« Angry with Abp. Nienstedt? Respond by offending all Catholics . . . | Main | An Example LGBT Youth's Rational Fear of People of Faith »

October 26, 2010

Catholic Social Thought and the Election

Here are two views:  This, by my colleague, Don Kommers, at Huffington Post, and this, by R.R. Reno, at First Things. 

According to Kommers, "Catholics who take the social teachings of their church seriously will reject any candidate who would wish to dismantle social security, oppose universal health care, get rid of the income tax, weaken trade unions, disparage the need for environmental protection, or disdain the creative role of government in the face of acute poverty and rampant unemployment."  Later, he contends that "state intervention in the economy is as essential today as yesterday when, for example, federal laws were necessary to abolish child labor, to eliminate industrial sweatshops, to prohibit unsafe places of work, to outlaw union busting, to force employers to pay a living wage, to ensure the safety of food and drug products, to prevent companies from discriminating on the basis of race or sex, and to clean our air and water. To cut back on any of these features of the regulatory state or to oppose the great social achievements of the New Deal and Great Society, as some politicians are advocating today, flies in the face of all that Catholic social thinking calls for."

Well, maybe.  Prof. Kommers is an excellent scholar, and a friend, but . . . it is not the case -- at all -- that one who takes Catholic Social Thought seriously (as Don does, and as I do) is thereby estopped from thinking that, for example, today's public-employee unions undermine, rather than contribute to, the common good; that the health-insurance policies recently enacted into law will do more harm, at great cost, than good; that some measures that purport to be environmental-protection or social-welfare measures are actually, well, not; that government programs like Social Security and Medicare are in need of dramatic reform, etc.  It is a mistake -- a common one, but a mistake nonetheless -- to (a) identify certain principles that matter in the Catholic Social Tradition; (b) describe those principles in a way that ties them too closely to particular attempts to translate those principles into policy; and then (c) say that those who think the attempts fail thereby demonstrate their lack of devotion to the principles. 

It is just as easy (and at least as accurate) to say that "Catholics who take the social teachings of their church seriously will reject any candidate who" opposes school choice, wishes to impose intrusive regulations on the hiring of religious institutions, social-service agencies, and schools, supports public funding for abortion and the selection of judges who will invalidate reasonable regulations on abortion, and enmesh the government in embryo-destructive research as it is to say what Prof. Kommers said.  I'm inclined to think we should not be over-confident about saying either.  Such Catholics will probably want to vote for someone, and they should not be *too* comfortable with their choice.  I think it's important, though, to not suggest or imagine that those who vote differently than we would like thereby demonstrate their lack of "seriousness" about the tradition.

Posted by Rick Garnett on October 26, 2010 at 06:43 PM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834515a9a69e20133f55d997c970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Catholic Social Thought and the Election:

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


"oppose the great social achievements of the New Deal and Great Society, as some politicians are advocating today, flies in the face of all that Catholic social thinking calls for."

Perhaps Prof. Kommers should compare all that the Church was able to do for Irish immigrants in New York in the 19th Century with the utter failure of the Great Society to prevent the creation of a virtually permanent underclass.

Then he should read B16's Jesus of Nazareth (I believe it is pages 33-35) where he discusses why any program based on purely material aid is doomed to failure. Nothing that excludes God can be truly good.

I really find it perplexing that there are so many Catholics who accept, and in many cases enthusiastically support, the government takeover of social welfare programs previously administered by the Church and other religious institutions. How can they support these takeovers when they know government involvement means the exclusion of the message of Christ, which can trasnform lives?

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 27, 2010 7:59:35 AM

"Grub first, then ethics."

Bertolt Brecht

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 27, 2010 1:12:28 PM

I just looked it up and was surprised to know that it was Abraham Maslow who said it, but I always remember hearing this quote: "Man lives by bread alone when there is no bread."

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 27, 2010 1:28:00 PM

I really find it perplexing that there are so many Catholics who accept, and in many cases enthusiastically support, the government takeover of social welfare programs previously administered by the Church and other religious institutions.

These charitable institutions are easily overwhelmed by the level of need. Alleviation of widespread material want is not a matter of charity but justice as well as prudence.

Regardless of whether or not new health care legislation makes the problem better or worse, I assume Professor Garnett believes prior to that, we lived in the best of all possible worlds.

A lot of folks I know still live in that world (which is far from the world of tenured professors). A college-trained chef I know is classified as a salaried employee so he can be compelled to work 12 hours a day, six days a week without overtime pay. In his previous job, the state attempted to crack down on such abuses with the result that he was reduced to 'on-call' status -- ie. fired, without eligibility for unemployment compensation. Naturally, such employment does not include niceties, such as as health insurance.

