Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Cafeteria" Catholics, Left and Right: A Short Response to David Gibson

David Gibson comments (as have Michael Sean Winters and John Allen, and others too, I'm sure) on the Pope's recent observations about "a certain schizophrenia between individual and public morality," and notes that the Pope was not talking about the more-often-noted phenomenon of Catholic politicians supporting abortion rights but instead "about social justice and the gap between rich and poor, and the need to bring the church’s social teaching — all of it — to bear on political life."  In so doing, Gibson suggests, the Pope was "subvert[ing] the party line" and "complicat[ing] things for Catholic conservatives and Paul Ryan Republicans. Not that you’d know from our political and ecclesial discourse."

I agree entirely -- but, then again, I don't know any "Catholic conservatives" who don't -- that it is not only the Church's teachings on human dignity, the inviolability of human life, and religious freedom that need to be brought "to bear on political life," but rather "all of [the Church's social teaching]."  I'm not sure, though, what the "party line" is that David says the Pope is subverting, or why the Pope's observation complicates things for "Catholic conservatives." 

Yes, if there are conservatives out there who think that only part, and not all, of the Church's social teaching needs to brought to bear -- prudently, carefully, intelligently -- by the lay faithful on political life then, well, they are wrong.  That said, I think it is a mistake to equate (a) the claim that Catholic politicians should not, in a democracy, vote to protect legally vulnerable human life because to do so would involve "imposing" "Catholic morality" and (b) the claim that, all things considered, the Church's social teaching, reasonably applied to the facts as best we can know them, does not always point clearly in the direction of left-liberal social-welfare policies.  Sometimes, I assume, it does; often, I am confident, it doesn't.  But, to say that it often doesn't is not to make the "Mario Cuomo" / "personally opposed, but" mistake; it is not to say that the the morality of liberal democracy requires one not to allow the Church's social teaching -- all of it -- to inform one's views about economic policy.  This is a difference, it seems to me, that matters. 


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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Not sure if just being deeply disingenuous, or you really aren't aware of the large number of politically conservative Catholics in America who perceive the Church's social teaching as simply supererogatory, if not altogether dispensable, particularly when conflicting with their preferred small government ideology. See, e.g., George Weigel and Crew.

Posted by: Anonsters | Mar 27, 2012 8:04:51 PM

I share Rick's surprise. While, as Anonster notes, there certainly are Catholics who are conservative first and Catholic second, most of the conservative Catholics I know are more than happy to call those folks out. By contrast, I can't remember the last time I saw David Gibson challenge any liberal who conflicted with Humane Vitae, Church teaching on gay unions, etc.

I think the "tu quoque" glee behind Gibson's piece is...intriguing. He writes as if he feels better about his own hypocrisy because he can point at conservatives who are just a hypocrital as he is. Is it possible that he's missing the point that the mantle of hypocrisy is not flattering no matter who wears it?

How 'bout this. Why don't we all just agree that to be authentically Catholic, we can't pick and choose. Then Mr. Gibson can give up his gig as erstwhile press secretary for Obama's newly hatched American Catholic Patriotic Association and get on with the business of building the Kingdom of God, instead of bickering with his conservative counterparts about who is doing more to undermine the work.

Posted by: Greg Popcak | Mar 27, 2012 9:10:52 PM

This dynamic is clearly at work in debates over the budget. Many Catholic Democrats have been been chiding Catholic Republicans for supporting the Ryan Plan suggesting that their support for the Ryan Plan somehow shows that they are Cafeteria Catholics.

Catholics on the Right argue that the Ryan Plan is necessary to bring our spiraling debt under control and perhaps save Medicare and Social Security from insolvency.

Catholics on the Left say that these Catholics are hypocrites who want to throw Grandma and Grandpa under the bus to support the one percent.

Who is right? I don't really know. I am generally in the conservative camp, but I am not an economist or policy wonk. Throwing asparagus at people doesn't really help shed light on the issue.

