LEWISTON — Bates College students were challenged Monday afternoon to think about what it means to reconcile being a Catholic in a modern, secular society.

Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal Magazine, a 90-year-old lay-edited Catholic journal, delivered a lecture titled “Liberal, Conservative or Just Catholic? Religious Identity in  a Pluralistic Age.”

His daughter, Bates senior Rachel Baumann, said he is more at home talking to groups at Catholic institutions, a far cry from Bates’ liberal reputation.

Warning the students from what his daughter assured him was a secular college, Baumann said, “It is only fair to warn you that you are about to hear more about Catholicism than is probably good for you.”

Summing up his lecture, Baumann said, “It’s about the often tortuous relationship of Catholicism and liberalism or Catholicism and modern democracy,” the tension of which, he said, pertains to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

He cited same-sex marriage and Obamacare as examples of where this relationship collides, citing the church’s recent moves to side with private companies in their struggle over the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.


The Catholic Church has based its argument against this mandate in the ACA on its view that forcing contraception coverage violates the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

“The church has also been an outspoken opponent of changing the traditional legal understanding of marriage,” Baumann said. “These are all very complicated moral, legal and political issues, the outcome of which could dramatically affect the relationship between religious communities and the larger culture.

“Important values and fundamental rights are in real conflict,” he said.

Baumann pointed out some famous conservative Catholics, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former Congressman Henry Hyde, who wrote the law prohibiting federally funded abortions.

In contrast, he mentioned former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who supported abortion rights, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to emphasize how Catholics differ within the context of culture.

“I think it is inevitable that there will be multiple and diverse ways of being Catholic,” he said, “and multiple and diverse ways that Catholics are pressing and engaging civic life.”


Baumann said, “Catholic values and Catholic teachings cannot be translated into any one political or ideological viewpoint, even within the church or outside of it.”

He quoted New York Times columnist and former Commonweal editor, Peter Steinfels, “‘If Catholics are going to have a presence in the public square, we’re going to have to expect them to disagree with one another.'”

So, Baumann said, “There will be a Henry Hyde and there will be a Mario Cuomo.”

Baumann said he fears room for a diverse public Catholic presence is shrinking. He pointed to the demands of certain American bishops who asked parishioners not to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.

The protest at Notre Dame University over the decision to have Obama give the commencement address as well as the the insistence of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that Catholics not support the ACA,  Bauman said, also deepens concerns.

Baumann said it will be interesting to see how the American bishops react to the less confrontational Pope Francis.


“Catholics must constantly negotiate the truth claims made by the church,” Baumann said, “with the real political choices and limitations we face.”

Baumann referred to Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel and his label of any Catholic who does not ardently adhere to the church’s every teaching as “Catholic Lite.” Baumann said there is no room for such juxtapositions.

“God does not work only through the church, and we should resist the idea that only an “unambiguous” allegiance to the church is the answer,” he said.

“The paradigm that juxtaposes the church and the culture — what many influential church leaders insist is a choice between the culture of life and the so-called culture of death — is too reductive, and too easily manipulated for questionable ends.”


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