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 27, 2010 2:01:51 PM

I believe Prof. Garnett has unintentionally drawn a moral equivalency between supporting a candidate who, for instance, favors the abolition of the income tax with support for a candidate who favors federal funding for embryo destructive research. The mere fact that one favors abolition of the income tax doesn't tell us anything about how serious that proponent is about Catholic social teaching; whereas, support for embryo destructive research on its face disqualifies that proponent as being serious about Catholic social teaching.

Posted by: phil swain | Oct 27, 2010 2:35:19 PM

Antonio, I don't think that, and I am not sure why you would assume that I do. Phil, I did not mean to suggest that equivalency.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 27, 2010 3:41:45 PM

What are the best sources to read on the general, abstract question of the relationship between CST and the role of State vs. private sector on providing social services?

It seems to me, frustratingly, that my politically-left Catholic friends simply ASSUME that "society" equals "State," so that "If we all agree that society owes housing to the homeless, THEREFORE, the government must do it. QED."

Honestly, when I ask about that leap, I find that the most common answer is not, as I'd expect, "Well, the private sector can't match what the State can do because of ___ [any reason." Instead, it's usually, "huh?" followed by a sincere demonstration that the person has never even considered the possibility of implementing CST through private charity.

True, many thinkers do engage the issue. But I never cease to be amazed at the number of seemingly-bright people who gloss over.

So what's the best demonstration out there to grapple with?

Posted by: truly curious | Oct 27, 2010 4:11:34 PM


""Man lives by bread alone when there is no bread."

Clever, but I think I will stick with Christ's approach to this issue.

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 27, 2010 4:19:54 PM


"These charitable institutions are easily overwhelmed by the level of need. Alleviation of widespread material want is not a matter of charity but justice as well as prudence."

But the government's intrusion into this area has substantially reduced the funds available to these private insitutions. The "redistribution of wealth" Christ spoke of was to be carried out by changing people's hearts, not by the coercive power of the State.

"A lot of folks I know still live in that world (which is far from the world of tenured professors). A college-trained chef I know is classified as a salaried employee so he can be compelled to work 12 hours a day, six days a week without overtime pay. In his previous job, the state attempted to crack down on such abuses with the result that he was reduced to 'on-call' status -- ie. fired, without eligibility for unemployment compensation. Naturally, such employment does not include niceties, such as as health insurance."

How will increasing the amount of money the government has to distribute, or allowing the government to control health care, help your friend to get and keep a good job? The restaurant business is traditionally risky, and in bad economic times it is even worse.

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 27, 2010 4:29:42 PM

And sometimes politically-right leaning Catholics mischaracterize all politically-left leaning Catholics as dangerous statists intent on abolishing the role of charity in civil society. The great achievement of Catholic social teaching in the last century is to show the proper role of state and society, and of the need for both love and justice.

The mix that most mainstream Catholic thinkers, including Catholic-influenced Christian democratic parties and the last 4-5 Popes, clearly lean toward is a fairly robust welfare state that guarantees all citizens a basic standard of living (through such things as unemployment insurance, pension systems, universal healthcare, strong unionization rights, fairly high minimum wages, etc.), but that also maintains, and often works through, institutions in civil society, ones protected by strong protections of religious freedom.

Going back to a 19th-century model of church-run charity, as Mr. English seems to suggest, is not only impossible in a modern market economy, but it ignores the very foundation of modern Catholic social teaching, which is that such efforts, while noble, are simply not sufficient.

I think this is where Catholic conservativism in the United States is different than conservativism in the global Catholic Church. Here it is wedded far more to an individualist, anti-government, plutocratic strain of economic doctrine. Pope Benedict, for example, is clearly a conservative in the Church, but the economic analysis in Charity in Truth, and the policy implications he points to there, are clearly further left than even most Democrats in the United States. Conservatives like him share a deep concern on issues of religious freedom, moral relativism, rights of the unborn, etc, but the economic doctrines offered by Catholic conservatives in the US (as well as opinions on military issues) is deeply foreign to his worldview.

This is not imply that economic justice issues should predominate in the political decisions of voters as some left-leaning Catholics argue, but I think some right-leaning Catholics, and again this is unique to the US, are invested in reading those issues out of the tradition as much as possible, as some of the comments here indicate.



Posted by: DC | Oct 27, 2010 5:08:35 PM

Brian,

I don't believe Maslow's saying is in any way in conflict with Jesus's.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 27, 2010 5:20:05 PM

Hmmm . . . a comment of mine seems to have disappeared. I will try again.

