Does a catholic left still exist in the US?
November 24, 2007 6:04 AM   Subscribe

To what extent does the idea of a "Catholic Left" still exist in the United States?

Last night I watched Camden 28, a documentary about a group of (mostly) catholic antiwar activists who attempted to destroy draft records during the Vietnam War. One of the interesting things to me about the film was the participants' sense of their activist/pacifist beliefs being solidly based in their (specifically) catholic beliefs. Does a catholic left still exist in the US?
posted by R. Mutt to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I work at the Quixote Center, which is a ground in progressive Catholicism but not exclusively so (I'm an atheist Jew!). We do have a program called Catholics Speak Out, which is right along the lines of what you're looking for.

There seems to be some kind of resurgence of progressive Christian political engagement, although I don't think at this point that Catholicism is a driving force therein.
posted by greggish at 6:34 AM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, sort of. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and others started the Catholic Worker Movement in the 30s in the US which is still around today. They run a series of hospitality houses around the US and publish a newsletter that is fairly activist in its approach to social justice and poverty, though fairly what you would call traditioanlly Catholic in its approach to issues like abortion.

I haven't been a subscriber in a few years now, so that may have changed, but they were very active (along with the American Friends Service Committee) during the WTO and in the anti-Iraq movement which were two conflicts I was/am closely involved with.
posted by jessamyn at 6:43 AM on November 24, 2007

I can't say whether the Catholic Left exists as an organized movement, though my feeling is that it doesn't (at least, not to extend that it once did).

I can say that many Catholics certainly identify with a more liberal, i.e. leftist, agenda. Actually, now that I think about it, most of my friends in the Church are liberal. (But, then, I'm a member of a university parish in a liberal town, so that might skew my the numbers.)
posted by oddman at 7:05 AM on November 24, 2007

Here's a data point: I think my ex-girlfriend's family is part of the "catholic left"--they're anti-abortion, anti-war, pro-social justice, and fairy staunch Democrats. When they found out that their son was engaged to a woman (also catholic) who voted republican in 2000 and was planning to do so again in 2004, they had to have a Talk with him about it.
posted by pullayup at 7:20 AM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: The Jesuit Volunteer Corps is teeming with left leaning, social-justice oriented Catholics. At the agency I used to work for we got fed a JV every year, and they were super smart, super committed, and pretty radical by Catholic standards.
posted by The Straightener at 7:23 AM on November 24, 2007

They're out there, though maybe not on a unified front like the past. I've dealt with a fair number of nuns who are "leftists," particularly in the realm of gay rights and environmentalism. There's actually a group of former nuns around here who got excommunicated for ordaining female nuns to the same capacity of male priests.

On the home front, as oddman points out, there are a fair number of liberal Catholics out there. Generally speaking, they just aren't foaming at the mouth making noise and generally ignoring some of the more conservative teachings.
posted by jmd82 at 8:28 AM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: The Catholic Worker movement is still around, although much more marginalized within the church than it was at its peak. The list of communities on their website is impressively long -- I hadn't known there were so many. I know some of the people in one of the CW communities, and they are really committed activists, willing to routinely risk jail for their beliefs. But talking with them sometimes feels like a direct connection back to another time -- they have stayed committed to a vision of a broad social justice Movement that doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did. I think it is to the Catholic Church's credit (or rather, to the credit of a set of activist priests and bishops) that it has given the CW people protection and support over all these decades, despite (or because of) all the controversy and problems that they cause.

Also, it is worth noting that for every committed activist/CW person who risks jail and gives up material success, it takes a sizable network of sympathizers and supporters to keep things going. So even though there are relatively few full CW members, there is today a huge network of support for them within Catholic congregations.

