Phony Theology and Cafeteria Catholicism Feb25

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Phony Theology and Cafeteria Catholicism

Rick Santorum’s charge that President Obama is promoting phony theology is too onerous to let go untouched. Usually I wouldn’t comment publicly on presidential politics, but now that a candidate has jumped into the theological pool it only seems fair that he should get a dunking or two by those of us who swim here regularly.

Theology has been on this candidate’s mind for some time. His Catholicism calls him to object to artificial birth control and abortion and to oppose the practice of homosexuality. These parts of Catholic teaching he gets right.

Where Santorum misses the boat, though, is on the economic and environmental aspects of Catholic social teaching. While clarifying that his comments about Obama referred only to the president’s environmental theology, Santorum dug himself deeper in suggesting that Obama believes “man serves earth,” not vice versa, as in what Mr. Santorum calls “the Bible’s theology.” So, to Santorum people who believe in environmental stewardship and who are against global warming are guilty of phony theology.

Well, perhaps Santorum should have checked first with the official teaching of his own church. Catholic social teaching is pretty unambiguous about our responsibility as environmental stewards. Climbing onboard the long tradition of Catholic environmentalism Pope Benedict XVI was clear in his speech to the 2008 World Youth Congress in Australia that there’s no light between Catholics and environmentalists. The Pope went even further in 2009 in Copenhagen where he suggested that fighting environmental degradation is as important as fighting terrorism.

But Mr. Santorum’s departure from Catholic orthodoxy doesn’t end with environmental theology. Catholic social teaching also has strong beliefs about economic justice that run in direct conflict with his social safety net plans that would: “Cap it, cut it, freeze it, and block-grant it to the states.”

The “Whole Cloth” social theology of Catholicism suggests that all life is important and to be protected — including the fetus, the child, the widow, the orphan, the poor — and that economic systems should be adjusted to attend to the needs of the vulnerable because of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Over the years I’ve enjoyed traveling to Spain and have spent many hours there wandering in Catholic cathedrals and monasteries and simple country churches. Once a monk asked me if I was a Catholic. As we talked about faith and theology and social justice he said, “Ah, you’re a Methodist Catholic.” No. I consider myself “catholic,” but not Roman Catholic, mostly because I don’t agree on a lot of Catholic teaching. I do believe the Roman church has it right about Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor” and the importance of stewardship of the environment.

For our world to get back to sustainability we’ll need the worldwide help of all Christian denominations. In spite of Mr. Santorum’s theological prejudices we will all need to understand that stewardship of the planet means leaving enough of the Good Earth for future generations to enjoy. The fact that we’ve exploited our resources and degraded our air and water means we’re a long way from a fully Christian perspective on the environment. At the core of our religious understanding of stewardship is the sense of responsibility for creation that comes right from the Book of Genesis. It’s not really optional for Christians, hence it’s a big part of Catholic — and Methodist — social teaching.

Considering the bias of Catholic social teaching it looks like Mr. Santorum is a “Cafeteria Catholic,” carefully picking and choosing the parts of Catholic teaching that best suit his political viewpoints and ignoring those that don’t.

He’s certainly welcome to his perspective. After all, a lot of Catholics aren’t that nuts about the church’s perspectives on abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Sadly, there are plenty of Protestant denominations that object to abortion, homosexuality, and contraception and that also stand against environmentalism and in favor of unfettered free markets, whatever their cost to the planet and the poor.They’re likely a better fit for someone with a non-Catholic theology of anti-environmentalism who cares little for the needs of the poor. But any Catholic who promotes stands that run contrary to his own denomination should be very careful about throwing around arrogant charges of someone else’s “phony theology.”

Out of the pool, Mr. Santorum. Instead, please stick to politics.