What would we want to discuss with the Pope?
Here are a few topics I’d like to discuss with him — and let me know yours!
Just yesterday, there was an absurd piece in the Washington Post Outlook section (Daniel Burke, “A Catholic Wind in the White House”) that called President Bush “the nation’s first Catholic president.” The article went on to point out the large number of Catholics who work in the White House, shaping this nation’s policies on everything from the war in Iraq to the use of torture in interrogations to the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices (Catholics also). Dismissing the real “first Catholic president” John F. Kennedy as working too hard to distance himself from religion (a claim the writer took completely out of the historical and cultural context of the 1960 presidential election), Burke goes on to claim that the current president has been deeply influenced by teachings on Catholic social justice.
Such thinking is a complete perversion of the Catholic social justice teachings, which are about peace and justice and care for the poor, not warmongering and torture and tax relief for the wealthy. Burke’s column is a good example of the shameful way in which religion can be exploited for political purposes.
The Pope would do a great service to the Church and to American politics by insisting that our faith must not be used for political gain. That’s not to say that our faith principles have no place in public discourse; to the contrary, “faithful citizenship” does expect Catholics to bring the illumination of our faith into political discourse and public action. But our faith is not “owned” by Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. Catholic teachings transcend political labels and party alliances. The Church must stop allowing itself to be co-opted by one side or the other, and the Pope has a great opportunity to address this issue during his visit this week.
2. Can the Church re-allocate some of its resources to support Catholic schools?
The great network of Catholic schools in America is falling apart. A report just last week from the Thomas Fordham Institute puts the pricetag at $30 Billion nationally for states and cities to absorb the costs of 1300 Catholic inner city schools closed since 1990. The single greatest factor driving this trend is the disappearance of the free labor of women, the Catholic nuns who founded and sustained Catholic schools for a century. Once the Church had to start paying for Catholic schools, the real value of the nuns’ “contributed services” became clear to bishops and pastors, and the actual cost of replacing free labor with paid teachers became too much for parishes and dioceses to bear. As white ethnic Catholics migrated out of cities late in the 20th Century, more and more Black and Hispanic children filled urban Catholic schools, many of them not Catholic, many from families who could not afford to pay the increasingly steep tuition that parishes had to charge in order to support the nun-less schools. Eventually, in city after city, the decision to close the inner-city schools became inevitable, even as new Catholic schools are being built in suburban locations.
Sustaining Catholic schools in American cities is a topic that requires a great deal more attention and creative thinking. This is true missionary work in so many ways. Surely, the Church has resources that could effectively support creative solutions.
That’s a declarative sentence, not a question. In the last few years, I have been stunned by the depth of anger and anguish I have heard expressed by women who are “pillars of the Church” in so many ways. Women who are mothers, who now fear that something bad may have happened to their sons at the hands of priests. Women who were always there for “father” in the Altar and Rosary societies, the sodalities and parish councils. The child abuse crisis in the Church is also a women’s issue, since the Church has long expected women to care for the children. The women are asking how they could have stopped this great tragedy, where did they go wrong, why did they put their faith in the priests who molested children. These are not some disaffected, crazy, lifelong Church critics; these are the women who drive the kids to school and bake the Sunday coffeecake and sing in the choir. The Church has not responded to this anger and anguish in any effective way. The male leadership does not begin to understand the depth of the crisis in faith — not the Catholic faith per se, but faith in the leadership. The Pope has an opportunity on this visit to begin to reach out to the faithful who feel so deeply alienated by the continuing failure of the leadership to deal directly and honestly with the consequences of child abuse by priests.
The coffee and donuts will be long gone before we get through this discussion, and this list is only the beginning. Perhaps we can invite the Pope back for a full course meal.