Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives his presidential address Nov. 16, 2021, during a session of the bishops' fall general assembly in Baltimore. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the first in-person bishops' meeting since 2019. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Glen Argan: Dialogue the path to understanding

  • December 9, 2021

In a speech to an international congress in Madrid last month, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Jose Gomez, painted movements of social justice, “wokeness” and identity politics as pseudo-religions.

“The best way for the Church to understand the new social justice movements is to understand them as pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs,” he said.

It is a peculiar stance for a leading representative of the Catholic Church which has a long history of advocacy for social justice and against white supremacy. Does the archbishop want to abandon the Church’s prophetic cry on behalf of the marginalized to secular forces which do not see justice and equality as rooted in the transcendent dignity of the human person? If so, he is doing an about-face from the positions of the popes since Leo XIII who sought to show that the call for justice finds its true foundation in the nature of the human person as created in God’s image.

Still, in one sense, the archbishop is right. Any good thing can be turned into an idol or pseudo-religion if it is treated as the only thing that is good. Communist totalitarianism led to the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in the 20th century because it made justice and equality its only values. The religious impulse was not simply downplayed or ignored but actively eradicated.

Likewise, the family is good. But if it becomes a place of violence, the good of all has been displaced by the domination of the most powerful. Or a family distorted by alcoholism destroys the freedom not only of the addict but also of other family members who become co-dependent on the chaos created by the addict. We revere the family, but it should not become a false god.

We need also question why the archbishop focused his comments on only one type of alleged pseudo-religion. Western society abounds in pseudo-religions — consumerism, the exploitation of nature, entertainment and sports, pornography, comfort, the quest for wealth and power, and on and on.

The coverups of clergy sexual abuse show that for some even the Church has been a form of addiction and pseudo-religion. When the Church’s leaders were more concerned about protecting her institutional structures than about living the Gospel, they became fixated on defending a system of domination.

All of these forms of idolatry are at least as worthy of the archbishop’s condemnation as is the quest to establish a more just and egalitarian society.

In fact, condemnation itself may be the problem. Until the Second Vatican Council, the Church regarded Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other major religions as false or pseudo religions. But in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the council stated, “The Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

The Declaration led the Church to begin interreligious dialogue with several non-Christian religions. Under the stewardship of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Christian leaders met with and held simultaneous worship services with leaders of these once-maligned religions. Other Vatican II teachings sparked dialogues with Christian churches which previously had been written off as heretical and enemies of the true faith.

Dialogue is the path to mutual understanding and peace. Condemnation hardens divisions and deepens polarization.

Ours is a confused era, one with many idols competing for attention. Idolatry is the primary source of society’s confusion. However, those idols frequently serve the material interests of the wealthy and powerful. An economic system has been created to live off the fruits of idolatry.

Jesus taught that it is the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers and others with a humble spirit who are blessed. He reserved His strongest condemnations for those religious leaders who loved wealth and power and who were indifferent to the demands of justice.

We may not agree with all the beliefs of those engaged in secular movements for greater social justice. But to condemn them, without engaging in respectful dialogue, is a foolhardy strategy likely to increase the Church’s estrangement from society.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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