TIME faith

The Bishops Are Catching Up To Pope Francis on Gay Rights

Pope Francis arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2014. a
Pope Francis arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2014. a Gregorio Borgia—AP

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

Mercy must be the way forward for the Catholic Church.

Stunning news came from Rome today where the bishops gathered for Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family issued a report suggesting that the Church should create a more inclusive space for gay Catholics to participate in the life of the Church.

In the document, the bishops said without reservation that gay Catholics have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” From that, they ask: “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

This is a stunning language change from the Catholic Church on the question of homosexuality. Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in 1975 that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” Rome has been clear on where it stands on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions. As recently as January 2013, Pope Benedict — while affirming the dignity of the LGBT community — suggested that gay marriage threatens the world’s “justice and peace.”

The Church’s shift on LGBT issues began shortly after Pope Francis’s election in March 2013. In July of last year, Francis famously said, “[i]f someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

But today’s document produced by the bishops shows that Pope Francis’s personal vision is slowly becoming the vision of the universal Church.

This shift is rooted in the pastoral principle of gradualism, which Vatican expert John Thavis describes as “the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding.”

Here’s how the bishops put it:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

The bishops are clearly getting the memo: leading with mercy is clearly the way forward for the Catholic Church. In his first Sunday homily as the Bishop of Rome, Francis said that Jesus’s strongest message in the Gospel is mercy. It too is the most effective means of Christian encounter in a world that — while still longing for a relationship with God — has increasingly become disillusioned with organized religion.

Make no mistake: a Church that leads with the mercy of God is a Church with a future. Experiencing the mercy of God can compel us to at least consider the impossibly good news that God has saved us in Jesus and that no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or how badly we’ve failed, God never grows tired of loving us.

Shortly after the experiencing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Peter declared, “in truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Two millennia later, the Church that Jesus entrusted to Peter is beginning to see anew that same reality: with God’s love in Jesus, no one is excluded and no one is left behind.

Read next: What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Pope Francis’s Winds of Change Cross the Atlantic

Pope Names Blase Cupich As New Archbishop Of Chicago
Archbishop-Elect Blase Cupich speaks to the press on September 20, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Cupich, who served as bishop in Spokane, Washington, will succeed Chicago's Francis Cardinal George, who has been fighting a long battle with cancer, to become the 9th archbishop of Chicago. This is the first time in the history of the Chicago Archdiocese that a new leader has been appointed while the former is still alive. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

In naming Blase Cupich Archbishop of Chicago, he's sending another big message

Over the weekend, Francis named Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington as the next archbishop of Chicago. Cupich’s stunning promotion from a diocese with 90,000 Catholics to the ​third-largest diocese in the country with over 2.2 million Catholics was considered a long shot to most Vatican insiders.

By choosing Cupich in his first major appointment to the United States, Pope Francis has signaled that the pastoral revolution that has marked his papacy will be institutionalized long after his tenure ends as the Bishop of Rome.

So what exactly makes a “Pope Francis bishop” and how does Blase Cupich meet the criteria? Francis himself has named three things that are needed for an effective bishop: closeness to the realities of the people, a simplicity of life and a humble engagement with society.

In one of his first homilies after his election, Pope Francis said that bishops need to be so close to their people that they come home with the “smell of the sheep.” Blase Cupich apparently got the memo. Even before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis, Cupich was practicing the art of accompaniment with considerable success.

In 2012, when the Obama Administration introduced a troublesome healthcare mandate that required all Catholic employers to provide contraception for their employees, many bishops threaten to shutdown Catholic soup kitchens and social service providers rather than abide by the mandate. While Cupich too opposed the mandate, he thought the threats to close Catholic providers were too extreme. He realized that these ministries were crucial to the people in his community and thought the idea of closing them were unnecessary “scare tactics.”

