On Friday Catholic League president Bill Donohue suggested that at his inauguration President Obama should swear on Marx’s Das Kapital rather than on the Bible. For some reason Donohue is the go-to guy for many television news programs for things Catholic, but I think he could use a refresher course on Catholic social teaching. During the past year there have been many posts on this subject, especially in connection with Representative Paul Ryan, so I will no rehash all that. Instead, I’ll simply note that Pope Benedict XVI, who probably knows as much about Catholic social teaching as most people, recently deplored “hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor” that result from “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Although this is not Marx’s Das Kapital, it sounds a bit more like that than Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But that’s Catholic social teaching for you. It can’t be identified completely with any one political or economic (or partisan) system or construct–and it will probably find something to criticize in all of them. I don’t know if Obama’s views and policies are closer to Das Kapital or to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”) or to The Wealth of Nations. But I do know that Donohue’s zinger of a line lacks the sort of nuance that should come from a spokesperson who should be well informed about Catholic social teaching.
Of course, Donohue’s comment came in response to Lawrence O’Donnell’s show Thursday on MSNBC about the controversy concerning Pastor Louie Giglio, who had been selected to deliver the benediction at the inauguration but bowed out after being criticized, perhaps unfairly when compared to Charles Worley’s preaching last year, for an anti-gay sermon he preached in the mid-1990s. Donohue defended Giglio, saying his “only crime” had been that he’s a Christian “quoting the Bible” and that “homosexuality is a sin in the Bible.” Well, here Donohue is still on less solid ground than he thinks. Were he to read the entire Bible, he’d realize that there are hundreds and hundreds of passages about sins of economic and social injustice in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Yet, there are perhaps only 5 or 6 verses that refer–perhaps–to the subject of sexual activity between two males or between two females (the latter is referenced only in Romans 1:26), and the biblical scholarship on what these handful of passages actually had in mind (idolatry, pederasty, prostitution, etc.) may not necessarily support what Donohue has in mind. I am not going to get into all that here right now either. But I do know that Donohue’s zinger of a line here also lacks the sort of nuance that should come from any Christian who should be informed about what sin the Bible is most critical of.
To be fair, I realize that Donohue is in agreement with Pope Benedict XVI on the subject of homosexual relationships. In his 2013 World Day of Peace Message, the Pope wrote (no. 4): “There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.” This is a topic I hope to address another day (and I hope others will do so, too). Still, unlike Donohue, the Pope in this World Day of Peace Message ties together a number of issues (war, economic injustice, environmental degradation, terrorism, etc) with the Christian vocation to be peacemakers. Moreover, the Pope, unlike Donohue, does not simply say “homosexuality is a sin in the Bible.”
As for swearing on the Bible at inaugurations in the first place, I’m with O’Donnell. I wish Bible-believing Christians would take what Jesus taught in that Bible (Matthew 5:34-35) more seriously, too: “But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.” And Jesus was not referring to cussing here; he was referring to taking oaths.
Finally, for anyone who may be interested about the history of prayers and benedictions at presidential inaugurations, I continue to remember Msgr. John A. Ryan, known as “Right Reverend New Dealer,” who taught moral theology and Catholic social teaching at Catholic University of America and who gave the benediction at one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugurations.