‘If you don't renounce your membership in the Communist Party I can't grant the absolution of your sins!" "Then you can stick the absolution where the sun don't shine!" An Italian version of this conversation took place shortly before my uncle underwent experimental brain surgery in 1952.
He had indulged my father, who had wanted him to seek forgiveness of his many sins prior to a risky operation that might disable or even kill him. But his good intention was thwarted by a minister of God who used a sacrament as an instrument of political pressure rather than for the salvation of lost souls.
Postwar Italy was a semifeudal country, where land owners could dispose of the life and the livelihood of their subjects at their whim with the assent, if not complicity, of the Catholic Church. For many millions of destitute Italians, like my uncle, the Communist Party had become the only realistic promise to escape this subjugation that demeaned their humanity.
The reigning pope, Pius XII, the same pontiff whose legacy remains mired in controversy over what he did or didn't do during the Holocaust, wasted no time in excommunicating the Italian Communist Party. Apparently, political power was more important than human dignity and Christian charity for the church leaders of that time.
This sad episode was buried among the memories I did not like to revisit, until the current condemnation of the health care reform by the U.S. Catholic bishops. At the entrance to a church, as I found brochures recommending that we call our members of Congress to oppose the current health reform, I could not help a sensation of deja vu. I saw the confessionals of all Italian churches contaminated by the warning that adhering to the Communist Party was a mortal sin.
Let's face it: The bishops' position is tantamount to a barely veiled support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Now, if Romney means what he promises, his agenda could not be further from the Catholic social teaching. Since the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, the Catholic Church has emphasized that human beings cannot be considered merchandise. Human dignity implies a job, a living wage, access to basic education and health care, and the support of those who cannot fend for themselves.
During the Republican primaries, did the American bishops not recognize the race among the candidates to decide who would make the lives of single parents and their children as well as the life of undocumented immigrants more unbearable? I don't criticize the bishops for proclaiming the Catholic teaching on abortion or sexual morality. But I am hurt when they seem to hold a much-needed health reform hostage to their own political goals. They don't need to invite people to call their senators and representatives on the church doorstep the same way Pius XII had proclaimed it a mortal sin to adhere to the Communist Party.
I write these lines with a heavy heart. I owe my very life, and my marriage — my dearest treasure — to the unconditional love of two Catholic priests, who at critical times of my life prevented my suicide and enabled my embattled wedding. The Catholic Church has been and continues to be a loving mother to me, and I plan to die in her embrace. As a faithful and truthful son, I feel committed to let my mother know when I feel disappointed or estranged, though my disappointment does not trample my love and my trust.
Around the same time my uncle underwent brain surgery, our family had a 19-year-old housemaid called Edda, an illiterate woman from the Italian mountains. One night she was called home because her father had hanged himself. On her own she had to unload the body and put it in a plain wooden box, the only rudimentary coffin her family could afford. The pastor denied a religious funeral to the suicide victim.
Edda, a woman who had a deep understanding of her Christian faith, cut two tree branches to make a makeshift cross. With that cross she led the funeral procession and expressed a piety that the church leaders had ignored. Edda, too, was a product of the Catholic Church that I love, and her charity represented the spirit of the church more eloquently than did Pius XII or the American Catholic bishops.
Dr. Lodovico Balducci is a professor of oncology and medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and is director of the Division of Geriatric Oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.