Another key characteristic of a Pope Francis bishop is simplicity. Francis has derided bishops who live with the “psychology of princes.” He even fired the German “bishop of bling” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst who spent over 40 million euros renovating his residence. Cupich currently lives in a room in his diocese’s seminary and owns no furniture. One of his first major decisions as the archbishop of Chicago will be whether or not he wants to sell the diocese’s luxurious mansion in Lincoln Park. Based on Cupich’s past, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did in fact spurn the archbishop’s mansion.

The final characteristic of a Francis bishop is a humble engagement with society. Francis—rejecting the “cultural warrior” paradigm of religious leadership—says: “[r]eligion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” When the State of Washington was considering same-sex marriage at the ballot box in 2012, Cupich—while opposing the measure—affirmed the viewpoint of those who supported the initiative:

“Proponents of the redefinition of marriage are often motivated by compassion for those who have shown courage in refusing to live in the fear of being rejected for their sexual orientation. It is a compassion that is very personal, for those who have suffered and continue to suffer are close and beloved friends and family members. It is also a compassion forged in reaction to tragic national stories of violence against homosexuals, of verbal attacks that demean their human dignity, and of suicides by teens who have struggled with their sexual identity or have been bullied because of it.”

Cupich, like Francis, has instead chosen to use his political capital to lead on economic inequality. At a conference in Washington, DC last June, Cupich joined other Catholic leaders in denouncing libertarianism as antithetical to Catholic social values. “Realities are greater than ideas,” Cupich said at the conference. “Instead of approaching life from the 30-thousand-feet level of ideas, [Pope Francis] challenges policy makers and elected officials — indeed all of us — to experience the life of everyday and real people.”

Jesus says in the Gospel of John that the Holy Spirit is a “wind that blows where it will.” If that’s the case, it’s no surprise that the new spirit enlivening the Catholic Church made its first major American stop in the Windy City on its trans-Atlantic adventure from Rome.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Is the Catholic Church ‘Evolving’ on Gay Marriage?

Pope Francis Meets President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela
Pope Francis attends an audience with President of Panama Juan Carlos Varela at his private library of the Apostolic Palace on Septy. 5, 2014 in Vatican City. Vatican Pool/Getty Images

Bit by bit

Last week New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave his okay to the St. Patrick Day Parade Committee’s decision to allow a gay group to march in the 2015 parade under their own banner. This was a remarkable shift from one of Dolan’s predecessors Cardinal John O’Connor who in 1993 declared that to allow a gay group to march in the parade would be a slander to the Apostle’s Creed.

This closes a remarkable summer in which a number of high-ranking Catholic prelates have signaled that Pope Francis’s more open posture on gay issues has permeated through the Catholic world. In May, a top-ranking Italian bishop said that the Church should be more open to arguments in support of same-sex marriage. And just a few weeks ago, one of Pope Francis’s closest friends Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes said in an interview that he “didn’t know” whether Jesus would oppose gay marriage.

All of this comes as the Catholic Church prepares for October’s Synod on the Family. This blockbuster event will bring bishops from around the world to Rome to discuss among other things, how the Church should change its pastoral practices towards those in same-sex relationships.

All this begs the question: is the Catholic Church “evolving” on gay marriage? Of course, it should be noted from the beginning that this possible evolution is unlikely to become a revolution. Don’t expect Pope Francis to come out in support of gay marriage anytime soon. His “evolution” on this issue will not look like that of President Barack Obama.

But from the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has been known to be a pragmatist on LGBT issues. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he supported civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage during 2010 national debate on the issue. Francis brought this pragmatic streak to Rome after his election in March 2013. In July of last year, he famously said, “[i]f someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

This was a remarkable shift from his predecessors. Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made the raw declaration in 1975 that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” the Vatican has made it abundantly clear where it stood on homosexuality and issues surrounding it, most notably same-sex marriage. In 1997, the American bishops grew concerned that the language from Rome had grown too cold and in response published the pastoral letter Always Our Children.

In it, they write: “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual. God’s love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it.” It says Church ministers must “welcome homosexual persons into the faith community, and seek out those on the margins. Avoid stereotyping and condemning. Strive first to listen.”

