This is the first post in our Symposium on Catholic Political Theology and the 2016 Elections. Future posts will appear on Fridays in the following weeks.
In his book The Audacity of Hope, President Barack Obama welcomes religious agency within the United States but cautions: “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.” This notion of correlating faith and reason, and translating faith-based ideas into the wider public square for the sake of the common good, finds fertile ground in Catholic traditions. As John Courtney Murray, S.J., the great American bridge-builder between democracy and Catholicism and champion of religious liberty underscored, “The Body of Christ is really a-building here in time. And its growth is that of a Body, not simply of a soul. There must be no Platonism, which would make man only a soul. The res sacra which grace would achieve is likewise a res humana in the full sense.” This Thomistic way of relating grace and human realities, or to be more precise as it relates to this blog, what is sacred with what is political, offers the central theological reason for the Church’s ongoing efforts to engage governments across the world and across the ideological spectrum. This political engagement fundamentally affirms that despite creaturely limitations and human sinfulness, the political order has the potential to be raised and perfected according to God’s plan.
In this blog post, I want to reflect upon two central questions: 1) How might we assess the legacy of public Catholicism both nationally and internationally under the Obama administration? 2) What dreamers and dreams might we consider as we step into the voting booth come this November, especially in light of Pope Francis’ address to Congress during his historic visit to our nation? To address these questions is in many ways to revisit the ancient but ever relevant question: “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens, and what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”
The Relation of the Church with the Obama Administration within the U.S. Context
Nationally speaking, the Affordable Care Act represents President Obama’s signature accomplishment. As of 2016, the estimate of newly insured persons who have health insurance coverage who otherwise would not have had this coverage before the ACA was close to 20 million people. This estimate includes those covered under Medicaid, the Marketplace, and children who have stayed under their parents’ insurance. According to the US Census Bureau, before the ACA in 2009 about 48.6 million or 15.7% of the population was uninsured. By 2015, this number had dropped to 9.2%, the lowest uninsured rate in 50 years. Notwithstanding issues that remain to be addressed related to rising premium costs and access to coverage with respect to various parts of the program in different states, there is no doubt that the fundamental human right to health care has become a reality to millions of uninsured Americans. Still, despite this potential valuable social contribution, the final verdict on the future of this program is still out. The Obama administration faced and in many cases overcame strong legal opposition to the program. While a number of Catholic leaders embraced this much-needed reform in our country, the administration also faced public opposition from certain sectors of the Catholic community, particularly from U.S. Catholic bishops. As is well known, this opposition mainly revolved around controversial components of health care coverage related to contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.
A second and yet to be resolved major social issue also witnessed the outpouring of Catholic voices during the Obama administration, namely, the struggle for just and comprehensive immigration reform. For a long time, the U.S. Catholic bishops have favored immigration reform, but this social issue has also split Catholic politicians on both sides of the aisle. One need only look at President’s Obama’s 2004 executive order for undocumented immigrants to find evidence of this public polarization of the Catholic voice. On the one hand, VP Biden opined that the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are citizens “just waiting, waiting for a chance to contribute fully.” On the other hand, other Catholic political leaders, such as the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have refused to work with the administration on this issue and praised the Supreme court decision striking down the presidential order, claiming that the court did the right thing for upholding the separation of powers within the federal government. In a public statement, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, M.Sp.S., auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration said:
We have a long history of welcoming and aiding the poor, the outcast, the immigrant, and the disadvantaged. Each day, the Catholic Church in the United States, in her social service agencies, hospitals, schools, and parishes, witnesses the human consequences of the separation of families, when parents are deported from their children or spouses from each other. We’ve been on record asking the Administration to do everything within its legitimate authority to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters. As pastors, we welcome any efforts within these limits that protect individuals and protect and reunite families and vulnerable children.
