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The Catholic Right’s Combusting Psyche

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden leaves after attending services at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church December 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden leaves after attending services at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church December 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Why is it that the supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party can’t say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump? What the hell do you have to say for yourselves losers?”

Reverend Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest, tweeted this last fall.

The anti-abortion zealot’s since-deleted trampling of the commandment against defiling the Lord’s name — and of the Catholic church’s ban on endorsing parties or candidates — exposed the Catholic right’s combusting psyche. But even responsible clergy can get their cassocks in a bunch. Via a public statement on Inauguration Day, the president of the U.S. bishops informed the president of the United States that his positions on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage threaten “the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”

Because this statement was untrue; because idiocies like Pavone’s made kooks in collars cluelessly complicit in the Capitol riot; because Joe Biden’s politics, particularly his concern for the poor, are rooted in his Catholicism (“My religion defines who I am.”); and because the last (and only other) Catholic president’s inauguration was so long ago that it predated the standardization of seatbelts-in-cars and zip codes — for all these reasons, America is about to get a seminar in the church’s teaching.

As a Catholic in Massachusetts, where 34 % of adults are adherents, second only to Rhode Island’s 42%, may I suggest that the Catholic right is wrong, such that both church and state must respond to its errors.

America is about to get a seminar in the church’s teaching.

Biden infringes Catholics’ living “according to their consciences.” This incendiary accusation violates the Eighth Commandment. No one forces Catholics to have abortions, use contraception, or participate in same-sex marriage as betrothed or officiant. They will have to accept others’ legal rights to these things.

I support contraception and marriage equality; on abortion, I’m closer to the church’s view than Biden’s. Yet my fellow pro-lifers ignore how (a) robust safety nets, including contraception access, decrease abortions, and (b) their dream of overturning Roe v. Wade would delegate abortion policy to the states — where red ones already severely curtail or effectively eliminate access. Our side has won; better to focus on blocking Congressional codification of Roe than on inciting violence.

Did I say inciting violence? That’s right, because...

Catholic clergy helped whip up the freak show that rode into Washington Jan. 6. Pavone’s venom made Trump’s tweets sound like Dr. Seuss, but it reflected relentless rhetorical artillery against the Democrats last fall from Catholic pulpits, including online ones. (“Repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell,” another priest hissed.)

“Can anyone doubt that the moral calculus proposed by some Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, framed in the language of pure good versus pure evil, contributed to the presence of so many rioters brandishing overtly Christian symbols as they carried out their violence?” the Jesuit James Martin cogently wrote in America Magazine.

Right-wing demonizing, particularly over abortion, defies both church teaching and moral sense. Conservative pope emeritus Benedict XVI (“God’s Rottweiler”) said Catholics may vote for pro-choice candidates if they were persuaded not by a candidate’s abortion stance but by other weighty moral issues. The U.S. bishops affirm that teaching.

Indeed, reducing “pro-life” to abortion alone is the defective moral reasoning that evangelicals spouted to support Donald Trump, whose hostility to Medicaid and Obamacare killed thousands, whose negligence early in the pandemic killed even more, and who medically traumatized children stolen from their families. This depravity rates as “pro-life” only to those of whom former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank cracked, “They believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

You’d think episcopal indifference to the pedophile scandal would chasten church leaders into mothballing their velvet gloves.

I suggested that both church and state have a role here. As to the latter, Biden should heed advice to defang Trump’s/the Catholic right’s appeal by pushing concrete help for heartland Americans (universal health care, public works jobs), draped in his church’s language of the common good. Police meanwhile are rounding up the Capitol mob, including religious believers, who will learn that crackpot theology is not a legal defense.

If only the church were as morally firm. The bishop of the priest who threatened hell for Democratic voters issued a mealy-mouthed statement condemning his tone, applauding his message’s “undeniable truth,” and threatening “canonical penalties” if brotherly admonitions didn’t work. Which they didn’t, as the priest kept YouTube-ing, without publicly reported consequences.

You’d think episcopal indifference to the pedophile scandal would chasten church leaders into mothballing their velvet gloves. To their credit, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and an anonymous Vatican official publicly criticized Gomez’s Inauguration Day broadside, while Cardinal Joseph Tobin of New Jersey questioned those “who use very harsh words and want to cut off all communication with the president because of this.”

The Jesus Catholics profess as Messiah used gentler words about his crucifiers. More bishops must police the disregard of his example pouring from the mouths of unhinged clergy, for whom, evidently, five dead in D.C aren’t “pro-life” enough.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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