America's Progressive Catholics: Another Side of the Church

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Visits to a Catholic Democrats fundraiser and an unusually tolerant abbey show how some U.S. believers are defying stereotypes

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I recently attended an event for a group called Catholic Democrats in Indianapolis and then visited Thomas Merton's monastery in Kentucky. In just a few days, I moved from the excitement of current politics to the more tranquil world of contemplation and theology. This inspiring week reminded me that Catholicism is not a narrow-minded religion but a universal church encompassing many ways to reach God.

The event I attended in Indianapolis was a joint fundraiser for Catholic Democrats and the Democratic candidate for mayor, Melina Kennedy (no relation). Now 16,000 strong, Catholic Democrats was founded by Patrick Whelan, a rheumatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Like me, he felt that Catholics who were focused on a single issue—abortion—were eroding the Church's tradition of working for the common good.

For the past 20 years or so, it seemed that the Church hierarchy was in cahoots with the Republican party, insisting that good Catholics vote Republican. In 2004, some bishops came out and said it would be sinful to vote for John Kerry, given his pro-choice views. When I campaigned in Iowa during the 2008 presidential primaries, high school students told me that they felt they'd have to go to confession after voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

This inspiring week reminded me that Catholicism is not a narrow-minded religion but a universal church encompassing many ways to reach God.

Since then, a number of groups have begun to protest the hijacking of Catholic teachings by the conservative right. In May, when John Boehner gave the graduation address at Catholic University, more than 75 prominent Catholic academics sent him a letter that said, "From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor." They added, "Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress."

The academics' letter specifically condemned the House-passed Ryan budget, arguing that it "guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society" and that it had "anti-life implications," including its cuts to the Women, Infants, and Children program. The letter cited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' strong criticisms of the GOP plan. "A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons," two of the bishops wrote. They concluded:

"The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources."

Underlying both letters is the fact that funding for the poor helps reduce the number of abortions—something the bishops recognize.

At the Indianapolis fundraiser, supporters including union leaders, elected officials, and community organizers were thrilled to hear Catholic Democrats pledge financial and theological support to the fight for a broader agenda. They were determined to live up to the root meaning of "Catholic"—that is, "universal," by addressing a range of questions including how to provide for the "homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the tired, the stranger and the prisoner."

Inspired by this message, I went on from Indianapolis to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. There my focus shifted from current politics to the gifted progressive theologians who lived and taught at Gethsemani beginning in the 1940s.

I feel drawn to monasteries and the time for prayer and reflection they provide. I've often visited St. Benedict's, in Colorado, and attended Mass at Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. But I'd never been to Gethsemani. I'd wanted to visit it for a long time, because my godfather, Danny Walsh, had taught theology there for many years. My mother chose Father Danny to be my godfather because she liked him so much when he taught her theology at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. I never met him, though, because he moved to Gethsemani soon after I was christened, and died in 1975. When I was growing up, he sent me fruit cakes every Christmas. (My brother Joe, on the other hand, had my uncle John Kennedy as his godfather, and would receive prints of ships, scrimshaw, or wonderful books every year—not that I noticed!)

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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