The Church’s public voice on the issue immigration reform, which has generally aligned U.S. bishops with the decisions of the Obama administration, has created tensions with other local and state government officials. These tensions rose at the state level when Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis decided to help resettle a Syrian refugee family despite objections by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now the Republican VP nominee. Governor Pence is a Republican evangelical with political roots in the Democratic Party and the Catholic faith.
Surely, while health care and immigration reform were two very important issues that prompted the public contribution of Catholics during the Obama administration, I would be remiss not to mention a few other social issues where the Church has actively engaged government policies. For instance, some Church leaders also publicly opposed what they saw as unjustified government interference in the area of federal funding. In some states, Catholic foster care and adoption agencies closed their doors because they saw the stipulation not to discriminate against placing children in the care of same sex couples as a violation of their religious liberty. Interestingly enough, many of these same Catholic charitable organizations have benefitted from federal funding in other areas and have continued to work hand in hand with the federal government in programs that offer much needed care for the poor and marginalized within and outside our cities. As a September 2015 report from the Washington Post showed, “The Church and related Catholic Charities and schools have collected more than $1.6 billion since 2012 in U.S. contracts and grants in a far-reaching relationship that spans from school lunches for grammar school students to contracts across the globe to care for the poor and needy at the expense of Uncle Sam.”
The Relation of the Church with the Obama administration within an International Context
After my arrival in Rome as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, a reporter poignantly asked me: “Mr. Ambassador, how could you be a Catholic theologian and represent the Obama administration given President Obama’s various policies on gender and sexual reproduction which are at odds with the official teaching of the Catholic Church?” I paused for a second and then turned to my Cuban-American identity as a resource for responding to this question. I spoke to the central metaphor Gustavo Perez Firmat uses to characterize Cuban-Americans. For him, Cuban-Americans live life on-the-hyphen, constantly negotiating cultural experiences, and moving back and forth from one culture to another, from one language to another, and from one socio-political reality to another. Just like I have always found ways to bridge my cultural existence in the United States, I was confident about my ability to bridge my faith and my diplomatic service, even if the two at times would come into tension during my tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. I jokingly referred to Thanksgiving Day and my love for both turkey/stuffing and black beans/rice!
In 2011 Secretary of State Clinton decided to establish the Religion and Foreign Policy group as one of the focus areas for her Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. The central objective of this focus group was to explore ways to deepen engagement with religious leaders for the sake of advancing the common good. Under Secretary Kerry, this original groundbreaking initiative was expanded and has been incorporated into the mandate of the newly created office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department. No other U.S. embassy serves to exemplify better this kind of cooperation with religious leaders on U.S. Foreign Policy than the U.S. embassy to the Holy See. At this U.S. mission, the public and influential voices of both the Catholic Church and U.S. governments can join hands in service to the common good of the global community of nations.
During my tenure as ambassador, common interactions between the Holy See and the Obama administration included: 1) medical efforts to end the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child (we secured a significant annual donation from the U.S. in medical supplies and medicines); 2) inter-faith conversations that linked key leaders to address the global economic crisis of our times; 3) conversations with key Vatican officials on the global experience of migration; 4) co-operation with Vatican relief agencies in response to various natural disasters, such as the massive earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010; 5) peace-building and conflict resolution initiatives, including work on behalf of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Middle East, and especially Syria; 6) people-to-people diplomacy with the community at Rondine, Italy (a Catholic initiative in Italy that brings together young men and women from conflict areas around the world); 7) defending the basic dignity of human persons and their inalienable human rights in places like Cuba (calling for the release of political prisoners) and in Africa (advocating for the life of LGBTI persons); 8) strategically envisioning care of the earth with the support of the “green Pope” (Pope Benedict XVI); and 9) engaging in creative conversations and actions with key representatives of the U.S. government, civil society, and religious leaders to create better policies to stop human trafficking.
