Students often wonder what position Sisters have on hot button issues that come up often in the press: abortion, the death penalty, the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, same-sex marriage, climate change, sex-abuse scandals, and euthanasia. After so many provocative news stories, those questions naturally come to mind. When I met with Nafisa a few weeks ago, she named a hot-button right away and asked: "Do you agree with what the Church says?"
I admit it: I dislike these questions. No matter the issue, they miss important aspects of our Catholic social teachings and our faith: its coherence and breadth. The trend in politics towards sharp partisan attacks, sound-bite thinking and media hype undermines discussion and viewpoints that begin from basic beliefs and move out. It's so easy to hear either "you agree with me" or "we don't agree" rather than understanding how the other person is thinking. When we go deeper, we sometimes find out that people who have the same basic values apply them differently to a particular issue or - even more surprising - that folks with strongly conflicting values end up on the same side for a particular bill or issue. Those "do you agree..." questions - if answered - fool us into thinking we know what someone thinks based on a teensy snippet.
The "do you agree with the Church?" questions have another problem: does my understanding of "what the Church teaches" match my questioner's? With attention-grabbing headlines and exaggerated rhetoric all around, even Catholics have a hard time getting an in-depth understanding of Catholic social teaching. Saying "Yes" to Nafisa's question might affirm something quite different from my views!
So I talked with Nafisa a bit about the question: how the Church's position on particular issues is part of the larger Catholic social teaching. That calls us to develop a Christian anthropology: to discover, as the US bishops wrote, "what is true and good... what is in accord with our human nature as free, intelligent beings created in God's image and likeness and endowed by the Creator with dignity and rights."1 Why would a social scientist need a Christian anthropology? I find that some of the most important questions go beyond the realm of science to find their answers.
Many of the Church's social teachings came hard to me at first. I grew up in an atheist home and attended strongly secular schools. I became Catholic because of its sacramental theology, and only later thought about the social teachings. I had to discover how and why the Church had views that were so radically different from what I'd always believed and - if I wanted to remain with the Church - see if I could adopt them as my own. It was a tough journey: questioning my previously taken-for-granted beliefs, uncovering their assumptions, and comparing them with the views I was learning from the Church. My worldview shifted, and I've grown more deeply appreciative of that Catholic perspective over the years.
When I say "Yes" to questions like Nafisa's, I affirm a view of truth - but that doesn't immediately tell me how to make that truth visible or attractive in today's world. Nafisa also asked me what I thought of the new Pope. (Answer: I love that guy!) His choice to refrain from hand-to-hand combat on hot-button issues and to focus on building the Church as a "field hospital" for our deep spiritual needs seems very wise. The hot-button questions are probably not his favorites either.
1USCCB. (2011) Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. http://bit.ly/1i8u5ED