Shattering an Unholy Alliance
Until John F. Kennedy became the first in 1960, many people believed no Catholic could ever be elected president because of rabid anti-Catholic prejudice and fear of the pope in Rome controlling the United States.
Kennedy overcame that anti-Catholic bigotry by tackling it head-on. Speaking to an audience of conservative evangelical ministers in Texas, he promised to separate his personal religious beliefs from his public duties.
“I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me,” Kennedy declared.
Anyone watching today’s Republican politicians as they attempt to write Catholic doctrine against abortion, birth control and gay marriage into laws all Americans are required to obey might conclude those previous fears were well-founded.
Just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t out to force women to endure transvaginal ultrasounds before they can get abortions.
Wisconsin Republicans such as Gov. Scott Walker, a protestant fundamentalist, and Catholic Congressman Paul Ryan have no qualms about denying religious freedom to others by writing into law their own personal religious beliefs about abortion.
Republicans now crudely reject Kennedy’s principled stand. When conservative Catholic Rick Santorum ran for the Republican presidential nomination, he said reading Kennedy’s promise not to mix church doctrine with governing for all Americans made him want to vomit.
But just when it appeared Republicans were eager to allow aging Catholic male bishops to rewrite our laws on sexuality and women’s health—subjects on which they know little—a stunning change has come from an unexpected source.
It’s from the Catholic boss man himself.
Pope Francis, the newest pope, had already dramatically changed the tone of church leadership by adopting a lifestyle of personal humility and service to others instead of duding himself up in the fine, silken raiment of his predecessor to lounge around the Vatican palace.
The modest outward trappings were merely a hint of just how radically different the administration of this pope would be.
Pope Francis Rises Above Pettiness
The first in-depth interview with Francis published worldwide could—and should—shake up a church badly in need of a good shaking, and could even have a profound effect on partisan politics in our own country and state.
That’s because Pope Francis made it clear there are more important concerns for world moral leadership than smacking hands with rulers and focusing obsessively on rigid, “small-minded rules” instead of the desperate needs of people wandering the night who’ve been wounded by the world.
Francis specifically mentioned church teachings about abortion, contraception and gay marriage. He didn’t change church policy on those issues, but suggested there were far greater moral concerns for the church.
And the primary one was healing those strewn like casualties on a battlefield as a result of world economic disparities that permit a few to live in splendor while millions struggle to survive or escape poverty.
Well, there goes that nifty little political partnership between U.S. Catholic clerics and the Republican Party.
It was precisely those small-minded rules regarding abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage that allied the church hierarchy with Republicans.
And many of those clergy, in lockstep with Republicans, concerned themselves with such petty, divisive issues while totally ignoring the rapidly growing problems of the poor and middle class.
That’s what led Cardinal Timothy Dolan, former archbishop of Milwaukee, to join the mean-spirited Republican fight against the Affordable Care Act solely because insurance companies were required to cover contraception even though Catholic religious institutions were exempted from paying for it.
That’s a pretty small-minded concern about a law that would expand health care to 30 million previously uninsured poor people, provide desperately needed coverage for previous conditions and ultimately rein in health costs for everyone.
The U.S. church had even begun using its ministry to punish Democratic politicians who, like Kennedy, refuse to allow the hierarchy of the church to dictate U.S. government policy.
Catholic Democratic politicians, who support a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, have been denied communion, the rite of confession and have been threatened with excommunication.
Now that Pope Francis has put the moral teachings of the church into a more rational perspective, will any Catholic Republican congressmen be denied communion for voting to cut $40 billion in food stamps for the poor?
Will right-wing hero Paul Ryan get tossed out of the church for crafting House Republican budgets aimed at destroying Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, and redirecting the money into tax cuts for the wealthy?
If the unholy alliance of right-wing politicians and Catholic clerics is really over, religious activists of all faiths struggling for economic justice in this country would welcome a little moral leadership from the church.