Since my departure, Ambassador Kenneth Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services, has continued to engage the Holy See on these and many other challenges facing our human family. Under his watch, no area of cooperation between the Holy See and the Obama administration has received more public attention in recent history than the recent restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The Church’s private and public advocacy on behalf of this diplomatic move is undeniable. More specifically, Pope Francis’ voice calling for this diplomatic reconciliation was essential to bringing this Vatican dream into fruition, notwithstanding similar positive efforts in the area of U.S.-Cuban relations in the past by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Under both of Pope Francis’ predecessors, Cuba opened itself up a little more to the world and the world opened itself a little more to Cuba.
Dreaming the Future Impact of Our Catholic Vote with Respect to the Upcoming National Election
The human person, as Aristotle taught, is indeed a socio-political creature who expresses and comes to self-realization in and through communal participation. In his 2015 address to Congress, Pope Francis noted: “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” The pope argued that “All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.” And he cautioned: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”
In this speech the pope offered the example of four American dreamers who worked on behalf of our common good: Abraham Lincoln (liberty); Martin Luther King, Jr. (liberty and racial equality); Dorothy Day (social justice and rights of persons, especially the right of workers); and Thomas Merton (inter-religious dialogue and human self-transcendence). Throughout his speech the pope offered our political leaders their dreams and his dream to build a better future together, touching upon the central themes of his papacy: 1) promoting cultures of encounter and rejecting the globalization of human indifference; 2) opting for the poor and marginalized; 3) caring for the planet; and 4) upholding the rights of immigrants. Because of the United States’ prominent global influence, it is clear that the Pope’s dreaming of a renewed American society carries implications beyond our national borders.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, quoting John Courtney Murray, “The Body of Christ is really a-building here in time.” Our social and political responsibility to participate and contribute to our democracy is not something we add to our Christian identity as an afterthought. Our social responsibility is an essential component of our Christian identity and witnesses to the fact that as historical creatures we are simultaneously citizens of this nation and citizens of the city of God. In just a few weeks, we will have an opportunity to exercise the fundamental responsibility to vote. Our vote will be one cast as Catholics and as Americans. As Catholic-Americans this vote can contribute to build our common “American” future, especially if we allow this vote to be shaped by the encounter with and love of God in our neighbors.
Our civic responsibility to vote is one of many implications we can draw from God’s grace acting within and perfecting our particular participation in the political processes that inform our democracy. The exercise of this responsibility requires that each of us become docile to the Spirit in prayer, amenable to reason through critical conversations with others, and subject to prudential judgment in light of our human ambiguities. Each of us might have a different dream for our country, stemming from the distinct socio-political locations from which we stand on this American landscape. Perhaps we might consider between now and the election day taking a day off to envision ourselves standing on a different part of this landscape, especially if we stood with persons on the margins. Consider taking the place of one of the thousands of black men and women unjustly imprisoned in our land, or consider taking the place of one of the millions of undocumented persons who daily fear deportation and separation from their loved ones. As faithful Catholics engaged in the political process, come this November we ought to stand together on behalf of dreamers and their dreams for care and justice to prevail within our homeland, other homelands, and our homeland earth, which finds itself under an unprecedented ecological crisis.
Let’s dare to engage our Catholic imagination and together with Pope Francis dream a renewed American society where all human bodies can be welcomed and empowered to contribute to the greatness of this nation, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, culture, religious affiliation, documentation status, economic condition, education, and physical ability. Let’s dream our common home as a place where the oppression, assault, and marginalization of any one person becomes recognized as the oppression, assault, and marginalization of all persons. Indeed, let’s dream of the ongoing perfection of these United States of America as our founders envisioned—E pluribus unum. But above all, as we enter that voting booth, let’s hold close to our hearts and minds the admonition of Pope Francis: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need.”
Miguel H. Diaz is the John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service at Loyola University in Chicago, and served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012. He is the author of On Being Human: U.S. Hispanic and Rahnerian Perspectives, and is currently working on three manuscripts: The Preferential Option for Culture in in Latino/a Theology, Building Bridges: God, Diplomacy, and the Common Good, and Reconceiving the Mystery of God Latinamente.