Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville
Monday, June 18, 2012
Christ Without Borders: Something POTUS and The Church Can Agree ON
I am often asked how I, a political progressive, can continue to practice Roman Catholicism as part of a church so mired in corruption. The long answer is for another day and my short answer is that despite all that's wrong with the church, I still believe there's something true -- for me at least -- in Catholic worship. That truth burns brilliant this week as I notice that like the president, the Roman Catholic church maintains an expansive and generous perspective on immigration. The views of the bishops are far more in step with those of President Obama than with those of the American hierarchy's candidate of choice, Mitt Romney. Most Roman Catholics (the bishops and Vatican included) are not so much as soft as they are open when it comes to immigration, because they believe in a Christ without borders.
I recently attended a fundraiser hosted by a Haiti Aid group at a Roman Catholic Church. The church was collecting money for a water system in Haiti. In the past, I've worked these dinners, and I look forward to attending them each spring. This year, the bishop in charge of the diocese made a special appearance at the start of the party. As he took to the microphone to make a short speech before leading the gathered in a prayer of thanks (before the meal) I stepped out. I couldn't pray with this guy; I just couldn't. After the bishop left and I returned, a priest who had noticed my abrupt exit told me that night that the bishop has been very supportive in initiatives on behalf of Haitian people living here in New York City, and those living in disaster-torn Haiti. I wasn't surprised. The Catholic hierarchs have a good track record in protecting immigrants as in upholding the conception of Christ without borders. Good on the bishop, I thought.
My church's stance on immigration has long been a source of pride for me. It's also seemed a sign of what the church at its best is capabable of. When I observe the unity with which the church in New York responds to those who arrive here from other nations in need of love (caritas) and support, I can't help but take it as a sign that a City of God is possible.
I'm not unfamiliar with the cynical analysis some put on the United States Roman Catholic bishops' progressive stance on immigration. Sure, there's a self serving aspect to it. When it comes to immigration policy, it can't be denied that the bishops have a dog in the race. Many immigrants, especially those who are supported by our ministries to the needy, do become devout Catholics. But there's more to it than that. Catholic fidelity to Christ the rabbi on earth who challenged cultural, national and tribal norms accounts for much of how Catholics feel about newcomers to our nation. The progressive disposition of our church, on the matter of immigration, extends from the truth promulgated by Jesus the rabbi who declined to distinguish between Roman, Greek and Jew. The teaching body of the church has managed to hand this message down without bastardizing it. Christ the Lord without borders is stubbornly essential to Roman Catholic belief and practice.
Fidelity to Christ as God without borders, is helped along in cities like New York (where I live). People move here and remain here in part, out of their great love for diversity and Catholics are no exception. My children, for example, are not Catholic, but I insisted that they engage in my parish life (then in a three-language community) because I wanted them to grasp and integrate into who they are the notion that God is for all who seek God. As white kids who live in an affluent neighborhood in New York and attend elite public schools -- knocking around parish life was the best shot at exposure to true cultural diversity they were likely to get. I choose to raise them with a faith other than my own, but I wanted them to be "catholic" with a small "c." I wanted them to know people who spoke Spanish and Haitian Creole. I wanted them to know old people, and poor people, and people in wheelchairs -- and they do -- from working in secular ministries in a Catholic church, from singing in a children's choir, and from accompanying me, on occasion, to worship and an extremely economically, racially and even religiously diverse Roman Catholic church.
Catholics at their best tend to be "catholic." Even Roman Catholics who do not particularly savor culture and ethnic diversity wind up impressed into it by default it if they are active in most New York City parishes. I have a "girlfriend," an old school half-Irish "gringa" Holy Hour attending, rosary intoning Roman Catholic in her 80's who takes part in LGBT ministry events (Her son is gay.) and is frustrated by the fact that she's not learning Spanish fast enough from her fellow Golden Age Club members. This is not all that rare in Catholic New York.
Roman Catholics have always integrated into their practice of Catholicism, Jesus's loving disregard for the boundaries between nations. We have always, Catholics of all stripes, "thrown down" with the Jesus the teacher's outreach to people of all tribes, regions and religious affiliations. Jesus prayed with women. He challenged the dietary laws of the religion into which he was born and in which he was educated. His ministry on earth was dedicated to shifting focus off of tribal divisions onto universal redemption. Obviously the Roman Catholic church of today sometimes loses sight of this "Catholic" with a small "c" emphasis, but we see the true light of this committment to Jesus's teaching in the conduct and perspectives of Catholics in the context of immigration.
Seeing the Christ in in the context of Roman Catholic Social Justice ministry is one of several aspects of my life as a Catholic that keeps me faithful to worship. Outreach to those in need and the social justice often feels to me like the sacred heart of things, which beats strong even when the rest of (what we Catholics call) the "Mystical Body of Christ" is ailing.
It will be interesting to see how the immigration issue this plays in the context of the campaign for the presidency. The president of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and the pope want Americans to vote Obama out. So obvious is it that the bishops are stumping for Mitt that we no longer even see the bishops bothering to deny it, but Romney's positons on immigration do not square with those of the United States Roman Catholic Church as a whole. On the matter of immigration, Ratzinger, the U.S. bishops Obama and progressive Catholics are all on the same page.
This strong support for immigration is sure to give pause to the anti-Obama Protestants who have aligned themselves with Catholics on the so-called "freedom of religion" issues of same-sex marriage and contraception. The Roman Catholic stance on immigration could take a big bite out of Romney's Latino support. A significant number of Roman Catholics who are otherwise politically conservative could force Romney to do the very thing for which he is most often criticized and most loath to do: flip flop.
The fact that significant numbers of Roman Catholic conservatives, who normally vote Republican, should embrace a view on immigration that is more compatible with the president's could force Romney to adopt a more immigration-friendly policy. But if he does this, Romney will certainly be accused of wavering with the wind. If he does soften up on immigration, Romney might need to worry about alienating the anti-abortion, defense of marriage Protestants who enjoy an uneasy alliance with conservative Catholics but favor strong anti- immigration policies.
It's hard to know how this will unfold. The pope's chess pieces in the U.S. will continue to campaign for Romney, because for them protecting pre-born babies trumps protecting post-born ones. Romney may have to take his chances with easing up on immigration.
Either way, when it comes to immigration, I celebrate my church for getting Christianity right.