"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The polytheistic wing of Islam

I thought I'd borrow that oxymoronic title to focus your attention on the real nature of what the infamous "Gang of 55" House Catholic Democrats are advocating by means of last month's rather sad "Statement of Catholic Principles." Not surprisingly, they want the "big tent" of Catholicism to include the "right to choose" abortion. As is pointed out by Fr. Thomas Williams, dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic social doctrine, and a Vatican Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC:
Just as you don’t have the polytheistic wing of Islam or the seal-clubbing wing of Greenpeace, you don’t have the pro-abortion wing of the Catholic Church. Certain non-negotiable moral standards define Catholicism just as surely as doctrinal beliefs do. We all advocate a big tent, but it can stretch only so far until it rips asunder.
Quite so, and he explains why. Especially telling is his dismissal of the politicians' appeal to the Catholic doctrine of "the primacy of conscience." There's a big ecclesiastical flap about that going on in Australia right now, with an array of ostensibly Catholic intellectuals and clerics protesting to Rome that Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, rejects that doctrine by telling them they may not dissent from certain other doctrines. You can read my rebuttal of such fatuity at Pontifications. In the American context, Fr. Williams cuts through it even more succinctly.

Another argument they use has long since been rejected by the U.S. bishops as a whole, including some who once supported it: the "seamless-garment" approach to political questions—now called by a different name, "the consistent ethic of life", to hide the theological discrediting of that approach under its old name. The idea is that if you're Catholic and thus want things like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research to be illegal, then for consistency's sake you'd better also advocate for things like a higher minimum wage, the complete abolition of capital punishment, a more liberal immigration policy, withdrawal from Iraq, universal health care, and numerous other things that would implement Catholic social teaching politically. It was a clever move in its day, because it had just enough plausibility to convince many Catholics that you couldn't honestly be pro-life on abortion, etc. without also being pro-Democratic on many other issues. But the move came a cropper for two reasons.

One was that the Democratic Party as a whole didn't buy it. The party saw nothing inconsistent about being "pro-choice" while also leaning Catholic on a variety of other issues. So the Catholics could protest all they wanted: on abortion, they could either fall in or ship out. And the few who didn't fall in, such as Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania in 1992, were shipped out. Nowadays, if you want to function politically as a Democrat—at least on a national scale—you have to be pro-choice, seamless garment or no seamless garment. Catholic Democrats in the House have fallen in accordingly. Why they continue to sing the seamless-garment song is beyond me. They don't really believe it themselves, else they wouldn't support abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. Perhaps their theology reading is so much a thing of the past that they don't realize it no longer applies to what they do. Or perhaps they're even more hypocritical than I thought.

The other reason is that what's now called "the consistent ethic of life" conflates a key distinction: that between evils which are intrinsically so and evils which are not. Things like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the killing of embryos for research or any purposes are not just bad policy proposals. They are morally wrong irrespective of motive, circumstance, or larger outcome; the theological term for that is "intrinsically evil." Intrinsic evils are always and necessarily immoral. On the other hand, things like capital punishment, spotty provision for people's health, minimum wages that don't let you rent your own apartment, wars, and the like are not intrinsic evils. They might be wrong for the most part, but they are not always and necessarily so. Therefore, permitting them might sometimes be justified as policy measures or political compromises. But the same cannot be said for the intrinsic evils I mentioned.

To be sure, some intrinsic evils do not strike at the very heart of society. Some are so popular that it is at best pointless, and probably counterproductive, to criminalize them. Contraception and prostitution are good examples of that. But the intrinsic evils I mentioned are worse. They are mostly forms of violence against the most vulnerable; the only exception is same-sex marriage, which is almost as evil because it can't be introduced without introducing other evils, not least of which is the presumption that man not God defines marriage. So the kinds of intrinsic evils that the Catholic Church has drawn a political line in the sand about are so grevious, so inconsistent with the natural law, that laws authorizing them are not legitimate laws at all. Sincere advocates of the "seamless-garment" or "consistent-ethic" approach for Catholics in politics seems utterly oblivious to that.

The gap between theory and reality has arisen because Catholic Democratic politicians never really cared about the intellectual underpinnings. They just want to get elected and stay elected. So they said whatever they thought Catholics wanted to hear from Democrats. But as the voting patterns in the last few elections indicate, fewer and fewer Catholics are listening. Catholic Democrats who want to function in the party are in an intellectually untenable position: they can be pro-choice Democrats or faithful Catholics, but not both. They can issue as many statements of principles as they like; the principles aren't going to hang together unless they choose between being Catholic and being Democrat. Once they make the choice, no such statements will be necessary.
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