I think Socrates had a rule, and I believe it went something like this:
One can never write anything that will keep someone who wants to misinterpret you from doing so.
I suspect it is why the man never wrote a thing.
When this was said to me many years ago, it struck me as one of the truest things I’d ever heard. And it certainly has come to my mind recently after having written a defense of the bishops’ document Faithful Citizenship on this blog and a short explanation about the document for the National Catholic Register.
I won’t rehash my defenses, but I do want to address the comment of a particularly perceptive reader who framed a good argument and asked a good question. I started to respond to him, and I found that as I did so there was a larger issue which I think needs to be addressed.
The comment from the last post which I consider noteworthy comes from Justin and starts with some assumptions with which I, and I think most people, agree:
Here are the assumptions I’m making before asking my ultimate question.
1. Faithful Citizenship (FC) must be interpreted as a whole.
2. Those who claim FC justifies voting for a pro-abortion candidate in the current American context are guilty of proof-texting and a violation of premise #1.
3. Those who say that you think FC justifies a pro-abortion candidate in the current American context are also guilty of proof-texting (or just plain not reading carefully) your post.
4. What the bishops say in FC is true.
5. FC didn’t make one iota of difference in the election results or in people’s belief of the morality of voting.
The rest of the comment says that under Cardinal Newman’s “argument on the principle of economy” the bishops are not required to tell the whole truth all the time. So long as what they say is not misleading or false, nothing requires them to provide every nuanced position when it comes to voting. Just as God revealed himself through the economy of salvation in piecemeal, bit by bit, likewise, the bishops could share with us the principles for Catholic voting bit by bit, withholding some things that are true but which may be confusing.
Justin goes on to argue that this method might actually be the best approach since, after all, people have a tendency to proof-text, to interpret statements falsely. A simpler, pared down version of Faithful Citizenship would perhaps have been less confusing to folks, and would also have kept less than faithful Catholics from pulling phrases out of context to justify a terrible vote. He sums up his question this way:
Should a document be written in such a way that it’s reception should always be considered? When a reception can lead to more error than truth regardless of what the document says, should the principle of economy be applied?
As Justin goes on to say, this is more of a matter of prudence. It seems that it is imprudent for the bishops to have written some of the things they wrote, even though it may have been true. I agree with Justin that it is not out of line to question the prudence of the bishops, and I think the comment is a stellar argument against what the bishops’ produced.
However, as I tried to consider what exactly could or should have been taken out of the document, I began to be increasingly saddened. I also realized that in some cases, not telling the whole truth would have resulted in a false statement. Finally, I realized – given the bizarre responses I’ve received – that the bishops needed to say what they said precisely because some people need to hear it.
Principle of Economy
The reason I don’t think the principle of economy works here is because by withholding some information, the bishops could actually end up saying something false. Justin wrote in his original comment that “only stating some of [the truth] would also be true.” But I don’t know
that that’s always the case here.
The bishops said that one may not vote for a pro-choice candidate. Then they qualified it with the statement “if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” If we remove that qualifier, however, we are left with a false statement, namely that “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil.” In point of fact, a Catholic can in some circustance vote for such a candidate. So here is an example of where the principle of economy doesn’t work.
The only other situation I could think of that would perhaps have “solved” the confusion would be in those several instances in the document where the bishops say that Catholics are not single-issue voters. This may be true, but saying it can only confuse people and give fodder to the progressive wing of the Church, right? For instance the bishops write,
The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues.
Elsewhere, they say that Catholics have an obligation to seek to care for the poor. The bishops quote Pope Benedict’s Deus caritas est where we read:
Love for widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacrament and preaching of the Gospel.
It is this reference to our obligations to the poor that some say “confused” the situation. Perhaps, under the principle of economy, the bishops should have left out these reminders so as not to give fodder to some in the “social justice” community who justified voting for a pro-abortion candidate in the name of saving the poor.
