Sunday Reading (not necessarily edifying)

Accent the positive:

Pope Francis as good cop:

In fact, Müller claimed, there’s an explicit division of labor at work between his office and Francis, hatched from the very start three years ago. (Remember that Müller, 68, took office under Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.)

“At the beginning of his pontificate, we spoke with Pope Francis, observing that during the previous pontificates the press accused the Church of talking only about sexuality, of abortion and these problems,” Müller said.

“For this reason, we decided, with Francis, to always, always, always speak in a positive way. If you look at the complete texts of Pope Francis, there’s gender ideology, abortion … yes, these problems are still there, but we concentrate on the positive.”

That’s not a matter of “revolution,” Müller said, insisting that Francis “is in line with his predecessors.”

“His originality,” he said, “is his charisma, thanks to which he succeeds in overcoming people’s blocks and their hardened positions.”

Look beyond the internet to find the positive:

The Internet, Rosica said, “can be an international weapon of mass destruction, crossing time zones, borders and space.” He also described it as “an immense battleground that needs many field hospitals set up to bind wounds and reconcile warring parties.”

“If we judged our identity based on certain ‘Catholic’ websites and blogs, we would be known as the people who are against everyone and everything!” he said. ” If anything, we should be known as the people who are for something, something positive that can transform lives and engage and impact the culture.”

The good news, according to Rosica, is that in the broader media universe, Pope Francis has had exactly that effect.

“Prior to Pope Francis, when many people on the street were asked: ‘What is the Catholic Church all about? What does the pope stand for?’ The response would often be, ‘Catholics, well they are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control’,” Rosica said.

“They are known for the sex abuse crisis that has terribly marred and weakened their moral authority and credibility,’” he said.

It’s a new (and positive) day:

The cultural warrior Catholicism that favored political confrontation to personal engagement and partisan fighting to authentic dialogue has given away to a Catholicism that is willing to engage, encounter, and befriend anyone.

Positivity has its limits, however:

The pope complained of “rich people who exploit others,” saying they offer contracts only from September to June, and then the employees have to “eat air” from July to August.

“Those who do that are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labor,” Francis said, according to a summary of the homily provided by Vatican Radio.

At least Americans are not bloodsuckers:

At one stage, Pentin asked Fellay about the pope’s repeated denunciations of “doctors of the law” and “fundamentalists,” wondering if Fellay takes those jibes as directed at his society or traditionalists generally. In response, Fellay said he’s asked around Rome what the pope means by that language.

“The answer I got most was ‘conservative Americans!’” Fellay, who’s Swiss, laughingly told Pentin. “So really, frankly, I don’t know.”

One might suspect Fellay was deflecting, except for this: He’s absolutely, one hundred percent right about what one typically hears in Rome on the subject of who leaves this pope cold.

By now, it’s clear that one defining feature both of Francis’ personality and his approach to governance – which shouldn’t be at all surprising, when you think about it – is a distinct ambivalence about the United States and about Americans.

Still, are Americans responsible for income inequality in the Vatican:

A cardinal based in Rome, for example, gets a “cardinal’s check” of $5,600 a month, plus benefits that include access to a tax-free electronic store, supermarket, clothing shop and pharmacy, up to 475 gallons of gas a year and cigarettes at discounted prices, benefits that are applicable to all Vatican employees.

A lay person, however, gets a salary that corresponds with Italian law.

Italy is among the few European countries that doesn’t have a minimum wage law, so salaries are set through collective bargaining agreements on a job-to-job basis. Around half of the employees in the country are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and the Vatican uses the same basic framework.

The net result is that the average Vatican employee makes around $22,000 a year, tax free.

That may seem shockingly low by American standards, but for those already in the system it’s at least a secure source of employment: Odds are, the Vatican is never going out of business.

Under the Vatican’s labor law, it’s also virtually impossible to get fired. One veteran Vatican official said that some years ago, a pontifical commission tried to fire a lay woman who, after taking the usual 9 months of maternity leave, managed to get paid for an extra ten by navigating the system.

After four years of trying to get rid of her, superiors at the commission simply gave up.

Yet another indication of the gap between Roman Catholic journalists and Roman Catholic apologists.

The Numbers Still Don't Lie

So what’s up with all the gloating? Yet another reminder of how limited papal infallibility and supremacy is:

Neither are Catholics uniformly on board with Francis’ many calls for social and economic justice. Most (57 percent), chiefly Democrats and women, say the Catholic church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor than on abortion and the right to life. But 33 percent of Catholics, chiefly Republicans and men, say the opposite.