This newer paradigm seems to make to be shared by Pope Francis. Francis’s simple pastoral step isn’t breaking any new ground theologically nor is intending to change the Church’s political stances on gay marriage.

Francis’s message to the LGBT community has been simple, but has once again proclaimed the fundamental truths of the Christian faith: You are children of God. The Lord loves you. Christ walks with you. The pope cherishes you, and the Church welcomes you.

But now that papal message must become the Church’s practice without exception and without delay. Francis’s words must become our lived reality: “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

The October Synod is a great place for the bishops to consider this new mandate, but it must not end there. Every generation of Christians is called to rebuild and to recreate the faith of Jesus Christ in our own times. We might only be experiencing an evolution, but it must begin now. Like Mary Madgalene upon the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, we must make haste to proclaim the good news that with God’s love in Jesus no one is excluded and no one is left behind.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

TIME faith

Ferguson: A Faithful Way Forward

Michael Brown Funeral Ferguson
Guests raise their hands as they wait in line to enter the funeral of Michael Brown at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on Aug. 25, 2014. Scott Olson—Getty Images

The role of faith in this national healing process is crucial.

Monday’s funeral mourning the death and celebrating the life of Michael Brown represents a profound chance for the Ferguson community and the nation at large to begin the healing process and to move forward from the horrific events surrounding the August 11th killing of the unarmed teenager. The role of faith in this national healing process is crucial. Our legal processes and political solutions can give some answers and provide some solace, but these alone cannot heal our people and allow our nation to move forward.

Faith teaches us how important it is to encounter the suffering of others. In the Bible, the first two questions that God addresses to humanity are: “where are you?” and “where is your brother?” Today God asks the same of us. We must seek out and find our brothers and sisters in Ferguson. Though we can never completely grasp it, we must encounter their suffering. We must listen to their stories. And we must try to share in their pain. Pope Francis says this “culture of encounter” will even give us the ability to weep with those who suffer.

Though some will want to move immediately into political, policy or even moral solutions, this approach is wrongheaded. No law, no government program and no sermon will alone end the violence and bring complete healing to Ferguson and to the nation. So we must resist the temptation to thrust ourselves into these situations and declare ourselves the messiahs with the answers. Rather, we must be companions for the long journey towards healing. The era of the “voice for the voiceless” is over. Everyone has a voice, and we must encounter it.

During his ministry, Jesus of Nazareth encountered many people begging for healing. While in Jericho, two blind men called out to him asking for mercy and for the gift of sight. Though the crowd tried to silence them, the men didn’t waver and cried out, “Lord, open our eyes!” Scripture tells us that Jesus was then moved with compassion for them and gave them their sight.

What truth do we discover in Ferguson when we encounter the suffering there and our own blind spots are removed?

We first see that the outward violence that has plagued Ferguson since Brown’s killing didn’t begin on the streets that afternoon. Rather, it’s the fruit of the invisible violence that plagues our communities everyday. It’s the violence of institutions that fail to serve its people. It’s the violence that afflicts the poor and makes us indifferent to others’ suffering. It’s the violence of inaction in the face of failing schools, decaying cities and economic disparities. It’s the violence that sows distrust between people and communities because the color of their skin. This violence isn’t as evident as the gunshot that killed Michael Brown, but it’s just as deadly.

Nearly six years after the election of Barack Obama, we must acknowledge that racism is still very much alive in our nation and even in our churches. In fact, when we end the carnival of naiveté around this issue and remove the masks, we will see the truth: individual and structural racism is tearing at the very fabric of our nation. It’s cloaked in seemingly different and even benign issues such as tax codes, school zonings and the allocation of federal resources.

We too experience this racism in our own lives and in our own hearts—even in perhaps the smallest of ways. No one is truly beyond it. It’s a broken part of us that is twisted up in our own lives, our own histories and our own failings. But when we acknowledge its presence in our own lives and in our communities, we can join with the Psalmist and cry out: “forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!”

This first step of encounter and acknowledgment can begin the journey of reconciliation for our communities and our nation. Desmond Tutu said it well: “true reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. …It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.”

