The following may be a bit of tough talk. I have noted with some interest the responses of many to the re-release of the Faithful Citizenship document by the USCCB. While I can understand some of the frustration on the part of Catholics, I really do have to wonder what it is that we all expect the bishops to do?
The USCCB, for instance, came out with a document on marriage a couple of years ago. Did anyone read that? Does the fact that no one did, or that gay “marriage” has only advanced since then, or that the U.S. populace is now in the majority favorable of gay “marriage”, does any of that have anything to do with the content of the bishops’ document on marriage? No, of course not. So, what exactly do we expect when, within a Catholic populace that contracepts in overwhelming numbers, that divorces at the same rate of the secular culture, that seems to have no problem with homosexuality, this same Catholic population votes for a pro-abortion candidate?
My thinking might be cloudy due to my illness, but let’s at least try to be clear about a thing or two shall we? The bishops are to teach, govern and sanctify. This business of applying moral norms to political activity in order to help form Catholic consciences falls under their teaching umbrella. Now, what is the point of this teaching responsibility? Well, it is so that we Catholics can profess to the truth in faith and morals. The point, therefore, is the truth. It is not, mind this carefully please, it is not to present just enough truth to an electorate in order to influence their vote toward one candidate over another.
The way many write about this document, the bishops failed because people didn’t get that they were supposed to vote for John McCain in 2008, as though that should be the take-away from ecclesial documents or the measure for effective teaching. Never mind the tanking economy, McCain’s odd reaction to it, the media’s total blitz for their chocolate demigod, et alia. No, Faithful Citizenship was a failure because it was too confusing, which translates as “It didn’t say you couldn’t vote for Obama.”
Look, we might all like the bishops to provide us with the kind of clear-cut, black and white vision of political activity for the here and now. We might want them to say to Catholics to “Vote for this guy” or at the very least “Don’t vote for that guy,” but we also have to live in reality.
The bishops are not in the game of gerrymandering the landscape of Catholic conscience so as to produce a voting bloc. When they teach, they teach about principles, eternal principles, things like “never take the life of the innocent”, “never torture”, “never advocate for racism”, “never root for the Yankees”. They are to “read the signs of the times” sure, but they are not going to delineate the boundaries of political activity so as to effectively say “Vote for this guy” or “Don’t vote for that guy.” Our little hearts’ desire to have a voter’s ballot filled out for us by our local ordinary is not and ought not happen, ever. But I can’t help to feel that this is the standard by which the bishops are being judged.
What’s more, note that in all the criticism of the bishops and of Faithful Citizenship, at no point has anyone mentioned anything they teach in error. It is not as though the bishops have been accused of being wrong about what they wrote, erroneous or heretical. As far as I can tell, it is the innate nature of moral discernment in a complicated field that confuses things. In other words, the fact that there are distinctions to be made, the fact that one ought to consider this or that factual possibility, the fact that life is messy, these are what muddy the waters, and less so a cabal of socialist bishops who live to undermine the pro-life side.
At the worst, then, the bishops are guilty of being honest, filling us in on just how confusing moral decisions can be. This is their great crime. Well, that and not giving us the ammunition to win arguments at cocktail parties.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s be practical about something. Can a Catholic vote for a pro-choice candidate? I mean, is it within the realm of possibility that… well… a Catholic could pull the lever for the pro-choice candidate? The answer is yes. Of course it’s possible. If, for instance, the alternative is far worse and depending on how pro-choice the candidate is, then yes, it is possible that the Catholic can vote for a pro-choice candidate. The reader might groan that this is a hypothetical, that it was not the situation before the voters in 2008 or that to mention this is only to confuse the matter. Fine, but it’s TRUE! Does that count for nothing? Apparently not, since telling the truth amounts to socialist compromise and to “confusing” double-speak.
Which leads me to this, since when is it considered “compromising” to admit to the truth? Do we hide the truth in the corner in the name of a greater good? Do we refuse to admit to the truth in order to hold fast to our hope to persuade Catholics toward one political choice over another? Friends, what is it exactly that we’re looking for here? Is it the fairest document that reflects the complexity of life? Or do we really want our bishops to give us a cudgel with which to beat our liberal, Catholic friends over the head?
And let me say that it is not as though a Catholic could not possibly have made the case against Barack Obama by using the text of Faithful Citizenship. Even with all the caveats and the distinctions, based on the text of the document, a reader could easily have come to the conclusion that Catholics ought not vote for Obama. The Catholic apologist could still point out that the senator from Illinois fully advocated and promised to pursue at least three intrinsic evils and that John McCain did not support a single one. So if that’s the case, and it is, then what’s the problem?
