When Pope Francis canonizes Popes John Paul II and John XXIII on Sunday in St. Peter's Basilica, he will do more than honor the lives of towering figures that brought unique gifts to the Catholic church and the world. He will also send a powerful message of unity. By simultaneously declaring as saints these two men so often deployed as symbols for competing Catholic camps, Pope Francis is reminding us that the Gospel leaves no room for ideology.
As two Catholics sometimes pigeonholed as liberal and conservative but who love our church in equal measure, we're grateful for this moment. The Catholic church is diminished by the nasty rhetoric, tribalism and litmus tests that often define the dysfunctional culture of secular politics. We risk becoming a church of MSNBC Catholics and Fox News Catholics who reinforce our own narratives and tune out discomforting ideas.
Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans share a common faith that includes clear teachings about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death as well as a preferential option for the poor. As the world watches the Catholic church with new eyes, we must strive for something better than internecine battles and gotcha rhetoric. Pope Francis is challenging us to build "a church of encounter" that goes to the margins where people are hurting and broken. A divided church will not meet that transcendent mission.
This doesn't mean Catholics must agree on everything. Indeed, Pope Francis has been clear that a static church is lifeless and fails to inspire.
"Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow," the pope has said. "That doesn't frighten me. What's more, I look for it." When the leader of the church can speak like this, surely Catholics across the ideological spectrum can come out of our bunkers.
Work at NCR!
Seniors and recent college graduates may apply to be the next Bertelsen Editorial Intern. Learn more about this opportunity.
Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are often simplistically viewed as the respective standard-bearers for liberal social justice Catholics and conservative pro-life Catholics locked in a fierce tug-of-war over Catholic identity. This paradigm of perpetual conflict has roots in legitimate disagreements between faithful Catholics, but it also unravels unifying threads of church teaching.
In the Catholic tradition, defending the sanctity of life and fighting for social justice are not clashing political agendas, but part of the same moral framework for building a just society. When we slice and dice the unity of Catholic teaching into disparate parts, we risk reducing our faith to just another ideology in service of political ends.
It's time to reject the assumptions built into reductionist labels. Pope Francis challenges us all to confront a "throw-away culture" that tramples human dignity by treating life in the womb, migrants dying in the desert, and the forgotten elderly in nursing homes as expendable. It is challenging this "globalization of indifference," as the pope describes our culture of comfort and extreme individualism, that should unite us in service to the common good. Pope Francis is calling us to renew and deepen our solidarity with the voiceless and vulnerable. Just recently, he reiterated his strong "opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless life," calling "the unborn child in the womb ... the most concrete example of innocence" and abortion an "unspeakable crime."
Catholics whose political allies fail to consider how the more than 1 million U.S. abortions performed a year foster a culture of indifference have a responsibility to challenge them on this fundamental issue. The good news is that most Americans, even when they disagree over whether abortion should be legal, want lawmakers in both parties to find common-ground strategies for supporting pregnant women and reducing abortions. At the same time, Catholics whose political allies promote economic policies that hurt hungry families and the working poor should hold those allies accountable, as well.
In fact, the pope has linked the foundational Catholic belief in the sanctity of life to our duty to stand in solidarity with the poor, reminding us that "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."
This and other unambiguous statements and deeds from the pope clearly connect poverty to sanctity-of-life issues. Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy of the San Francisco archdiocese, for one, has argued that Pope Francis' teachings "demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation" and point to "the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative for Catholics in the public order.
Similarly, in a homily before the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston described poverty as a "dehumanizing force" and insisted that "the Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world." And earlier this month, as the cardinal led a delegation of bishops to the U.S.-Mexico border to bear witness to the suffering and death resulting from our broken immigration system, he called comprehensive immigration reform "another pro-life issue."
If Catholics who vote differently lower our defenses and learn from each other, we can find common ground when it comes to urgent moral issues like poverty, abortion and immigration. If we speak together as Catholics first, we will offer an important and enriching voice to the American political conversation.
John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis have set a clear vision for a social justice Catholicism that builds a culture of life. Let's reach across the old divides and get to work.
[John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. Kim Daniels is a former spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a co-founder of Catholic Voices USA.]
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here