Today, we must be those men of Jericho. We must cry out and ask God to remove the masks that blind us. The road of encountering human suffering and the invisible and institutional violence that precedes it is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. It will allow us to see the grittiness of the truth and to experience the gift of reconciliation and healing that will bind the wounds that divide us and allow us to move forward as a nation.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

Pope Promotes Peace, Not Pacifism, in Iraq

Pope Francis
Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican on Aug. 20, 2014. Riccardo De Luca—AP

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are not pacifists

Many were surprised with Pope Francis’s remarks earlier this week suggesting that he was open to military intervention to stop the ISIS’s potentially genocidal campaign in Iraq.

While it’s important to note that he didn’t outright endorse the recent American airstrikes in Iraq, Francis’s remarks that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” do seem to mark a shift from the pope’s response to the Syrian crisis last September. On that occasion, he held a worldwide vigil in the hopes of stopping the violence and postponing American intervention in the region. He then famously joined his words with those of Pope Paul VI: “war never again! Never again war!”

But for those who know the intricacies of Catholic moral teaching, Francis’s openness to military intervention in Iraq makes perfect sense. For 1500 years, the Church has promoted the teaching of St. Augustine: that there can be no true peace without justice. This ancient teaching has crystallized into the Church’s modern day just war principle, which holds that nations only ought to enter into military campaigns against unjust aggressors as a last resort and only in limited scope and circumstances.

Under that paradigm, does the current situation in Iraq merit such a military response? Pope Francis isn’t ruling it out. Now contrary to the absurd claim by Vox’s Max Fisher, Pope Francis isn’t calling for the tenth crusade against the Middle Eastern people. Instead, he’s proposing a clear-eyed response to a critical crisis.

Despite what some might think, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are not pacifists. To promote some kind of laissez-faire pacifism in Iraq is to be quiet and indifferent to the victims of the ISIS’s campaign of violence. To the contrary, the peace that Francis and the Church are calling for at times requires military intervention.

This nuance has played out interestingly over the past fifty years. Though the Vatican unequivocally opposed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was skeptical of American involvement in Vietnam, the Church did support American intervention in Iraq in 1991.

As President Obama and the United States contemplate the road forward in this current crisis, Pope Francis and the Church cannot offer American political and military leaders specific strategic solutions, but only broad stroke moral principles. What the Church does know is that authentic peace isn’t easy and is only reserved for societies who actively work for justice.

Despite the differences that will likely emerge in the details of President Obama’s and Pope Francis’s vision for American involvement in Iraq, both men will likely agree that peace—not pacifism—is the way forward in the region.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME Religion

After Hobby Lobby: A Single-Payer Health Care Solution?

Perhaps both sides could agree it may be a way forward

Now that the initial shouting and—at times—vitriol from both sides has subsided after Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, it’s time to take a sober look at what the ruling says about the future of health care reform in the United States. The majority’s ruling was an imperfect solution to a complicated case involving the reach of religious liberty to exempt organizations from providing certain medical benefits that they find morally objectionable to their employees. The fact that these medical benefits were almost exclusively offered to women makes this decision all the more difficult to accept for some.

But at its core, the case reveals something else as well. It brings to the forefront something we’ve all known for sometime: that Obamacare—for all the good it’s done in increasing access to quality and affordable healthcare—is a messy law. It asks employees to be at the whim of its employers’ objectives and mission for what health care benefits they receive. It also asks employers to at times reject its deepest convictions in order to provide certain benefits to its employees.

This isn’t sustainable. A person’s access to quality healthcare shouldn’t depend on who their boss is. And an employer shouldn’t be heavily fined if they don’t compromise their religious convictions in providing healthcare for their staff.

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act is a monumental first step in achieving a just and equitable American health care system that seeks first to serve those on the margins of society. But as we look towards the future, it’s necessary to consider major alterations or even alternatives to Obamacare to continue to advance healthcare reform.

For those of us who value both universal access to quality healthcare and the strong American tradition of protecting religious liberty, there might be a solution in a single-payer system.

