TIME Religion

Mending the Rift Between Obama and Catholics

67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner
President Barack Obama, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pray during the 67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. New York Daily News—NY Daily News via Getty Images

The president's pro-family agenda, which promotes greater workplace flexibility, an increase in the minimum wage, affordable quality childcare and greater protections for pregnant workers, aligns perfectly with the Church’s rich tradition of social thought.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and President Barack Obama have had a rocky relationship over the past six years, with perhaps no issue more contentious than the Health and Human Services mandate, which has sparked the Bishops’ three “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns. But President Obama’s recent speech at the White House Summit on Working Families provides a good opportunity for the two sides to turn the corner in the President’s final two years and work together on promoting an agenda that would benefit millions of American families.

If the Bishops hope to follow Pope Francis’ lead, fighting to undo the pressures and hardships that menace American families seems like an obvious next step. Pope Francis has constantly drawn attention to the impact of economic injustice on families, calling for changes that will give them greater economic security and more time for one another.

On both the left and the right, there is a growing recognition that families are facing intense pressures that are undermining family unity. Both Francis and Obama argue that no one should have to choose between dignified work and their family.

President Obama has responded by calling for a series of measures that will reduce that burden. He has proposed greater workplace flexibility, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable quality childcare and greater protections for pregnant workers. All of these proposals align with the Catholic Church’s rich tradition of social thought and would help countless families across the country.

Obama even echoed a key teaching of the Church—one that Pope Francis has emphasized repeatedly—when he explained that “work gives us a sense of place and dignity.” Work allows people to contribute to the common good and use their gifts to participate in the creation of stronger communities and a better world. It can give people a sense of meaning and purpose.

Of course, people have dignity and worth whether they work or not. But this sense of worth and dignity is vital, and work allows many to have this sense and to live in a way that is compatible with that dignity. But it should not come at the cost of their family life.

President Obama noted that for many hourly workers, taking a few days off can result in them losing their jobs. But what happens when an aging parent needs assistance or a child needs help? Our responsibilities to our loved ones seem clear, but what is someone supposed to do when helping a family member risks creating an economic crisis in the family? If we value these family ties, we will work to eliminate such tragic choices.

And that also means working to increase the minimum wage. The Church has called for both a family wage and a living wage for decades upon decades. Church teaching demands that employers pay employees enough to ensure that their families have all of their needs met. There is a tendency to think of minimum wage workers as teenage kids looking to pick up some cash on the side, but many of these workers are trying to provide for their families. Progress must be made toward a living wage for these workers upon whom we all depend for our way of life.

President Obama noted that in 31 states, “decent childcare costs more than in-state tuition.” The scarcity and high costs of quality childcare have delayed my own academic and career progress, as I have chosen to serve as primary caretaker for my 15-month old daughter (which I find very fulfilling). My experience is far from uncommon, as many parents struggle to make difficult career choices, or worse, feel compelled to send their children to receive childcare that they know is not up to par.

While working at a think tank, editing, researching and care-taking has left me in a constant state of exhaustion. It has only been feasible because of the workplace flexibility I have in my chosen professions and because my boss is actually willing to implement the pro-family policies he promotes as a prominent Catholic political activist. But many do not have this type of workplace flexibility. We need companies to realize that these policies are not only about them doing the right thing for their workers, but actually result in higher productivity and lower turnover, as President Obama pointed out.

The leaders and members of the Church are the perfect partners in this push for economic justice and stronger families. From supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to minimum wage increases to a paid family leave program, Catholics should take up the battle to provide American families with the flexibility, support and economic security they need to thrive in the 21st Century.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis’ Tweet About Inequality Is the Wake-Up Call We All Need

It challenges us to fully recognize the equality of all and create conditions that reflect a total commitment to human dignity.

There is a common root to most (or perhaps all) grave forms of social injustice: the rejection of human equality and the influence of this rejection on human relationships and institutions.

Human persons are fundamentally equal in their worth and dignity. A person’s worth is not dependent on their lineage, how they fit in some utopian scheme, how much they produce or consume, their autonomy or independence, or their race, intelligence, age, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Human worth is innate and cannot be forfeited. And it is equal in each person.

This is a radical notion. It cannot be reconciled with utilitarian thinking. It conflicts with the desires of many powerful people. It seems farcical if one is a strict materialist. It is not based on a person’s capacity to feel pain or engage in critical thinking or some other capricious standard.

This belief in human equality is rooted in the recognition that each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a loved child of God. Each person is called to communion with God and others.

When one recognizes this objective truth, the evil of inequality—of rejecting the equal worth of all and the treatment that necessarily corresponds with its recognition—can be seen as the true foundation of social injustice. It defines how we view our relationships with others and the social structures that exist (and have the capacity to either foster human flourishing or perpetuate injustice). One sees that social evil is rooted in the rejection of equality.

