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

Friday, June 12, 2009

Patching up the seamless garment

With the appointment of Alexia Kelley, until now executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) to a Department of Health and Human Services headed by the shameless Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama Administration is not merely paying off prominent Catholic supporters. It is seeking systematically to co-opt those Catholics who still buy into the "seamless-garment" approach to social issues named as such, and pioneered, by the late, widely loved Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of...ahem, Chicago. For the moment it's working politically; but intellectually, there has been regress not progress among Catholics.

Since the late 1990s, the US bishops have on the whole been abandoning the seamless-garment approach. With increasing clarity, they have insisted on assigning greater weight to combating certain practices called "intrinsic evils" by the Magisterium, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, than on promoting certain social goods, such as universal health care and humane immigration policy, which reasonable Catholics can differ about how and how much to promote. That shift of emphasis is only logical given the clear content of Church teaching. But President Obama's having won the election with almost 54% of the Catholic vote has re-energized Catholic progressives to patch up a seamless garment that's become rather tattered. If only to vary my intellectual exercise routine, I had been hoping to hear fresh arguments from them. But the patching process exhibits precisely the same shoddy reasoning so long characteristic of the Catholic left. Herein I shall discuss two examples.

The first is the performance of Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a prominent Obama supporter, at a recent debate with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and founder of the American Principles Project. (You can watch the Windows Media video here; at about an hour and twenty minutes, it's long for those who don't enjoy this sort of thing, and too short for those who do.) For a Catholic intellectual who once sported conservative credentials, Kmiec's arguments are remarkably weak. The following account by attendee Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, sums up the debate accurately:

...the best word to describe Doug Kmiec would be evasive. He tried to argue that other issues trumped sanctity of life issues when voting. He tried to make the case that the new stem cell regulations were part of a reasonable compromise. He said that denying holy communion to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion was counterproductive. Finally, he argued that science has not come to a consensus about the sanctity of human life. He was all over the place and on no issue was he particularly persuasive.

Interestingly, Kmiec did not spend much time talking about abortion trends. He briefly claimed (wrongly) that abortions increased during the presidency of the first President Bush. He briefly cited the decline in the abortion rate that occurred during the Clinton administration. But he gave credit to the strong economy. While this is partly true, he did not mention state level pro-life laws. At least he did not claim welfare spending caused the 1990s abortion decline.

Professor George, on the other hand succeeded in describing vivid contrasts between President Obama and the pro-life movement. Professor George described in great detail Obama's refusal to support incremental pro-life laws and his administration's efforts to fund abortion both in DC and in other countries. He also found it telling that while the Obama administration wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, they never express an interest in lowering the number of abortions. Overall the Obama administration does not think that fetal life is worthy of legal protection which makes finding common ground very difficult, if not impossible.

Overall, Professor George was concise, hard hiting and made his points well throughout the course of the debate.

Kmiec's position is the same I have heard from many Catholic progressives over the years: given political and scientific reality, the best Catholics can do in the public square by way of promoting the sanctity of life is to cease trying to prohibit the killing of embryos and fetuses, and instead back public policies which will presumably reduce people's motivation for violating the sanctity of life. Those policies turn out, of course, to be remarkably similar to those of the Democratic Party on the full range of relevant issues. But political opportunism is natural. What's unnatural is how many people are taken in by the rationalizations for it.

Much of the progressives' case consists in arguments from alleged empirical fact. It is constantly asserted, for example, that reducing poverty by means of social programs will reduce abortion, so that, given how entrenched the Roe regime is likely to remain, the most effective means of reducing abortion is to reduce poverty. Now it stands to reason that reducing poverty would reduce some women's motivation for having abortions; the abortion rate did go down during the Clinton years, when the economy was strong. But so did teenage pregnancy; and it might be that whatever explained that development also explained the abortion reduction. Moreover, there is no evidence that laws restricting or discouraging abortion, which many states have, would not reduce abortion at least as much if not more than poverty reduction. Kmiec failed to address such considerations. Moreover, he offered no defense of the Administration's desire to repeal the long-standing Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal funds for abortion. It stands to reason that subsidizing abortion only encourages abortion; so, even if reducing poverty reduces abortion, making abortion a standard feature of subsidized health care is all too liable to cancel out the reduction as well as violate the consciences of many health-care workers. Kmiec did not address that issue either. Indeed, he had no answer to George's amply documented charge that Obama, who has alluded on occasion to the worthiness of reducing the "need" (!) for abortion, lacks genuine interest in actually reducing abortions.