Rick,

Are Catholic Social Teachings equally compatible with both the right and the left? Setting aside the sex and reproductive issues, are there any positions by currently running Democrats and Republicans that could be identified as incompatible with CST? Does CST really just enunciate principles, like "the poor should be taken care of," with no indication at all how it should be done?

I have heard people argue that all assistance to the needy should be handled on the local level (because the Church teaches the principle of subsidiarity), and some even go so far as to say it should be handled on the local level by voluntary charitable donations, not money taken by force (taxes). I think we all can agree that it would be a wonderful country in which the poor, the sick, and the disabled were cared for by their charitable neighbors and no government assistance was necessary. So would a legislator who voted against Food Stamps, Medicare, Social Security disability payments, and the like be in conformity with Catholic Social Teaching? Would this be in harmony with a "preferential option for the poor"?

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 27, 2010 5:33:49 PM


"Going back to a 19th-century model of church-run charity, as Mr. English seems to suggest, is not only impossible in a modern market economy, but it ignores the very foundation of modern Catholic social teaching, which is that such efforts, while noble, are simply not sufficient."

But why is that? The fact that we have surrendered a sphere of Church activity to the State, which is hostile to the spiritual element that was traditionally present in those charitable endeavors, is not something that should be celebrated. And efforts to expand that involvement should be resisted, with the hope of rolling it back.

"The mix that most mainstream Catholic thinkers, including Catholic-influenced Christian democratic parties and the last 4-5 Popes, clearly lean toward is a fairly robust welfare state that guarantees all citizens a basic standard of living"

As we watch those fairly robust welfare states implode, perhaps it is time to start thinking about a new approach.

"but I think some right-leaning Catholics, and again this is unique to the US, are invested in reading those issues out of the tradition as much as possible, as some of the comments here indicate."

Rejecting the idea that the Church's social justice concerns should be delegated to the State is hardly "reading those issues out of the tradition." I would contend that implementation through the Church of social justice measures is more consistent with the actual tradition. Christ never said, "Amen I say to you, whatever you lobby the Roman Senate to do for the least of my brothers, that you have lobbied the Roman Senate to do for me."

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 27, 2010 6:13:15 PM

"I don't believe Maslow's saying is in any way in conflict with Jesus's."

Didn't He feed the multitudes?

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 27, 2010 7:10:53 PM

"Rejecting the idea that the Church's social justice concerns should be delegated to the State is hardly "reading those issues out of the tradition." I would contend that implementation through the Church of social justice measures is more consistent with the actual tradition."

There never was an edenic past in which private charity wss adequate. In the distant past, the Church was either the state itself or a proxy for the state as a supplier of charitable goods. In any event, while we argue the issue, what do those in want do?

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 27, 2010 9:01:16 PM

Brain,
Thanks for the response. Catholic teaching on economics and politics is broad, and there is room for lots of prudential disagreement within the tradition, but I think your position essentially rejects the broad principles it has articulated since the 1890s. And your position may be correct. The Church may have erred in rejecting 19th century economic liberalism. But its meaning today is one that broadly endorses the modern welfare state, and in a more robust version then we have in the US today. Please read Benedict’s Charity in Truth, the most recent summary we have of the Church’s teaching in this area. You will immediately notice it profoundly differs from the view you are articulating and places the Catholic tradition squarely in on the left side of our admittedly truncated US political camps. All of which is not to say that Catholic teaching as a whole is leftist in any way—the document was written by a man who purged liberation theology and stakes out very conservative positions on a whole range of other issues. It is only to say that there is a very real and very deep contradiction between the Church’s teaching on matters of political economy and the positions offered by the American right. So I think your disagreement is not with the Catholic left, but with the tradition itself in its current form (a position many Catholic leftists find themselves in on other issues).

Posted by: DC | Oct 27, 2010 9:20:06 PM

David, your question is hugely important, and so I am reluctant to try to say much using my iPhone. Two quick things: I don't believe the abortion question is well described as a "sexual" or "reproductive" issue. And, I agree with you (I think) that the Tradition speaks to us not only from the "50,000 foot level", but also really does constrain the bounds within which the (all things considered) best policy may be found. And a third: it is appropriate, even mandatory, usually, for a Catholic who purports to take the Tradition seriously to ask -critically and honestly - "does this program (Food Stamps, the ADEA, whatever) actually *work*. If it doesn't, then (I take it) a serious Catholic can *of course* oppose it, without denigrating the principle it aspires to advance. Do you agree?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 27, 2010 9:44:33 PM

Rick,

You say: "If it doesn't [work], then (I take it) a serious Catholic can *of course* oppose it, without denigrating the principle it aspires to advance. Do you agree?"

