Is the pope as Catholic as the president? The Times will tell

Long, long ago, I covered religion news during the era in which Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was one of the most powerful newsmakers on the beat. At the time, I thought it was interesting that conservative Catholics and mainstream journalists had such similar takes on this complicated man.

Many, but not all, conservative Catholics were truly convinced that the cardinal was a liberal's liberal through and through and that his "seamless garment" approach to moral theology was a shameless attempt -- through moral equivalency -- to play down church doctrines on issues such as abortion in order to provide cover for political liberals on issues such as nuclear arms, gun control, minimum-wage laws, etc.

Yes, the cardinal kept stressing, "All life has dignity and worth from the moment of conception to natural death." But, some conservatives argued, he was really just trying to hand Catholics who were liberal Democrats a trump card they could play in their arguments with Catholics who had moved over to the Republican Party, especially after Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, many journalists appeared to have exactly the same view of Bernardin's work. They didn't seem to take his words on abortion, euthanasia and related issues very seriously, either.

The difference, of course, was that conservative Catholics thought this alleged Bernardin strategy was a bad thing and mainstream journalists thought it was a good thing.

Let me be clear: Neither of these camps seem to be listening to everything the cardinal had to say. Today, we could be seeing a similar phenomenon with Pope Francis.

My mind flashed back to all of those arguments while reading that Sunday A1 story in The New York Times that ran under the headline, "The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism."

The thesis of the article, as I read it, is that once there was a glorious time when Catholic leaders -- led by Cardinal Bernardin -- really cared about issues like social justice, poverty and human dignity. That's why so many Catholics in Chicago got along so well with that young social activist named Barack Obama, whose views were so compatible with what the "seamless garment" thinkers were saying. They welcomed him into their churches.

But then things went terribly wrong. Thus, readers are told:

This Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr. Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s Trinity United Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist "kill list." The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.

A White House accustomed to archbishop antagonists hopes the president will find a strategic ally and kindred spirit in a pope who preaches a gospel of social justice and inclusion.

As opposed to all of those archbishops who, of course, preach a gospel that rejects social justice and inclusion.

Wait, there's more:

The future president ... fit seamlessly into a 1980s Catholic cityscape forged by the spirit of Vatican II, the influence of liberation theology and the progressivism of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, who called for a "consistent ethic of life" that wove life and social justice into a "seamless garment."

Wait for it.

In 1997, the year Mr. Obama was sworn in as an Illinois state senator, Cardinal Francis George succeeded Cardinal Bernardin as archbishop of Chicago. One of the church's leading conservative intellectuals, called "Francis the Corrector" by local liberal priests, Cardinal George was emblematic of the bishops installed by John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. Some of them looked with skepticism at the social justice wing that had financed Mr. Obama's organizing efforts, and later sought to block his election as president by suggesting that Catholics could not in good conscience vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights.

Mr. Obama still won the Catholic vote in 2008. In his campaign, he had held out the goal of finding common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion rights, chiefly by reducing unintended pregnancies and increasing adoptions. Cardinal George quickly dashed those hopes. "The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice," he said in November 2008 in his opening address as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Raise your hands if you are shocked, shocked to learn that some "liberal priests" in Chicago preferred Bernardin to George.

No, the central points here seem to be that (a) Bernardin didn't really take abortion all that seriously and (b) that George doesn't really care about social justice issues. Ditto for the Blessed Pope John Paul II and that awful Pope Benedict XVI.

Thus, Obama can be seen as a shining example of the "Spirit of Vatican II" and the "seamless garment" ethic, perhaps to a greater degree than, well, someone like Cardinal George. Obama is the true Catholic.

Now, I am not arguing that this logic is correct.

I am also not arguing that it is wrong for a major newspaper to write a story that includes this point of view in its coverage of this period of Obama's life. I am well aware that many people, inside the church and out, would support this point of view. This is a perfectly valid subject for a news feature.

But what about the other side of this debate? There are just as many informed, articulate Catholic voices -- if not more -- who would not accept this view of the work of Obama and/or Bernardin (and Vatican II, come to think of it). Where are the Catholics who do not accept this template? And let me add: Might it even be argued that this Times piece offers a very unfair and one-sided view of the life, work and faith of Bernardin?

Meanwhile, savvy news consumers already knew where this article was going to end up -- with Pope Francis.

Surely there is hope that this new pope will want to undo much of the bad work done by the previous two popes? Thus, might he be willing to look into Obama's truly Catholic soul and see that the president agrees with him on the essential issues? After all:

... The election of Pope Francis last March seemed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church and, potentially, into the relationship between Mr. Obama and the institution that gave him his start. While far from an ideological progressive, Francis does sometimes appear cloaked in Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment." His de-emphasis of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and his championing of the poor and vulnerable -- articulated in his mission statement, "The Joy of the Gospel" -- have impressed a second-term president who argues that income inequality undermines human dignity.

"Whether you call that the 'seamless garment' or 'the joy of the Gospel' or what, I've said to the president I consider that a pretty Catholic way of looking at the world," said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, who is Roman Catholic.

So, Pope Francis, the scribes at the Times are watching you carefully.

Stay tuned. Is the pope as Catholic as Cardinal Bernardin, as envisioned by the Times? Come to think of it, is Pope Francis as Catholic as Obama? We will see.

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