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Evangelicals and Catholics June 2017

Evangelicals and Catholics       Gerry O'Shea

Evangelical Christianity has a long history as a conservative force in America. In the recent presidential race more than 80% of  evangelicals  voted for  Donald Trump.

Until fairly recently they were suspicious of the Catholic church, viewing it as insufficiently committed to biblical Christianity.  The core evangelical Protestant belief in the need for each individual to be spiritually born again as a prerequisite for salvation is not a theme one would hear addressed from Catholic pulpits.

This conservative religious tradition, especially strong in Southern states, rarely supported government programs for the poor, preferring that their needs be met by local charities.

The Catholic tradition from Pope Leo's Rerum Novarum in 1891 to the pronouncements of the present pope is very different. A strong commitment to the core guiding principle of the "common good" is at the center of the social teaching of nearly all the popes since Leo. The demands of the "common good" ensured church support for the great government anti-poverty programs of our era: social security, medicare and medicaid.

The  official opposition by the Catholic hierarchy to Obamacare, which provides healthcare for millions of poor people, was an unfortunate and shameful aberration from this Catholic tradition.

Since the 1980's the hostilities, based on class as well as biblical interpretation, between the powerful White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Establishment (WASPS) and the Catholic Church in America have abated. The growth of ecumenism played a part, but even more important was the agreement between these important large culture blocs on two big divisive  national issues: abortion and gay rights.

According to the most recent polls, 40% of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. More than 70% of evangelicals are in this corner, but, surprisingly, only 49% of Catholics agree. Overall in the American population 57% support a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy while 40% disagree. These numbers have remained steady since the Roe V Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973.

Statistics only tell part of the story. Strict pro-life Catholics may be in a minority among their co-religionists but they are fiercely committed to the cause and they have the unequivocal support of the church leadership.

For the millions of people - evangelicals and Catholics - who see the present laws as a license to kill babies, this is a litmus issue. They view the world in Manichean terms with the good people on their side and the others living in darkness. Yes, for them this is a God versus Satan situation with no middle ground.

The Democratic Party supports the Roe decision while the Republican Party describes itself as pro life. Mr. Trump, who had expressed support for abortion rights a few years ago, ran on a strictly pro-life platform, promising to appoint only Supreme Court justices that he hopes will overturn Roe and let each state legislate separately on the issue.

It is not clear how reversing the 1973 Supreme Court ruling would lead to less abortions. It is very likely that women who are refused the procedure in their own place would travel to some nearby state where it is allowed. This reminds me of the current prevailing situation in Ireland where, so far, abortion is illegal, but thousands of Irish women go to England to terminate their pregnancies - surely a strong whiff of hypocrisy here whether in Ireland now or in states that would ban abortion if the Supreme Court reverses the Roe decision.

The second issue that brings these two groups together involves their rejection of the gay lifestyle. The bible clearly states that "male and female created He them." Messing with that arrangement is wrong from this perspective and gay marriage, now legal in all states, and gay parenting are abominations to be condemned at every turn.

They think of their opponents as liberals, especially judges and politicians, who are pushing  what they view as a corrupt agenda, destroying the moral fabric of the country they love. Critics wonder why they only raise their voices as Christians about these two issues while rarely protesting cuts in programs for the poor.

They might expect that the pope would be an assured ally, and indeed Benedict and most of his predecessors would  be cheering them on. Francis is far more nuanced in his pronouncements. Of course, he condemns abortion but then asks who is he to judge, relying on Christ's non-judgmental example in the gospels.

He instructs the clergy and all church workers to draw their inspiration from the saints and sinners in the pews and on the street struggling to make their way in a very complex and challenging  world. He urges them to leave their judgment hats at home as they minister to and learn about what the poet Wordsworth called "the still sad music of humanity."

For evangelicals and their allies in the Catholic Church gays have to somehow change their same-sex predisposition or remain celibate to live a Christian life. For them the case is clear: sexual fulfillment other than in a monogamous heterosexual relationship is grievously sinful.

Recently, Cardinal Tobin in Newark, a Francis appointee, invited a crowd of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics to a celebratory mass in his cathedral. He addressed them as brothers and sisters and promised that they would always be welcome in his churches.

Most bishops and certainly Cardinal Dolan in New York have so far stayed with the old thinking - homosexual acts are essentially disordered and thus can never be spoken of other than in terms of perversion. In this belief they are at one with evangelicals.




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