Yes, definitely. But of course I think the principle you articulate has to be asked of any approach, and an honest answer has to be sought. In my question I used the example of someone who invoked the principle of subsidiarity to argue that all aid for the needy ought to be local. I hope that person is required to ask if that is really a workable approach, which I think it is not.

I look forward to hearing more from you on this topic when you have the use of a keyboard. I have an iPod Touch, not an iPhone, but I think the typing is the same, and it would have taken me a couple of hours to enter a message the length of yours above!

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 27, 2010 10:47:25 PM

Professor Garnett:

I apologize. My remark was intemperate and uncalled for.


Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 28, 2010 1:57:22 AM

Antonio: no worries.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 28, 2010 9:43:41 AM

David, still on iPhone but . . . Yes, the "does it work, at a cost that is justified by the benefits?" can and should be asked by faithful Catholics of all social-welfare programs, whether localist or more centralized. ("Subsidiarity" after all, is not reducible merely to a devolution policy.). My complaint was and is with arguments that take the form of "CST supports the right to form trade unions and so Catholics should not oppose the (reform-blocking, budget-busting, cynically self-interested) efforts of the NEA, AFSCME, etc.". (I do not understand you to be making this tired argument.). So, serious Catholics can *of course* oppose aspects of the current Administration's or the Democratic Congress's policy agenda without thereby denigrating the importance of the principles and goods that agenda might purport to serve, when they conclude, as they reasonably could, that those aspects don't work. This is not a "no regulation!" or "no taxes!" or "local only!" claim.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 28, 2010 9:52:02 AM


"There never was an edenic past in which private charity wss adequate. In the distant past, the Church was either the state itself or a proxy for the state as a supplier of charitable goods. In any event, while we argue the issue, what do those in want do?"

The point is, the State can keep a person alive; the Church can give a person a life.

I highly recommend looking at the situation facing Irish immigrants in New York in the 19th Century. Talk about destitute. City Journal had a great overview a few years ago in an article about Archbishop Hughes.

As for what those in want should do, they should take assistance from anyone providing it, but should not just look for material sustinence. Those at the margins of the society suffer the most when we have the types of upheavals we are having now. The question is, do we just go back to what we were doing before, or do we try a different approach to dealing with this issue?

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 28, 2010 11:28:09 AM


"The Church may have erred in rejecting 19th century economic liberalism. But its meaning today is one that broadly endorses the modern welfare state, and in a more robust version then we have in the US today."

And it is understandable that the Church had adopted that approach when that was the reality it was confronted with. If the State is going to exercise such extensive control over the society, then the Church had to work within that framework.

"So I think your disagreement is not with the Catholic left, but with the tradition itself in its current form (a position many Catholic leftists find themselves in on other issues)."

But I think this confuses the objective with the method for obtaining that objective. Christ instructed us to help the poor and less fortunate. He did not instruct us to establish a 30-work week, with 6 weeks of paid vacation, unlimited unemployment benefits, government-provided health care, and retirement at 60.

The modern welfare state is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That approach has now shown itself to: (1) be economically unsustainable; (2) have very negative impacts on birth rates (evidencing a society that doesn't care enough to create a future); and (3) produce adults who throw temper tantrums and riot when their nearly bankrupt government tries to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Our options are not limited to adopting either Social Darwinism or the Cradle-to-Grave Welfare State. The current upheavals give us an opportunity to try different approaches. As members of the Church, we should advocate approaches that respect the inherent dignity of each person and that will provide for both their material and spiritual needs.

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 28, 2010 11:59:24 AM

Rick,

You say: "So, serious Catholics can *of course* oppose aspects of the current Administration's or the Democratic Congress's policy agenda without thereby denigrating the importance of the principles and goods that agenda might purport to serve . . . "

I certainly agree. But some people are quite frank that they do not just oppose reform-blocking, budget-busting, cynically self-interested trade unions. They oppose *unions*. It is an interesting question whether a Catholic employer of a small company, or Catholic members of management in a larger company, may engage in "union busting" to discourage the formation of (or destroy) a responsible, legitimate union.

So I would say regarding any principle in Catholic Social Teaching, it seems difficult to tell at times whether a person who opposes an *implementation* of that principle really supports the principle. I am fond of quoting this passage from the Declaration on Procured Abortion:

**********
[I]t is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption - a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.
**********

It seems to me that implies not just an obligation to act, but an obligation for *government* to act. So I tend to interpret that as a "liberal" part of Catholic Social Teaching. But in past arguments it has seemed to me that many conservatives don't see anything in that passage that obliges them to support much of anything in the way of government assistance in providing abortion alternatives.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 28, 2010 1:11:07 PM

On the other hand, if I understand the concept of a "living wage," and if it is really required by Catholic Social Teaching, even from my left-of-center viewpoint, it seems impractical, unworkable, and probably unfair. Un-American!