A belief in human equality leads one to recognize the obscenity of people starving while others live in excess. One can see the evil in human beings being used as sexual objects to satiate an individual’s animalistic impulses. Pride, lust, envy, and other sins are enabled and multiplied when equality is denied.

There becomes a way to “rationally” justify using children as human shields, terminating the life of one’s own child, remaining indifferent to people sleeping on the streets and living in abject poverty. People are enslaved, raped, murdered, persecuted, and subject to countless other forms of dehumanization and depersonalization when the fundamental equality of all is denied.

And this inequality and injustice fosters greater evil. High poverty rates can result in high crime rates. Repression and violence can produce endless cycles of conflict. As Pope Francis has written, “Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.”

Is this what Pope Francis had in mind when he tweeted “Inequality is the root of social evil,” or was he more focused on the specific impact of economic inequality?

Unlike a considerable number of his critics (including those who pretend they aren’t critics), I think Pope Francis is almost always quite clear in his messaging. I’m pleased that the “what Francis really meant” industry seems to be dying down. But there is a bit of ambiguity in the tweet. Is it about economic inequality alone? If so, does it ignore other possible sources of injustice and social evil? Does it rule out the possibility that some level of economic inequality is inevitable and desirable if we prefer to not live under the communism of a totalitarian regime?

Ultimately, it’s not particularly important, as Pope Francis believes in this personalist understanding of human equality (thus his opposition to a ‘throwaway culture’) and, like his predecessors, recognizes the current reality of gross economic inequality—both across borders and within countries (which certainly includes the US)—as a serious obstacle to social justice and the common good. It’s a mistake to focus on the semantics rather than the core message.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis uses language that is very similar to his tweet within the context of talking about the economy, saying, “Inequality is the root of social ills.” And he is not thinking of a hypothetical utopian free market but the state of the world today. He condemns the libertarian mindset that focuses so much on autonomy and individualism and calls for the creation of more just social structures and policies that address the structural causes of poverty. He is explicit in his rejection of an approach that relies too heavily on free markets: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

This is nothing new in Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Paul VI condemned the “flagrant inequalities” in both the enjoyment of possessions and the exercise of power. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner.”

Pope Francis’ tweet should challenge everyone across the political and ideological spectrum. It challenges us to fully recognize the equality of all and create conditions that reflect a total commitment to human dignity. In particular it should challenge us to confront the injustice of economic inequality in our society and globally. While the challenge may be greater for those conservatives and libertarians who have embraced economic libertarianism, liberals and communitarians must be willing to abandon stale formulas and seek innovative strategies for ensuring that every person has access to those needs that are necessary for human flourishing.

Is economic inequality the root of social evil? Is the love of money really the root of all evil? This strong language is not an empirical claim to be taken literally or analyzed scientifically, but a wake-up call to open our eyes to the gravity of the threat economic inequality and injustice poses to human dignity and the common good. We would be wise to respond to this call to action rather than to fixate on the phrasing of the pope’s tweets.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, and a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America. This piece originally appeared on Millennial.

TIME

Why Pro-lifers Should Join Forces with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

The Senator's Opportunity Plan can help pro-choice and pro-life advocates find common ground

Is pro-life feminism a contradiction in terms? Certainly some feminists see ensuing legal access to abortion as the preeminent cause of the feminist movement, central to guaranteeing women’s individual autonomy and professional success. Anti-abortion activists are seen as waging a war against women, as reactionary forces determined to maintain patriarchy and subjugate women.

Likewise, some pro-life activists would shudder at the thought of linking the protection of unborn life to a feminist agenda, seeing feminism as the mindset that has led to legalized abortion. While they would dispute the charge that they are in any way anti-women, they would acknowledge that they value traditional gender roles and are skeptical of the egalitarian impulses that animate feminism.

These pro-life and pro-choice activists often find consensus in opposing efforts to reach across the battle lines that divide the two sides to find a common ground that might better the lives of women and children—born and unborn. Too often they prefer to demonize their opponents and wage the culture war. Fortunately, this is not the only option. Millions of Americans are sick of the culture war. Many have mixed feelings on abortion, favoring legal access but with restrictions or a right to life but with exceptions. And many support concrete measures that will reduce the abortion rate and improve the lives of pregnant women and their children.

They are tired of the gridlock in Washington. They want policies that make a difference in people’s lives. A good place to start would be for pro-lifers to embrace Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Opportunity Plan and for Senator Gillibrand and other pro-choice figures and activists to embrace their support, if it is offered.

The plan calls for a fully self-sustaining paid family and medical leave program, an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, universal pre-K, measures to make childcare more affordable, and equal pay for equal work. These measures are good in and of themselves. They would benefit the economy, strengthen families, increase opportunity, and empower women. They are just measures that would promote the common good. But they would also address the concerns and further the goals of both pro-life and pro-choice advocates. If pro-choice advocates are serious about choice, they should be working hard to ensure that no woman seeks an abortion because she feels it is an economic necessity, as this is incompatible with authentic choice. For pro-life advocates, this same goal will save the lives of many unborn children. Increased economic security and opportunity, greater flexibility at the workplace, and greater access to quality childcare and education for their children will lead many women to choose life.