What Kmiec said about the lack of scientific consensus is trivially true and substantively false. Of course there is no scientific consensus about the sanctity of life; for science never has and never will have anything to say about such matters. But that doesn't affect what science can and does tell us: that human embryos are individuals genetically distinct from their parents. In conjunction with Prof. Patrick Lee, Prof. George has made abundantly clear how that fact is relevant to both the abortion and the embryonic-stem-cell debate; see here and here. The question is not whether the embryo is a human being; science establishes that it is. The question is whether human beings who have not yet developed a certain kind and degree of consciousness are persons, and thus subjects of rights, beginning with the right not to be killed for the convenience of others. That is an essentially philosophical question, which one needn't profess any particular religion in order to advocate answering in the affirmative. So, while the pro-life position cannot be deduced from scientific knowledge, such knowledge can and should be used as evidence to support it.

From a strictly Catholic standpoint, Kmiec's argument for allowing pro-Roe Catholic politicians to receive the Eucharist did not engage the actual canon-law argument for denying them the Eucharist. Given his profession, that is unconscionable. Before he became Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church's supreme court, Archbishop Raymond Burke made an airtight case that Canon 915 calls for bishops to do just what Kmiec says they should not do about this matter. That's probably a major reason why the Pope made him prefect. Unfortunately, only a minority of American bishops agree; but even the most influential representative of the majority, Cardinal Donald Weurl of Washington, doesn't really address Burke's argument. The position Wuerl defends is simply this: "the canonical approach" doesn't "change hearts," so canon law be damned. Now for one thing, that would serve just as well as an argument against excommunication for any offense whatsoever, thus undermining the very concept of worthiness to receive the Eucharist. And aside from the impropriety of such a position for an archbishop, Wuerl's is an empirically-based argument unsupported by evidence—for the perfectly obvious reason that the approach it rejects hasn't been widely adopted. Even if being denied communion didn't turn out to change many politicians' hearts, it could be a powerful witness to many others at a time when the bishops' moral credibility has not recovered from the sex-abuse scandal. Perhaps that's partly why support for the hard-line position has been slowly increasing; the latest to back Burke's stance is his newly-installed successor in the See of St. Louis.

The second example of seamless-garment patching I want to discuss is this post by Stephen Schneck on the CACG website, which criticizes more general arguments from Prof. George and Justice Antonin Scalia. It is a classic instance of political obfuscation.

During a speech at Villanova in the fall of 2007, Scalia remarked: “Just as there is no ‘Catholic’ way to cook a hamburger, I am hard pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would come out differently if I were not Catholic.” In a speech given at CUA a few weeks ago, George "proposed that [the] institutional Church should refrain from promoting public policies except when the issue at hand is a matter of intrinsic evil." Schneck criticizes such remarks as instances of an attitude he sees in Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who concluded his widely-read 1984 book After Virtue with the following, even more widely quoted passage:

And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of the predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Schneck calls that conclusion "silly," an instance of arguing for a "retreat into sects of so-called pure Christianity." To hear him tell it, conservative Catholic intellectuals are now thinking in the same vein:

If progressives are in charge in America, the thinking goes, then the truly faithful should withdraw from everyday political life, so as to deny any legitimacy to “immoral” opponents. Instead of cooperating where there is common ground, we should rather hunker in faithful Catholic bastions, catapulting morality at barbarians beyond the gate and firing up the inquisition for apostates found within the walls. Let’s name this mood “After Virtue Retreatism..."

Such thinking, says Schneck, is opposed to the constant teaching of the Church about the need for political engagement, especially as developed in Gaudium et spes.