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 28, 2010 1:50:59 PM

"It is just as easy (and at least as accurate) to say that "Catholics who take the social teachings of their church seriously will reject any candidate...."

Surely the set of issues you describe and those of Professor Kommer are not mutually exclusive. In any event, I believe Professor Kommer's issues relating to the prevention or alleviation of hardhip must trump these concerns.

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 29, 2010 11:01:33 AM

Antonio, certainly they are not exclusive. But, our politics are such that there are trade-offs.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 29, 2010 11:52:32 AM

I would like to know what aspects of Catholic Social Teaching politically liberal Catholics would wish away if they could, but feel they can't, and the same for politically politically conservative Catholics (aside from the "non-negotiables" of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage, if indeed they are considered part of CST).

I have not heard Catholics on either end of the political spectrum say, "As a committed liberal/conservative, it is my inclination to hold position X, but since position Y is mandated by Catholic Social Teaching, I must go along with my Church." I have heard politicall conservative Catholics say that about John Paul II's position on the death penalty -- that is, that they would favor it, but they accept the Church's position that it is almost never necessary. But I have also heard politically conservative Catholics argue they have no problem defending George Bush for signing 152 death warrants (every one put before him) and assenting to John Paul II's statement that executions are almost never necessary. And of course there are those who maintain that John Paul II was just wrong and contradicted millennia of Catholic teaching.

How one can maintain that capital punishment is almost never necessary and also maintain that it was necessary 152 times in a row in Texas is something that puzzles me.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 29, 2010 2:26:22 PM


"But I have also heard politically conservative Catholics argue they have no problem defending George Bush for signing 152 death warrants (every one put before him) and assenting to John Paul II's statement that executions are almost never necessary."

Bush was: (1) the governor of a state where the death penalty was legally imposed; and (2) not Catholic.

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 29, 2010 3:00:07 PM

Brian,

I am quite sure John Paul II's statement would be said to be in conformity with natural law, which is binding on everyone.

Merely because the death penalty is legally imposed does not make it moral. Abortion is legal, too.

Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican and a Methodist, commuted 156 death sentences when he left office in 2003.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 29, 2010 3:41:56 PM


"I am quite sure John Paul II's statement would be said to be in conformity with natural law, which is binding on everyone."

But the Church has never considered the death penalty intrinsically evil. When you start talking about something only "rarely" being used, you are in prudential judgment area. JPII's position is based upon his beliefs regarding the security of modern prisons. That is hardly something I would consider to be the subject of natural law.

"Merely because the death penalty is legally imposed does not make it moral. Abortion is legal, too."

But abortion is intrinsically evil -- always and in every situation. Saying it should be "legal, safe and rare" is not acceptable.

"Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican and a Methodist, commuted 156 death sentences when he left office in 2003."

Which was an injustice. If you want to commute death sentences in cases where an issue has arisen regarding the guilt of the defendants, I agree with that 100%. Just commuting every sentence on his way out the door because he decided he didn't approve of the death penalty was wrong.

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 29, 2010 4:22:11 PM

Brian,

It is not just John Paul II's opinion. It is in the Catechism:

**********
2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
**********

Being in "prudential judgment area" does not mean there is no discernible right and wrong. It was arguably a grave error when some in the Church began making so much noise about "intrinsic evil," as if something that wasn't intrinsically evil could not be definitively judged to be evil at all. For so many people, what is left after intrinsic evils are dealt with is basically equivalent to moral relativism. "It's not intrinsically evil, so who's to say if it's evil or not? It's a matter of prudential judgment!"

How "very rare, if not practically nonexistent" can be reconciled with "152 times in a row in the state of Texas with modern prisons" is beyond me. Are you claiming it was a matter of "prudential judgment" that 152 times, it was determined that it was "absolutely necessary" to execute someone? I will grant that the Catechism leaves some "wiggle room" -- but not 152 executions worth.

To commute a death sentence is never an injustice unless the conditions in the Catechism for execution are met.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 29, 2010 5:18:21 PM


"It is not just John Paul II's opinion. It is in the Catechism:"

Yes, but that formulation clearly reflects JPII's influence. He had used that phrasing before.

"For so many people, what is left after intrinsic evils are dealt with is basically equivalent to moral relativism. "It's not intrinsically evil, so who's to say if it's evil or not? It's a matter of prudential judgment!"

