Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Recently, the Catholic Church has taken a hit from President Obama and Robert Putnam, the author of Our Kids, the latest bestseller on the social and economic marginalization of poor and working-class Americans who are increasingly less likely to marry, find work, attend college or go to church.
“Over the last 30 years,” Putnam said in an interview with The Washington Post, “most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for..."
Really? Tell that to Catholic Charities, USA, the national office for local diocesan affiliates that provide a wealth of services, including help for an estimated 476,000 people who need housing.
This kind of assertion generally provokes surprise from those Catholics, who actually attend weekly Sunday Mass, where all of this culture-war messaging is supposedly unleashed.
They will tell you that it is very rare for a homilist to address Catholic teaching on life issues, and rarer still for homosexual relations to surface as a topic.
Meanwhile, the many generous Catholics who volunteer and help raise millions for local Catholic Charities affiliates, for Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, and for inner-city elementary and high schools, which send the children of poor single mothers to college, might be excused for feeling dismissed.
Ross Douthat, the Catholic columnist in The New York Times was rightly bemused by Putnam's assertion.
Some of this talk, he suggested in a May 16 column, should provoke skepticism, given one of the sources — a president who has directed his administration to fight religous nonprofits in court, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, over the HHS mandate. The president professes to believe that churches should do more to help the poor, but he wants it on his terms. That's not how faith-based charity works.
Indeed, the suggestion that churches really don't care about the poor and are only concerned about ideological combat is a handy talking point during a time when Catholic norms guiding life and marriage issues are under attack from partisan groups. Questioning the moral credibility of your opponent is a time-honored strategy of political leaders.
We are letting other people, including those who don't know or understand our faith and practices, to tell our story. And sometimes we actually believe what they say, even when our own experience suggests otherwise.
But Douthat also pauses to assess this criticism from another perspective.
"There is a case that churches are failing poorer Americans. But the problem isn’t how they spend money or play politics. It’s a more basic failure to reach out, integrate, and keep them in the pews," he writes.
"This is the striking story of the last 30 years: Despite the stereotype of religion as something that people 'cling to' (to quote a different moment of condescension from this president) in desperate circumstances, actual religious practice has collapsed more quicklyamong Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class.
"Mere religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well. The much-discussed rise of the 'nones' — Americans with no religious affiliation — has been happening in blue -collar America as well as among the hyper-educated.
"From a religious perspective, this is a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another NGO."
That may be the way partisan activists, including some progressive Catholics, would like it: the Church as NGO — no more references to inconvenietn truths that make the Church so unfashionable.
But Douthat points out that the practice of religion (at least for Catholics) not only comes with that irritating continuity of tradition on teachings like marriage as a union of one man and one woman, it also offers practical benefits that have been documented by numerous social researchers.
Thus, turning the Church into a secular NGO devoted to the material advancement of the poor will have negative, if unintended consequences.
"(A]s Putnam’s work stresses) the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice, and belonging. So churches that spend or lobby effectively for the poor but are stratified come Sunday morning offer less to the common good than if they won a more diverse array of souls."
I have one idea for praying with the poor: Start Eucharistic adoration in your parish. My parish, Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, Ca., the hometown of Facebook where real estate prices have exploded, offers 24/7 Eucharistic adoration and it draws an amazingly diverse crowd of Catholics, from Hispanics and Filipinos to Europeans and African Americans.
At any hour of the day or night there are Catholics — and non-Catholics, too — on their knees before the Eucharist, praying the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and sometimes lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament.
People come and go, chatting outside the church with friends and strangers (who become friends).
In our suburban town, where many residents give to the poor, but rarely have a chance to rub shoulders with them, the Eucharist is the heart of the "culture of encounter" that Pope Francis has called for. Silently, Jesus brings us together, as we drink and share in the wellspring of his merciful love.
"for the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."