None of this means that pro-choice or pro-life activists must sacrifice their most cherished beliefs. It is possible to work together on shared goals and bracket the differences that cause deep divisions on other issues (in this case, legal access to abortion).Many common ground efforts have stumbled in the past over contentious issues or rhetorical disputes. For activists, there is often the refusal to take more steps to a common ground than those on the other side.

Instead of trying to find some comprehensive plan that threads the needle or extracting the perfect set of concessions, pro-life organizations and activists should simply embrace this plan, articulated by a prominent pro-choice activist. And pro-choice supporters of the plan should welcome this support. In doing so, pro-life activists would demonstrate their authentic commitment to improving women’s lives and building the culture of life.

They would dispel the notion that they are pro-birth, not pro-life. They would show that they are above petty politics and not just another special interest. They can show that they are more interested in protecting the lives of children than helping Republicans win the next election. Pro-choice supporters would gain key allies in empowering women and furthering economic justice. It might undermine the claim that pro-life feminism is nonexistent, but it would have a real, positive impact on the lives of women and their children.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial and a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America.

 

TIME Syria

Pope Francis’ One Big Mistake: Syria

Pope Francis takes part in his inaugural mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 19, 2013.
Pope Francis takes part in his inaugural mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 19, 2013. Paul Hanna—Reuters

By failing to support a realistic peace plan, the Holy Father has failed the Syrian people

Pope Francis has had an extraordinary first year. He attacked economic injustice, placed mercy at the center of his pastoral approach, and traded the culture war for the culture of encounter with statements such as, “Who am I to judge?” The Catholic Church has been reenergized by the humility of his actions and inspired by his profound words of wisdom and love. He was the most searched person on the Internet in 2013, and has made his way onto the cover of Rolling Stone and other popular periodicals that rarely feature religious figures. And he was rightly named TIME’s Person of the Year.

Yet one of the pope’s key initiatives stands out for its abject failure: his push for a peaceful resolution to Syria’s civil war. On September 7, 2013, he called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, which resulted in neither the establishment of a just peace nor even a cessation of the conflict that has raged since Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began killing peaceful protesters.

The day of prayer did not occur until the prospect of American intervention was raised, even though more than 100,000 Syrians had been killed, chemical weapons used, civilians in breadlines bombed, and Assad’s regime had perpetrated countless other crimes against humanity. Some observers, like me, were left wondering whether this was a call for genuine peace, along with the action necessary to secure it, or simply a mobilization against American intervention.

Now the crisis in Syria has only gotten worse. More than 140,000 people have been killed in Syria, including more than 10,000 children. Over 9.3 million Syrians are in need of aid. Children remain traumatized by Assad’s barrel bombs and many continue to see their access to education and healthcare disrupted by this hellish civil war.

By inserting himself into the conflict and failing to support a realistic plan to secure peace, the pope has failed in his responsibilities. His biggest failure has been his unwillingness to speak with moral clarity on the illegitimate nature of Assad’s regime and to side with the Syrian people against Assad’s continued rule.

The Vatican placed all of its eggs in the basket of the failed Geneva II peace talks, which few experts thought had any prospect for success. A representative of the Vatican has even compared any potential Western intervention in Syria to the War in Iraq, despite the fact that Syria today is a far worse humanitarian catastrophe, and calls for an invasion and occupation are practically nonexistent. As Assad bombs civilians, the Vatican is spending its time slaying straw men.

To be clear, few want the pope to be a cheerleader for war or even for limited military action by Western democracies that would undermine Assad’s capacity to brutalize the civilian population. No one expects him to analyze all the potential military options that have been considered and reach decisive conclusions on the likely proportionality and justness of each. What can and should be expected from the pope is for him to remind us of our ethical obligations.

Pope Francis should have evoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and called on the international community to act collectively to halt the mass murder of civilians in Syria. He should have reminded everyone that it is the dignity of human persons, not the sovereignty of states, that is inviolable. If he was unwilling to admit that force may have been necessary to achieve peace, he should not have categorically ruled out the possibility.

In doing so, he would have been drawing on his predecessor’s endorsement of the responsibility to protect and the Catholic Church’s commitment to universal human rights. Before the United Nations in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” He also warned against an overly deferential view of sovereignty, saying, “It is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.”

Pope Francis would be wise to heed those words today. The principle of solidarity calls on all nations to act to end the mass atrocities that are being perpetrated in Syria today. This may require the use of force. And if the United Nations will not act to shift the status quo and make peace possible, the world’s liberal democracies should.

In just one year, Pope Francis has transformed the way countless people view the Catholic Church and organized religion. In his second year, the pope must side with the Syrian people and demand that Bashar al-Assad, the latest Butcher of Damascus, step aside, a necessary first step on the path to peace.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial and a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America.

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