The budget deficit is a serious problem that needs fixing and would suggest that spending cuts will be necessary at some point in time. How and where to make these cuts in the most fair and just matter is almost certainly an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | Mar 27, 2012 10:16:40 PM

@Catholic Law Student:

The thing that galls those of us leftily-inclined isn't the notion that spending cuts will be necessary to deal with deficit/debt problems. The galling thing is that people like Paul Ryan envisage dealing with our deficit problem only through spending cuts, while simultaneously cutting taxes for corporations and the top income brackets and making permanent the Bush tax cuts. His proposal would cut $5 trillion in taxes over the next decade. Add to that the additional $5 trillion in projected lost revenue from making the Bush tax cuts permanent. You know what you get? Deficit reduction exactly the same as what would happen, according to the CBO, if we made no major legislative changes for the next ten years, and just ran on autopilot. But how does he finance those tax cuts, which would, if left unfinanced, put a dent in any proposed deficit reduction? Well, cut benefits in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and shrink the federal government to a size that it hasn't been at since 1950 (which, and this should be obvious enough, would entail virtually eliminating every government program currently in existence, other than the now-shrunken entitlements and DoD). But as long as those corporations and rich people are getting theirs, amirite? Now that's the real Gospel. The Gospel of Prosperity.

But no, you're right. Reasonable people can disagree. And you're right: it takes deep study, and being a policy wonk, to understand that drastic and widespread cuts to, if not the total elimination of, every government program providing benefits to lower-income people (not to mention the rest of the federal government), in exchange for tax cuts for corporations and the rich, really is consistent with our purported preferential option for the poor.

Posted by: Anonsters | Mar 27, 2012 10:48:35 PM

Anonsters, there ya go. Hyperbole and caricature like yours is generally what leads to asparagus throwing contests.

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | Mar 27, 2012 11:23:34 PM

Not sure where I was being hyperbolical. Those figures are CBO numbers, and the estimates about the size of the government reflect CBO judgments of Ryan's proposal juxtaposed with historical data about government spending relative to GDP. And it remains true that virtually every program we have, which has any significance as part of our social safety net, would be radically cut by Ryan's plan. And it's true that those cuts finance Ryan's planned reduction of taxes for the top income brackets and for corporations.

We're in deep, deep trouble when relating facts—and pointing out that the proposal yielding those facts is thus at its very core contrary to a key pillar of Catholic social teaching—is "throwing asparagus."

Posted by: Anonsters | Mar 28, 2012 12:22:52 AM

"Not sure where I was being hyperbolical."

If you can provide a citation to Paul Ryan calling for "the total elimination of . . . . every government program providing benefits to lower-income people" it would help with your claim that you weren't being "hyperbolical." Unless you decided to quiet edit from discussing Paul Ryan to, say Ron Paul. In which case it's not Prof. Garnett who's being "deeply disingenuous."

In fairness, I think the hyperbole and caricature were less tedious than the sarcasm masquerading as argument.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 28, 2012 1:19:46 AM

You mangled the meaning of my sentence by mangling its structure with your ellipsis. What I really said was "drastic and widespread cuts to, if not the total elimination of," which means that at the very least his plan would entail drastic and widespread cuts, and that is certainly true.

By the way, one doesn't need a direct quote from Paul Ryan saying, "I want to destroy the social safety net." We're rarely so lucky to get such honesty from politicians. All you have to do, though, is look at what he has proposed. That's been my point all along. All it takes is opening your eyes to what the man says he believes we should do, and then look at the implications of that plan. It ain't pretty.

Posted by: Anonsters | Mar 28, 2012 2:38:32 AM

Anonsters: Well, I know that I am not "deeply disingenuous", but it is possible there are some "merely supererogatory" types out there. If you actually read my post, you'd see that I say any such folks are wrong. But, I think their number is way overstated (George Weigel is certainly not one) and my point was that they need to be distinguished from conservatives who think that CST, well understood and sensibly applied, does not always point left.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 28, 2012 8:25:42 AM

What did Gibson title his column this time?

Posted by: Ron | Mar 28, 2012 8:56:17 AM

@ Rick Garnett: Epistemologically, how do you know you're not deeply disingenuous?


But seriously, I think Weigel certainly is one. He routinely writes things suggesting that a curial document doesn't really mean anything, that the pope didn't really mean what he said in Caritas in veritate, or (my personal favorite, because it's a routine tactic of you righty-types) that not only does CST "not always point left" but also subsidiarity is such a universal defeater every left-pointing policy itself contradicts Church teaching.

