present wherever conflict and strife causes human damage.
It is from this becoming incarnate in the suffering of others that conversations between faith and politics should begin. Perhaps it is Francis’ Latin American sensibility, marked by the scars of tyranny and repressive violence, his acquaintance with liberation theology, or a more populist hermeneutic typical of the Argentinian context that move him to engage with the world in a way that expresses presence and solidarity without appearing divisive.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ mass at the U.S./Mexico border is an example that evokes Francis’ sensibilities and praxis of becoming incarnate in the suffering of another for transformation. The act was criticized as a politicization of the holy Eucharist by bringing it to such a politically charged location. But, like Francis’ prayer day with the leaders from Israel and Palestine, the homily by Cardinal Sean O’Malley served to highlight the plight of victims in a yet to be resolved conflict over immigration. Sidestepping partisan and divisive rhetoric, O’Malley was attentive to the humanity of those who suffer both in their home countries and through the perilous journey to cross the border.
Seeing differently in the rubric “see-judge-act”
Partisan and ideological divisions in the U.S., within civil society and particularly within the churches, have reached a fever pitch with catastrophic consequences. A seemingly endless list of non-negotiables – some not at all related to basic doctrine – on which folks are unable to compromise or engage in conversation (same-sex marriage, government assistance, reproductive rights, immigration, free market economics) make it impossible to do as Francis has witnessed in his ministry. We are, in essence, unable to truly “see” where suffering and conflict are affecting real human beings who require Christian love in action. Therefore, our most basic rubric for engaging our faith in the world, “see-judge-act”, is highly compromised.
When Francis’ approach to and example of discipleship in action, grounded on the option for the poor, are described as an “agenda” the option for the poor as incarnational principle of Divine love is interpreted as an ideological bend, rather than a basic principle in Christian thought. The option for the poor as incarnational principle requires that we shift or shake up the lenses of how we “see”, to begin from the lived experience of those who suffer at the hands of human conflict, rather than beginning from the divisions, partisanship, and exclusionary rhetoric to which we have become committed before engaging in the hermeneutic of justice. The other two ‘legs’ of the hermeneutic of justice, “judge”, and “act”, depend heavily on where we begin in the “see” moment – and who we see with. The realm of the possible expands, Christian imagination is truly engaged, and a third way becomes a true unifying goal when we ground ourselves on incarnated lived experience. From this perspective, U.S. bishops’ mass on the U.S./Mexico border is a first act of being with while trying to overcome the divisiveness of the immigration issue in U.S. civil society and politics.
To become incarnate in the U.S.
We continue to be challenged by an over appreciation of the American project, as I mentioned above. Perhaps this is the strongest ideology shaping how we “see” in the rubric “see-judge-act”, the ideology with which those of us seeking to teach and witness to Francis’ incarnational style must struggle and place in proper critical perspective.
In my own experience, becoming incarnate in that very divisive rhetoric of how best to fulfill the American project through supposedly Christian values has been my biggest challenge. Proposing that we read the American project from the hermeneutic of the preferential option for the poor means reading history from the lens of those who suffer from our own inability to humbly listen to each other and seek transformative unity with those with a diametrically opposite reading of how to be Christian in our society, both poor and privileged. It means bringing to the table a hermeneutic of humility, not of doctrinal accuracy or catechetical rigor. For those for whom the latter is a source of identity and strength amid a pluri-religious and seemingly threatening environment, practices that begin from the narrative of the suffering of the poor – without moral judgment, such as the U.S. bishops’ mass at the border, will seem inappropriate and counter to the American project. Francis’ incarnational style inspires me to stand at the very ideological fissures holding back Christians in the U.S. from engaging their particular contexts in incarnational praxis of love for others. Francis’ incarnational witness has emboldened me to attend the call to collaboratively develop models that can break through ideological divides for Christians to unite for transformational acts of love.
1. You may find a helpful glossary of key terms and principles of Catholic social thought at http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/principles/glossary/.
2. María Teresa Dávila, “Who is still missing? Economic Justice and Immigrant Justice,” in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark Allman (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012), 214-227.