(It is also worth noting how connected the Catholic left is to the liberation theology-inspired Latin American left -- the connections date from the 1960s, and remain active today.)
posted by Forktine at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2007

There are a lot of left leaning catholics but I'm not sure if there is a unified group such as there were in the past that are specifically left because of their religious beliefs. I know of several catholic groups that are staunchly democratic but are socially conservative - there are just some topics that cause them to swing to the left (ie. mexican catholics and the immigration debate)
posted by Stynxno at 8:36 AM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: As a proud member of this political affiliation, I can tell you there's a number of groups which have upticked in interest as a result of the current President. Note Pax Christi, the (inter)national Catholic peace movement, Catholics United, which does more work on the domestic policy front, Catholics for an End to the War in Iraq, which has a massive petition going, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which recently hosted an event with Catholic University professor Stephen Schneck on a politics centered around the common good.

Full Disclosure: I'm an undergrad at CUA and Dr. Schneck is my dean. Doesn't take away from how solid the speech was

I think whenever you talk about this question, its important to remember that the Catholic left exists and exists in strong numbers even if it does not have as much media attention as the Catholic right does. There are strong signs of the movement's influence in the new USCCB voter statement and to a certain extent in the feelings of Catholics. So, yes, there is an organized, healthy, vibrant Catholic left movement in the United States. I would describe that movement generally as being as wary of Dems as Reps, especially after the Dems' general complicity in the lead up to the war. I would also say that the movement is very reliant on its Catholicism, when it uses phrases like "common good" or "preferential option for the poor" or "universal life ethic" / "seamless garment ethic," all of which come from Catholic social teaching. I am more than happy to give anybody more resources if they contact me in profile.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:38 AM on November 24, 2007

There's a large Catholic component to those protesting the School of the Americas.
posted by MsMolly at 8:53 AM on November 24, 2007

I don't know about 'Left' but lumping Catholics together with the Christian Right is a mistake. Most of my Catholic relatives have the same disdain for fundies that I have.
posted by Mick at 9:11 AM on November 24, 2007

the "catholic left"--they're anti-abortion, anti-war,

You can't exactly call any anti-abortion group part of the left.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:18 AM on November 24, 2007

I think you can call someone Catholic left and still be anti-abortion. I think partly it might depend on if you think it should be legislated or not. You can be anti-abortion but still feel it should not be illegal, that it should be a persons choice.
posted by UMDirector at 9:34 AM on November 24, 2007

As UMDirector notes, it is certainly possible to believe that abortion is wrong (in accord with Catholic doctrine), but support abortion as a legal option (in accord with certain social and pragmatic beliefs).

Whether this one issue disqualifies them from being part of the left is a different issue. Given that the Catholic Left is in accord with the broader leftist movement on most other issues, I don't think it's a stretch to place the former within the membership of the latter.
posted by oddman at 9:41 AM on November 24, 2007

Many of the articles I have read in Commonweal lead me to believe there is a vibrant, learned Catholic left.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:45 AM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: There's not only one self-identified Catholic left, there's four: which one could label the rejectionists (the Pope is wrong on sexuality), the "personal oppositionalists" (the Pope is right for me on sexuality but wrong for public policy, which should vindicate abortion and homosexuality at every opportunity), "pro-life" Democrats (the Pope is right for everyone but on sexuality its okay for nothing should be done about), and the bishops' line (the Pope is right for everyone, period.)

The bishops' line is the only one without a comfortable partisan home with Democrats. It was Kerry's brazen efforts to win votes as a faithful Catholic, when he is a rejectionist with the merest pretension of personal oppositionalism, that provoked the bishops to get on Bush's side in 2004. If Clinton picks a protestant for a running mate the bishops will be back on the sidelines.
posted by MattD at 10:39 AM on November 24, 2007

