Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Chittister Challenge

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is arguably the Church in America’s best-known “Spirit of Vatican II” relic, a visible reminder of why so many orders of nuns are failing. The Limousine Left loves Sr. Joan not only because she’s a programmatic liberal but also because she’s an exponent of the “primacy of conscience” argument, which is the Catholic left’s favorite fig leaf for its divergences from orthodoxy. Nevertheless, occasionally, like a broken clock, she’s right every once in a while.

Some years ago, Sr. Joan said (to the delight of the pro-abortion establishment):

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

A person on Facebook asked a question that The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named reprinted: “Would you accept a 50% income tax if it ensured that no woman would ever feel compelled to have an abortion because of financial worries?” It’s the same question Sr. Joan asks from a different angle — how far is the pro-life movement prepared to go to diminish the incidence of abortion?

Despite what Leslie Salzillo of the Daily Kos thinks, there are plenty of pro-lifers who support government safety-net programs, especially those geared toward poor single mothers. Contrapositively, there are also those who plug abortion to save tax money paid in welfare; so it’s not as if the pro-life movement has a monopoly on anti-tax tightwads.

Still, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, “If a woman considers herself too destitute to care for a child, there is no transvaginal ultrasound demoralizing enough and no accompanying narration excoriating enough to make her decision [to abort] seem any less plausible.” So are we prepared to pay higher taxes if by doing so we could see a reduction in abortions?

Wealth is Ephemeral

This is generally where Christians, especially Catholics, start reading Christian social doctrine through ideological filters. “Did Jesus mandate a welfare state?” a friend asks rhetorically, forgetting that arguments from silence are at best equivocal. A recent discussion I had on Facebook with another Catholic saw the libertarian shibboleth “involuntary confiscation of wealthy [sic] by Caesar” turn up as an inflammatory synonym for tax; it’s almost as if the writer was begging me to refer to Luke 20:25 — “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” — so he could lay down some devastating gloss that would trump all talk of safety-net programs.

No, Jesus didn’t mandate a welfare state, as far as we know; but, by the same token of silence, neither did he forbid it. If Jesus didn’t mandate a welfare state, neither did he mandate “means testing”, or restricting our efforts to the “deserving poor”: giving to the deserving is not charity but rather justice. As G. K. Chesterton said in another context, Jesus “never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal.” (The Everlasting Man, p. 195.)

Everything is ephemeral, including wealth. Christians really have no business speaking as though they have a “right to be rich”, as the world accounts riches; our treasure is supposed to be laid up in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), and our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15-21). We’re not required to be poor; as I’ve argued elsewhere, only the “haves” can provide for the “have-nots”. But wealth is no special sign of God’s favor, and may hold its possessor back from Heaven (Matthew 19:23-24).

Avoiding the Challenge

Now, the Chittister Challenge is flawed in that it assumes the only way to support a woman who would otherwise choose abortion is through creation of government intervention programs. While an “absolute and untouchable” right of property isn’t part of Christian tradition (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 177) — indeed, at the very beginning, Christians lived in common and shared their means (Acts 4:32-37) — neither is what St. John Paul II called the “Social Assistance State”, which as he said “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (Centesimus Annus 48; cf. CSDC 187). And, in fact, the Church through its various agencies does provide means by which young single mothers can be relieved of the financial pressure to abort their children.

Nevertheless, we’re arguing technicalities in order to evade the thrust of the challenge. Would we be prepared to support by our taxes government intervention if that government intervention could assure us that no children would be aborted? (Let’s grant, causa argumenti, that it would.) How much of a tax burden would we cheerfully bear? Or are we only “pro-life” to the extent that the life of the newborn doesn’t discommode us? What is more important — the child’s right to live or our right of property?

The welfare state that we have exists because we haven’t spent nearly the time, energy, or ingenuity needed to create and establish an economics system that takes better care of our poor and gives them more opportunity to rise out of poverty. Instead, we spend an inordinate amount of time and endless pages of print on defending the “wealth gap”, on defending a system that’s not only keeping the poor in poverty but sucking wealth out of the middle class and replacing it with debt. The welfare state is a standing indictment upon us as Christians, that we have to have the State step in to make up for the shortfall in our voluntary programs.

Put up or shut up

Regardless of what you may think of Sr. Joan Chittister, the fact remains that we have been challenged to “put up or shut up”. It’s the same challenge St. James the Just posed to us over nineteen centuries ago: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

For my own part, I would cheerfully accept any tax rate that left me enough disposable income to live on if those extra taxes were used by the government to insure that no woman would feel pressured into abortion by her own financial situation. Bruenig, a pro-life Catholic, supports a no-strings-attached child allowance of $300/month/child. Her husband, Matt Bruenig of Demos, has run simulations that demonstrate such an allowance would reduce child poverty by 42%; similar payments have a track record of success in the UK and the Nordic countries.

What would it cost? Who knows? But unless and until we create a better economic system, one that makes a Social Assistance State unnecessary, it’s still better than allowing financial pressure to push women into the abortion clinics. And the money does does really belong to Caesar.