Now I can't speak with confidence about MacIntyre's interest, or lack thereof, in political engagement. Given his age and temperament, I doubt he's all that interested. But Schneck's criticism of Scalia and George is as silly as he believes MacIntyre's thoughtful conclusion to be.

Scalia's remark was never intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect the values and priorities of Catholic politicians. If only as an ardent pro-lifer, Scalia does let his personal beliefs affect what he believes ought to be the law. We all let our personal moral beliefs do that. Rather, his remark was intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect his understanding, as a SCOTUS justice, of what the Constitution actually says and means. Insofar as it presents universal values and norms which can be seen as such by human reason, the Catholic faith cannot but influence a thinking Catholic's view of what legislation and policy ought to be. But that is perfectly compatible with Scalia's view that constitutional jurisprudence should not consist in determining what the Constitution, and a fortiori legislation or policy, ought to be, as distinct from what the Constitution actually says and means. In effect, Scalia has bent over backwards not to adopt sectarian assumptions in his approach to jurisprudence. That is quintessentially American, not slyly Benedictine.

On the other hand, Catholic progressives insist that some tenets of Catholic social teaching ought to influence the interpretations of Catholic jurists. Some, but not of course others—such as those on procreation and marriage. What Schneck is doing, in effect, is depicting Scalia as a sectarian and a bad Catholic for being a constitutional strict-constructionist, when in fact Schneck is more sectarian than Scalia and at least as selective in the political weight he assigns to various tenets of Catholic social teaching. Such performative self-contradiction sells well in today's Washington, precisely because it is a classic case of political ideology displacing theology. But that is Schneck's problem, not Scalia's.

Schneck's treatment of Prof. George misconstrues the latter's point so thoroughly that one suspects disingenuousness. George holds that the political role of the Catholic hierarchy should be restricted to efforts to restrain what all Catholics are bound to believe are not only heinous but intrinsic social evils—for example, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. That's because, according to Catholic teaching, there is no room for reasonable disagreement among Catholics that such practices are grave social evils in themselves, and should never be cooperated with regardless of any good consequences that might be thought to come from doing so. On the other hand, progressives want "the institutional Church" (i.e., the hierarchy) to push for laws and public policies that, while quite possibly promoting certain broad goods emphasized in Catholic social teaching, are really particular means of promoting those goods. And they want the hierarchy to do that while forgoing direct efforts to limit the grave social evils mentioned above. But Catholics can reasonably disagree about the wisdom of adopting this or that means of attaining what they should agree are social goods; as John Paul II made clear in Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, there is no similar room for disagreement about the need to use all available political means to prevent what is intrinsically and heinously evil.

Schenk argues that George, in adopting such a position, is calling for a retreat into world-escaping sectarianism. But George's point is not that Catholics should refrain from political and personal action to help the poor, the sick, and the outcast, or to limit war and capital punishment (even though those latter two are not intrinsic evils). Many Catholics do engage in such action; many should; and George never suggested that they should not. His point is that the Catholic hierarchy should avoid pronouncing on policy questions on which it lacks special competence, and focus instead on doing what they can to limit practices whose intrinsic moral evil they are competent as clerics to know and proclaim. That leaves debatable questions of policy to competent laity while upholding moral norms which, from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, are non-negotiable.

One argument for that position is strictly "in-house" and pastoral. If the bishops' political statements stayed within their true competence, political polarization among Catholics would not be as great as it is after several generations of the bishops' addressing what's truly debatable with as much emphasis as what isn't. But the other argument arises from understanding the objective importance of the non-negotiables for society at large.

