You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead

The Catholic Church in America sometimes looks as if it’s on a suicide mission. Individual bishops or institutions don’t seem able to tell friend from foe, invite enemies into their midst, ignore threats, give the impression that the best they can hope for is that people won’t be too angry at the Church. Which they would rather be thought of as doing nice, uncontroversial things like providing social services, and not overemphasizing more difficult moral matters.

A recent instance: President Obama was lavishly welcomed and participated in a panel discussion on overcoming poverty at Georgetown University on Tuesday. No one has been able to explain for years how Georgetown is Catholic, of course. It’s almost not worth mentioning. To me, though, it was still noteworthy that there was no protest by pro-life demonstrators. Or by defenders of marriage.

Or by anyone outraged at how the president has tried, shamelessly and relentlessly and high-handedly, to force immoral positions on every institution in American society, from the military to the academy, including Catholic and other religious groups. And it’s working: some Catholic colleges are voluntarily going along with providing benefits to same-sex faculty couples now and joining the general cultural drift in intimidating – even punishing – those who resist.

Indeed, the only person who brought up such questions at Georgetown on Tuesday was the president himself towards the end of the event. He’d clearly prepped for the proper moment, and smoothly urged people who might disagree with him on abortion and gays to follow Pope Francis and come together on fighting poverty. He even expressed admiration for the pope and claimed to be looking forward to his visit to America in September.

The Catholic website CRUX misreported this as Obama saying Catholics and other Christians should stop focusing on “narrow” issues and join in efforts to promote the common good. But I was there, and the president was careful not to go quite so far. That would have amounted to a slap at Catholics. Instead, he offered subtler blandishments.

In the ways of Washington, it was a “balanced” conversation. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, an Obama partisan, served as moderator. But the two other panelists – Robert Putnam, a progressive from Harvard, and Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute (a serious Catholic) – are very thoughtful, very good men on social questions, even if they diverge, to the moderate right and to the moderate left, about what the best answers to those questions might be.

The unsurprising conclusion among all and sundry was that any good society must advance certain public goods, including government efforts at combating poverty with safety nets and programs aimed at providing greater opportunity. As Brooks pointed out, even hardcore libertarians believe in some public goods, if they work.

POTUS makes a point. (Dionne, Obama, Putnam, and Brooks at Georgetown.)

He was swimming against the current because the presumption in the room was that “Republicans” crudely block all such efforts. There was some recognition that each party unfairly demonizes the other. But the president couldn’t resist taking his customary swipe at FOX News for allegedly finding the rare oddball with an unmerited Obamaphone or some such abuse of public support, and using that to oppose him – and poor relief.

The audience, mostly Georgetown students, lapped it up. The conference was sponsored by a couple of university organizations and the National Association of Evangelicals, so there was a little diversity, especially among the older members of the crowd, on policy questions.

But the students were stirred when Obama recounted how his first job was “funded by the [Catholic] Campaign for Human Development,” and encouraged believers and religious institutions to get more involved. The bright and highly competitive students who go to Georgetown rarely intend to become social workers or even community organizers. More typically, they hope, like Obama, to go into politics – not nitty-gritty, Mother-Teresa-like work with the poor and marginalized. But they seem to like talking about the poor.

The president got the greatest applause, however, when he spoke about his own experiences growing up in a fatherless home and trying to understand his father’s situation in order, ultimately, to forgive him. When he mentioned that he’d had the “wherewithal” to escape that handicap – indeed his white grandparents were able to send him to the prestigious private Punahoe HS in Hawaii, which led to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard – so that his daughters lives would now be better, the crowd, for some reason, erupted.

There was some inconsistency here. President Obama had just been denouncing the wealthy who allegedly withdraw from the larger community into self-chosen enclaves, private schools, and athletic facilities (like the golf courses he enjoys?) – and refuse to support the public institutions they have abandoned. There was no recognition that, given the failures of public schools, to take a notorious example, what can families do other than turn to Catholic schools (Obama attended one of those, too) and other “private” institutions.

On a more positive note, the president has been rather good about encouraging stability in black families. With black out-of wedlock births at roughly 80 percent, the usual social pathologies are bound to follow. He admitted that when he gives a commencement address at someplace like Morehouse College, he feels no qualms lecturing young black men about becoming husbands and fathers. And he’s been pursuing that same line with his My Brother’s Keeper program

People will have differing reactions to all this. But over and above the mixture of dark and bright spots, Catholic institutions like Georgetown have settled into a quite comfortable stance. Prominent politicians who are pressuring the Church and promoting grave moral evils are welcome.

Don’t think people inside and outside the Church don’t notice. If the Church truly believed that the nation was killing over one million innocents in the womb yearly, would it coexist happily with those promoting that holocaust – just because they’re thoughtful on poverty?

As Flannery O’Connor once said, you can’t be any poorer than dead.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.