But yes, you are certainly more reasonable in your judgment (even if I think you're a little Pollyannaish about right-Catholics (unless, of course, your evaluation of the Catholic left is equally as mild as your evaluation of the Catholic right, in which case I'd say you're Pollyannaish about both :) )).

Posted by: Anonsters | Mar 28, 2012 9:34:38 AM

"What I really said was 'drastic and widespread cuts to, if not the total elimination of,' which means that at the very least his plan would entail drastic and widespread cuts, and that is certainly true."

Actually, what you meant is "which means that at the very least his plan would entail drastic and widespread cuts, and that is certainly true, and at most it would completely eliminate the social safety net." The latter clause, which you omit, is hyperbole.

Gnostic insights as to Paul Ryan's secret intent is not a sine qua non of applied Catholic Social Thought. Other people "open their eyes" to what he's doing and derive different conclusions. But they're bad people or dishonest or stupid or whatever and thus their reasonable disagreement is entitled to sarcastic dismissal. Again, the word for this is tedious.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 28, 2012 9:43:42 AM

Anonsters -- True enough. Unless I am disingenuously denying my disingenuousness . . . Oh well. No, Weigel isn't. But, if you are going to toss around "you righty types" I don't imagine there's much point to engaging. Here's my main point, one that I hope you will consider without regard to our disagreement about how to categorize certain "conservatives": Some "conservatives" say (as some liberals do), "The Church teaches X, but the Church is wrong, and so I am a good Catholic even though I think the Church is wrong and even though I make not effort to operationalize X through my civic and political activity". Some "conservatives" say (as some liberals do) "The Church teaches X, and I think the best way to operationalize X is Y policy, rather than Z policy, notwithstanding the fact that many Catholic theologians and bishops and curial officials have concluded that Z policy is the best way to operationalize X." In my view, the latter group should not be regarded as "cafeteria" Catholics. And, in my view, many of those "Catholic conservatives" whom I think David Gibson and Michael Sean Winters have in mind are in the latter group, rather than the former. I'm sure there are some conservatives (and some liberals) in the former group. And, they are wrong.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 28, 2012 9:47:31 AM

Maybe we should all devote more energy to being the best Christians and Catholics we can be, calling those with whom we are politically aligned to do the same, and less energy to advancing the cause that those on the other side are the real cafeteria Catholics.

Posted by: JohnMcG | Mar 28, 2012 10:03:25 AM

Eugene Volokh has a valuable discussion of how charges of inconsistency too often become accusations of hypocrisy or dishonesty (not to say deep disingenuousness):


Posted by: Patrick Molloy | Mar 28, 2012 10:56:35 AM

I am a newcomer to this discussion who would probably be characterized as a "conservative" Catholic. I am also a professional health economist. Logically, it is not schizophrenic to attempt to limit the role of the government in accomplishing the objectives of social welfare espoused by the left. Rather, it is a disagreement on the question of agency. When government is the agent, then what should be acts of charity chosen sacrificially by individuals now become coerced. As a Catholic, surely one can agree that it is right for all individual Catholics to attempt to use their own resources to help those who are in need, while disagreeing that this help must function through the channel of government, with all forced to participate. If the fundamental unwillingness to pay higher taxes is due to selfishness - that I don't want to give up anythings I own to help those in need, either through private or public channels, then it is my selfishness that is a sin. If I do not want to act charitably primarily through government action because 1) I think that coercion of charity is wrong and 2) I think that government is an inherently inefficient and wasteful agent to acheivie charitable ends, this is not selfishness but prudence. As a health economist, it is clear to me that the fiscal problems in funding the Medicare program over the coming decades are not primariy due to insufficient funding due to the selfishness of individual taxpayers, but rather to lack of incentives within the current Medicare system to distribute those resources efficiently and wisely to address the areas of greatest need. Blindly throwing ever more resources at this system is like trying to give water to the thirsty by adding ever more water to a leaky bucket. It implies no lack of charity to stop pouring more water into the bucket until the leak is fixed.

Posted by: Cordelia | Mar 28, 2012 12:01:07 PM

I think Cordelia just hit the nail on the head.

