Monday, September 17, 2012

Choices, parties and Catholic social doctrine


Philosophy?  I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all!
—Franklin D. Roosevelt


I’m pretty sure most of you have caught the news that John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has retired.  WaPo has a story on Carr’s influence and legacy in Washington politics that’s fairly laudatory … at least until reporter Michelle Boorstein turns to consider his as-yet-unnamed replacement.

Boorstein writes:

At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines, Carr is considered a dying breed: a Catholic moderate with a foot firmly in both camps.  He worked for the White House Conference on Families under President Jimmy Carter and was a Democratic candidate.  He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees.  At a good-bye event this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters, Carr’s voice sounded angriest when he bemoaned the Bush-led Iraq War.
Catholics are becoming more divided over whether they focus on church teachings against war and poverty or the ones against abortion and gay marriage.  Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn [like Carr did anything to prevent or minimize it?  Carr is a pro-life Democrat!].

Okay, here’s the million-dollar question:  Why is there a division?  What makes anyone think that to be against abortion and gay marriage is to be for war and rampant poverty, or vice versa?


Let’s grant right away that the political dialogue of today — so far as it can be called a dialogue rather than competing monologues — is being shaped mostly by people whose religious formation was nebulous.  They may or may not be churchgoers, but you can pretty much bet that, for the most part, their religious education ended with the last CCD class, Sunday School or Vacation Bible School they attended.  How else could Rep. Paul Ryan even try to make peace between Ayn Rand and St. Thomas Aquinas?

By contrast, most church leaders and theologians are marginal figures.  Hans Küng, for example, is a divisive, controversial figure among the Western Catholic intelligentsia, but outside that goldfish bowl he’s almost completely unknown and irrelevant.  George Weigel gets plenty of distribution, but Ann Coulter has a higher profile (God help us!).  And, as Dick Daley might have said were he alive, how many votes can the LCWR deliver? 

No, the secularization of American politics hasn’t succeeded in cutting religion out of the public square so much as it’s succeeded in cutting religious authorities out of the discussion.  This is as much bad as it is good; priests, ministers, imams and rabbis may not always make the best political analysts, but they certainly ought to know the difference between good and evil.  I’m not certain lawyers and media talking heads do.

More to the point, though, is that much of Catholic social doctrine comes without a clear delineation of “best practices” or “ideal solutions”.  Two equally well-educated Catholics with equally good intentions and morals may still differ on the best way to approach unemployment, or on federal social support initiatives such as Medicare.  Many Catholics who applaud the bishops’ stand against the HHS mandate also criticize them for having supported PPACA (the “Obamacare Act”) in the first place.

The Church is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither “liberal” nor “conservative” so far as either label is defined by American politics.  She has her own agenda, one that was set 2,000 years ago, which can’t be subordinated to the platforms of either party.  This hasn’t stopped Catholic Republicans from treating affiliation with the Democrats as tantamount to apostasy, or Catholic Democrats from considering capitalism a denial of Christ.  Consider:


“John has been responsible for some of the most prophetic writings that came out of the bishops conference” years ago, said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United.  “But at a time when millions of people are unemployed [or struggling with faulty mortgages][*] the bishops’ voice on those issues is near silence.  They’re more focused on issues of sexuality.  That’s a huge betrayal from my point of view.  And some of that blame lies at John Carr’s feet.”


Salt is being disingenuous.  The fact is, the bishops speak just as much on the topics of war and poverty as they ever did … which is why it isn’t news, and why the media passes over those comments to get to the opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.  The USCCB supported Obamacare precisely because of the problems poor people have in accessing healthcare, which makes the Obamination’s HHS mandate not only oppressive but ungrateful.  If Salt feels betrayed because poverty is not the USCCB’s only concern, that’s his own fault — his expectations and priorities aren’t binding on anyone else, especially not the bishops.

The fact is that the same principle of human dignity roots both the fight against war and the fight against same-sex marriage, that the Church’s commitment to the rights of the underprivileged is exactly its commitment to the right to life of the unborn.  There is no choice, no “either-or”, but rather “both-and”.  The Church’s commitment to building families is what keeps it from celebrating (intentionally) sterile sex as a “right”; the right to equal access to healthcare presumes a prior right to life from which no one can be disqualified by age or circumstance.

John Carr is a moderate precisely because he “gets” the Church.  I wonder if either Rep. Ryan or VP Joe Biden would have had such successful political careers if they had “gotten” the Church, too.


[*] Not sure whether this is an editorial insert on Boorstein’s part or if she was transcribing from a written document, although if the latter then the brackets should have been parentheses.  This is why punctuation matters, folks!