In this case, Justin may be right that leaving these statements out would not have made the rest of the document false. However, what would have been left would have been terrible impoverished and I believe would have lacked precisely what some well-meaning Catholics desperately need to hear.
Forgetting the Poor
When I wrote my piece for the Register a Mr. Deal Hudson and Mr Matt Smith decided to write a response to the paper criticizing my presentation on Faithful Citizenship. It is in the lastest edition of the paper in fact. I suspect that they have more a problem with the bishops than with me, but I want to point out somethings, because I think their response is exactly why the bishops need to keep saying what they say about the poor… about our not being single-issue voters.
You see, based on the statements by the bishops to encourage Catholics to remember the “needy of every kind” and not just the unborn, I wrote in my column:
While we can withhold our support for a candidate or even for a party because of their stance on an intrinsic evil, we must still work with the remaining candidates and parties to make them better meet the needs of the sick, the stranger, the prisoner and the widow.
To this, in the kind of astonishing bluntness one just doesn’t expect from intelligent men, Hudsdon and Smith assure their readers that no, Catholic “pro-life voters who rule out voting for a pro-abortion politician certainly are not required” to work with candidates or parties to help the poor. Yes, that’s right, all that business about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, that was all a figment of your imagination.
Now, I know that Hudson and Smith don’t really believe that, or at least I pray for the sake of their immortal souls that they don’t believe that. I cannot imagine that they actually think that Catholics have no obligation to, as the pope says, to manifest their love for the “needy of every kind.” But regardless of whether or not they meant it, that’s what they wrote.
Combine that with the fact that comments on my last post suggested that this obligation for the poor was some communist/socialist plot to redistribute wealth, and I have to wonder whether or not conservative Catholics have been pushed into this corner of having to deny our love for the poor so as not to take anything away from our care of the unborn.
Is this what we have come to? Is it really the case that in order to achieve clarity on not voting for a pro-choice candidate – which, I’ll remind you, can take place in certain cases – that we have abandoned our language of caring for the widow and the orphan? Honestly?
This is why the bishop’s statement about being a single-issue voter is I think crucial. This too is a statement which, under Justin’s principle of economy, the bishops could have left out and not have affected the veracity of the rest of the document. Also, as I experienced myself several times, this was the line so often quoted to me by progressive Catholics who didn’t want to hear about abortion at all. So why not remove it? Hudson and Smith, in their response to me, objected that I dared even repeat it since it’s a “straw-man” argument that doesn’t bear on reality.
First, let me point out that the bishops do in point of fact say, two sentences after noting that Catholics are not single-issue voters, that a Catholic can disqualify a candidate over a single issue if that issue is an intrinsic evil. So what the bishops actually say is that you can’t be a single-issue voter when deciding for whom who to vote, but you can be a single-issue voter when deciding for whom not to vote because obviously some things are just so evil that anyone who thinks they’re good probably doesn’t deserve to be elected into public office.
Second, again, given the comments I’ve heard and the response from Hudson and Smith, if a Catholic is not obliged to work with candidates and parties for the sake of the poor or to even consider the poor when voting, if the bishops cannot even mention the obligation for the poor lest they “confuse” the Catholic populace away from voting against the pro-choice guy, then isn’t this exactly what single-issue voting looks like?
When Catholics comment on my posts and say things like, “There is only one issue and that’s abortion,” or “ I only need to look at one issue,” or when they conclude that mention of the poor must mean a socialist plot amongst the bishops, then it is just objectively true that in at least the way these Catholics talk about voting they are single-issue voters.
In a sense, I don’t blame them. From many perspectives, the Republican candidates, who tend to be pro-life in at least name, are not so horrifically evil that any other issues rise to the top of consideration. War and the use of military might has certainly been an issue with the Republican candidates, but then war is not an intrinsic evil and Catholics can disagree on the particularities of how and why we got into them.
