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Progressive Catholicism

Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez I was raised Catholic. Counting graduate work at Georgetown, I attended Catholic schools for more than twenty years. My first college teaching job, which I held for three years, was at Wheeling College—since renamed Wheeling Jesuit University. Sometime around 1980, for a variety of reasons, I stopped considering myself a Catholic. Its dogmatism and lack of progressivism, especially since the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, was a partial explanation. Nevertheless, though considering myself an agnostic now for about four decades, I continue to admire many Catholics—and other believers—whose faith encourages them to act in loving ways toward their fellow human beings. Among such people I’ve written about are Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Pope Francis. Here I suggest that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is following in that tradition.

Elected in 2018—she became the youngest member of Congress—she has said that her Catholicism inspires her views on issues such as climate change and health care. She has pointed to the similarity of the Green New Deal, a 2019 congressional resolution she has co-sponsored, to Pope Francis’s earlier view expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’. Specifically, she noted that both calls for addressing climate change criticized unfettered capitalism and runaway consumption and reflected a concern for future generations. A Catholic publication quoted her as saying, "We do know that the Earth is sacred. . . . We have a responsibility to steward it and protect it."

That same media source notes the influence of her religion on her views of health care. She cites the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan and other biblical stories dealing with healing to support her position on universal health care. She is “insistent that every human being should have access to a doctor, every human being should be cared for."

Her religion has also influenced her views of our criminal justice system. In 2018, before her election victory, she wrote an article on her “Catholic faith and the urgency of criminal justice reform.” It appeared in America, a magazine published by the Jesuit order, the same order to which Pope Francis belongs and which runs various universities in the USA including Georgetown. She noted that "the United States incarcerates more of its people than any other nation in the world," and “that mass incarceration evolved as an outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, which itself was a system rooted in the subjugation of former slaves.” She cited Michelle Alexander’s point that “there are more African-Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.”

Regarding the imprisonment of Latinos, she suggests there also many but that “most states have little to no data on Latinos in the criminal justice system.” She insisted that “criminal justice reform must take into consideration” various issues such as “punitive Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations and the black-box detainment of immigrants and separated families,” as well as “the effects of incarceration on motherhood and mental health.” Reform, she added, demands “us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.” Her answer was that we should “aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Whether she will ever become as effective a legislator as Ted Kennedy—or, in fact, whether she will ever even view that as important as being a radical, prophetic congressional voice—only the future will reveal.

Many other areas of her political concern also reflect her religious beliefs. Her favorite biblical story is when Jesus throws the money changers out of the temple. She likes how it shows Jesus "as a human being who could lose his temper," and how corruption occurs. She related the story to her ongoing criticism of the role of “big money” in politics and her belief that such money is corrupting our system.

Still only 31 years of age, Ocasio-Cortez may still have a very long political career in front of her, and her values and views may undergo some changes. From those she has already worked with and from Catholic progressives like Day, Merton, and Pope Francis she could still learn much. After serving as an intern under Sen. Ted Kennedy, her next major political work was campaigning diligently for Sen. Bernie Sanders in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Kennedy was a Catholic, and the ethnically Jewish Sanders appreciated Catholic social thought. While running for the presidency in 2016, he went to Rome to speak at a conference of The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In his speech, he noted that “there are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy.” There is already ample evidence that Ocasio-Cortez’s economic views bear some resemblance to such moral teachings.

For Sen. Kennedy, she worked in his immigration office, and she credits him with having “one of the best immigration constituent service offices in the country.” Being of Puerto Rican descent—her mother was born in Puerto Rico—and representing a New York district with many immigrants, she has a natural interest in the issue of immigration. But what she also could have learned from Ted Kennedy was to be one of Congress’s most effective all-time legislators. His good friend, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, said this about him: “We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted. . . . Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important.”

In an earlier essay on this site, "A Tough Progressive Balancing Act: Passion, Tolerance, and Compromise," I wrote of how tough it was to get the balance right between passion and compromise. Like the poker saying (and song by Kenny Rogers) goes, “You got to know when to hold’em and when to fold’em.” Ocasio-Cortez has passion in abundance. Whether she will ever become as effective a legislator as Ted Kennedy—or, in fact, whether she will ever even view that as important as being a radical, prophetic congressional voice—only the future will reveal.

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About a year before she ran for Congress, she joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Although Bernie Sanders considers himself a democratic socialist and the party had endorsed his presidential candidacy in 2021, he was not a member of it. Nor was Ocasio-Cortez the first socialist party member to serve in Congress. That honor belonged to Wisconsin’s Victor Berger, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary, who served in the 62nd Congress (1911–1913) and returned again for three terms between 1923 and 1929.