The document, flawed as it may be – and I’m willing to admit that it’s flawed – but the document does not deserve the kind of Catholic caterwauling that it has received from the right. This is not to say that Catholics can’t criticize the bishops. However, well-deserved criticism is one thing. Complaining that the bishops just aren’t doing what we would like them to do is another. The current criticism is not about doctrine. The argument is over the prudential application of eternal truths and how some Catholics want a clear-cut line from the USCCB with which to win every argument.
And this is the attitude of many, it seems to me. It is that the bishops should keep quiet about some truths or they should only communicate the truth we want them to communicate so that we can fulfill our deepest desires of moral rectitude and tell our liberal friends to shut up and just do what the bishop’s say. Well, you’ll forgive me if I’m not overly sympathetic towards that project. First, I don’t think it’s good for the soul. Second, as I say above, who actually believes that the Catholics who voted for Obama would have voted otherwise if the bishops had produced the document these folks want? What if the bishops had said one can never vote for a pro-choice candidate? Apart from being against logic and Church teaching, who believes that would have made a difference in a Catholic population that overwhelmingly contracepts, divorces, and whose lives differ not a whit from their agnostic neighbors?
This is at the heart of the matter it seems to me. No one really believes the USCCB could have made a real difference in the voting practices of Catholics who have already bought the secular, socio-political stance of the liberal left. Instead, my friends are angry because the bishops didn’t tell them in so many unequivocal words, “You’re right, they’re wrong.”
Now some might respond to me by saying that the bishops’ job is to lead. We’re the sheep after all. They’re the shepherds. Yes, well, as compelling as that argument might be, at what point do we lay Catholics cease being stultified sheep and start thinking like grown-ups? Politics isn’t clean. I think we know that too. So when do we pick up the texts and decipher them honestly ourselves, as adults? When do we actually take responsibility for our own consciences instead of depending on the bishops to do it all for us?
And anyway, can we look at what the document actually says? This is another thing I’ll note about all the criticism. It is oddly devoid of any actual quotes from the document. Is abortion an intrinsic evil? Yes, the document say it is.
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.
Is it of fundamental importance to the Catholic voter? Yes, the document says so.
Catholics must never abandon the moral requirement to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.
37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.
Is it just one issue among many? No, the document is absolutely clear that one cannot view it that way.
The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.
When there is a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil and one that doesn’t can we support the candidate who advances the intrinsic evil? No say the bishops, unless there is some truly grave moral reason.
“Aha!” you say. “What kind of church-speak is this proportionate reasoning business? Isn’t that just some sort of Marxist, verbal hand-grenade meant to throw smoke on the obvious truth?” Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it’s just plain English. Maybe it is logical since according to the internal logic of the document what is proportionate to intrinsic evils, what is truly gave moral evil, but other intrinsic evils? Oh, and of course maybe it’s the TRUTH! Which is again where I just can’t understand all the complaining.
Let’s look at the phrase “intrinsic evil” while we at this. This is the phrase that our progressive confreres despise so much. It is the phrase upon which they criticized and continue to criticize the bishops. And it is a teaching note of the Church that the document upholds very strongly. The bishops make it clear that these intrinsic evils are the backbone of these moral decisions forming our consciences. With it, the bishops have maintained a crucial, and perhaps the most crucial, aspect of moral theology and the social doctrine. Does that count for nothing either?
Look, I for one think we should be thankful that the bishops have spoken the truth, even the difficult truth, and treated us like adults. We should be thankful that they upheld the doctrine of intrinsic evils so clearly and were so blunt about what is and what is not an intrinsic evil. We should be thankful, furthermore, that they are not telling us who to vote for and who not to vote for. Heck, we should be thankful that they’re trying to form our consciences at all, while other bishops’ conferences around the world are still up in the air as to whether Humanae Vitae was a good idea.
Friends, may I be so bold as to say that it is now up to us Catholic laity to tighten our belts and get to the business of forming consciences ourselves. The bishops have given us the parameters. Sit down and read the document (pdf). I’m sorry that it’s hard. So’s Latin. Buck up, read it anyway, and if you’ve got questions ask someone. But please, please just stop whinging about Faithful Citizenship not being clear enough. I’ll end with this paragraph from the document. God bless, and long live Christ the King:
16. As the Holy Father also taught in Deus Caritas Est, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful” (no. 29). This duty is more critical than ever in today’s political environment, where Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death. Yet this is not a time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement.