Catholic Social Teaching Has Changed
Over the past 50-plus years, the Catholic leadership in the United States has abandoned the social justice approach to Catholic Social Teaching for narrowly defined ecclesiastical-cultural interests and institutional self-preservation. Critics identify this nefarious development as a "culture of clericalism." Clericalism demands strict obedience to church authority, i.e. submission to doctrine, the hierarchy's interpretation of natural law theories of the family and the state, and to specific institutional commitments to single-issue policy outcomes, namely, the criminalization of abortion. This "preeminent priority" of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is communicated to Catholics in a voting manual, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," released every four years before a presidential election. Catholics are expected to vote against Democratic candidates, lest they "cooperate with intrinsic evil."
Clerical-Inflicted Collateral Damage
The criminalization of abortion is not Catholic Social Teaching. Rather, it is the controversion of the integrated respect-life social justice program of the church for legal punishment of only one very specific sin out of myriad sins moral theology identifies as "intrinsically evil," including slavery, torture, sexual abuse, adultery, and lying. The politics of the criminalization of abortion used by the USCCB over the past 50 years has created clerical-inflicted collateral damage on American democracy, including the taking of and disregard for human life. By abandoning a social justice approach to abortion, i.e. social and economic policies aimed at reducing abortion via financial support for women and their families, and progressive legislation to expand worker rights and access to health care (including access to contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies), the bishops married American Catholicism to a right-wing political machine. The most recent real-world fallout from this alliance was witnessed on January 6, 2021, when the so-called "most pro-life" President in American history incited his supporters to insurrection, political violence, and murder.
The American Communion Project's New Style
The Vatican II (1962-1965) moral theologian, Bernard Häring, warned against blind obedience to the magisterial teachings of the church. He came to this conclusion after lamenting the failure of Catholic moral theology to resist Fascism and Nazism in Europe that led to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. After the war, he argued for a Catholic conscience capable of the "courage to be responsible," and he developed the moral theology of the freedom of conscience found in the major documents of Vatican II. Häring was attacked for trying to destroy the bishops' authority. But he famously insisted, "I don't want to destroy authority. What is needed is a new style."
The American Communion Project is a new style of American Catholic Social Teaching. We do not want to destroy the social teachings of the church nor the teaching authority of the bishops. Rather, we are committed to restoring and preserving both. To do so, however, will require forthright conversations about (1) the theological bankruptcy of the pastoral plans of the USCCB; (2) the recontextualization of the social teachings of the church by political operatives looking to secure the Catholic voting block for extremist right-wing ideologies; and (3) the increasingly real potential for Catholic bishops to once again ask the Catholic faithful to obediently support racial nationalist and authoritarian political regimes promising the institutional church political privileges, and despite clear signs of impending domestic terrorism, mass atrocities, and crimes against humanity.
The American Catholic church has the institutional capacity to stop the unraveling of American democracy, but also the capacity to destroy it. Today, it is on the road, with fellow travelers, to democratic disintegration. Some will argue that the American Catholic church makes only a marginal difference. We all have first-hand experience how electoral margins make a world of difference.
The American bishops were a moral bulwark against both godless communism and godless capitalism in the 20th century, and they can be a moral bulwark against the rise of Trumpism, white Christian Nationalism, and right-wing domestic terrorism ascendent in the United States today. The USCCB has permitted the Catholic Social Teaching tradition, however, to be weaponized against American democracy itself. We recently heard the President of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez, employ political rhetoric, like "aggressive secularization," to attack American democracy. Catholic leadership attacking American pluralism contributes to a detrimental narrative already present in the public square that purposefully seeks to undermine trust in our democratic institutions. Anti-democratic impulses are surging through American society at rapid pace today, and the bishops undermine their own teaching authority and the moral credibility of the church in society by using anti-social justice and anti-pluralistic religious strategies. The USCCB has backed the institutional church and American Catholic Social Teaching into a right-wing cul-de-sac, and it seems as if there is no exit.
The Future of Political Theology
American Catholicism is in a theological and a political crisis. We need a political theology capable of critiquing and resisting an alarmingly similar racialized authoritarian politics and failed Catholic moral theology, which are the signs of the times today and what Vatican II theological reflection sought to overcome. The theological origins of a pre-Vatican II church created a political permission structure from which to reconcile itself with Fascism and Nazism in Germany in 1933, and a similar permission structure existed to facilitate the American Catholic bishops' tacit reconciliation with white Christian Nationalism and Trumpism in 2020. A narrow self-interest led German Catholicism to align itself with the anti-democratic moment then, and American Catholicism is using strikingly similar self-interested arguments to justify its alignment with the anti-democratic moment now.
