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.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Seeing the Church in Red and Blue

If you were asked “How come nuns tend to be Democrats and bishops tend to be Republicans?” how would you respond?

That was the first question posed Thursday night by Chris Matthews to Sister Simone Campbell on Matthews’ MSNBC show Hardball (video available here).  The segment of the program during which Matthews asked the question ostensibly addressed Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech on Thursday at Georgetown University concerning the budget prepared by Ryan and passed by the Republican controlled House.  Ryan has stated that his public service in government is inspired by his Catholic faith and that the budget that he and his Republican colleagues put forth is consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Chris Matthews, however, is having none of that.  The segment was dedicated to showing that Ryan and his budget are at odds with Catholic social teaching.

Now, Matthews did not trouble himself with what Ryan actually said at Georgetown.  The Hardball segment did not feature a fair sampling from Ryan’s speech, just two sound-bites.  And Ryan was not a guest on the program.  (For those interested in what Ryan actually said Rick posted a link to the transcript of Ryan’s address here.  A video of the address can be found here).  Instead, Matthews quoted a letter signed by some Georgetown faculty in opposition to the Ryan budget (here).

The bulk of the segment, however, involved an interview with James Salt, the head of Catholics United, and Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a lobbying organization sponsored by women religious.  Given that Mr. Salt and Sr. Campbell had already signed a letter in opposition the Ryan budget (here), it seems clear that Matthews was not reaching for journalistic balance in his selection of commentators.  Nor was he trying to provide a forum for dialogue, unless by “dialogue” we mean “monologue” – sadly, a not implausible suggestion in American journalism today.

One way to respond to Matthews’ question would have been to question the alleged voting habits of vowed women religious and Catholic hierarchs – blue nuns and red bishops.  That is, one could deny the factual predicate upon which the question is based, or deny our ability to have confidence in the soundness of the predicate.

That, in essence, is how Chicago’s archbishop, Francis Cardinal George responded to a similar question he received during a question and answer session – albeit a question that assumed Catholic episcopal support for the Democratic Party.  (See the video here).

George was asked: “How could our bishops vote for Obama when he specifically clarified that he was supportive of Planned Parenthood, late-term abortions, funneling high schools with $300 million worth of condoms, etc.?”

Cardinal George responded:

I don’t know if any bishops voted for Obama, and I don’t know anyone else who does.  I never asked any other bishop ‘How did you vote?’ and I don’t think they would tell me if I did ask.  So, how do you know this?  I don’t know how any of you voted and I’m not going to ask you.  So I can’t go out of here and say ‘Well, half the people here voted for Obama.’  How could I say that responsibly without being a sinner?!  It is a sin to detract and to classify a whole group of people, bishops or anyone else, in that way without anyway of knowing it is simply sinful.  It is worse than gossip.

(Watch the full video of George.  It is just under 7 minutes and is well worth the time.  Among his remarks are thoughts on freedom, violence and American history, and the role of the laity in politics.  George also says that those Catholics who did vote for Obama “have an obligation to tell that administration that we didn’t vote for you because you are pro-abortion.  Don’t do this.”  Query whether this has taken place over the last three years).

Whereas George shows prudence, tact, and a desire to avoid sin, Sister Campbell jumps in with both feet.

Gossip, schmossip.

Rather than deny the factual predicate upon which Matthew’s question is based she assumes its truth and then tries to explain it in a rather self-serving way:

Well that’s a really good question.  I’d like to know the answer to it myself, but I have a hunch that it’s our experience that makes the difference.  We sisters work at the margins of society . . . And when you’re in touch with those sorts of struggles you can’t help but realize that we need to be together as a society and respond to the needs of all around us.  We’re only as good as the strength of our society, and that’s why we think that often Democratic principles are much more in keeping with that sense of solidarity.

No one would question the wonderful work that vowed women religious have performed in the United States on behalf of the poor, the uneducated and the marginalized.  (I am proud to count several Ursuline nuns among my teachers in grade school).  Indeed, the CDF recently praised the Gospel-inspired work of American nuns in its otherwise dim assessment of the LCWR (here).  Certainly, familiarity with the day-to-day struggles of the poor can make one more sensitive to their plight, but such sensitivity is hardly the only qualification for crafting policy to address their needs.

