Pulpit Politics: Catholic Activism and its Teachings
It was a cool morning, on the 25th of September, when a curious group congregated in front of the somber, gray edifice of the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Courthouse in Hartford, Connecticut.
Occasionally chanting “no borders, no nations, stop the deportation,” the group locked arms, and sat in front of the glass courthouse doors, blocking all guests from entering. They were protesting the deportation of Franklin and Gioconda Ramos, two undocumented immigrants living in Meriden, Connecticut, scheduled for the 29th.
Among them were two men, wearing their characteristic black-and-white clerical collars.
They were Reverends Robert Beloin and Karl Davis–two chaplains of Yale’s St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center.
Beloin and Davis joined the protest after being notified by Catherine Rodriguez DRA’18, a member of the Unidad Latina en Acción and the St. Thomas More Community.
The police soon arrived at the scene and made rounds, arresting those who stood their ground for civil disobedience. Though they saw the police, the Reverends did not budge.
Two policemen locked their arms with Beloin, right under his blue Yale vest, and carried him away. They arrested both him and Davis, who were placed in two brick holding cells, leaving them to contemplate their faith and the reason why they participated in the protest.
“From a religious point of view, I felt like I was living Jesus’ Gospel in real time in a significant way,” said Davis, also known as Father Karl, to The Politic. “The invitation I received from Kat Rodriguez to participate in the action for the Ramoses is a call for me to be in solidarity for the vulnerable in society and to pay attention to the dignity of all—a call that is fundamental to who I am, as a person, priest, and a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate.”
Davis remarked that the religious endeavor he pursues has an almost patriotic dimension. “Politically, we can never fulfill our vocation as citizens simply by being motivated by self-interest. By the nature of our Constitution, we are speaking to a universal goodness and a universal dignity of humanity. From a faith perspective, we are also called to be active in participating in the formation and growth of a just society.”
Davis’s philosophy is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, a set of Church doctrines which provide instruction on how Catholics should approach human life and dignity. These include a preferential option for the poor, which means taking special attention to the needs of the vulnerable, as well as the care for God’s creation. It also covers the respect for life and dignity of the human person, a belief in the importance of the family as a social institution, and other themes drawn from Church tradition and the Bible.
Politically, this translates into a set of positions that transcend the ideological divide of the United States—from an opposition to abortion that is often classified as part of the Republican party platform, to an adamant support for economic redistribution, a concern for the environment, and a welcome for immigrants that characterize the Democratic party platform.
“Catholic social teaching is complex,” said Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale. “Pope John Paul II confused the hell out of American journalists because he couldn’t be placed in a box.”
For example, Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, all consistently opposed the death penalty—a commonly liberal cause in the US—but also opposed abortion—a conservative position.
“When I read the articles journalists write, I laugh because it’s funny,” said Eire. “Catholic social teaching is not at all related to the liberal-conservative divide that exists in the United States.”
Because of this partitioning of ideologies, Eire argues, it is difficult for Catholic politicians to take a stand true to church teaching. Eire takes the example of former US Vice President Joe Biden, current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—all high-ranking US politicians who are Catholic. There are also currently four Catholic justices on the Supreme Court: Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor.
“Both Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are liberal Democrats, and on certain issues where the Catholic Church has taken a very strong strand, especially on abortion, they go completely against Catholic teaching. Catholic politicians who run for office, they have to say what people want to hear, and they support what they have to in order to get elected,” Eire said.
Even though a separation between political and religious beliefs might seem natural, that is not the case for Reverend Beloin. For him, morality and politics for Catholics should intersect. That was why he was ready to be arrested during his courthouse protest.
“All political issues are moral issues. You can’t leave morality at the door, you have to bring your perspective of faith to the discussion. [It is] to approach the issue of undocumented immigrants not from a Democratic perspective, or Republican perspective, but from a Christian perspective. The Christian perspective is promoting the dignity of the person,” he told The Politic.
A fear of Catholic politicians’ religious beliefs controlling policymaking led to opposition against them in the 1960s. Questions about John F Kennedy’s Catholic faith plagued his campaign for the presidency. Voters doubted whether Kennedy’s faith would allow him to lead the country based on his duty to the Constitution, rather than the Pope.
While Davis believes that “the religious vocation could assist the government as its conscience,” Eire says that such a culture of mistrust and suspicion still persist today.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was recently accused of exhibiting anti-Catholic bias in her questioning of Amy Coney Barret, a law professor who was nominated to serve on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Dogma and law are two different things,” Feinstein said to Barret. “And I think in your case, Professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”
Eire believes there is an “anti-Catholic bias when it comes around certain issues,” particularly contentious ones like abortion. But Catholic activists and students at Yale have not felt much tangible opposition from the rest of the campus.
Anthony Hedjuk, who is secretary of Choose Life at Yale, a pro-life student organization, said that so far, he feels that his views are welcome.
“Most of Yale is actually pretty tolerant of this, which is good because we can get some conversations on this,” said Hedjuk to The Politic. “Now and then, we will get some nasty responses to activism, but that’s what happens with every activist group and what they’re pushing for.”
He mentions that since most of students at Yale are pro-choice, the campus is against the group in that respect. However, rather than being confrontational, the group’s interactions with Yale have been focused on discussion. CLAY, as the group is known, regularly organizes an annual pro-life conference at Yale. The 2017 Vita et Veritas conference, entitled “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” was just held in the Omni Hotel from 6-7 October. The committee was pleased with the turnout from the Yale community, although the majority of participants come from other colleges.
“There’s sort of an old joke about CLAY, that the most important job for CLAY to do is that it exists,” Hedjuk said. He explains how CLAY not only gives a space for students to talk about their views, but also pushes for diversity in campus opinion. For example, CLAY persuaded the university to explain options for keeping a pregnancy, alongside information on abortion services, during Freshman Orientation presentations on sexual health.
“I think it’s important to show that (a) this view is here, and (b) there is not only one ideological lock on campus. With most of these issues, the Yale campus and Catholic social teaching are in unison – for example with the deportation protest. But, at least with regards to the anti-abortion movement, Catholic students can show that they exist and there is not just one way of looking at this issue,” Hedjuk said.
Davis views that such activism is natural for a place like a college campus.
“I wonder when this activism was being used and being thought of as the extraordinary,” Davis said. “From a faith perspective, we are called to be active in participating in the formation and growth of a just society. We’re all called to be active in seeking to put practice and make real our manifest, the Truth that we hold self-evident, the deeper principles that bind us together. “
Kristin Heyer, professor of theology at Boston College, suggests in an email to The Politic that maybe there is something that such an engaged tradition offers. “The range of issues on which the Catholic tradition touches has the potential to cross ideological camps and encourage groups on different ends of the political spectrum to attend to shortcomings of their platform or scope,” she wrote.
“Whereas some still prefer religion be kept out of politics–whether for the safety of religion amid a realm of compromise or the safety of politics amid religious pluralism, Catholicism has a rich history of engagement in civil society around questions of the common good,” adds Heyer.
Beloin, Davis, and others have begun this engagement in Yale’s own backyard. Both preach such action in their weekly sermons during Sunday Mass.
“Pope Francis says go to the margin, go to the periphery and accompany people. Now, you can read that and be inspired by it and admire it, but are you going to do it? It’s one thing to admire someone’s teaching, but it’s different to act on it,” Beloin said.
Perhaps that is the very reason why Reverends Beloin and Davis were at the courthouse that cool September morning, standing in front of the rigid glass doors and preparing to be sent to a holding cell in the Hartford jail.