A single-payer system overturns an unsound principle of Obamacare: relying too heavily on private organizations to deliver the public good of healthcare. When you require private organizations to enforce what the government believes ought to be public policy, you open yourself to a myriad of legal and ethical qualms. How can you expect organizations as diverse as Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the American Atheists to agree on what health care benefits are appropriate for their employees?

Amidst all the fuss this week over the Supreme Court ruling, both sides actually agreed on one thing: they disliked the accommodation provided by the Obama Administration for religious organizations. Religious groups argue the exemption is too narrow and doesn’t protect the autonomy of some organizations to practice their convictions. Women’s groups argue that the current accommodation unfairly denies women working for religious groups access to birth control, which is a basic benefit in any healthcare plan.

A single-payer public health care option eliminates such complications. No matter who your boss is or what business you work for, you get access to the healthcare you need. And employers will not be forced to compromise their religious beliefs while providing the public good of healthcare.

And let’s be clear, if you have something that is both supported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Planned Parenthood, you might be onto a plan that proves the angel Gabriel right: nothing is impossible with God.

Fred Rotondaro is the chair of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign.
TIME faith

Why Tea Party Catholicism Is a No Go

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, President of Caritas Internationalis, looks on during a visit to the Regina Pacis Centre (Our Lady of Peace Church) in Amman, Jordan on May 18, 2014. Khalil Mazraawi—AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church increasingly have little patience with libertarian economic thought: this will clearly pose a problem to some lawmakers in Washington.

Is Tea Party Catholicism dead as a legitimate political stance within the Catholic Church? That’s what Pope Francis’s close Honduran cardinal-advisor Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga is arguing.

During his keynote address at a June 3rd forum hosted by The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, Rodriguez—defending Pope Francis’s economic teachings—derided the current economic system for being built on what he called the “new idol of libertarianism.” “The libertarianism de-regulation of the markets and financial market is much to the disadvantage of the poor,” he said. “This economy kills.”

Rodriguez’s blunt assessment of today’s economic system was echoed by American Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington. Speaking directly to “Catholics and believers in our country who are challenged by the pope’s words about income distribution, protection of worker’s rights, and the role of governments in regulating the economy both nationally and internationally,” Cupich reminded them that Francis’s teaching was not his alone, but was “tethered to a rich tradition.” In particular, Cupich referenced Benedict XVI’s 2009 groundbreaking social justice encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

Rodriguez and Cupich’s words are especially provocative within the United States, where the marriage between economic libertarianism and religious values have been hotly debated in recent times. Just last year, the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg published Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. Drawing heavily on the writings of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, the controversial book argued that the faith’s social tradition has a deep respect for libertarian governing values. It was roundly rejected by Catholic progressives in the United States, most notably the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters.

At time goes on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Francis and the Church have little patience with libertarian economic thought. This will clearly pose a problem to lawmakers in Washington.

Catholic politician Paul Ryan first comes to mind. The Wisconsin Congressman had at one time been an ardent follower of Ayn Rand, the stalwart Libertarian author and activist. Ryan claimed to disavow her in 2012 because her philosophy was rooted in atheism. That didn’t seem to affect his politics though.

For four consecutive years the chairman of the House Budget Committee has proposed budgets that have been criticized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as morally deficient. Ryan’s budget cuts crucial programs that serve the poorest and most marginalized people in our nation, while providing unnecessary tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans.

Paul Ryan pushed back in April 2012, arguing in a speech at Georgetown University that his budget and governing philosophy was rooted in Catholic teaching. Ryan came under criticism from a large number of Catholic academics for misrepresenting Catholic teaching in explaining his budgetary policies. The criticism peaked that summer, when Catholic women religious from across the nation under the leadership of Sister Simone Campbell toured the country to protest the Ryan budget. Since the “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2012 and the election of Pope Francis in 2013, Ryan has increasingly struggled to argue that his budget is acceptable under Catholic social teaching.

