The Church and social justice after Trump

Feb 21, 2021

Church social teaching is strongly opposed to neoliberalism, so how did this opposition become so muted, with prominent Catholic voices and resources captured by neoliberal ideology and money?

The assault on the US Capitol building by Trump supporters trying to overturn the election not only shocked the United States but raises urgent questions for the rest of the world, particularly for the churches, and for Australians too. The mob was shouting to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even Vice-President Mike Pence. The Congress people fled to underground bunkers in fear of their lives.

Clearly Trump exploited the feelings of disadvantage and economic distress of millions of Americans. Elite groups in the US and elsewhere have done spectacularly well from the recent patterns of globalisation, but median wages for white males in the US have barely risen in 60 years and millions of jobs have disappeared overseas.

As the prominent economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued, control over the processes of globalisation has in recent decades been captured by giant corporations and the wealthy elites, hollowing out the US middle class and driving many others into economic stress and poverty. He blames the ideology of ‘market fundamentalism’ or neoliberalism for the extreme and growing inequality. (See his 2018 Globalization and its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump).

Church social teaching is strongly opposed to neoliberalism, so how did this opposition become so muted, with prominent Catholic voices and resources captured by neoliberal ideology and money? And how could such a morally questionable character as Trump attract the votes of so many Christians including some 50% of Catholics?

For many voters, the abortion issue topped all others, and they were prepared to hold their noses about Trump on other issues: his cosying up to ruthless dictators like Kim Jong-un and Putin, harsh immigration policies, separation of children from refugee parents, and his abysmal mishandling of the Covid crisis, resulting in the avoidable deaths of many thousands of Americans.

A Catholic house divided

The political crisis also exposed deep divisions among Catholics, exacerbated by decades of the so-called ‘culture wars’ between more conservative or traditionalist groups, with a concentration on devotional practices, family and sexual issues; and those inspired by the Second Vatican Council urging a renewed engagement with the wider contemporary problems like hunger, racism, human rights, justice and peace.

In the USA, some traditionalist groups are outspokenly opposed to the views of Pope Francis. Former papal nuncio to the USA, Archbishop Carlo Viganó notoriously rejected the authority of the Second Vatican Council. In 2018 he called for the Pope’s resignation, and was supported by two dozen US bishops. Trump later tweeted about Viganó and Taylor Marshall, a Catholic who believes the Church has been taken over by Modernists and Marxists.

Following the inauguration of Joseph Biden, only the second Catholic President of the United States, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the US episcopal conference, wrote congratulating Biden but also warning that he had ‘pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.’ Gomez had sent this without consulting the rest of the bishops. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago replied that the statement was ‘ill-considered’ at such a moment.

Divisions among the bishops matter because many Catholics have become confused about Catholic teaching on engaging in social and political issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US bishops were leaders in forming public opinion on war and peace issues, international aid, race relations, immigration matters and human rights. Not nearly so much now. Their divisions have helped neuter their influence, massively helped of course by the disgraceful handling of the sexual abuse issues. Nevertheless, many key bishops have now written in strong support of Biden’s wider social policies.

The basic problem is that the US Church is not throwing its full weight behind Pope Francis who has refocused the Church on social justice, economic equity, human rights, climate change and sustainability, the elimination of global poverty, peace and inter-religious harmony and cooperation, including with Muslims. So Francis is trying to rebuild bridges between Catholics. He insists on the critical role of the family and many times has spoken opposing abortion, but sees it as one among many serious moral issues, not as ‘the preeminent’ one.

These fractures within the US Catholic Church have not yet resulted in a formal schism but in the view of the Vatican commentator Massimo Faggioli are close to a ‘soft schism’. However Francis is taking a firmer stand against neo-traditionalists who regard themselves as preserving Catholic orthodoxy against the Council. In an address to an office of the Italian bishops’ conference on 20 January, after urging the bishops, again, to undertake a national synod, Francis said the Second Vatican Council was not up for negotiation: ‘if you don’t follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you desire, you do not stand with the Church.’ He warned the bishops: ‘Please, no concessions to those who try to present a catechesis that does not align with the magisterium of the Church.’

Similar divisions exist among Catholics in Australia, though not on the same public scale as in the US. There are significant groups of traditionalist Catholics, even some priests, who are unhappy with Pope Francis and challenge his views about the authority of the Second Vatican Council.

Recovering our social justice compass

A deeply troubling result of these divisions is to undermine education about the essentials of Catholic social teaching as if its values were not at the core of the Gospel. Pope Francis has brilliantly articulated these values and their implications today, as in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which strongly focuses on climate change, preserving nature and the environment, and tackling the economic crisis of inequality and growing poverty. He reiterated his concerns in Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship (2020) and elsewhere.

While many Catholic schools and tertiary institutes give pride of place to encouraging social justice awareness, some clergy rarely relate the gospel to pressing social justice issues or talk about the social teaching and example of Pope Francis. Many parishes have no social justice groups. Even some of the dioceses appear to have no social justice commission or committee, despite repeated urging from the Vatican.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference through its Office for Social Justice produces the annual Social Justice Statements, but not all priests highlight or preach about them and the documents are not always made available to parishioners. To make matters worse, despite the wide range of Catholic agencies engaged in social services, some have lost funding or been downsized recently.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic reduced church services throughout parts of Australia, churches faced acute funding shortfalls, especially as a result of the sexual abuse crisis.

Yet it is vitally important for the health of our democracies that Catholics and other Christians as well as other religious traditions develop their social justice teaching and practice, and work collaboratively for universal human and planetary wellbeing.

Francis in his World Day of Peace Statement in January 2021 offered the social principles as ‘a “compass” capable of pointing out a common direction and ensuring “a more humane future” ’. He said ‘the beating heart of the Church’s social doctrine… can serve as a “grammar” of care: commitment to promoting the dignity of each human person, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, the pursuit of the common good and concern for protection of creation.’

He highlighted a greater role for women in this task: ‘I ask everyone to take this compass in hand and to become a prophetic witness of the culture of care, working to overcome the many existing inequalities. This can only come about through a widespread and meaningful involvement on the part of women, in the family and in every social, political and institutional sphere.’

Francis is aware that the Church too has much ground to make up with participation of women, but also with lay men. He has been challenging the Church to develop new structures of consultation, participation, discernment and collaboration.

After nearly eight years as Pope, Francis is growing impatient at the politicisation of some Catholic groups by far-right interests undermining church efforts to engage constructively in tackling the great threats to human wellbeing today.

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