Then B16 is a moral relativist, because he has expressly stated that Catholics could reach conclusions on issues like the death penalty and whether a war is just that conflicted with the Vatican's. On the other hand, such disagreement cannot be tolerated with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

"How "very rare, if not practically nonexistent" can be reconciled with "152 times in a row in the state of Texas with modern prisons" is beyond me. Are you claiming it was a matter of "prudential judgment" that 152 times, it was determined that it was "absolutely necessary" to execute someone? I will grant that the Catechism leaves some "wiggle room" -- but not 152 executions worth."

But if a Catholic governor started commuting death sentences just because of the Catechism, that really would be a case of "imposing his religious beliefs on others." As JPII put it, the Church proposes, it never imposes. If a Catholic governor wants to end the death penalty in his state, he should campaign to have the law changed. Bush, is not Catholic (although he likely will be eventually), so on what basis could you criticize him for not following the Catechism's approach for deciding when the death penalty is appropriate?

"To commute a death sentence is never an injustice unless the conditions in the Catechism for execution are met."

How exactly do you know that none of the sentences commuted by Ryan met those conditions?

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 29, 2010 9:55:09 PM

Brian,

You say: "Yes, but that formulation clearly reflects JPII's influence. He had used that phrasing before."

Yes, you are quite right. Pope John Paul II said the following in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: "It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

I think it makes a significant difference how and where a pope expresses himself. If the above had been said in response to a question by a journalist, it would be one thing. But the fact that it appears in an encyclical is quite another. In fact, Richard R. Gaillardetz says in his book "By What Authority?"

**********
One would expect, for example, that a new doctrinal formulation appearing in an encyclical would carry more weight than that offered in a weekly papal address. The teachings that are issued by way of the ordinary papal magisterium are official church teaching and call for internal assent by all Catholics . . . . At the same time, it must be noted that the ordinary papal magisterium does not engage the charism of infallibility.
**********

So I would certainly say that what John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae may not be dismissed as one man's opinion, which some might interpret you to be implying.

You say: "Then B16 is a moral relativist, because he has expressly stated that Catholics could reach conclusions on issues like the death penalty and whether a war is just that conflicted with the Vatican's. On the other hand, such disagreement cannot be tolerated with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

I think you are stretching what Pope Benedict said (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) a bit farther than is warranted. His remarks were in a private communication to Cardinal McCarrick regarding -- and this is important -- worthiness to receive holy communion. The pertinent paragraph is as follows:

**********
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
**********

The standards for merely being wrong, on the one hand, and being ineligible to receive communion, on the other, are quite different. To be refused communion, one must "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." Also, I do not take Pope Benedict to have said in that communication that a Catholic is at liberty to have his or her own theory for criteria for a just war or his or her own theory about capital punishment. I take him to be saying that Catholics may disagree over HOW THOSE CRITERIA ARE INTERPRETED AND APPLIED. So I don't take him to be repudiating John Paul II's words on capital punishment. I take him to be saying not that John Paul II was wrong to say the death penalty should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary. I take him to be saying there may be legitimate disagreement over whether a particular execution is absolutely necessary.

It seems to me you are very close to arguing that the only Church teachings regarding morality that are binding are those dealing with intrinsic evils, and that on all other matters, Catholics may disagree with what the pope says in an encyclical. It also seems to me you are close to the position that there may never be a manifestly unjust war or a totally unjustified execution. "Legitimate diversity of opinion," it seems to me, does not imply that any opinion is just as good as any other. That truly would be moral relativism.

So I see what John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, although not an infallible teaching, as binding on Catholics, and I see the burden of proof that a particular execution is absolutely necessary to protect society to be on the side of the would-be executioners, including governors who sign death warrants. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that there were 152 prisoners on death row in Texas who were so dangerous that the only way to protect society was to kill them. So I think if there were one or two Hannibal Lecters on death row in Texas, a plausible argument could have been made for their execution. But I don't see how the execution of, say, Karla Faye Tucker could be justified.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 30, 2010 12:46:48 PM


"So I would certainly say that what John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae may not be dismissed as one man's opinion, which some might interpret you to be implying."

I certainly didn't intend that. JPII's view of this is widely held in the Church hierarchy. However, I am not so sure it is a completely accurate description of Church tradition. In addition to protecting society, the death penalty was also regarded as punishment for particularly heinous crimes. That aspect of the tradition appears to have vanished without a trace.

"I take him to be saying that Catholics may disagree over HOW THOSE CRITERIA ARE INTERPRETED AND APPLIED. So I don't take him to be repudiating John Paul II's words on capital punishment. I take him to be saying not that John Paul II was wrong to say the death penalty should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary. I take him to be saying there may be legitimate disagreement over whether a particular execution is absolutely necessary."

