Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

9.12.2013

If You See Elephants (or Donkeys) When Looking at the Church Remove Your Goggles

 

In these deeply partisan times some may be tempted to place every institution and individual cleanly on the left or right of the U.S. political spectrum. However, there are some that may not easily fit these stereotypes—that cannot be seen clearly while wearing partisan-tinted goggles. The Catholic Church opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. This would seem to make it a natural "ally" of the Republican Party in the United States. Yet, the Church is clearly "out of place" on some other issues from this perspective. As some have recently noticed, the American bishops are supporting immigration reforms being put forth by Democrats. This appears to be creating some anomie among the media and a growing sense of urgency for a nested games "explanation" of the Church's actions, which as far as I can tell led to the following string of events:

1) The New York Times recently revealed in the middle of a good story on the proposed reforms that "Catholic leaders..." "say they are motivated by the Bible’s teachings and by the reality that many Latino immigrants are Catholics and represent a critical demographic for the church." No problems here, but an actual source would always be nice. Many Latino immigrants are indeed Catholic and the Church certainly wants to be sure that its members are treated with dignity and fairness. But then things start to get weird...

2) The Pew Research Center's FactTank blog (...normally very well done and just plain cool) followed-up by posting an entry saying the Church had "acknowledged to The New York Times that demographics are a factor" in their support of legislation. In Pew's defense they were providing some good data on the topic of immigration reform. However, the original title of the post (now changed) rather unfortunately appeared to highlight the role of demographics as a sole motivation—as if the Church was just looking to "pad" its numbers (...I don't think this is what they intended to communicate). This headline drew the attention of The Drudge Report, which linked to the post over the weekend.

3) Now, two steps and several days removed, The Economist (...yes that Economist) has stepped forward to "explain" and answer for us all, "Why is the Roman Catholic Church supporting immigration reform?" They provide a solution to this mystery by noting (and citing Pew, citing the Times): "One possible reason why the Catholic church is keen to cultivate Hispanic migrants could be that, if some of the immigrants are more socially conservative, their voices could become louder on topics such as contraception and abortion, over which the church has clashed with the Obama administration. Welcoming more Hispanics into the country would also swell congregations, extending the church’s influence from pulpits to polling stations" (...never mind that Hispanic Catholics lean heavily Democratic. Maybe some of Pew's data doesn't make it across the pond?). So there it is. All the dots are now connected. It's all probably a vast right-wing conspiracy. Now I get it! Thanks Economist.

Wait... The Economist is a European publication. You'd think they would know better with the Catholic Church also strongly and similarly advocating for the rights and well-being of immigrants in Europe. A recent Los Angeles Times story profiles this reality under the headline, "In Italy, protecting immigrants crosses the faith line." Here the story notes that: "In Europe, as in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church has assumed a leading role as a protector of, and advocate for, immigrants. But whereas the largest bloc of migrants to the United States are Catholic, the majority of European immigrants are Muslim." What "underlying motivations" can The Economist possibly uncover here? What was that about demographics again?

There really is no mystery or conspiracy to any of this. No need to look next at the symbology in da Vinci paintings for more answers. Instead I'd recommend "The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” available on the Vatican website (...The New Testament would work as well). The Church encompasses a global faith that was around for many hundreds of years before the U.S. ever appeared on a map and 94% of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics live outside of American borders. If a number of Catholics move from country A to country B, the number of Catholics in the world does not get any larger! The Church has no interest in amassing the faithful in any single country for political purposes or any other reason I can think of. What it is doing is supporting people, Catholic or not, who are vulnerable and in need ("harbor the harborless"). The sanctuary and support the Church provides to people often living on the margins is at the center of its mission in the world (...Am I the only one really following Pope Francis on Twitter?).

With that said there is certainly a lot more material for journalists to work with beyond immigration. Who will uncover the "conservative-leaning" conspiracies behind the Church's support for state social welfare programs, just wages, gun control, and labor union rights? What is really behind the Church's opposition to the death penalty? How long until some hard working journalist discovers the secret Church document that outlines the real and complete political agenda of the Church in the United States (or this online stash of copies of actual correspondence sent by bishops to government leaders)?

Even Church involvement in foreign affairs is coming under the careful microscope of American journalism. Some are now highlighting the Pope's seemingly "anti-Obama" stance opposing military intervention in Syria. Mark Phillips of CBS News lamented that Pope Francis has been "uncommonly active" using "strong language" and had "taken sides" as he "entered into the world of partisan international politics" in a manner that is "music to the Russian president's ears." One more conspiracy down. Everyone already knows the Church is highly motivated to support a former KGB officer. Makes perfect sense. On top of that, CBS referred to the Pope's widely attended prayer vigil as a "religious street protest," as if the Pope had organized a Tea Party rally. Mark Phillips really can't recall the Catholic Church ever opposing war in the past? Did it support U.S. military intervention under Republican administrations?  

My advice for reporters would be that if you are writing a story and you think you have identified some hidden agenda behind the Church's decisions or actions reach out to someone in your newsroom who really knows the Church well (e.g., the religion reporter on staff or someone else who regularly writes about the Church). Air out your theory with them before it goes to print. The Church will rarely fit well in the elephant or donkey costume. As Ross Douhat over at The New York Times recently noted:

"The cycle is familiar: A pope says something about a controversial issue that doesn’t fit the media’s semi-informed preconceptions about Roman Catholic teaching, a firestorm of coverage follows, and then better-informed observers are left to pick up the pieces and explain that no, actually, the pope is just reasserting an idea — an openness to Darwinian evolution, the possibility that nonbelievers might go to heaven, pick your controversy — that the church already accepted or believed or allowed to be considered."

Well said.

Image above courtesy of Dhammika Heenpella at Flickr Creative Commons. 

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