In response to the recent line of comments re: abortion, I would mention that the vast swath of the Catholic left reject a politics solely based on abortion and would argue that other issues (war, nuclear weapons, the death penalty, health care, environmentalism, racism) ought hold a place alongside abortion in the national discussion. On issues like the death penalty, racism, nuclear weapons and environmentalism and to a lesser extent on war and other issues, they actually have several allies in the Holy See.
I would mention also in response to Mr. Gunn that most Catholic leftists reject the positions of both parties on these issues and would be reluctant to consider themselves part of *the left* or really *the* secular anything. Some would support candidates like Dennis Kucinich who are considered something other than mainstream by the general public, some are active in third parties like the Green Party, some (like myself) do not register for a party on principle, some believe Catholics ought try to create their own party, some question whether voting can even be justified given candidates who violate some of the "intrinsic evils" laid out by a church. For a Catholic left perspective in tune with the Church's doctrine on abortion, check out the group blog Vox Nova. Previously seen on AskMeFi, but I can't find it again, thanks to whoever turned me on to this
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:53 AM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thousands of organized Catholics traveled to the School of the Americas protest last weekend. Visit the Ignatian Solidarity Network or SOA Watch for details. Dozens and dozens of Jesuit high schools, colleges, and universities attended. I think we definitely qualify as "catholic antiwar activists," and most of us there are firmly committed to nonviolence and social justice.
posted by Sfving at 12:52 PM on November 24, 2007

I'm not a Catholic, but I went to Notre Dame. I was often surprised by the contradictions in the 85% Catholic student body. On one hand, there was quite a communal interest in volunteering and helping out the less fortunate. Just about everybody I knew did *something* for charity, whether it was manning the local center for the homeless or helping with Habitat for Humanity. At the same time though, the relatively high income status of most of the students meant that they were *very* fiscally conservative and the College Republicans had quite a huge presence on campus. We also had a big ROTC program (though this was a source of contention for some of the hardline anti-war Catholics). The university's official policies against sex, abortion, and gay student groups also seemed to bring out the very worst in people. It was difficult for me to reconcile the fact that the same students who would spend hours helping underprivileged kids from the local afterschool program learn to read would vote against politicians who made social services a priority.
posted by web-goddess at 5:44 PM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: Web-Goddess: Its interesting you bring this up, because I should mention that there's a noticeable gap in the movement's membership that probably fits with the group of people you went to college with. The movement is extremely strong amongst people 16 - 21 (college graduation) and extremely strong amongst the 45+ crowd (especially with clergy), but has a huge gap between graduation and midlife. As many people have mentioned regarding SOA, a lot of the fire of the Catholic left is coming from high school and college kids (like myself) who look up to people who are closer to their grandparents' age than their parents' age.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:41 PM on November 24, 2007

That's funny, the agency I used to work for which ran a housing program and a day center for homeless men used to also get Notre Dame summer volunteers on top of the JVs that would stick with us all year and I had the sense that the Notre Dame volunteers were just resume padding. They didn't seem to share the same sense of mission the JVs had and most of them were finance oriented in their majors and pretty conservative politically.

My executive director always complained that while Notre Dame was always willing to send us a body, getting any kind of financial contribution from them or their area alums was like pulling teeth. They were willing to contribute service (which is really, really major, don't get me wrong) but all the money want back to the Dame.
posted by The Straightener at 7:32 PM on November 24, 2007

Yes, we exist. We are victims of our own success (Vatican II) but we are rallying and will control the Catholic Church again.

The major problem here is the notion that the Catholic Left is anti-choice. We are largely pro-choice and for good reason:

Safe, legal and falling

Oct 18th 2007

From The Economist print edition

Restrictive laws do not reduce abortion

WHEN Catholic clergy or "pro-life" politicians argue that abortion laws should be tightened, they do so in the belief that this will reduce the number of terminations. Yet the largest global study of abortion ever undertaken casts doubt on that simple proposition. Restricting abortions, the study says, has little effect on the number of pregnancies terminated. Rather, it drives women to seek illegal, often unsafe backstreet abortions leading to an estimated 67,000 deaths a year. A further 5m women require hospital treatment as a result of botched procedures.

