Faith’s Big Picture

Huffington Post

The First Amendment is so important, separating church and state, so that church can have complete liberty to profess its moral teachings unambiguously while the state enacts law and policy according to the will of the citizens. Exact alignment of those interests is almost always impossible, but people of good will can work together to close the gap. In a healthy, functional free society, neither side can cut the other out of the picture. God and Caesar have to figure out how to work together for the good of all of the people we serve.

Patricia McGuire, President, Trinity Washington University
Mary Catherine O’Shaunnessy (not her real name) was missing. A hole appeared in the class photo where her smiling visage once graced the back row. Sister Perpetua had a very effective way of teaching us Catholic high school girls about the importance of abstinence. Any girl who had the lack of virtue to get pregnant before our high school graduation got her picture cut right out of the yearbook. Sister snipped away while we memorized Humane Vitae (Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control), the better to reinforce the evil of premarital sex and its consequences.  Later on, in college, pregnant classmates simply resorted to wearing trenchcoats to hide the obvious, fearing expulsion if discovered to be “in trouble.” The “class baby” usually had the good sense to wait at least a month or two beyond commencement day to make an appearance.

Today, the grand marble corridor here at Trinity often clatters with the racket of strollers, infants bawling and toddlers wailing as college women of all ages (and many faith traditions) juggle the real life challenges of raising babies and taking classes and meeting obligations at work as well as at home. Trinity is a thoroughly contemporary and Catholic university, while still emphasizing women’s education — embracing the Gospel call to work for social justice through improving the chances that those babies will live healthy and successful lives because their mothers will have greater opportunities for economic security through earning degrees.

Fortunately, like many Catholic schools and colleges, a few decades ago Trinity came to realize the weird dichotomy in upholding our faith’s teachings on the dignity of life while indulging attitudes and practices that made unmarried pregnant women feel shame and fear. Catholic institutions that truly believe in celebrating life need to be good models of welcome, hospitality and pastoral care for all of God’s children, whether virtuous or wayward, righteous or confused.

Unfortunately, the contraception contretemps of the last few weeks has, at times, suggested that Catholic higher education might still have the cold, sharp, steely flavor of Sister Perpetua’s scissors. A New York Times story quoted some church leaders as saying that students in Catholic institutions who do not like the church’s teachings should just leave.

Just be cut out of the picture.

The real leader of our faith is a guy who left most of the sheep grazing in the middle of the field to go out to the edge to find that one curious ewe (I’m guessing, here) who wandered away. I’ve often wondered about that lost sheep. Maybe she was an adventuresome spirit eager to see what was out there on the edge; maybe she was just bored with the conformity of the flock. When he found her, the shepherd did not scold her or treat her like a pariah for wandering off. The Good Shepherd lifted that sheep onto his shoulders and brought her back to the fold, with care and compassion.  Come to think of it, most of the best Gospel parables are not about the righteous being right, but about the wanderers, the prodigals, the hopeless scoundrels who still have a chance to make things right. Consider: Mary Magdalene.   Jesus did not cut people who struggle with real life out of the picture.

Many Catholic colleges like Trinity were founded in the urban core formerly populated by Catholic European immigrant families — Irish, Italian, Polish, German and others. In the District of Columbia, the Brookland neighborhood where the Sisters of Notre Dame established Trinity in 1897 was once the center of Irish Catholic life in the city. In the latter part of the 20th Century, the second and third generations of the immigrant Catholic populations migrated from cities to suburban enclaves.

Inner city parishes and grade schools closed, but many Catholic colleges remained as pillars of their urban communities, articulating gutsier versions of their historic mission to serve new populations of great need. Our student bodies reflect our neighborhoods — at Trinity in northeast D.C., that means more than 90 percent African-American and Latina students from low income neighborhoods, predominantly Baptist or other Christian faith traditions, mostly women for whom Trinity is a place of hope, strength and affirmation long missing from their lives. Trinity [ ]serves more D.C. residents than any private university in the nation.

