Conservative Catholicism's Political Enforcers | Sojourners

Conservative Catholicism's Political Enforcers

As a struggling Catholic, the uproar and division caused by conservative U.S. Catholic groups (with the blessing and help of conservative bishops), has not helped me on my journey to attempt to follow Jesus' teachings within the Catholic tradition. The motive of these groups and individuals, it seems, is to force their understanding of Catholicism on others.

Conservative Catholics seem to share several common beliefs:

  • The neo-liberal free market is the best economic system.
  • The death penalty is morally acceptable.
  • Catholicism should exclude individuals and groups who disagree with any one of the pope's "infallible" teachings.
  • Sexual morality (i.e., use of contraception and marriage) is a crucial factor in determining one's orthodoxy.
  • Abortion trumps all other issues, including war, environmental destruction, and poverty.

As a result of these conservative ideals, many conservative U.S. Catholics identify themselves strongly with the Republican Party. This is not a problem. The issue is when these conservative U.S. Catholics force all others to align themselves with neo-liberal economic policies and conservative social stances under the umbrella of orthodox Catholicism. Jesus did not advocate war, or laissez-faire economics that disregard the plight of the poor, or the exclusion of any group, be they prostitutes, slaves, or criminals.

Yet this does not keep militantly conservative U.S. Catholics from continuing to be vociferous in advocating and forcing upon others their vision of orthodox Catholicism. And unfortunately, since the public tends to heed those who are loud and dramatic, many may mistakenly assume that these individuals represent Jesus and Catholic social teaching. Catholicism and Catholic social teaching, however, are far richer and deeper than identification with any political party or ideology.

Here are three examples of chasms caused by U.S. conservative Catholic groups: 1) the Obama/Notre Dame controversy; 2) conservative commentator and John Paul II biographer George Weigel's hubristic response to Pope Benedict XVI's latest social encyclical; and 3) the response by some to late Senator Kennedy's Catholic funeral.

Earlier in the year, the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to be its commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient -- continuing its tradition of inviting U.S. presidents. As soon as the news broke, however, conservative Catholic groups (such as the Cardinal Newman Society) and bishops (like Archbishop John Nienstedt) all throughout the U.S. called for Notre Dame to rescind its invitation, citing Obama's pro-abortion stance as morally contrary to Catholic teaching. This reaction was the climax of a smear campaign of Obama begun by several U.S. bishops and Catholic organizations after his resounding November election victory. Several U.S. Catholic bishops voiced their preference for McCain during the campaign, and several went as far as saying that an Obama supporter's soul is in danger. Since the majority of U.S. Catholic voters favored Obama during the presidential election, the majority also supported Notre Dame's decision to invite the president.

Then, in July, following the release of Pope Benedict's social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), conservative U.S. Catholic commentator George Weigel released an essay titled Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red: The revenge of Justice and Peace (or so they may think), wherein he accuses Benedict of crafting an incoherent encyclical that Weigel claims contradicts the conservative John Paul II's stance on economic justice. He suggests, as the title demonstrates, that one could read the encyclical and cross out with a red pen the parts crafted by the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace while highlighting in gold those parts written by Benedict. Essentially, according to Weigel, one should disregard those parts advocating economic justice for the poor and oppressed as Justice and Peace fodder. Shocking to even some U.S. conservative Catholics was Weigel's arrogant conclusion that "Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple [economic justice] off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within the curial household." Pope Benedict's criticism of capitalism shocks many conservatives, so Weigel was simply articulating the fears of many U.S. conservative Catholics that their beloved institution may not approve of their economic ideology.

Finally, in August Sen. Edward Kennedy's Catholic funeral brought condemnation from several conservative U.S. Catholic groups. For instance, C.J. Doyle of Catholic Action League of Massachusetts accused the U.S. Catholic Church of succumbing to cultural pressures for giving Kennedy a broadcasted Catholic funeral. Doyle argued that Sen. Kennedy's support of abortion and gay marriage made him a false and bad Catholic. Again, here we see the conservative focus on sexual morality in determining one's orthodoxy or relationship to God. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston passionately defended his decision to participate in Kennedy's funeral mass. Further, he warned that being divisive will "do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church."

Fortunately, these militant conservative groups represent a minority -- albeit a vocal minority -- in the U.S. Catholic Church and certainly in the worldwide Catholic Church, which mainly consists of Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans. These divisive groups only alienate those of us who do not understand the Catholic Church to be a pawn of the Republican Party and its ideals. Maybe they should ask themselves an important question: "What would Jesus do?"

portrait-cesar-baldelomarCésar J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site ( and read his blogs at

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