Democrats, progressives find unlikely ally in pope

Sister Simone Campbell talks with Sayyid M. Syeed, director of the Washington office of the Islamic Society of North America, at a June 24 interfaith event in Washington in support of universal health care.


The ink had barely dried on the pope's newest encyclical when the group Catholics for Working Families used the document to push for the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act.

Has Pope Benedict XVI suddenly become a liberal?

Worker's rights. Financial regulation. Environmental protection. They're all policies that are straight out of the Democratic Party platform, and, in many ways, the heart of Benedict's third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).

Groups like Catholics for Working Families, along with the AFL-CIO and other liberal Catholic coalitions, say the encyclical gives "new ammunition" to push the bill, which would loosen restrictions on union organizing in the workplace.

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To the delight of Catholic Democrats, Benedict's encyclical champions issues that are ripe for liberal reform -- especially regulation of the free market, which the pope says has left the poor and the "least of these" in the lurch.

While the pope restates church teaching on beginning- and end-of-life issues (abortion and euthanasia among them), liberals say it's Benedict's support for middle-of-life issues -- work, health care, paychecks -- that they find so heartening.

Indeed, the church's left wing suddenly finds itself with an unlikely ally in an otherwise conservative pope and his strong restatement of Catholic social teaching, the likes of which has not been seen in a generation.

"The truth, as Pope Benedict reminded us today, is that an unregulated free market is not acceptable to the church, that the invisible hand of the marketplace is not the invisible hand of God," said Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, which co-directs Catholics for Working Families.

In recent elections, a vocal minority of U.S. Catholic bishops highlighted two points in the church's social teaching -- opposition to abortion and gay marriage -- to the chagrin of the U.S. church's progressive wing.

Now with the encyclical released the same week as President Obama's first meeting with the pontiff, Catholic supporters of the administration are thrilled at what they're calling a synergy between the respective leaders of church and state.

"I think that if people on Capitol Hill read the thing closely, they'd find he's to the left of most of the members of Congress and the Obama Administration on a lot of these things," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit theologian at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

Though the timing is coincidental, it's not lost on liberal-leaning Catholic activists as Congress races to act on a slew of bills before summer recess. "From my perspective, it couldn't be better timed," said Sr. Simone Campbell, the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK.

On Tuesday, July 7, the same day Benedict released his encyclical, Campbell was pushing health care reform on Capitol Hill, an issue highlighted by the pope when he noted the "lack of elementary health care" in the developing world and many urban centers.

Three Catholic groups that have been working on the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- the Franciscan Campaign on Climate Change, Catholic Climate Covenant and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns -- hope Benedict's link between the economy and ecology will help them make changes to the bill as it heads to the Senate.

Others, meanwhile, caution against reading too much, or perhaps too much ideology, into the pope's encyclical. Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute's branch in Rome, said Benedict's call for environmental protection, for example, is more nuanced than some might want to admit.

"Benedict opposes the environmentalist dogma that human beings and human activity in general are environmental problems," he said. "Rather environmental damage is the result of an intellectual problem -- seeing nature as something to be abused on one hand or worshiped on the other, when it should be used for the common good."

To be sure, there's something in Caritas in Veritate for everyone, and conservatives have already highlighted the pope's condemnation of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. It is not, they insist, a ringing endorsement of the Obama White House.

But on economic issues, staunch free marketers will find less support from Rome. Calling the current economy one "marked by grave deviations and failures," the pope repeatedly denounced laissez-faire economics and called for the creation of an international economic governing body.

Conservative theologian Michael Novak, in his blog, dismissed the pope's economic liberalism as "nostalgia for the European welfare-state." Joseph Bottum, editor of the conservative journal First Things, asked, "Does the pope actually understand what globalization is, economically?"

While Bottum questioned the pope's blend of cultural conservatism and economic liberalism as incompatible extremes, others, including Reese, found a reassuring reminder that Catholics have never been one-note, one-issue voters.

"I think that what the encyclical shows is that you can walk and chew gum at the same time," Reese said, "that you can be pro-life and pro-social justice at the same time."

[Francis X. Rocca contributed to this report from Rome. Daniel Burke contributed from Washington.]

NCR stories about Benedict's encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

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