The theological origins of a pre-Vatican II church created a political permission structure from which to reconcile itself with Fascism and Nazism in Germany in 1933, and a similar permission structure existed to facilitate the American Catholic bishops' tacit reconciliation with white Christian Nationalism and Trumpism in 2020.
Our Critical Calling
There is a political backlash against this culture of clericalism and reactionary approach to Catholic Social Teaching. It's called the "rise of Nones." Generation None is an intergenerational cohort of Americans who no longer identify with a religious institution. The biggest loser of adherents to Generation None is the Catholic church. American Catholicism is also in a pastoral crisis.
A certain "apologetics of liturgical beauty" abounds in neoconservative Catholic circles. Ironically, the beauty of the Gospel message offered by the American Catholic church can no longer be impressed upon and received by the souls of an exponentially growing number of people, not because of "aggressive secularization" and other excuses suggested by reactionary bishops, but because of that glaring moral blemish, that repugnant aesthetic, of clerical authoritarianism---a very particular kind of spiritual rot that has driven life-long Catholics from the pews. For religious seekers, it has created a phenomenological barrier for moral uptake of the faith. Hence, the "beautiful church" is rotting from the inside out, and as a consequence, hemorrhaging the faithful and would-be faithful. It would seem a kind of furious religiosity manifest in the American Catholic church is just too ugly to bear.
There is hope for the church, however, to regain an authentic spirituality and social critique. The USCCB does have an exit out of the cul-de-sac it's placed itself in, but it requires a courageous collective conscience in good faith willing to cast out ecclesial masters of deceit intent against rebuilding approaches to the Catholic Social Teaching tradition anew and to address 21st century global crises. Pope Francis and a handful of American bishops are trying to do just this, but they desperately need help from risk-taking academicians, anti-Racial Nationalist theologians, and peace and justice lay ministers, among others, to help them uproot the anti-Christian neoliberal approach to Catholic Social Teaching and the political theology of Clerical Trumpism currently embedded in the diseased guts of the church.
The American Communion Project's mission is to galvanize progressive Catholics, ex-Catholics, and Generation None to reimagine a 21st century American political theology for collective action to do just this. What is needed is a theology of organized social justice, an ecclesiology of mission for "street church," and out of the 20th century spirit of Catholic action for social reconstruction that paved the way for the great American bishops' encyclicals of the 1980s. Not so long ago, the USCCB boldly called for a "new American experiment in economic democracy." We need the narrative power of the social and economic justice approaches to Catholic Social Teaching in the public square today more than at any other point in American history.
The American Communion Project says NO to Clerical Trumpism and white Christian Nationalism, not just because they are both obviously fundamentally anti-Christ, but also because we want to preserve the power of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition and the credibility of the teaching authority of Jesus' social justice-oriented apostolate. Therefore, we challenge the bishops, all Catholics, and all Americans in good faith to say NO, too. The critical calling of The American Communion Project is definitively threefold: (1) to interrupt argument-ending ecclesial statements that are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and the social justice tradition of the church; (2) to interrupt the political alignment of the American Catholic church with Trumpism and white Christian Nationalism; and (3) to interrupt a particularly dangerous political Catholicism that forms consciences for faithful citizenship in bad faith and anticipatory obedience to the aforementioned in advance.
In our fundamental NO to this kind of politics of degradation and dehumanization, we also fundamentally say YES: YES to the irreducible worthiness and inalienable equality of all peoples and YES to a new political theology for human communion. For American society, saying YES affirms a political theology for American Communion, and it also affirms the powerful spirituality and social critique inherent in the moral worldview of Generation None. Nones may have no "religion" not because they reject the ethical teachings of Jesus, but perhaps because they reject the spiritual and moral defects of the American Catholic church expressed in the anti-democratic religiosity of the bishops. Generation None's political backlash of disaffiliation and unaffiliation is not necessarily a rejection of the social teachings of the church, but dissent to the hermeneutical bankruptcy of those teachers who preach and teach it wrongly. Please join us in changing existential attitudes towards, creating new styles for, and evolving public policy approaches to American Catholic Social Teaching.