Now is a great opportunity for the potential 2016 presidential candidate to pivot. In an essay last December, BuzzFeed’s McKay Robbins argued that Paul Ryan experienced a political conversion after the election of Pope Francis. The first half of 2014 suggests that such claims are either exaggerated or premature.

Fortunately it isn’t too late for the 44-year-old lawmaker to change course. But there is only one tenable way forward. It’s time for Paul Ryan to follow the Catholic Church and reject the carnival dance of the Tea Party. When the mask falls and the truth appears, we will see that this is a movement that twists reality and hurts the poor and suffering.

Let’s hope the words of Pope Francis will ring in his ears: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity.”

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

Boehner’s Got a Catholic Problem on Immigration Reform

Catholic leaders are calling on House Speaker John Boehner to act swiftly on immigration reform

Three years ago Speaker of the House John Boehner received an honorary degree from the Catholic University of America, a prestigious religious institution that was founded and is still largely governed by the bishops of the United States. But the times have clearly changed.

Last week, the same bishops paid a visit to Capitol Hill to put more pressure on Speaker Boehner to pass comprehensive immigration reform this summer. This comes on the heels of a trip earlier this spring by the same bishops to the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

There Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said that the bishops came on behalf of the Church in the United States “to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert.” Following his homily, Cardinal O’Malley and his brother bishops made a poignant gesture by reaching across the border fence to distribute communion to Mexicans on the other side.

Last week’s Mass and Capitol Hill visits were led by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. In his homily, Wenski had pointed words for lawmakers: “[o]ur immigration system is a stain on the soul of our nation. As a moral matter, it must be changed. We must pray that our elected officials recognize this and have the courage to reform it.”

Courage is exactly what the Speaker of the House needs right now. Nearly a year ago, the United States Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill. Boehner has said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor unless a majority of his Republican colleagues support it. But with nearly all Democrats supporting the bill, it’s clear that it would pass if it were brought to the floor for a vote. It’s widely known that Boehner personally supports immigration reform. In fact, earlier this year, he even went as far as to mock his fellow House Republicans who were afraid to take up the issues.

Make no mistake: Boehner’s opposition to the bill is purely political. He’s afraid that bringing up immigration reform will hurt his party in the fall elections and even hamper his own chances to be re-elected Speaker of the House. But recent polling suggests the former is unlikely.

If Speaker Boehner continues to balk on this crucial issue, he’ll face the uncomfortable reality of being in a public dispute with his Church. Educated by Jesuit and Marianist priests in Cincinnati, this is no small deal to the fifth Catholic elected United States Speaker of the House.

A national coalition of Catholic leaders calling on Speaker Boehner to act put it well: “[the current situation] is immoral and shameful. The eyes of our God — who hungers for justice and commands us to welcome the stranger and bind the wounds of those left by the side of the road — are on us. …As Catholics who share your commitment to the sanctity of life in the womb, we must not be complicit in the suffering of migrants dying in the shadows.

Speaker Boehner now must decide between the social teaching of his faith and the political agenda of a fringe element of his party. He doesn’t face this decision alone, however. If he stands up against the Tea Party and for the Gospel on this critical issue, he’ll find a Church who is willing to walk with him the entire way. That’s a team worth being on: after all, it is faith—not politics—that saves us in the end.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

Why Pope Francis May Be the Best Politician in the World

Bethlehem Pope Francis
Pope Francis arrived in Bethlehem's Manger Square in an open vehicle where over 10,000 Christian pilgrims were packed on May 25, 2014 in the West Bank. Heidi Levine—SIPA

To reduce the Pope's upcoming Palestinian-Israeli prayer summit to an act of mere symbolism fails to understand the role religion can play in addressing political crises

It’s hard to argue that Pope Francis is not the world’s best politician after his trip this past weekend to the Holy Land. In fifty-five hours, the 77-year-old Bishop of Rome visited three countries, gave fifteen addresses, planted two trees and held a groundbreaking 45-minute press conference. With a weekend full of blockbuster moments, it might be a bit audacious to say one stood out above the rest. But if there is one that will have a lasting impact on the region, it was Pope Francis’s Sunday surprise.