Posted by: 3L | Mar 28, 2012 12:46:18 PM

Hi everyone,

Sorry I'm so late to this discussion. I'll try to keep this brief while responding to everyone"

Mike and CLS, you may wish to take a look at this article concerning the Ryan budget from Bruce Bartlett. He was a senior member of Jack Kemp's congressional staff and his conservative economic credentials are pretty solid. He observes that the Ryan budget would change the relationship between governement and society. Does this make Congressman Ryan a bad Catholic? No. Does it at least contain enough evidence to make us question his budget to CST? I would say yes.

Professor Garnett, I would agree with you that folks who disagree with the bishops on a matter such as pre-emptive war are not necessarily bad Catholics. However, regarding the invasion of Iraq (and I know we've had this discussion before) there were folks who made the case for the invasion by making a shambles of Just War theory, some of it coming from people who were tied to the Bush Administration. And these folks refuse to admit their mistakes to this day. As a Catholic who supports SSM at the civil level and as someone who came to that conclusion after studying the Cathecism and it's admission that same sex attractions are not chosen, I can at least admit that I'm against the teaching of the Church on this issue and that I hope the Church will change the teaching. But I will not let a charge that I'm a cafeteria Catholic on this issue from those who supported the invasion of Iraq while distorting the Just War teaching.

Cordelia, I largely agree with your thoughts on private health care vs. public care. I also would agree that subsidiarity is a valuable teaching on this issue. However, there is a reason to believe that a governmental safety net is not only in line with CST but also with conservative thought (see chapter 9 of THE ROAD TO SERFDOM where even Frederich Hayek agrees with the need for such a net). Now, one can agree that the net should be better run and could be more efficient but it is not against CST to advocate for the existence of such a net. Believe me, I'm not an advocate for central planning and if folks can get private coverage, then all the better. But I would also argue that to leave the safety net to just the private market is a very dangerous propostition. By all means, examine the problems and stop throwing the leaky water at the bucket. But let's at least realize attempts to destroy the net.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Mar 28, 2012 3:25:40 PM

Edward, I don't think I said anything about those who disagree with the bishops on pre-emptive war. I guess I think that it *would* be "cafeteria" Catholicism if someone thought, "look, the Church's moral teachings just don't have anything to do with whether or not a nation may go to war," but that it would *not* be "cafeteria" Catholicism for someone to say "I embrace entirely the Church's teachings on the criteria that are relevant to the determination whether a particular armed conflict or attack is warranted, and I think that, in this case, it is warranted, notwithstanding the fact that my Bishop has concluded otherwise." I'm pretty sure there are dirty hands all around -- in every Administration -- when it comes to getting-wrong or mis-applying the Church's teachings regarding war-making.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 28, 2012 3:47:57 PM

Thanks for the correction, Professor Garnett! Let me try this-I would charge that many of these folks who backed the invasion only acknowledged the Church's Just War teachings before then saying that the bishops didn't have any knowledge or authority in these areas (as if any of them did!) and that the bishops were bound to be against war anyway, so why consider them (I'm paraphrasing but that was the gist of their arguments).

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Mar 28, 2012 4:08:38 PM

So, I think it's probably *not* appropriate to say, "look, because the bishops would be against war anyway, we can ignore them," but if there *were* in fact bishops (and maybe there were some) whose opposition to military action proceeded from a view that death-causing military actions are *never* permissible anymore, then I think those bishops' views could fairly be discounted, because that view is not correct. Also, it seems to me that it could be appropriate -- in theory, forget about this particular case, and what you think happened -- to say "to reason through the question whether a particular military action is justified, one has to know all the relevant facts. And, the reality is that we -- the decision makers -- know some facts that the bishops just don't. So, with all due respect, their judgment about the answer to the question is not one that we think is the right one." (And, of course, it could well turn out that these decisionmakers were *also* wrong about the facts.)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 28, 2012 4:20:20 PM

In theory, yes, I would agree with that.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Mar 28, 2012 4:26:38 PM

interesting post

i've been very confused about political Catholicism in America
not in chestertonian sense, but about the fact that American Catholics are far more likely to be republicans (and conservatives) than democrats
far more likely to judge ('we know better what's better for you') than to spend (not 'sacrifice') time and money to help the poor and the needy

Posted by: elena | Mar 29, 2012 4:58:10 PM