I take him to be saying the same thing.

"It seems to me you are very close to arguing that the only Church teachings regarding morality that are binding are those dealing with intrinsic evils, and that on all other matters, Catholics may disagree with what the pope says in an encyclical."

Well, two years after a majority of Catholics voted for a pro-abortion zealot as president, I do not think people can be reminded enough that there is a real hierarchy of moral issues.

Look at the bishops' 1998 statement, Living the Gospel of Life, regarding this hierarchy. After listing the social justice factors that many Catholics have relied upon to vote for pro-abortion candidates, including war and the death penalty, the bishops state, "But being right in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community." (Pages 15-16).

"It also seems to me you are close to the position that there may never be a manifestly unjust war or a totally unjustified execution."

Of course there could be an obviously unjust war (Germany invading Poland and the Soviets invading Finland are good examples). There could also be an unjustified execution.

But being "right" about those issues would still not excuse voting for a politician who supports abortion and euthanasia.

"It seems extraordinarily unlikely that there were 152 prisoners on death row in Texas who were so dangerous that the only way to protect society was to kill them."

Assume that all 152 were unjustified. What should voters have done with that knowledge?


Posted by: Brian English | Oct 30, 2010 6:44:19 PM

Brian,

The issue I am trying to explore here is not what voters should do, but rather to what extent Catholic Social Teaching (or Catholic teaching in general) should or does enter into the formation of an individual's political position. Capital punishment was only one example. I am trying to find out how many people would actually be able to fill in the blanks in this statement: "As a committed ______________ (liberal/conservative), it is my inclination to hold position X, but since position Y is mandated by Catholic Social Teaching, I must go along with my Church."

I remember reading that people's political views are much more likely to influence their religious view than their religious views are likely to influence their political views.

Regarding abortion itself (that is, performing, procuring, or formally cooperating in an abortion) I would say that if a Catholic contradicts Church teachings, he or she is in serious dissent. However, regarding WHAT THE LAW OUGHT TO BE on abortion, I don't see how a Catholic who disagrees with the pope is in any more serious dissent than a Catholic who disagrees about what capital punishment laws ought to be or how they should be implemented.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 31, 2010 12:22:45 PM


"Regarding abortion itself (that is, performing, procuring, or formally cooperating in an abortion) I would say that if a Catholic contradicts Church teachings, he or she is in serious dissent. However, regarding WHAT THE LAW OUGHT TO BE on abortion, I don't see how a Catholic who disagrees with the pope is in any more serious dissent than a Catholic who disagrees about what capital punishment laws ought to be or how they should be implemented."

(1) So a Catholic who supports unlimited abortion rights is no worse off than a Catholic who supports the death penalty beyond the parameters set forth in the Catechism? We will have to agree to disagree on that one.

(2) What about approaching this from the viewpoint of trying to reduce the amount of evil in the world? The number of execution in this country this year will likely not reach 50. The number of abortions will likely approach 1.2 million. Which of those situations is the greater blight on this country?

Posted by: Brian English | Oct 31, 2010 3:04:08 PM

Brian,

You say, "So a Catholic who supports unlimited abortion rights is no worse off than a Catholic who supports the death penalty beyond the parameters set forth in the Catechism?"

I wouldn't go quite *that* far, and perhaps I overstated the case a bit. My point is that disagreeing with the pope on abortion itself would be far more serious than disagreeing with the pope on what the law on abortion ought to be. It very well might be that what the law on abortion ought to be is a weightier matter than what the law on capital punishment ought to be, for the reasons you cite. But nevertheless, disagreeing with the pope on what the law ought to be, whether regarding capital punishment or abortion, is not disagreeing with the pope on whether or not what the Church teaches is an intrinsic evil us indeed an intrinsic evil.

You say: "What about approaching this from the viewpoint of trying to reduce the amount of evil in the world? The number of execution in this country this year will likely not reach 50. The number of abortions will likely approach 1.2 million. Which of those situations is the greater blight on this country?"

There are differences, I would point out, between abortion and capital punishment. The state directly kills in the case of capital punishment in the name of the people. That is not the case with abortion. Even when the state funds abortion through something like Medicaid, it is not the state itself doing the killing. When Texas voters voted for George Bush *because* they believed he would sign death warrants, that was formal cooperation, and the causal chain was very direct. The voter voted for George Bush, and George Bush authorized the execution. The causal chain between a voter who votes for a pro-choice candidate would generally be far less direct, if it could even be mapped out.