In Africa and Asia, where abortion is generally either illegal or restricted, the abortion rate in 2003 (the latest year for which figures are available) was 29 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. This is almost identical to the rate in Europe—28—where legal abortions are widely available. Latin America, which has some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws, is the region with the highest abortion rate (31), while western Europe, which has some of the most liberal laws, has the lowest (12).The study, carried out by the Guttmacher Institute in New York in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published in a British medical journal, the Lancet, found that most abortions occur in developing countries—35m a year, compared with just 7m in rich countries. But this was largely a reflection of population size. A woman's likelihood of having an abortion is similar whether she lives in a rich country (26 per 1,000) or a poor or middle-income one (29).
Lest it be thought that these sweeping continental numbers hide as much as they reveal, the same point can be made by looking at those countries which have changed their laws. Between 1995 and 2005, 17 nations liberalised abortion legislation, while three tightened restrictions. The number of induced abortions nevertheless declined from nearly 46m in 1995 to 42m in 2003, resulting in a fall in the worldwide abortion rate from 35 to 29. The most dramatic drop—from 90 to 44—was in former communist Eastern Europe, where abortion is generally legal, safe and cheap. This coincided with a big increase in contraceptive use in the region which still has the world's highest abortion rate, with more terminations than live births.

The risk of dying in a botched abortion is only part of a broader problem of maternal health in poor countries. Of all the inequalities of development, this is arguably the worst. According to a report published this week by Population Action International, a Washington-based lobby group, women in poor countries are 250 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women in rich ones. Of the 535,000 women who died in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications in 2005, 99% were in developing countries, according to another report by a group of UN agencies, including WHO, also out this week. Africa accounted for more than half such deaths.

As the UN report noted, countries with the highest levels of maternal mortality have made the least progress towards reducing it. A woman in Africa has a one in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, compared with one in 3,800 for a woman in the rich world.
posted by tommunation at 9:38 PM on November 24, 2007

While I don't mean to be contentious on this point, I would disagree with tommunation's characterization of the position of members of the Catholic left who support legalized abortion. As is pointed out well in the Schneck speech which I cited above, the calling of Catholic Social Teaching is to look beyond the rhetoric of individual rights and instead look to the rhetoric of the common good. In other words, because of the many reasons cited in tommunation's Economist article, a member of the Catholic left may believe abortion should be legal because the common good is best protected in healthy, medical abortions over clandestine abortions in an alley. This is not a minor point, because such a belief would then call on the believer to support policies designed to reduce abortion. Note the Sisters of Mercy voter guide, which encourages Catholics to ask candidates:
What alternatives to abortion and assistance to low-income expectant mothers will you work to provide in your country/state/city/district?
Tommunation is correct, I believe, in his characterization that, among American Catholics and especially among the Catholic Left, this is an ongoing conversation. I've heard of (but can't remember where - darn) polling which says that self-identified Catholics come down on this issue in largely the same way the rest of the country does. Note that frequent church-goers tend conservative on all issues, including this one.
The discussion about the legitimacy of voting for pro-choice candidates on the official level is getting increasingly more nuanced. Essentially, the new USCCB voter guide says that voting for anyone expressly because they support an intrinsic evil is wrong, but that grave reasons can lead a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate given the alternative. I would say that most Catholic leftists are incredibly skeptical of the ways in which the USCCB has tried to nuance this.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:41 PM on November 25, 2007

Best answer: l33tpolicywonk is right, we're still out here.

There are several Catholic publications that are probably some of the only "liberal media" in the country. I get America, which is a national Catholic weekly. My parents get the National Catholic Reporter.

The fact that you are asking this question, however, highlights the fact that there is very little of a cohesive movement at this point. I went to a dinner last week where Dr. Paul Farmer spoke (he's done an amazing job in Haiti and across the globe in providing healthcare to the most needy) and he mentioned that his book has a readership of about 8 including his mother. Then he recanted and said, "No, the Catholic Workers all read it...but there are only about 14 of them, so that brings the total up to something like 20."

I'm not sure that there is a very cohesive movement at this point, even thought organizations like the Catholic Workers, since there isn't much to rally around. Recall, however, that all left movements really saw their heyday in the early part of the 20th century and it was all downhill from there. So too with the Catholic Left.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:44 AM on November 26, 2007

Yes, my friend's mom, who is an ex-nun but still Catholic, actually went to jail for protesting the School of the Americas.
posted by exceptinsects at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2007

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