Catholics can endlessly debate, for example, how reconcile the need to treat immigrants humanely with the need to control our borders and do justice to taxpayers. We can endlessly debate how much military expenditure is necessary for our security, whether this-or-that intervention meets just-war criteria, or whether there can be conditions under which the death penalty is justified. We can endlessly debate what are the most efficient and just means of ensuring access to adequate health-care for all citizens. But it's usually unclear how much our society's future hinges on the precise way in which such questions are resolved politically. By contrast, there can be no debate among Catholics about whether abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, or same-sex "marriage" form striking features of the "culture of death." They do and we know it. As the impending demographic winter of the West indicates, it is the culture of death as a whole which poses the gravest threat to our civilization's future. Hence, George is right to stress their overriding political importance from the Church's viewpoint. Without prejudice to the need of bishops in some other countries to address different conditions, the American hierarchy best serves our polity, as well as the Church, by generally limiting its public-policy statements to combating the culture of death. That position is not a "retreat" into an enclave of purity. It casts no doubt on the need for Catholics to act as morally responsible citizens across the full range of issues. It simply recognizes the ecclesial and social desirability of the hierarchy's stressing only what it's best suited to stress.

There are only two possible explanations why a Catholic would call that stance "After-Virtue Retreatism." One would be that he simply disagrees with the Magisterium about the relative weight to assign various tenets of her social teaching. From that point of view, the problem with conservative Catholics is simply that they agree with the pope and the bishops about the social importance of the points in contention. But thinking with the pope and the bishops on such points is only sectarian if the doctrines themselves are sustainable only in light of divine revelation rather than of human reason. That's not a consistent position for a Catholic to take; for the pro-life and pro-marriage points in contention are presented as items of the natural law. Thus, unlike laws meant to apply to Catholics as such, they apply universally if at all and can be supported in non-Catholic terms. Moreover, if progressive Catholics insist they are free qua Catholics to dissent from the teaching of the Church on such matters, then they have deprived themselves of any logical basis for criticizing conservatives as bad Catholics for dissenting on other matters.

The other explanation would be that progressives, while agreeing with the Magisterium about the intrinsic evil of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex "marriage," see such issues as lost causes in contemporary society and hence not worth the energy needed for the political opposition that the hierarchy and conservative Catholics present. That view is fairly common, and not just among progressives. If it's correct, then people like Prof. George are just tilting at windmills, which is more about self-satisfaction and group solidarity than genuine political engagement. But such a criticism calls, in effect, for retreating into a sectarian enclave about culture-of-death issues, and only engaging politically on other social issues about which the Church has no distinctive contribution to make anyhow. That would call for a bifurcation between faith and social action—which is precisely what is supposed to be wrong with "retreatism," and which is precisely what progressives see themselves as avoiding. So, such an explanation would be at best paradoxical.

Regardless of which explanation holds in Schenck's case, therefore, he has no effective argument that conservative Catholics such as Scalia and George are sectarian "retreatists." But I suspect that the first explanation is the operative one. Progressives such as Schenck just don't think they need to heed the hierarchy about the nature and importance of the culture-of-death issues. They see concern with such issues as sectarian because they regard the Church's position on them, unlike her position on their issues of choice, as justifiable only in theological terms they would reject. So the debate is not really about the desirability of Catholic political engagement in general; it's about which issues are worthy of political engagement. And that debate reflects a more fundamental one in moral theology about the truth of the Church's teaching on the culture-of-death issues. If progressive Catholics would simply admit that and proceed accordingly, we could avoid the sort of political posturing Schenck permits himself and address the real issue.

Without presuming to assess the late Cardinal Bernardin's original motives for the seamless-garment approach, which are no longer relevant anyhow, I have long suspected that said approach, as adopted by most progressive Catholics, is simply a cover for theological dissent and political ideology. When it comes to moral questions of political significance, most progressive Catholics are leftists first and Catholics second. The teaching of the Church is thus assessed in terms of a prior ideological agenda: when that teaching supports the agenda, it is believed; when it doesn't, it isn't. The Catholic right is sometimes guilty of that too, but not to quite the same extent. That's the reality American Catholics need to confront and purge; for that, we need fasting and prayer, which would foster the humility needed to put the Faith before ideology. Unfortunately, the ascent of Catholic progressives under the Obama Administration is already causing them to present a tattered, poorly patched garment as seamless. And so instead of a common pursuit of the truth, we will have more polarization and posturing.

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