Overall, Catholics are statistically in line with most Americans on current hot-button social issues:

72 percent (like 71 percent of all Americans) say government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
73 percent of Catholics (66 percent of Americans) say the U.S. government should do more to address climate change.
61 percent (63 percent of Americans) want to see a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
51 percent, chiefly Democrats, (53 percent of Americans) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The Catholic church preaches against homosexual behavior. But PRRI finds most U.S. Catholics either don’t know or don’t heed that teaching:

53 percent of Catholics say they don’t think same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs.
60 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
76 percent favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination.
65 percent oppose a policy that would allow small-business owners to refuse, based on their religious beliefs, to provide products or services to gay and lesbian people.

Reactions to the pope also reflect the complexity of the church in the United States today. Catholics are not only divided by ethnicity, generation and geography; they also differ in the ways they see the church, its role in their lives, in politics and in society.

Now if you are aware of statistics like that, aside from claims of papal audacity, why would you write this in defense of the papacy?

Catholics believe that the same infallible Spirit of Christ who filled the apostles and fired the Church into birth at Pentecost, and went on to inspire the Scriptures, still dwells in the apostolic church today. Catholics believe the church, led by the successors of the apostles, and the successor of Peter continues to proclaim and teach the gospel without fail.

Whether or not Peter was first among the disciples or the Bishop of Rome supreme among the metropolitan bishops, apparently Roman Catholics don’t listen to Christ’s vicar on earth or believe that he carries all the spiritual weight that Fr. Dwight claims. Yes, the Yankees have a lot of championship bling, but if they are not going to make the playoffs this year (not saying they won’t), don’t you cease beating your breast at least for this season?

And if you are a defender of the papacy, don’t you think about sending a memo up the chain of command to warn that so many words about so many non-essential matters may dilute the episcopal brand? You might even wonder if all those claims about superiority have gone to the Vatican’s head and clouded the bishop’s ability to discern what is truly important.

The more exalted the claims for papal audacity, the louder the numbers.

Social Gospel Coalition Unraveling?

Would the Pope attend Bobby Jindal’s Prayer Rally? I don’t think so.

Jindal, a self-described “evangelical Catholic,” epitomizes the political and religious coalition of evangelical Protestants and Catholics in Louisiana.

“Evangelical Catholicism,” if we are to use Jindal’s phrase, is a peculiarly American creation. It’s a version of Catholicism with roots in the anti-communist movement of the post-World War II era, when prominent Catholics like Bishop Fulton Sheen adopted a style of pro-America rhetoric that matched Protestant revivalists like Billy Graham. This partnership was codified in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, as Jerry Falwell launched his “Moral Majority” and quickly discovered that Catholics comprised roughly a third of the political action group’s membership.

Prominent politicians have continued to embrace this brand of Catholicism, including lifelong Catholic Rick Santorum and Catholic converts Jindal, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and Sam Brownback. Then there are non-Catholic politicians like Mike Huckabee — a former Baptist minister and governor of Arkansas — who reacted to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate with the announcement, “Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now.”

It’s hard to imagine Pope Francis ever attending “The Response.” Unlike the organizers of the prayer rally, the pope doesn’t endorse American exceptionalism, creationism, biblical literalism or the rapture. He also doesn’t encourage AFA-style animosity toward LGBT people. Asked about his position on homosexuality, the pope responded, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge? They shouldn’t be marginalized.” Compare this to Jindal’s defense of the AFA’s support for “The Response,” an organization with a leader that believes “being an active homosexual should disqualify you from public office.”

But more telling, American Catholics don’t share the same history as evangelical Protestants. A church of immigrants, Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries were the targets of religious persecution and xenophobia at the hands of a Protestant establishment. Back then, many believed the nation was in crisis because of the perceived menace of the Catholic Church to American values.