Like our sister institutions in the Catholic urban hospitals and social service agencies run by Catholic Charities and similar organizations, we urban Catholic colleges and universities often live close to the edge, ourselves, eschewing the comforts of wealth accumulation that more traditional universities boast in favor of sharing what little we have with our students in the form of massive financial aid and staff time devoted to teaching and student support well beyond the parameters of what some call a “normal” work week. With few nuns or priests left, most of our employees are laypeople today — and many are not Catholic — yet all share a devotion to this mission that reflects the spirit of ministry of the religious founders.

And so we come to the white-hot question at the center of this very peculiar moment in American political and cultural life:  Are the Catholic institutions that chose to stay in the cities to serve broadly diverse populations of great need somehow less “Catholic” because many of our clients and colleagues are not Catholics, themselves?  Should such institutions be cut out of the picture of what constitutes religion in American life?

Of course not. We are the church! A government that attempts to define religion by narrowing the locus of faith to worship inside the churches, while dismissing the vital works of faith broadly shared in religiously affiliated institutions located throughout the culture, demonstrates precisely the reason why the state should tread gently on the landscape of religion. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne put it not-so-gently, President Obama “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus” when issuing the original HHS regulations mandating contraceptive coverage by all employers with an extraordinarily narrow religious exclusion clause. The irony did not escape those of us who do the church’s hard work of social justice among diverse populations of need — work that we have sometimes had to defend against the criticism of fellow Catholics who deride “social justice” as a sinister plot — that our institutions would fail the government’s “Catholic” test because we serve many people of other faiths, while those institutions narrowly serving only members of our own faith tradition would get a pass.

The more recent compromise on contraception coverage, allowing religious employers a much broader exemption than the original plan, seems like a more workable solution, though the Catholic bishops remain opposed because the new proposal would still mandate freely available contraception courtesy of insurance companies. Religious liberty guarantees the right of church leaders to teach the moral principles of the faith robustly and to advocate for protection of those principles in law and policy.

Even as we stand firmly with the bishops on the principle of religious liberty, many of us who work in the trenches of mission commitment among diverse communities of great human need, and particularly among large populations of women, urge prudence in striking the necessary balance between aggressive political advocacy to protect religion and compassionate pastoral service which is the real work of the faith community. Women, in particular, often feel patronized and marginalized when the headlines seem to be all about men dictating the most intimate terms of women’s lives without the nuances that might reveal some deeper understanding and care for the complexity of women’s health concerns and fundamental rights.  We’re not being unfaithful when we point out the plain fact that women get pretty tired of being snipped out of the picture.

Liberty is a tricky concept. The very liberty that the bishops demand for religion, properly so, also gives people the freedom to make their own decisions. Religious liberty exercised robustly through good teaching seeks to form conscience so that people will make good moral decisions. Human nature being what it is, however, people sometimes make decisions that are different from religious instruction. Most of those Catholic high school girls who memorized Humanae Vitae in 1968 probably also took the pill later on in their lives — surveys consistently show that a large majority of Catholics pay little attention to the church’s teachings on birth control. The church is not a democracy, and the poll numbers do not change the fundamental moral teaching, of course — but the obvious disconnect bears thoughtful examination and honest dialogue within the church beyond the public rhetoric.

Compromise is the lifeblood of politics. Unyielding clarity is the essential foundation for moral teaching. Moral challenges rarely find permanent satisfaction in political solutions which are always subject to change and compromise. This is precisely the reason why the First Amendment is so important, separating church and state, so that church can have complete liberty to profess its moral teachings unambiguously while the state enacts law and policy according to the will of the citizens. Exact alignment of those interests is almost always impossible, but people of good will can work together to close the gap.  In a healthy, functional free society, neither side can cut the other out of the picture. God and Caesar have to figure out how to work together for the good of all of the people we serve.  Follow Patricia McGuire on Twitter: TrinityPrez