The Contemporary Catholic Left? or, Will the Catholic Jim Wallis Please Get Noticed?


When people picked up Time magazine’s December 12, 1960 edition, they saw the penetrating eyes of Jesuit John Courtney Murray looking back at them. The feature article, “U.S. Catholics and the State,” centered on his book, We Hold These Truths. “In months to come,” the article’s author predicted, “serious Americans of all sorts of conditions—in pin-stripes and laboratory gowns, space suits and housecoats—will be discussing [Murray’s] hopes and fears for American democracy.” Murray was one of a handful of highly visible American Catholics—such as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Fulton Sheen—who helped bring the faithful from margins to the mainstream. Murray in particular was, indeed, a thinker and theologian who “serious Americans” took seriously.

This leads me to Randall’s mention of Jim Wallis. For the sake of argument, let me suggest that Wallis is something of a current evangelical version of John Courtney Murray. In their respective times, both earned fame and attention for their ability to clearly articulate their faith and relate it to prominent political concerns. But I wonder: Is there a Catholic version of Murray today? Sociologist, author, and political commentator Andrew Greeley may fit the mold. Consider his recent book, A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq, 2001-2007 (“Now tell us what you really think, Father?”). While I haven’t read it, the book appears to be a timely rebuke of the war and a challenge to Catholics to forthrightly oppose it. Despite his prolific writings, I don’t know that Greeley is as recognizable as Wallis, or for that matter, his conservative counterparts Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Do presidential candidates court Greeley in an attempt to secure the “Catholic vote”? Perhaps they do. But I haven’t seen it. The only other examples I have come from the realm of popular culture. In a Frontline documentary on the AIDS crisis, U2 front-man Bono discussed the relationship between his faith and activism. “I put Catholic guilt to work,” he quipped. Speaking to Rolling Stone, however, Bono called himself a “Christian,” but offered the following qualifier. “I don't use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to. I feel like I'm the worst example of it, so I just kinda keep my mouth shut.” His humility is refreshing. But unlike many noteworthy religious figures, Bono isn’t tossing tons of theology into the public mix. How about Martin Sheen? Having been arrested over 60 times at various protests, the actor often expresses admiration for Catholic social teaching. He once speculated, “I don't think you can be Catholic and not have some frame of reference for social justice.” I suspect, though, that more people know Sheen for his acting than his activism. So I’m going to withhold his “J.C. Murray Trophy” for the time being.

From Newsweek to Comedy Central to this blog, Jim Wallis et al. are hard to avoid. Yet, the Catholic equivalent is nowhere in sight. I’ll admit that I don’t closely follow trends in contemporary Catholicism. So I might simply be out of the loop. But I also don’t spend prodigious amounts of time following the evangelicals either. So please, dear blog readers, educate and correct me. Who is the current John Courtney Murray and/or Catholic version of Jim Wallis? And if there isn’t one, what does this say about American Catholicism today?


Anonymous said…
Art, this is a fabulous question--thanks so much for raising it. That there is no Catholic Jim Wallis probably tells us more about the relationship between Protestantism (left and right) and America than it does about Catholicism, and that's worth thinking about. But it's also the case that the politics of abortion continues to silence the Catholic left. (Wallis has said some--to my mind--troubling things about abortion, but he'll make coalitions. ) Often it's the Catholic hierarchy pressing the mute button on abortion--Sister Helen Prejean, probably the closest figure we have to a Jim Wallis in terms of her visibility, can't go there. Greeley won't go there. But some Catholics on the left, lay and religious, have taken a position on abortion that makes their social justice rhetoric--let me choose my words carefully-- less compelling than it might otherwise be. I think of Eugene McCarraher writing in 2004 that he would sit out the election, since the choice between Bush and Kerry amounted to a choice between war and abortion. Even the official campaign to canonize Dorothy Day has sought to make her--Dorothy DAY, whose politics make Wallis look like Reagan--the patron saint of women who regret their abortions. (I've written about this, briefly, at the Immanent Frame, linked below. For these and other reasons, there's no Jim Wallis on the Catholic left because no one on the Catholic left seems to want the job of delivering votes to candidate A, B, or C. Dorothy Day went to jail for women's suffrage but then never voted because, as she put it, it only encourages them.

Now back to the spastic clatter.

Thanks again for posting this, Art--
Art Remillard said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art Remillard said…
Let me try this again... I confused your _Culture and Redemption_ with Immanent Frame. Humble apologies. The former I will indeed add to my "books to read" pile. And the latter I will indeed add to my "favorites" list.

Anyway, you raise issues I hadn't considered. Sister Helen Prejean is very high profile, and someone I hadn't thought of. She is at least a "seamless garment" type, which I don't see too often.

Along these lines, I just stumbled upon this:
Anonymous said…
Art, I'm so glad that you link to this statement by Helen Prejean-I also cite it in a recent essay on Dorothy Day. It's feisty in a way Day's followers will recognize, but I think it also goes further than the Catholic Peace Fellowship Statement on Abortion that Day signed, and which was one of her only pubic statements on abortion. Prejean notes that the problematic statement in the impeachment editorial from which she was compelled to withdraw her name had to do with this Administration's failure in the areas of contraception and abortion, particularly where global policy and the needs of the poor and struggling are concerned. But notice that her clarification offers NOTHING in the way of an endorsement of the Church's position on contraception (which has clearly influenced this Admin's disastrous abstinence-only constraints on health education and foreign aid) and takes a BIG step back from the Church's life-begins-at-conception position (which, e.g., now bars the staff of Catholic hospitals in the U.S., Catholic or not, from giving emergency [morning-after] contraception to rape victims, Catholic or not, if there's a possibility that conception MAY already have occurred--sorry!). Prejean does all this and still comes out blazing on ITMFA, which I love. But the fact that she was compelled to remove her name from a list of antiwar and pro-impeachment activists on these grounds, and that the most she can offer in the way of critique of official Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion is silence, says a great deal about the constraints on the Catholic Left. Prejean negotiates them as shrewdly as anyone, but they're still there. (The Catholic Peace Fellowship Statement on Abortion, from the 70s, appeared in response to similar pressures).

The question about the Catholic Left and literature, in the comment you erased, is also a really good one. My friend Marian Ronan has a book coming out on Columbia soon on four contemporary Catholic writers--Mary Gordon, James Carroll, Richard Rodriguez, and Donna Harraway--and the ways they navigate the promises and failures of the post Vatican II Church. be sure to look for it!

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