In any case, I am not talking about pro-abortion Catholics here. I am talking about Catholic who feel attempting to criminalize abortion is futile, or who feel that succeeding in criminalizing abortion would either leave the abortion rate unchanged or possibly make it higher, with more danger to women. I believe a reasonable interpretation of what the Church expects of voters gives the voters leeway to decide what they think is futile or counterproductive, and I don't think the Church seriously expects voters to say, "The Church teaches that abortion should be illegal, and even though I think criminalizing abortion would lead to *more* abortions, I must follow the teaching of the Church and vote to criminalize abortion." Or I don't think the Church expects voters to say to themselves, ""The Church teaches that abortion should be illegal, and Candidate X says he wants to make abortion illegal, but I don't believe Candidate X can actually do anything to criminalize abortion, and I believe Candidate Y will at least do things about issues like poverty that might cause fewer women to seek abortions. But the Church teaches that abortion should be illegal, so I must vote for Candidate X."

But let me repeat one more time, I would rather not be discussing abortion. My interest here is whether the teachings of the Church influence people who would otherwise be "typical liberals" or "typical conservatives" to take positions they would not otherwise take.

Let me repeat my fill-in-the-blank question and ask if anyone can fill it out or say they know someone who would fill it out.

"As a committed ______________ (liberal/conservative), it is my inclination to hold position X, but since position Y is mandated by Catholic Social Teaching, I must go along with my Church."

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 31, 2010 6:33:31 PM

Thanks, all, for the discussion. I am sorry I was not able to participate, during the last few days, but I was on the road and have trouble blogging from the iPhone. Anyway, David: I *do* know "conservatives" to whom your fill-in-the-blank hypo applies (particularly with respect to the death penalty). My sense is that "conservatives" who do not endorse public-policy specifics proposed by bishops, or even the Pope, tend to defend their decision by emphasizing their agreement with the principle, just not the context- and fact-specific application. On the other hand, my sense is that "liberals" are more likely to question the asserted principle itself -- e.g., sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral, marriage is the consented to, lifelong union of one man and one woman, etc. -- than its application. But, to be clear, this is just an impression.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 1, 2010 9:33:54 AM

All, especially Mr. Nickol --

I would appreciate any recommendations you have for a good book or anthology that pulls together CST as to the role of the government vs. private action in achieving social welfare goals. I do want to wrestle with these issues, wherever it leads, but it seems to me that some Catholic documents were designed to obscure the issue.

For example, Mr. Nickol cites this passage from the Declaration on Procured Abortion, saying it "implies not just an obligation to act, but an obligation for *government* to act." But note that it does not use the word government, or state, or civil authority, in the key parts:

**********
[I]t is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption - a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.
**********

I agree, Mr. Nickol, that it "seems" to "imply" a government role, but it stops just shy, and could be read differently. It says the "law" must make it "possible" for every child to be helped, etc. That could be done, in theory, by laws that allow for charitable deductions and provide a framework in which the Church and others provide homeless shelters and soup kitchens and the like. What in that passage causes a precise clash with that reading?

Again, I grant that the leaning is stronger the other way, but given the critical difference between approaches, it would have an obvious thing to invoke the government expressly here, so is the absence calculated? I understand that the Church wants to stay at 50,000 feet, etc., but it could have here endorsed SOME concretely governmental role without more particularity than that. But if the choice of 50,000 feet keeps it abstract enough that the non-government approach IS still part of the allowable CST spectrum, then that's significant.

So again, what's in THIS passage that pins it down, and more broadly, what do you recommend as the best books on this?

Thank you kindly.

Posted by: truly curious | Nov 1, 2010 1:47:43 PM

Truly Curious,

There's a book called Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, which is an anthology of all the pertinent Church documents. Here's the link to Amazon.com
Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (search for 0883447878 on Amazon.com)

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is available in book form and also on the Vatican website here:
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html

As for a good introduction that would attempt to answer the questions raised here, I would be interested in other people's recommendations, since I am by no means an expert.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 1, 2010 11:37:43 PM

Mr. Nickol -

Thanks for the cites. I'll check those out to see if they include any documents I've missed. I have read most of the encyclicals and other papal or Vatican statements, though, and as I said before, my reading is that they seem deliberately ambiguous in dodging the state/private distinction. Or where they seem to advocate state action, they don't explain why it must be the State, as opposed to assuming. So I'll read those again, but I think I'll continue to look for a good secondary source or commentary that fills the gap.

Until then, I am tentatively concluding that it's too early to write the privatizers out of the CST spectrum. That's not to say that theirs is the better view, as they still have to win the day on "ordinary" arguments, but only that it's not necessarily inconsistent with CST (in my reckoning so far) to be against the "welfare state."

Thanks again.

Posted by: truly curious | Nov 2, 2010 1:22:59 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.