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Let there be light
Mapping Catholic politics
Speaking at a November 30 colloquium on faith and politics, Brother Matthew Janeczko, a Capuchin friar in his third year of divinity studies at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM), pointed out that Catholics do not cast their ballots as a unified bloc. “Catholics are not—as though we needed to know, going to this school—a monolithic entity,” he said, drawing chuckles from his audience of a couple dozen graduate students.
The colloquium, inclusively titled “A Political or Apolitical Faith: The Role of Faith in Politics, Civil Discourse, and Governance,” bore out Janeczko’s observation about political diversity within American Catholicism and at STM. Sponsoring the late Friday afternoon event was Lumen et Vita (“Light and Life”), the school’s two-year-old graduate academic journal. Anticipating lively discussion, organizers planned for Q&A’s after each of the five, 20-minute presentations. They also scheduled time for conversation over pastries before, in the middle of, and following the two-hour forum, which was held in an STM lecture hall at 9 Lake Street on the Brighton Campus.
Dressed in the long brown robe of his order, with a white rope belt and a pointed hood, Janeczko led off with a presentation titled, “Approaches to Caesar: Modes of American Catholic Participation.” He spoke rapidly in his New Jersey accent and gestured frequently, making steady eye contact with audience members and rarely glancing at his notes on the lectern before him. He related how he had talked lately with Catholics who are sure that Jesus was a “small business owner and tax cutter” and with others equally certain that Christ espoused socialism.
Rather than settle divisive political issues, Janeczko offered a way of mapping Catholics’ varied approaches to politics. Specifically, he proposed five models of engagement, represented by partisans, who take their cues from political ideologies rather than consistently from Church teaching; politicians, who compartmentalize their faith and politics, as John F. Kennedy is often said to have done; prophets, who speak with “passion and zeal” but get little done; triangulators, who build bridges between different camps and are frequently chastised for doing so; and outsiders, who tend to focus on a single issue that affects them existentially, as, say, some immigrants do on the question of immigration policy.
Janeczko offered an ecclesiastical example of triangulation. It involved his fellow Capuchin, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who this past November helped narrowly defeat a referendum on the Massachusetts ballot that would have permitted assisted suicide. O’Malley was widely credited with spearheading a broad alliance that included doctors, hospice workers, non-Catholic clergy, disability rights groups, and prominent liberals such as Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. For this he was “scorned” by some conservative pro-life advocates, the younger Capuchin said, alluding to complaints, for example, about the archdiocese’s hiring of a Democratic-leaning political consulting firm to diversify the anti-referendum drive. Janeczko concluded that the “least Catholics can do” is acknowledge that people of good will can adopt any of these models and arrive at a range of morally legitimate stances.
The next two presenters stretched the topic of faith and politics to include mysticism and the Christian family, respectively.
Katherine Sepulveda, a first-year student pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree, spoke softly as she read a paper about the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. With her profound sense of alienation from the world (Weil was physically awkward and prone to over-fasting), and yet her immersion in worker struggles of the 1930s, Weil illustrated the Gospel of John’s formulation, “in but not of” the world, Sepulveda said. In the Q&A, however, there was clear sentiment that in the case of Weil’s otherworldliness, “of but not in” might be more descriptive.
Matt Von Rueden, a second-year Master of Theology student, delivered a mostly exhortative paper about the need for Christian parents to teach their children well. Wearing a red tie and blue blazer, he spoke of middle-class families that serve the needy together, and suggested they pray not abstractly for an end to world hunger but “for the grace to be generous and help others in the community.”
That paper generated some of the liveliest colloquy. Second-year theology student Amelia Blanton, sporting a ponytail and an untucked plaid flannel shirt, stood up to say that Von Rueden appeared to be overlooking “structural problems” in inner cities, the kind that call for more than ordinary Christian charity. A proper response by a conscientious Catholic might involve “not sending your kid to the lily-white suburban school,” Blanton said.
During the mid-forum break, a small audience gathered around Blanton. In further conversation, she dropped in the catchphrase “structural sin,” which is behavior that, intentionally or not, perpetuates a social injustice. She also remarked that a suburban family “going into the city for a visit to a soup kitchen is not real solidarity.”
After refreshments, the formal dialogue continued with Marianne Tierney, a Ph.D. candidate in theology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and her paper, “Giving Scholasticism a Chance: Reading Thomas Aquinas Through a Lens of Peacebuilding.” She pointed out that, for Thomas, “peace” involves the “proper healing and transformation” of a post-conflict society.
Dan DiLeo, who plans to finish the Master of Theological Studies program this spring, followed with a case study of Catholic reactions to the “Ryan plan,” the budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in the spring of 2012. Last April, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairing the domestic policy committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared in a letter to lawmakers that the proposal failed the “basic moral test” of protecting the vulnerable. In the Q&A, a young man with a French accent asked DiLeo which of Janeczko’s five models would best capture Ryan, a Catholic who speaks avowedly of Church teaching. “Partisan,” replied DiLeo, who is also project manager of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, a Washington, D.C.–based organization. Ryan, DiLeo asserted, has a tendency to “shoehorn Catholic social principles into his [political] ideology.”
This was the second annual colloquium sponsored by Lumen et Vita, which has published two annual editions. The journal’s next issue will appear in the spring.
Read more by William Bole