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Catholic teachings can bridge our divisions

Archbishop Wenski's column for November 2020 edition of the Florida Catholic

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As I write this column, it appears unlikely that President Trump will prevail in his challenge to the vote counts in several states. And so, the former vice-president, Joe Biden, will be our next president – and the second president in our history who identifies himself as a Roman Catholic. Of course, because of his apparent dissent from Catholic teachings due to his support of certain anti-life policies of his Party, he has been criticized by many for “not being Catholic enough.” But at the same time, our newest Supreme Court Justice has been criticized by others as being “too Catholic.”

With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, two thirds of the Court identify as Catholics – even though Catholics make up just a little more than 20% of the U.S. population. We are also overrepresented on Capitol Hill with 31% of Congress identifying as Catholics. And Catholics are likewise overrepresented in law enforcement and the legal profession. This is quite an achievement considering that for much of our nation’s history, Catholics were looked on with suspicion as being “un-American,” and “anti-Catholicism” remains a deeply entrenched bias in American life.

However, the division in America today is not between Catholics and Protestants. As Americans we are separated by a religious and secularist divide. One side, the secularists, holds for a radical autonomy by which truth is determined not by the nature of things but by one’s own will. The religious side — our side — holds that men and women are not self-creators but creatures, that truth is not constructed but received, and that it must reflect the reality of things.

Perhaps Catholics today can build a bridge between the founding principles of our nation and the principles of Catholic social teaching with its understanding of natural law. Catholic teaching proclaims the dignity of every human being but also acknowledges the reality of sin. Our police forces, our social services agencies, our schools, our courtrooms deal with the consequences of sin every day. Our founders also recognized human sinfulness, which is why they gave us a divided government based on checks and balances.

Our nation’s founders built better than they knew — and better than we appreciate today. Their vision of freedom was one of ordered liberties, a vision remarkably congruent with Catholic social thought. St. Thomas Aquinas — the great theologian of the 13th century — would have been very comfortable in the presence of Jefferson, Adams and Monroe. And they, I am sure, would be more comfortable in his presence than in the presence of any number of Harvard-educated constitutional lawyers today.

Today we see much anger in our society. And much of that anger is seen in our streets and expressed in social media. We hear warring slogans: “Black lives matter,” “Blue lives matter,” “All lives matter,” and from those who identify as prolife, “Unborn lives matter.” And they all do matter — beneath these slogans there is an argument about “who truly belongs to our society?” and “who is shut out?”

Catholic social teaching on the life and dignity of the human person, on human solidarity, on the common good and the necessity for governments to respect the principle of subsidiarity can make important contributions to addressing the social unrest that besets our society today as it faces the challenges of enduring racism, growing inequality and the intolerance of a “cancel culture.”

The Irish novelist, James Joyce, once described the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody” — he didn’t mean it as a compliment. But the Church does welcome everybody — saint and sinner, rich and poor, the learned and the unlettered. As Catholics we should not get caught up in internecine arguments about “who is too Catholic” and “who is not Catholic enough.” In any case, Jesus will sort it out on Judgment Day. In the meantime, every baptized Catholic can call himself or herself a “practicing Catholic” because this life is our one chance to practice the faith until we get it right. And, because we all are sinners, we all must practice very hard.

Comments from readers

FR. JAMES ELLIOTT O'NEAL - 11/22/2020 10:44 PM
Archbishop Wenski's reflection is right on the mark in my opinion. I did not know that James Joyce's remark about the Catholic Church "here comes everybody" wasn't meant as a compliment. It is absolutely true! We are a Church of saints and sinners! Well done Archbishop Wenski! Fr. James E. O'Neal Diocese of St. Augustine Senior Priest