While celebrating an open-air Mass in Bethlehem, Francis unexpectedly invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a June meeting of prayer and dialogue. Within an hour, both had accepted.

Francis’s successful overture was especially remarkable considering the failed efforts by the United States earlier this spring to get both sides to the table to begin negotiated peace talks. However, this could be the boost that Secretary of State John Kerry needed to revive this peace process, which has been largely dormant for the past four years.

But almost immediately, commentators have tried to downplay the meeting. Daniel Levy told The New York Times that the meeting would “mean nothing in big-picture terms.” David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, added that “[i]t would be naïve to think the sight of Peres, Abbas and the pope doing anything together is going to change the world.” He did acknowledge, however, that the meeting would help the “effort to foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians.”

But to reduce June’s meeting to an act of mere symbolism fails to understand the role religion can and should play in addressing difficult political and ethnic issues. Throughout world history, religious prophets have creatively navigated tense situations to advance peace and justice. Within the past century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and St. John Paul II showed us that religious witness can win a war without raising a hand.

Even as recently as last September, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church flexed their spiritual muscles in the wake of possible American military intervention in Syria. When an invasion seemed imminent, Francis called on the Church to have a global day of prayer and fasting. During a vigil held in St. Peter’s Square, Francis asked: “[i]s it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”

Critics argued then that the Church’s response of fasting and prayer would do nothing to alter the situation in Syria. But they were wrong. The international community negotiated a disarmament plan for Syria’s chemical weapons, and the United States was able to avoid a third significant overseas military campaign in twelve years.

Did prayer really makes the difference? It’s hard to say. Violence still engulfs Syria, and the progress towards peace is difficult. But time and again when political actors fail to make progress on society’s most contentious issues, religion has made all the difference.

If Pope Francis’s prayer meeting is the initial catalyst to restart the Middle East peace talks and we can somehow end the perpetual violence that plagues the region, then we will know the angel Gabriel was right: “nothing is impossible with God.”

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

Pope Francis’ Trip to the Holy Land Will Bring Attention to Global War on Christians

Pope Francis’s trip to the Holy Land offers a chance to lift up the realities of persecution and violence against Christians in the region.

As Pope Francis heads to the Holy Land this weekend to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul VI’s historic 1964 trip, he does so amidst increasing violence against the dwindling Christian population in the region.

There are even growing concerns for the pope’s safety himself after news emerged earlier this month that Jewish extremists graffitied Vatican-owned property with vitriolic taunts, including “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel!”

It’s clear that Francis’s trip offers a chance to lift up the realities of persecution and violence against Christians in the region. But it also provides the world an opportunity to more fully grasp what Boston Globe religion reporter John Allen calls the “global war on Christians.”

It seems that popular culture in the West is only nominally aware of this global epidemic. According to the Vatican, over 100,000 Christians are murdered by some relation to their faith every year. And just last week, a Sudanese woman was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian.

To be fair, Western media does cover these individual events, particularly if a large number of people are killed. But they have yet to cover in depth the generalized mayhem and violence against the Christian people globally. The violence goes beyond the Middle East. Christian persecution is just as prominent in India, Indonesia and Kenya among other nations. It’s hard to imagine how we can be so silent and indifferent in the face of such global violence against vulnerable populations.

Francis has spoken out loudly on this issue before. On December 26th—the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr—Francis lambasted countries that allow violence against religious minorities to flourish in their borders. But he also reminded the faithful that in martyrdom “violence is conquered by love, death by life.”

This witness of martyrdom is indeed powerful. It shows that there are things indeed worth dying for. But that witness is only powerful if it is known. In his papacy, Francis has been able to shift the media focus on the forgotten people of the world, particularly immigrants, the poor, the young, the elderly and the sick. This week, he’ll turn the media’s attentions towards another group: those who are persecuted for their faith.

Let’s hope the West is affected by his message and awakens to the uncomfortable reality that it is actually Christians who are the most persecuted group in contemporary society.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter@chrisjollyhale.

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