Monday, May 11, 2009

A Call to Emphasize Catholicism's "Sweet Spot" . . .

. . . it’s Social Justice Teachings and a “Broader,
More-Inclusive Pro-Living Focus”

In this past Saturday’s issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a commentary was published by Eric Schubert on the declining state of the Catholic Church.

Entitled, “The Face This Faith Should Put Forward,” Schubert’s commentary not only provides an insightful overview of contemporary American Catholicism, but also offers a gentle critique (almost a lament) of the leadership style and emphasis of Archbishop John Nienstedt of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, and a reminder of the Church’s “sweet spot” - the “timeless Catholic strengths and tools of social teaching . . . its ‘best kept secret,’ and ‘buried treasure.’”

According to Schubert, it’s “time to scream the secret and unbury the treasure.” If this happens, he says, if, in other words, the Catholic Church “expands its brand to emphasize social teaching and a broader, more-inclusive pro-living focus, Catholics will return, and the church will grow.”

Following is Schubert’s commentary reprinted in its entirety.


The Face This Faith Should Put Forward
By Eric Schubert
Star Tribune
May 9, 2009

Archdiocese should be building a social justice brand.

Can the leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis help to diversify and build a stronger, more-inclusive Catholic brand? Recently, as Archbishop John Nienstedt marked his first year in the Twin Cities, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life highlighted why the brand needs resurrection. People are faith-based free agents. According to Pew, half of us have changed our religious faiths in adulthood, but Catholicism is the biggest loser. Despite a massive influx of Catholic immigrants, four times as many people are leaving the Catholic Church as are joining it. And fewer than half of those who stay attend church on a regular basis.

Driving this exodus is many Catholic bishops’ incessant, increasingly partisan focus on abortion at the expense of more-inclusive pro-life issues we could do something about now, such as health care, education and economic stability for all.

Like Americans as a whole, roughly half of Catholics continually oppose a legal ban on abortion while half support it. Abortion is a stalemate. Yet in a world that’s deeply grey, not black and white, other pro-living areas exist for collaboration. Unfortunately, too many Catholic leaders overpower those areas by fueling the great divide and maintaining a single-issue rigidity. This energizes one segment while causing too many others to disengage and disavow.

In his first year here, Bishop Nienstedt’s hands have hammered more than healed. More than a third of his weekly communiqués via the diocesan newspaper have been abortion-related. He recently pounded the subject again, publicly denouncing the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama, who is pro-choice and who garnered most Catholics’ votes, to be a commencement speaker.

If one looks hard enough from the bishop’s hilltop Summit Avenue residence, one can see a forest through those trees – a tremendous opportunity for the bishop and more than 650,000 area Catholics and for the greater community. It lies in repositioning the local Catholic brand by reemphasizing the timely, timeless Catholic strengths and tools of social teaching, which the archdiocese’s social-justice website labels its “best kept secret,” and “buried treasure.” It’s time to scream the secret and unbury the treasure.

What is social teaching? It’s the sweet spot for the Catholic Church in an ultra-competitive marketplace for people, skills and dollars. It is a connector of people and faiths. It is critical thinking. It defies partisanship. It is the doctrine and wisdom that emphasizes human life, the common good and community; empowering people to fully participate in the economic, political and cultural life of society; a human being’s right to food, shelter, clothing, employment, health care and education; the harm of excess wealth when others lack basic necessities; stewardship of the earth; essentiality of government, and promotion of peace.

Last year, through Catholic Charities’ “Housing First” program, 97 percent of those in the Twin Cities who moved out of shelters and into their own rental housing retained stability for six months or more. Few know that. Imagine what could be done if a leader expanded focus and engaged 650,000 people in this and other community-building work.

We are individuals, yet we’re interconnected and interdependent. Many Twin Cities children are effectively abandoned, growing up with limited food, shelter, clothing, health care or the education to improve their lives and our community. If the Catholic Church expands its brand to emphasize social teaching and a broader, more-inclusive pro-living focus, Catholics will return, and the church will grow. More importantly, more people in this region will engage in solving problems together that we can actually solve.

The best, longest-lasting brands are built from the inside out, fostering a vital, healthy alignment between personal and organizational values. With that balance, brand evangelists develop, drawing more people and resources. Today the Catholic Church and its larger membership are badly misaligned. I pray and hope for my church and our community that the archbishop becomes the Twin Cities’ very best brand-builder.

Eric Schubert, a communications and public-affairs professional in Inver Grove Heights, is a lifelong Catholic.


Following are two comments which were left on the Star Tribune website in response to Schubert’s commentary, and with which I particularly resonate.

Albatross writes: While I recognize that many religions, Catholicism included, undertake many good works around the world, Catholic conservatism is undermining the future success of the denomination. Its rigid medieval structure badly needs to be revamped. Its patriarchy offends contemporary feminist sensibilities throughout the West; its insistence upon a celibate male clergy turns away future priests; its political power runs opposite the American Constitution and its own teachings; its obstruction of justice in the case of abusive clergy (sexual abuse and otherwise) is downright illegal and ethically wrong; and its vast wealth raises the question of how this faith can pass through the eye of a needle. The Catholic Church can, of course, remain exactly what it is, but if it does this then it will inevitably dwindle. Remaining a celibate medieval patriarchy simply for the sake of conservatism (since the Bible does not actually require any of these characteristics) makes inevitable the loss of membership. And while every faith has its hypocrites, Catholic clergy who sexually abuse children or their parishioners stand in stark relief against the rigid requirements of doctrine. Finally, the church’s obstruction of justice in the case of abusive clergy makes a series of showdowns between Church and State inevitable, and the Church never wins. The Catholic Church is welcome to remain as rigid and medieval as it likes, but if it wants to continue to exist and hold power it will need to change its ways. Otherwise, it is choosing to shrink. Meanwhile one has to wonder how the gold, gems, and artwork in the Vatican serve to fulfill Jesus’ instructions in Luke 18:22 to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow him.

Annsyp writes: At last, someone points out the obvious: a major reason for the furor over Obama's speech at Notre Dame is not religion, but partisan politics. The conservative members of the hierarchy who want the invitation rescinded are not deeply involved in partisan politics per se. However, by threatening Catholic politicians and parishioners with sanctions for pro-choice or other positions not in line with Catholic orthodoxy, they are, in effect, telling their people "Vote Republican or else!" The powerful alumni and wealthy donors to Notre Dame who are up in arms are likely conservative Republicans who are finding Obama’s presidency hard to stomach. (Full disclosure: my daughter spent a year at Notre Dame during the 2000 presidential election and reported that the vast majority of the students supported Bush/Cheney). The Republican drive to purify its ranks, typified by Rush Limbaugh's invective against Arlen Specter, the McCains, Colin Powell, etc., finds a weird parallel in similar attempts by Pope Benedict, Archbishop Nienstedt and other Catholic conservatives to encourage a more doctrinally pure church, even if its numbers are smaller. I suppose it’s only natural, then, that the two institutions would find common ground on the divisive social issues that have gotten Republicans elected in the past. But it would be good for neither the Catholic Church nor the Republican Party if either was to become the captive of the other.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
American Catholics and Obama
Staying on Board
A Time to Re-Think the Basis and Repair the Damage
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
Clearing Away the Debris
“The Real Battle”

Image: Eda Bethune.

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