American Catholicism: The Commonweal ’64 – ’65

December 6, 2011

Not really from our time period, but it was the best I could do...

On the 8th of January 1965, on page four hundred and ninety five of The Commonweal, on the right hand side of the page, we find an advertisement.  It depicts the profile of a man in a tie placing a cigarette to his lips.  The matching tagline reads: “Can a priest be a modern man?”  The copy below clarifies that Priests can be men of “this age, cognizant of the needs of modern men.”  Free from formalism, the priest is a pioneer, a missionary to his own people, utilizing his individual talents and modern technology to preach the word of God.  A clearer image of the changing demographics and temperament of the American Catholic Church (as painted by Commonweal during this time) is difficult to find.

With these issues we step not only into the middle ‘60s, but into a world and Church beginning to look like those with which I am familiar.  In September of ’64 we see not only the third session of the Council opening, but also the incipient Free Speech Movement in Berkeley.  November brings the victory of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, and the initiation of English into the liturgy.  1965 sees the assassination of Malcolm X and the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and anti-war protests springing up across the country.  Commonweal keeps pace with such modern events.  In its pages we begin to see Church conflicts framed along a progressive/conservative divide and phrases such as the “post-Christian West” and the “re-conversion of Europe.”  Commonweal even describes its mission as one that meshes perfectly with the signs of the times, writing in an self-advertisement: “Now, in the new climate engendered by Popes John and Paul, this widely quoted, lay-edited journal of opinion has more to contribute that in the years before.”  And contribute it does, the questions are: what does it contribute?  Why?  And to what end? Read the rest of this entry »


Catholics and abortion: Single-issue voting? (Part III)

January 31, 2011

Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial.  I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable.  I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult.  Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide.  Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.

I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument.  When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts.  So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.

There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.

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Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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