"The guy I campaigned for didn’t make it but we’ve got a great President…and we’ve got a lot of areas where we can work together." With these words, former Ambassador to the Holy See Thomas Melady during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, kicked off a panel discussion "Catholic Social Thought and the 111th Congress" sponsored by the Catholic University of America's Life Cycle Institute last night. The panel, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, was attended by dozens of congressional staffers, students, and political activists.
Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor in the Politics Department at CUA, focused her remarks on the need for Congress to enact legislation that codifies the Obama Administration’s executive orders banning torture. "We worship a tortured God," Cusimano Love pointed out, and said that Catholics are therefore called to see the face of God even in enemies who threaten us. The decision by Boston College to put crucifixes in all its classrooms took on new meaning in light of the professor’s comments.
History Professor Leslie Tentler recalled the 1919 Bishop’s program on Social Reconstruction. (The "program" was actually the unfinished draft of a speech Father John A. Ryan was preparing at the time.) While its call to end child labor was heeded, many of the central policies it called for remain central to the current debate from universal health care to the state’s protection of workers’ right to organize. The more things change….
Professor Robert Destro of the CUA Law School gave the only disappointing intervention, repeatedly citing Pope Benedict XV as the author of "Quadragesimo Anno" (it was Piux XI) and calling attention to the different perspectives of the Constitution and its emphasis on competing interests with Catholic social thought’s focus on the Common Good, but offering no enlightening comments on how to overcome the differences or at least to benefit from their clarifying differences.
The emotional high point of the afternoon, however, belonged to Father John Langan, S.J., who holds the Cardinal Bernardin chair in Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. He not only pronounced the emerging Democratic Party’s economic agenda as "broadly compatible" with Catholic social teachings but warned against the "quasi-excommunication of the Democratic Party" by some prelates because of their position on abortion. As one might expect from a man who holds a chair named after the great seeker of common ground, Cardinal Bernardin, Langan called for Catholic concern on life issues to be re-joined to Catholic commitments to other social justice issues, harkening back to Bernardin’s famous 1984 "Seamless Garment" lecture.
At the end of the panel remarks, Sen. Robert Casey and Congressman Tom Perriello addressed the gathering and spoke on a variety of issues the Congress is dealing with that are of specific concern to Catholics, from the Pregnant Women Support Act to the Casey-Lugar "Food Security" bill that seeks to diminish hunger worldwide. This last was recently reported out of committee and is awaiting placement on the calendar for the full Senate.
The gathering was, among other things, a demonstration of a central theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the need for faith and reason to work together, in this instance, in pursuit of the Common Good. And, with Catholics compromising almost a third of all members of Congress, it is about time we bring our perspectives to bear upon the politics of the nation, not in a divisive, culture war way, but as a reasonable approach to the problems the nations faces. Last night’s panel was a great start.