The National Catholic Review

Last October in America, Pope Francis warned the church against being “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. Washington, especially the religious right and secular left, shares this obsession.

July brought contradictory actions on these obsessions and religious liberty. The Supreme Court recognized the religious objections of Hobby Lobby to some forms of contraception. The Obama administration rejected pleas for conscience protection for religious groups in its executive order protecting gay and lesbian workers in federal grants. These decisions unleashed outrage and celebration, exaggeration and distortion, political fundraising and posturing.

Religious groups carefully pointed out that Hobby Lobby objects to only four means of contraception while supporting lawsuits to protect groups that oppose all contraception. The administration will not exempt religious groups that uphold the traditional definition of marriage, though this was the president’s position less than two years ago.

Leaders on the political right and left seem “obsessed” with these matters. Where are progressives who clearly defend children fleeing violence in Central America or decry the court’s rejection of mandates for states to expand Medicaid to provide health care for lower income Americans? Many on the right are narrowly focused on the culture war, using scare tactics to raise money and seek votes, but they get less attention from media obsessed with sexual freedom. None of this advances the difficult dialogue on how to reconcile religious freedom with the assertion of other rights in a pluralistic nation.

 Half a world away, there is a real war on women and direct attacks on Christians as Iraq falls apart and ISIS advances with horrific violence against Christians and brutal suppression of the rights of women.

Washington plays the blame game. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who claimed we would be greeted as liberators in a short war in Iraq, blames President Obama, who wisely opposed the war and now is dealing with a decade of failed policies. Hillary Clinton says in her recent book Hard Choices that she and leading Democrats made the “wrong choice” in authorizing war.

There were other voices. Pope John Paul II did all he could to stop the race to war. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the war could not be morally justified. I worked for the bishops at that time, and I was with the pope’s emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, when he returned, deeply discouraged and angry, from a meeting with President George W. Bush on Ash Wednesday in 2003. The president had set aside unopened the pope’s personal letter and dismissed the warnings the cardinal offered.

Those warnings were well founded. The war turned out to be not short and decisive but long and horribly costly in human, financial and moral terms. Iraq is now not a democracy but a failed state torn apart by violent sectarian conflict. Relations between Christians and Muslims are worse and extremists have been empowered. The Christian community is being destroyed. The patriarch in Iraq called this the “darkest, most difficult period” for Christians, who are forced to convert, flee, pay a punitive fee or die. For the first time in 1,600 years, there are virtually no Christians in Mosul.

Also missing in the blame game are those who paid for these unwise decisions. My son-in-law, who served in Iraq, told me: “Seeing Iraq crumble is disheartening as a veteran and an American. We didn’t feel ‘we were protecting our freedom’ or ‘making Iraq a better place.’ Most people just wanted to do their time, keep from getting killed or wounded, protect each other. We knew the war was not going to be worth it. We lost 4,500 troops, and 32,000 were physically wounded, plus many psychological casualties and high rates of PTSD.”

Imagine how different our nation and our world would be if our leaders had listened to John Paul II and the U.S. bishops. We should also listen and learn from those who are paying for disastrous decisions. Maybe we could even turn away for a moment from our “obsessions” to notice those who are losing their lives and fundamental rights because of our nation’s bad choices and failed policies.

John Carr is director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.


Marie Rehbein | 8/10/2014 - 7:34pm

Politics is not the same thing as governing. Governing has largely fallen by the wayside, while politics is second only to money with regard to what influences governmental decisions in our so-called democracy. The issues of abortion (women's rights) and religious freedom are political tools to get out the voters. They are prominent because political strategists have identified them as having great effect in that regard. As the author notes, one is identified with one party and the other with the other. The Catholic Church's role in the strategist's vision is to insist that the issue thrown before the electorate is of eternal significance.

The decision to invade Iraq was based on oil concerns. It is not exclusive to the US to make foreign policy to help privately owned businesses be more profitable, but the US has made as much mischief around the world following this practice as has England. Getting elected in order to make policy to favor one's business interests, which in one's mind equates with the good of mankind, has been accomplished by making people fear for their immediate well-being, whether that is the vision that everyone is fornicating and there will be no grandchildren because they will all be aborted, or that we will no longer be allowed to be Christian, or that women will be forced once again into dependency on men and not allowed to vote or own property or have a career.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/10/2014 - 11:04am

I much appreciate Mr. Bermudez' comments below. More and more these days I do not like to identify myself as a "liberal", but rather as a "Catholic". Especially in this age of Francis there is less a need to counter than to be grounded in a truth/prophecy that can transcend partisan politics and shed light on the tangled knot of lies that belie both "sides".