Whose Political Party, Which Church Faction

Confessional Protestants complain often about the way that partisan politics has driven the wedge between evangelicals and mainliners more than doctrinal or liturgical matters. That is why two-kingdom theology has some appeal. It prevents concerns for social-well being, which are legitimate, from undermining the identity and mission of the church (“let the church be the church”). The same problem of partisan politics driving church politics seems to afflict Roman Catholicism in the United States according to this (but not this):

Surveying the Catholic Church in the U.S. today, there is no doubt that the church is polarized over doctrinal and other ecclesial issues. What is particularly dismaying about this polarization, though, is how easily it has coalesced with political partisanship. In recent elections, the Catholic vote has closely tracked with the national vote, meaning there is no identifiable “Catholic vote.” In 2011, a survey by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that only sixteen percent of U.S. Catholics were even aware of the bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voting guide, and only three percent had read it. Of those who were aware of it, three quarters said that it had no influence on their vote in the 2010 elections, and a similar percentage of those who were not aware of it claimed that even if they had been, it would not have mattered. Clearly Catholic identity is not having a significant influence on politics. In fact, it seems rather that political identity has more influence on church life. We saw this with the protest of President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame in 2009, followed by that of House Speaker John Boehner at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Earlier this year nearly 90 faculty wrote a letter of protest when Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University because of his budgetary priorities, whereas only nine could be mustered to protest the selection of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as the commencement speaker, despite her radical views on abortion, not to mention her role in denying funding to the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and in the contraceptive mandate controversy. Catholics pick and choose elements of Catholic social teaching that fit their partisan agenda, leaving the rest to “prudential judgment.”

Yet the solution to this problem is not a more forceful statement that Catholic social teaching crosses partisan boundaries, or greater efforts to implement a more complete public policy agenda. This is because the root of the problem is the focus on the state as the primary locus of Christian witness. For two generations, the U.S. Catholic Church, including its bishops and leading intellectuals, have focused the church’s social energies on transforming the state, and I believe we are seeing signs of the impending failure of this approach. Despite his exaggerations, George Weigel has described the rise and fall of what he calls the “Bernardin Machine,” his term for the progressive American church of the 1970s to 1990s whose signature accomplishments were the two pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, and which Weigel believes was embodied in the person of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This is the church of Bryan Hehir and David Hollenbach, as well as the other social ethicists Michael Baxter has criticized for adopting a form of public discourse accommodated to the state. This progressive church largely failed, unable to fundamentally transform American political life and leaving behind an under-catechized church whose institutions, such as universities and hospitals, were in many cases largely indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. The progressive church has since ceded ground to a more conservative church, one set to restore the Catholic Church’s identity, in its institutions and social role. Cardinal Francis George declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project,” and proposed “simply Catholicism,” which, although avowedly neither liberal nor conservative, has certainly shown a conservative face, given its ecclesial preoccupations and political leanings.

If the folks at CTC think the situation is any better for conservative Roman Catholics in the United States, they should think again:

With its focus on Catholic identity, this new conservative Catholicism might have been expected to embody a more robust form of communal witness, but this has not proven to be the case. Although the causes are probably many, one has to be that the leading intellectual advocates of conservative American Catholicism are captive to the same state-dominated logic as the progressives. Both Weigel, and, despite his philosophical brilliance, Robert George, explain the reasonableness of the natural law in terms of its public accessibility. These conservatives differ from the progressives in affirming that the natural law can lead us to definite conclusions on controverted issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, but the claims about the natural law itself remain the same. “Catholic identity” becomes identified with adherence to natural law teachings with generally conservative political implications. As Peter Steinfels notes, although Weigel contrasts the supposed cultural accommodation of the progressive church with the “intense focus” on Catholic identity of the conservative church, he mentions no major initiatives concerning Catholic institutions, catechetics, or liturgy as evidence of this shift, jumping immediately to the realm of public policy. Again, the measure of the Church’s social witness is its influence on the state. Weigel sees this new church as being ascendant, but we are already seeing the beginnings of its collapse. Bishops in the mold idealized by Weigel, such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, have played a major role in discrediting the moral authority of the church through the sexual abuse scandal, despite Weigel’s attempts to blame the scandal on the progressives. This past summer the bishops attempted to convince Catholics that the erosion of conscience rights represented by the contraceptive mandate is a profound threat to the Church, but have no comparable plan to combat the much graver threat that Catholics do not want to freely exercise their religion in the way taught by the bishops, or in many cases at all.

This estimate of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States should not lead to gloating. It should make all believers — Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews (Muslims likely already know this) — understand what happens to religious convictions when employed to better, transform, or even Christianize the modern social order. What happens is that the United States Americanizes the religious order. The other lesson is that Protestants tempted to look to Rome to solve Protestantism’s many ills are only going to find the same version of what has afflicted evangelicals and mainline Protestants since John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence.