A Call to End the Catholic Civil War

Remarks by Thomas J. Allio Jr. to the Roundtable-February 13, 2011

Thank you Scott for your kind remarks. I greatly appreciate this recognition of the Roundtable. Your work is needed more than ever in our Church and the nation. I want you to know that I am extremely humbled by this award. The title “Servant of Justice” is rather daunting. If anything, I view myself as an unworthy servant, who surrounded himself with outstanding cast of (characters, I mean) leaders in Cleveland and Ohio, and, with them, tried to advance the ball of social justice and peace in our diocese, state and nation. So, I accept this honor in their behalf and all those who have inspired me throughout the years.

In my remarks, I intend to pay tribute to a real servant of justice, offer three challenges for our Church and conclude with some reflections on hope.

The real servants of justice are people like my former boss during 25 years of this wonderful run, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla. The Roundtable would not be recognizing me today if I had not had the privilege of being mentored and shepherded by him.

Through his support and leadership, Cleveland became the largest system of Catholic Social Action in the nation. (At the height, we had 16 full time people on staff. Sadly, today, five years after Bishop Pilla retired, six remain).

Bishop Pilla elevated the work of justice and peace in Cleveland through his own pastorals on poverty, peace, the environment and others, the nationally recognized Church in the City Initiative, his many interfaith efforts to overcome poverty in NEO, the empowerment of lay leaders who served on our five Catholic Commissions, the establishment of numerous community organizations, the founding of Catholic Schools for Peace and Justice, his intervention in the bankruptcy of LTV steel, our diocesan missionary work in El Salvador, the creation of the Leadership of Justice Institute and the Council on Global Solidarity, and his active support for the agenda of the Catholic Conference of Ohio and the USCCB.

Bishop Pilla saw the value of a strong and united USCCB. In the 1980ʻs and 90ʻs, he helped shape an agenda in which remarkable work was accomplished by the conference. He served the conference in several capacities including President. He was first and foremost a spiritual leader with keen pastoral skills. He was extremely versed and committed to Catholic Social Teaching and an astute student of history. He had sharp political instincts, which he used locally to champion the plight of the poor, and nationally when he played a significant role in 2001 that convinced President George W. Bush to include the refundable child tax credit in his budget. This initiative lifted 500,000 children out of poverty. He was a leader who understood that trust and relationships are everything. He was a consensus builder, who was unafraid of genuine debate, diverse opinions and honest dialogue. His inspiring example gave credibility and life to our four decades of work in Cleveland.

He taught us that anyone who aspired to be a “Servant of Justice” must always strive to manifest Christʼs love for the poor and most

vulnerable. He insisted that we effectively give voice to the least in the halls and offices of the powerful. He also taught us that respect for the leaders we oppose is a requirement of Catholic social action.

Servants of justice must be unwavering in their commitment to defend human life and promote human dignity. However, such advocacy must be done in a spirit of love and in a manner that persuades, rather than, polarizes. Such servants must have the courage to stand for core principles no matter how unpopular they may be. Bishop Pilla often reminded us that the positions we take are not based upon some popularity polls but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In addition, he believed that such servants should strive to build community, work in coalition, empower and mentor others. Winning on issues was important; however, the development of people was as equally important.

Servants of justice clearly understand that their allegiance is to the Gospel, which requires them to take prophetic stances that challenge corrupt structures, unjust policies and, at times, Church leaders. They

are nourished by a spiritual and prayer centered community that provides them the strength to persevere in the struggle and withstand the personal attacks that they are certain to endure. Finally, Bishop Pilla taught us that a servant of justice is one who regularly inspires hope…that our efforts, no matter how small are meaningful in the context of a merciful God, who only asks that we love others unconditionally.

I think these fundamental characteristics of a servant of justice can guide us in confronting the challenges we face as a Church and as social action leaders. Let me suggest three immediate challenges for us:

1. it is imperative that we be at the table with those who do not completely embrace our principles or values on all issues. Our efforts to promote the common good, to evangelize, and to transform our society become extremely limited if our Church isolates itself from other religious, civic, national, international and secular partners. The stakes are too high in the current budget and

tax debate, immigration reform, and health care and all the other issues we care so much about if we try to act alone.

It concerns me greatly that there are strident and influential voices that would be content to put a chilling effect on virtually all Catholic participation in outside coalitions and community organizations. Let me be very clear, as Church, I believe it would be wrong to participate in initiatives or partnerships in which the platform of the coalition includes professed values, principles, policies or actions that are contrary to Catholic moral or social teaching. That is to say, if the agenda of the coalition or community organization is inconsistent with Catholic Social Teaching, we cannot participate. (The review and renewal of CCHD is most helpful). We should not avoid potential collaborations because of bloggers and strident critics who oppose any kind of coalition building. Simply put, there needs to be a dispassionate dialogue about this question. Hopefully, more education can be done with Church leaders so that they can better understand and appreciate the fundamentals of coalition building and the positive impact of such engagement.