The founder of the DSA, in 1982, was Michael Harrington. About three decades earlier he had “moved into the Catholic Worker [CW] House of Hospitality on the Lower East Side of New York.” The CW was then being run by Dorothy Day, who along with Peter Maurin had founded the organization in 1933. The Jesuit-educated Harrington (both in high school and at the Jesuit college of Holy Cross) thought that the CW was then about “as far left as you could go within the church.'' Like Day in her youth (see the 1996 film Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story now available on Amazon Prime) the young Harrington liked to drink and argue at New York taverns, especially the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.

Decades before founding the DSA, he had written about the U. S. poor in hisbook The Other America, which became one of the most influential books of the 1960s. It helped inspire Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as well as Robert Kennedy later in the decade, to confront American poverty with more political vigor than at any time since Franklin Roosevelt addressed it during the Great Depression. As Dorothy Day wrote in one of her Catholic Worker newspaper columns, “This book of Mike’s, which came as a result of his two-year stay with us as one of the editors of the Catholic Worker, started the War on Poverty program.”

About Day, I wrote my first op-ed for the LA Progressive about a decade ago, and readers interested in her active and loving Catholic progressivism (and how it could inspire Ocasio-Cortez) can read it. But one section I wish to emphasize from it is the following: She was willing to work with anyone, communists included, to seek the common good and help the unfortunates of society. In a June 1954 letter she wrote, “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.” She believed strongly that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.” Although her Catholic religion was vitally important to her and gave meaning to her life, she did not condemn those who thought differently.

Harrington was equally open-minded. According to Alan Steinberg—who because of Harrington “flirted with socialism” when he was young (but later became a moderate Republican)—“the Harrington public outreach was totally humanitarian in style and substance, seeking to heal the nation’s wounds, end hatred and bigotry, alleviate the poverty of the poor, end the suffering of the sick, and eliminate societal inequality without promoting hatred between ethnic groups and economic classes. The Harrington message was one of reconciliation.” Steinberg added that “Harrington historically was a fierce critic” of Marxist authoritarian regimes, including those in “the former Soviet Union, Castroite Cuba, and Sandinista Nicaragua.”

Besides Harrington, another man who contributed to the Catholic Worker newspaper in the 1960s was the Trappist monk and prolific author Thomas Merton, who like Day and Harrington was a social critic and opponent of the Vietnam War. (See here for my long essay on Day and Merton.) For famous politicians and in particular for someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who is sometimes described as a “rock star” of the Democratic Party, Merton has important words to say about humility: “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life. . . . Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.” And “Humble people can do great things with uncommon perfection because they are no longer concerned about their own interests and their own reputation, and therefore they no longer need to waste their efforts in defending them.” Anything that frees politicians to spend more time thinking about others—like their constituents—has to be welcomed.

In the first paragraph of this essay I mentioned one other Catholic, besides Day and Merton, who preceded Ocasio-Cortez in being inspired by their Catholicism to act in “loving ways toward their fellow human beings.” That was Pope Francis, and it was no accident that when he addressed the U. S. Congress in 2015, two of the great Americans he signaled out were Day and Merton—the other two were Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2015 Ocasio-Cortez was still too young to sit in Congress, but if she had been present when Pope Francis spoke, there is little doubt she would have greeted his words with great enthusiasm. For he advised Congress to act on many of the issues dear to her heart, for example, on poverty and hunger, on “environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” on acting for the common good and not special interests, on viewing migrants and refugees “as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.” (After the presidential election of Joe Biden, another Catholic, in 2020 he indicated that he looked forward to working with Francis on some of these same issues: helping the “marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.” The degree and implications of Biden’s progressive Catholicism, however, are matter for another essay.)

In his 2016 address and in previous remarks Francis also warned about a problem that Ocasio-Cortez might have to take special steps to avoid—ideological rigidity. Although he seemed to be thinking more of the ideological Right than of the ideological Left, his words are applicable to all ideologues. (See my LAP op-ed “Dogmatists of the Left?”) “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.” He told Congress that “a good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

Like all humans, Day, Merton, Pope Francis, and Ocasio-Cortez have had their faults, but in my view their religion has in general made them better people. (This is not to say that in some specific cases, like Francis on same-sex marriages, they have not erred.) All four seem to have taken seriously the Christian message—and that of many other religions—that we should love our fellow humans and try to be humble and seek the common good. If Rep. Ocasio-Cortez continues to apply such lessons and follow the examples of Day, Merton, and Pope Francis, she will be serving our country well.

Walter G. Moss