On February 15, 2003 the people of the world protested the imminent Iraqi war. This was the largest human protest in history, with people filling the streets in more than 600 cities around the globe. It obviously had no more effect on world leader than did the pleas from Pope John Paul II or Cardinal Pio Laghi.

There is another agenda going on that is even deeper than the political one, and to which politicians are beholden whether they know it or not. Extremely dark, it's hard to get to, hard to expose, hard to even articulate. My sense is that it has to do with oil, money (greed), the massive buildup and sale of ammunition and weaponry. Francis was on its scent with his rebuke to the Italian mafia (though it is much larger than just this). Merton said, "the root of war is fear", and that is also the root of this deep darkness (Evil) that infects our world.

Being focused on one or the other political agenda distracts us from the deeper darkness.

Miguel K'nowles | 8/9/2014 - 11:01pm

say what?

Egberto Bermudez | 8/9/2014 - 5:32pm


Mr. Carr, I strongly agree with this statement that you make: “Imagine how different our nation and our world would be if our leaders had listened to John Paul II and the U.S. bishops.” I also strongly agree that we have “to notice those who are losing their lives and fundamental rights because of our nation’s bad choices and failed policies.” Nevertheless, I strongly disagree when you demand that your readers dismiss the other issues as simple and unimportant obsessions. In other words, you are asking us to reduce the angle of our vision instead of increasing it. I think that Pope Francis, our US bishops and John Paul II want us to increase the angle of our vision so that we are able to see all violations of the personal dignity of the human being whether they are to our right or to our left. Ours should not be an “either or but an all proposition.” I sincerely think that you have the best intentions, you want to call our attention to the fact that when our nation makes bad choices and adopts failed policies human lives are lost and fundamental rights are violated. Nevertheless, I also think that you are misquoting Pope Francis., and to clarify the issue, let’s see what Pope Francis said:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
What Pope Francis is saying is that we “cannot insist only” because we have to increase our angle of vision since these are not the only instances in which the personal dignity of the human being is violated. If fact both in his personal witness and in his writings as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and as Pope this is what he has been constantly doing. For instance, in Evangelii Gaudium, chapter 4, (209-216) he writes:
“210. It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all.”
And in 213:
“Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”
Pope Francis is not only concerned about what he calls “the most defenseless and innocent among us” but also the mothers: “On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”
In Argentina, Pope Francis did not defend the conjugal view of marriage because he is a “bigot”, but because he understands that biologically new life comes from the union of a man and a woman. Therefore, by defending the conjugal view of marriage he is defending the human rights of children. This is what he had to say:
“Marriage (composed of male and female) is not the same as the union of two persons of the same sex. To distinguish is not to discriminate but to respect; to differentiate, to discern, is to value with propriety, not to discriminate. At a time when we emphasize the richness of pluralism and cultural and social diversity, it turns out that a contradiction minimizes fundamental human differences. A father is not the same as a mother. We cannot teach future generations that it is the same thing to prepare yourself living a family project that assumes the commitment to a stable relationship between man and woman, or to live with a person of the same sex.
Let us be careful that, in trying to assert and look out for a presumed right of adults, we do not leave aside the proprietary right of children (who should be the only privileged ones) to count on models of father and mother, to have a Dad and a Mom.”

During this month of August Pope Francis is asking us to pray for refugees: “That refugees, forced by violence to abandon their homes, may find a generous welcome and the protection of their rights” This prayer is especially relevant now because of the thousands of refugees fleeing the war and genocide in Syria and Iraq. Let us hope that our government makes good choices and adopts successful polices this time around.

In conclusion, Mr. Carr, I think, that our US bishops, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have not been obsessed with certain issues, but on the contrary, have been preaching in season and out of season a consistent ethic of life and have only been obsessed in defending “the inviolable value of each single human life.”

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