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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The politics of the charge of "politics"

The University of Notre Dame's intention to bestow, this weekend, an honorary Doctor of Laws on the most radically pro-abortion president in our country's history has taken the polarization in the American Catholic Church to a new level. On that much, I can agree with Peter Steinfels of the New York Times and the editors of America magazine. But a popular defense of ND that liberal Catholics have been offering uses an essentially ecclesiological argument that reeks of hypocrisy—a fact that itself suggests which pole is in firmer moral territory.

One night over drinks about twenty years ago, when he was editor of Commonweal, I debated Steinfels on the question of his support for Roe v. Wade. Following then-Governor Mario Cuomo, who had given a lengthy "pro-choice" speech at ND in 1984, Steinfels argued that abortion should not be outlawed so long as there was no social consensus for doing so. I pointed out that the question was moot so long as Roe was in place. For that decision took the abortion issue out of the hands of legislatures and elevated it to the status of a constitutional right, thereby making it impossible to limit abortion significantly by using the normal means of political suasion in a democratic society. I agreed that, as a purely practical matter, consensus first had to be forged by persuasion; but I argued that overturning Roe was a logical step toward doing precisely that. It made no sense to insist on consensus while, at the same time, keeping the issue out of the hands of the people. Of course Steinfels was unpersuaded. He insisted that the putative "right to privacy" trumped all merely political considerations, and that Roe could not be overturned without violating the Constitution. He then accused me of confusing a radical right-wing political agenda with the teaching of the Church. I was "playing politics" with my religion.

Reel forward seven or eight years. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote as follows:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. "They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live" (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: "the midwives feared God" (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God—to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty—that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for "the endurance and faith of the saints" (Rev 13:10). In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it."

So, not only must Catholics oppose legitimizing abortion under civil law; they must not even obey any enactment that does so. Of course, the prog response was that it was now a Polish conservative, not just American conservatives, who were playing politics with religious principles.

It's taken the American bishops a while to absorb the papal message and actually lead on this issue; but they've gradually been doing so since EV. In 2004, soon after the controversy about whether John Kerry should receive the Eucharist, they issued a directive called "Catholics in Political Life" which included the following statement:

The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.

The boldfaced phrase is in the original. As the local ordinary pointed out when explaining why he would boycott the ceremony honoring Obama, this is the exactly the directive that ND's board and president have defied. Dozens of bishops have publicly said the same. But pointing that out is also denounced by the Catholic Left as using religion for political purposes. And that's what's supposed to be unduly "polarizing."

One wonders why the obvious questions are so rarely considered. If the Church's agenda on abortion is "political" in an objectionable sense, why is it not political in an objectionable sense to promote the Church's agenda on capital punishment, which she opposes but the vast majority of Americans favor? Why are we not supposed to wait for consensus before trying to have the death penalty abolished, even though SCOTUS has upheld its constitutionality? Or, why should Catholics have followed the Vatican in opposing the invasion of Iraq, but not in trying to outlaw abortion? Why should we oppose "domestic violence" against women (such violence against men is never mentioned) but not violence against the most innocent and vulnerable human persons of all: those in the womb of women who are their mothers? The only answer to such questions I can think of is painfully obvious: "pro-choice," liberal Catholics are convinced that the Church is right on issues where her position coincides with that of the political Left, but are not convinced the Church is right on issues where it does not.

That's what makes their charge against the Right of "playing politics" so hypocritical. Politics is exactly what they are engaged in: so much so, that they evaluate and apply the Church's social teachings selectively in terms of a set of values deriving from an essentially secular agenda. Of course the Catholic Right is sometimes guilty of that too. Beyond the death penalty and other violence-related issues, the Church has consistently taught that, in countries that can provide it, basic health care should be treated as a right rather than as a commodity. Many American Catholic conservatives reject that position, but I can find no Catholic defense for doing so. A Catholic can reasonably oppose government-administered health care as inefficient and iniquitous; but that's a question of means, not ends. Surely there are other, better means of ensuring that nobody has to go without a necessity of life just because they cannot pay for it. But for the most part, the hypocrisies of the Catholic Right at least have a basis in Catholic teaching itself.

The Church, including the present pope, has clearly distinguished between actions of a sort that are intrinsically evil, such as abortion and euthanasia, and acts which are merely wrong for the most part, such as war or capital punishment. It is therefore quite self-consistent, logically speaking, to oppose keeping the former legal but sometimes to support the latter. Of course, it is possible to be wrong about when the latter meet the conditions necessary for justifying them. And sometimes, being wrong in that sort of way can and ought to be attributed to political motives. But error of that sort is empirical: people who support this-or-that war, or capital punishment under such-and-such conditions, are sometimes wrong about the facts, perhaps because they find it convenient to delude themselves about the facts. But they needn't be and typically are not wrong about the principles of Catholic teaching. On the other hand, there is simply no credible way to claim that wanting to keep abortion and related evils legal is consistent with Catholic teaching. So there is no credible way for the Catholic Left to claim that they are not playing politics with issues on which, citing Church teaching, they oppose American law or actions. They are inconsistent in the sort of way that only a politically motivated position can be. Accordingly, the charge that the Catholic Right is "playing politics" on abortion is—well, playing politics.

For good sense on the ND-Obama issue, see the following:
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