A Vatican Paper’s Effects in America

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A Vatican Paper’s Effects in America

As John L. Allen, Jr. reminds us in his op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, we Americans tend toward a very America-centered view of the world. Mr. Allen “is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of ‘The Rise of Benedict XVI.’”

After pointing out that most of the world’s Roman Catholics do not live in the United States, that the Vatican’s new document on bioethics, “Dignitas Personae” or “Dignity of the Person,” was begun quite some time ago and was not written to target the political situation in America or counter the incoming Obama administration, Allen suggests that in this case the Vatican might want to “think America” somewhat more.

One factor is that there are issues other than bioethics in which the Vatican and the Obama administration are in harmony, and they are major issues for the world. A second is that socially conservative Catholics, Allen says, led the opposition to Obama on issues of women’s reproductive rights and stem cell research. He writes, “In the ’08 elections, pro-life Catholics emerged as the dominant voice of the religious right.”

So, he contends, Americans would be wrong to see Dignitas Personae as an assault on Barack Obama and his administration, but also that the Vatican would be wise to see the potential effects of the document on divisive issues in the United States and moderate those effects for the sake of future cooperation with the Obama administration. The op-ed piece is here.

I think the question will be what Americans hear coming from the Roman Catholic Church in the new year and beyond. Recently I visited the Web site of an archdiocese and was struck by the prominence of the two big right-wing sexual-social issues, women’s reproductive rights and the rights of homosexuals. Is sexual social conservatism the gospel? American evangelicals are moving away from the position that it is, apparently to the chagrin of formerly influential socially conservative evangelicals. The Roman Catholic Church is far too large and diverse to be focused so narrowly, but what voices are heard prominently? What I’m asking is not simply what Catholic leaders are saying about a wide variety of issues and concerns, but what Americans are hearing most often and most loudly and so having fixed in their minds as the Catholic message.

Since I am neither Roman Catholic nor American evangelical, perhaps I could ask that question from a position of detachment, as a mere observer. But I would then be acting falsely. The question asks what people are hearing most often and most loudly from Christianity — what sounds to them as though it must be the gospel. Even if I felt no kinship with Catholics and evangelicals (which I do), that question would be for me, also.

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