More troubling is the fact that Campbell’s remarks imply that the American episcopacy has no connection – no understanding – of poverty in this country.  Even if only by implication (i.e. “I’m a Democrat because I’m on the frontlines of poverty, and the bishops are Republicans because they’re clueless and out of touch, sitting in their chancery offices”) the charge is plainly absurd given the pastoral ministries and life experiences of many American prelates.  The vocation of a bishop – to teach, to sanctify, and to govern – may be different from that of a vowed religious working in a hospital or social service agency, but that does not mean that bishops are unfamiliar with the plight of the poor or that this explains their alleged (and it nothing more than this) support for Republicans.

Now Campbell could have assumed the truth of the premise underlying Matthews’ question – that “nuns tend to be Democrats and bishops tend to be Republicans” – yet offered a very different explanation than the one she did.  For example, Campbell could have said that many American bishops may well support the policies championed by Democrats in serving the needs of the poor but they find the very premise of human dignity undermined by the Democratic Party’s unfailing support for abortion rights.

She could have said that “[n]o public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life” (Living the Gospel of Life ¶ 32).

She might have said that the bishops have many disagreements with the Republican Party on a host of issues, but that they at least recognize the fundamental right to life upon which all other rights depend.  They at least recognize the humanity of unborn children and are willing to see the truth of that humanity reflected in law.

Likewise, she might have noted that “Catholics are not single issue voters” and “[a] candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.  Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship ¶ 42).

She might have said all these things, but she instead stuck to the script provided by Matthews – seeing the Church in blue and red.

Sister Campbell’s failure to mention these points or anything like them – her studied reticence with respect to the right to life and the right to abortion – echoes the CDF’s observation that the LCWR “is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” (here).

Of course the right to life – the legal protection due to the human child developing in his or her mother’s womb – is neither blue nor red.  It is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue.  It is a matter of truth that cannot be ignored, least of all under the guise of support for the poor and disadvantaged since the unborn child is in solidarity with all those who are vunerable in our society.

This truth is neither red nor blue.  It is the clear-eyed vision offered by the Gospel.




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Mother Teresa's order works on the margins of society and they aren't abortion sympathizers. Also true for so many other congregations not affiliated with LCWR.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Apr 29, 2012 2:43:30 PM

I just love Matthews; he sits there and talks about all this stuff, then jets off to his multi-million dollar home on Nantucket where I'm sure he and his buddies discuss how best to identify with those "on the margins" over their evening cocktails.

Posted by: Josh | Apr 29, 2012 4:36:28 PM

From here, it looks like some people are enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

For most of history, nuns have been generally looked down on and have been the butt of jokes.

Now, it turns out they are useful in drawing a contrast with the bishops to make the latter look bad, so all of a sudden people like Matthews see nuns as the true Church reflecting the heart of Jesus among the poor, as compared to the bishops who spend their days in elaborate vestments being shuttled in their Town Cars from civil leadership meetings to high-priced fundraisers.

There's a kernel of truth to this contrast, and the bishops need to ensure that their positions are informed by the perspective of those on the front lines such as these nuns (though there typically isn't much evidenced provided that they aren't other than they have not come to the preferred conclusions).

In any instance, this division has and will be a regular subject of my prayers.

Posted by: JohnMcG | Apr 30, 2012 11:28:34 AM

Hi Professor Breen,

I didn't see this interview because I avoid cable news like I do the plague and I also share your frustrations about CST being divided into easy categories of red versu blue. However, I do think that one could sometimes wonder if the USCCB does try to play favorites with the GOP and the best example I could give of this would be the recent presidential campaign of Rick Santorum. This "Catholic" candidate for president made clear that he supported the torture policies of the Bush Administration and would reinstitute them in his own administration. This would be in clear violation of the Cathecism's teachings on torture, which unambiguosly bans it and without any room for prudential judgement.

However, none of the bishops ever spoke out about this and, when I contacted the USCCB's International Justice and Peace department, I was told that the USCCB saw no reason to speak out on this because "everyone already knows that the Church opposes torture". As you can imagine, I found this response very unsatisfying.

I understand your point on which party is stronger on the abortion and marriage issues. However, these issues of pre-emptive war and torture are very important to me for my own reasons. And I know that the Church has spoken out on these issues before but it could and should have been much stronger regarding Senator Santorum.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Apr 30, 2012 12:38:51 PM