Furthermore, on several other issues, the Republican side can be said to have a better impact on the poor than their opponents. Education reform, just to take an example, is an area in which the poor need desperate help. The Democratic party’s close ties to the Teachers Unions will always prevent the needed reform, and so, just as we saw with the D.C. area voucher system, the Democratic Party will throw the poor under the bus in order to placate the union.
Still, Republicans aren’t exactly known for their kindness to the immigrant community, and the support of the majority of Republicans for torture, which is an intrinsic evil, is hugely problematic. Why cannot Catholics disqualify such candidates over that instrinsic evil too? But that said, it is just astonishing to me that Catholics have been so undermined in their religious sense that they cannot even hear about the care of the poor and not think about some evil plot.
The Bishop’s Needed to Say It.
This is why, when looking at the question of what the bishops should or should not have said in Faithful Citizenship, I think they needed to talk about the single-issue voter. I believe they need to continue to remind us that we have this obligation for the “needy of every kind.” I firmly hold that the bishops need to continue to stretch all of us Catholics into understanding that our political activity does not start and stop with the opposition of pro-abortion candidates.
I closed my piece for the Register by saying this,
Christ shall judge us according to how well we fed and clothed and visited, and less according to how many votes we didn’t cast.
Hudson and Smith somehow confused this to mean that I was concerned about pro-life voters staying home instead of voting. I’m not sure where they got that, since the meaning is pretty plain for anyone familiar with Scripture. In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read Christ words:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Nowhere in that list is, “for you didn’t vote for the other guy.” I’m not saying that Christ will not appreciate our votes against pro-abortion or pro-gay “marriage” candidates; and I can just hear someone trying to remind me that there were no democratic republics in Palestine at the time of Jesus so of course He’s not going to mention voting; but the fact is, folks, that Jesus was very clear about something, and that is that if we do not share our wealth, if we do not take time to care for the poor, then we can end up in HELL.
He doesn’t pull any punches on that one. Behaving like the rich man who ignored Lazarus? You’re going to hell. Refuse to do the above “for one of the least of these”? You’re going to hell, to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Caring for the poor, my friends, is not an option of Catholic life. It is, again as the Holy Father says, “as essential” to our Catholic life as the liturgy and as evangelization. The notion that the bishops might just want to keep quiet about it so as not to give liberal Catholics a foothold ought to be offensive to us all.
One can never write anything that will keep someone who wants to misinterpret you from doing so.
This is a sobering rule for anyone who tries writing about almost any subject. I’ve seen the truth of it with my own eyes, but as I said in my last post, I think we ought to be grateful to our bishops for have having ventured out into the public sphere in order to help form our consciences. They could, dissuaded by the rule just above, have decided that it would have been too much effort to try to please all the fickle hearts and minds that are only too eager to cast aspersions. They could have truncated their message as per the principle of economy and only given us a sad skeleton of what Catholic civic life ought to include. But they didn’t. As true shepherds they produced something that does give some clear teaching.
Personally, I think we need more catechists who are willing and able to teach this document. The language is not always accessible to the average Joe, but then ecclesial documents don’t tend to be written that way. So better formation of catechists needs to take place so that they can better teach what Faithful Citizenship says.
Let me end with two things. First, I’m not suggesting that Justin, in his comment and question, is in favor of keeping quiet about the poor. He asked a simple but important question which I’ve used to try to address a problem. I do hope he doesn’t think I’m accusing him of anything other than being a great participant in this online exchange.
Second, I want to close with the words of the Vatican Fathers from Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Here is what they wrote:
43. This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. …This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.
For the bishops to be true shepherds they have to give us all our temporal duties. To fail to do so would have, as the Lord told Ezekiel, jeopardize their own salvation. And if we, friends, do not consider our duties to the poor, if we try to get our bishops to keep quiet about it in the name of abortion, we are ultimately undermining our pro-life cause and we are, too, jeopardizing our own “eternal salvation.”
God bless, and long live Christ the King.