2. The second challenge is that of building a life and human dignity movement in our nation. Such a movement would embrace the totality of Catholic social teaching and the call to stand with the unborn and vulnerable, as well as, the poor, those without health care, the unemployed, those on death row and those losing their homes to foreclosure. Such a movement would stand for human rights, care for Godʼs creation, peace and nonviolence, and all the issues related to reducing global poverty. Such a movement would acknowledge that all issues do not have the same moral weight but as Church we have an obligation to confront attacks against human life and dignity, injustice, and violations of human rights whenever and wherever we encounter them. The current legislative priorities of the USCCB, articulated by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, including the Protect Life Act, exemplify this vision.

Such a movement would create a “big tent and large table” that would put aside partisanship and invite each believer to do what he or she does best. If advocating for the unborn and terminally ill are your

callings, you have a role to play and you will be affirmed and supported in these endeavors. If advocating issues that protect low income families and promoting global solidarity are your callings, you have a role to play and you will be affirmed and supported. However, as Catholics we must recognize that both callings and many, many others are legitimate expressions of our Catholic faith and indeed mark who we are as a faith community. One person cannot do everything, however, each of us can do one or more things that advance respect for human life and human dignity in our society. Perhaps, it is time to think of establishing a distinctly catholic organizing institute.

If we are to truly build such a movement, it must be more about announcing the Good News, rather than, inflicting personal attacks and demonizing individuals. It would truly be about proclaiming the Good News to the poor and liberation to captives. I think most of us want to be known as believers who announce and proclaim rather than people who denounce and condemn.

3. The final challenge for us is to do our part to end (what David Gibson calls) the Catholic civil war being waged within our Church. The lack of civility and dialogue divides the Body of Christ, keeps us from being all God calls us to be and diminishes our voice in the public policy arena. Last week, Archbishop Dolan warned that the church must “speak as one voice against the increasing political and social pressures that are trying to force the church to compromise her principles.”

I donʼt think I have to say much to this audience about what characterizes this conflict. The vilification, character assassination, guilt by association and the practice of the politics of personal destruction are unchristian acts that cry out for Episcopal intervention.

Too many lay leaders are unfairly demonized as social progressives, liberals, activists, and radicals. We cannot allow the secular media and their friends in the blogosphere to define us. Despite what some

pundits say, social justice is not a dirty word. In fact, Catholicism without social justice is a contradiction in terms.

It is unfortunate but true that many would rather personally smear, distort and assassinate the character of leaders rather than enter into dialogue with fellow Catholics with whom they would find there is much common ground. It ought to be apparent to all that what unites us as Catholics is so much stronger than our differences.

Today, truth is sacrificed if it gets in the way of serving some hyper partisan agenda. Rumor, gossip and partial information are like a spiritual sickness that spread from one anonymous blogger to another until they metastasize into a cancer that immobilizes Church leaders, debilitates lay leaders and paralyzes actions for the common good. Sadly, those who act in this manner view civility as a weakness.

Recently Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote about this topic in a piece entitled “Christian Discourse: Both Truth and Love.” (highly

recommend it to you). In part, the Cardinal said: “Christians must not only speak the truth but must also do so in love. It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity, with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the Church or Christ.” The constructive dialogue between the CHA and the Bishops is a wonderful example of what is possible.

My sincere hope is that new leadership of the USCCB, might consider taking on this challenge of ending the civil war within the Church. Already outside groups are formulating their strategies and score cards for the 2012 elections.

Although we have many challenges in the days ahead, I truly believe that we can advance our movement by: continuing to work with coalitions and diverse partners; building a life and human dignity movement in our parishes and doing our part to end the Catholic civil war. My call today is for more inclusivity and engagement, more

civility and understanding and greater unity within our Catholic family.

Let me conclude with some reflections on hope. The hope is that despite the recent dark times and the current economic hardships, we are members of a Church that does justice. We continue to change hearts and minds of parishioners while making life tolerable for millions around the world. And we do it on such a remarkable scale. We are members of a Church that strives to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ through such life giving institutions and vehicles like CRS, CCHD, our educational system, Catholic Health Care, Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Action. Our human and financial investments are substantial. What would our world be without these instruments of hope, healing and justice?

Twelve years ago, the U.S. Bishops issued a wonderful statement entitled: “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.” The Bishops said: “We believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a “Gospel of Life.” “It invites all persons and societies to a

new life lived abundantly in respect for human dignity. We believe that this Gospel is not only a complement to American political principles, but also a cure for the spiritual sickness now infecting our society. As scripture says, no house can stand divided against itself (Luke 11:17). We cannot simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights and progress while eliminating or marginalizing the weakest among us. Nor can we practice the Gospel of life only as a private piety. American Catholics must live it vigorously and publicly, as a matter of national leadership and witness, or we will not live it at all.”

My sisters and brothers: you are signs of hope to so many. May you continue to take the banner from those who have gone before you and move forward in faith…mindful that we are people of hope and compassion. And with the guidance of our loving God, we will live the Gospel of Life authentically, vigorously, faithfully and publicly.

Thank you very much.


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