Once upon a time, the Protestant electorate feared that Kennedy would be torn between his country and his Roman Catholic religion. Today, that fear has died and may have reversed — American nationalism has become a far greater force than the word of God for many people. I spoke at length with one priest who was very passionate about his faith and America’s role in the world.
In September 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, an organization of Protestant ministers, to convince them that his allegiance was to American values and not to the Pope. “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Looking back on his policy decisions and personal indiscretions, we can safely acknowledge that this is one campaign promise that Kennedy was able to honor.
Protestant leaders, and other members of the status quo, had every reason to fear the American Catholics. The social and political policy of the Catholic Church has been what some might call “liberal” or “radical” for many years, despite being firmly rooted in the Gospels. In the 1950s, when segregation was accepted without question, the parochial schools began integrating before the public schools. During the civil rights movement, priests and nuns took center stage, despite the relatively low Catholic population of the South — America is roughly one quarter Catholic, primarily in the Midwest and in pockets on the East Coast. Father Tom Pomeroy of Holy Cross Parish of Kimberly-Darboy claims that “the south was less than 1% Catholic.”
The protests against the Vietnam War are now remembered largely as student demonstrations, but the Catholic Church was firmly involved in this, as well. Two priests and brothers, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, were front and center during the protests. Their actions, which escalated to the point of vandalism towards government property — the burning of hundreds of draft records. This disobedience landed them on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. While vandalism may be going too far, speaking truth to power is something very Catholic at heart. “In the public square of ideas all voices are heard… Whether that voice is a bishop in the Catholic Church, a Buddhist, an Atheist or a Neo-Nazi… it is patriotic to speak your mind,” says Father Tom. “I think that Catholics (and all Christians) should stand up for what is right and true.”
But the underdog, progressive nature of the Church, or at least its followers, seemed to die down by the early 1980s. Were members losing their religion? Was their adherence to blind nationalism growing? Or has the media simply portrayed the Catholic laity in a more complacent light? The answer is unclear, but we can be certain that something changed.
President Ronald Reagan launched a series of proxy wars in Latin America during his time in office. This has led some, including activist Noam Chomsky, to claim that America was “virtually at war with the Catholic Church”. How, you ask? When one examines the governments and political parties of Latin America that Reagan and others accused of being Communist allies, what becomes apparent is this: their political beliefs were resting firmly on the foundation of their Catholic heritage. The Gospels have a strong undercurrent of a “socialist” message; live simply, give aid to the poor, the pursuit of free enterprise will not gain you favor in Heaven. During this slaughter of Latin Americans, most of whom were Catholic, including one archbishop, where was the outcry from the North American Catholics?
The Iraq War and the George W. Bush years seemed to be the icing on the cake for nationalism’s triumph over religion. As much as the Church and even the Pope himself spoke out against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the average American was ready to serve his country, whether for right or wrong. This was no less true for Catholics, though Father Tom tells us, “Catholics are called to follow divine law, especially if there is a conflict between divine law and civil law.” If the Vatican’s words are any indication, preemptive or preventive war is not supported by divine law. Before the outbreak, John Paul II told the world that “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations” and must remain “the very last option”. On March 16, 2003, he pleaded, “There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace, it is never too late to come to an understanding and to continue discussions.” America invaded Iraq two days later.
Even after the occupation, John Paul did not back down. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, argued that “reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist” and that “it seems clear that the negative consequences will be greater than anything positive that might be obtained.” This critically scathing attack was much more blunt than anything mainstream American liberals were saying. Father Tom seems to agree that the outcome has not been overly positive. “In fact,” he says, “before the war began, the Chaldean bishops [of Iraq] said that the Church would come out the losers if there was war. They are correct. Under the secular government of Saddam, Christianity fared very well because there was religious freedom in Iraq. Now with the new constitution, Iraq is officially a Muslim country, and religious freedom has been curtailed and interreligious violence between Muslims and anti-Christian violence has skyrocketed… the USA has destroyed Iraq.” An American priest defending Saddam Hussein’s policies?
The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in April that found that regular church attendees are more inclined to accept torture than non-affiliated people. Only 20% of American Catholics surveyed said that torture was “never” justified. They seemed to forget that Jesus was the Prince of Peace who asked them to turn the other cheek and love their enemies as themselves. “Catholics need to be taught that human dignity does not allow for torture,” says Father Tom. “It would be very difficult to hook someone up to a battery for low grade electrical shocks and then say you love the person you are doing this to. Anyone who tortures another must see them as less than human, and that is wrong.”
Father Tom fears that “if we are using torture in our interrogations, then we are also probably using violence and coercion in other areas of our policy. Violence [in the form of terrorism] is the normal response to violence [in the form of American foreign policy]. We should not have a foreign policy of violence, and over time this could help solve the violent reaction against us.” In short, if those same leaders who call America a “Christian nation” practiced Christian values, we wouldn’t be dealing with Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations as it is today.
What about our escapades along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Does the Christian belief in providing for the needy make for a sound foreign policy? Father Tom thinks it might. “The Taliban is gaining strength. Why? Because the Taliban is giving them education, social support, food, etc… meeting the people in their needs and therefore getting the support of the people. In our foreign policy, we need to answer that human equation not with violence but with social regeneration of areas… then they would not rise up.”
For more information on how the Catholic Church applies its teachings to modern, real world issues, Father Tom recommends reading “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, published by Veritas Books and available from any fine bookseller.
Gavin Schmitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Kaukauna resident. He has the utmost respect for Catholic theology, but is a little wary on the cannibalism part.