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To Blindly Follow or Blindly Oppose? Alan Wolfe and the Catholic Church

November 10, 2009

Alan Wolfe at The New Republic comments on the mixed support for the Stupak Amendment among Catholics:

These days, Catholics are all over the map politically, even on issues on which their Church takes strong stands. According to a March 2009 Gallup poll, there are no significant differences between Catholics and other Americans on either abortion or stem cell research: 40 percent of Catholics find abortion morally acceptable and 63 percent have no problem with stem cells, compared to 41 percent and 62 percent of non-Catholics respectively. In its own way, the Stupak Amendment revealed the single most important truth about American Catholics: their unwillingness to blindly follow Church teachings.

Wolfe seems to be assuming here that Catholics who oppose abortion must be “blindly” following Church teachings. Is it not possible for a Catholic to think over a Church teaching and decide that it makes sense? Yes, we all know that the Vatican sometimes resorts to bullying dissident clergy and theologians. Yet the old argument against Catholicism was not that it reasoned too little, but that it reasoned too much. Scholasticism did not make too little sense for Luther and Calvin — it made too much sense for the early reformers, who preferred their God to absolutely transcend human reason. Many Catholics and nearly all non-Catholics are simply unaware of the Church’s unrelenting rationalism: the Vatican may be wrong about abortion, but it is certainly not wrong due to a lack of clear thinking. (It is possible to be at once perfectly lucid and wildly mistaken, as in the case of Stanley Fish.)

So perhaps what looks to Wolfe like independence of mind will turn out in many cases to be mere intellectual laziness. Certainly, Wolfe dismisses Church teaching on superficial grounds:

The Stupak Amendment will not prohibit all insurance plans from paying for abortions, but will restrict those held by the less well off. In that sense, Stupak’s amendment violates the commitments to social justice and equality that have become so much part of the worldview of younger Catholics such as those I teach at Boston College. Stupak, a Catholic from Michigan, along with his allies among the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have taken a step likely to be perceived as blatantly unfair by those who constitute the future of their church. If this is Catholicism muscling its political power, it sure is a strange way to do so.

Wolfe is, on the one hand, correct that the Church has always had a strong commitment to social justice. Yet what are we to make of his assertion that the younger Catholics he teaches would not approve of the amendment? Do young Catholics have some kind of special access to the truth that the poor old USCCB lacks? Given that young Catholics “constitute the future of their church,” ought the USCCB therefore defer to them on all matters of faith and morals? One also wonders what Wolfe means when he says that opposing the Stupak amendment “sure is a strange way” for Catholicism to muscle its political power. If the Church defines abortion as the taking of an innocent life, ought it nevertheless oppose the amendment for the sake of “equality”? Is human life a “strange” reason for the Church to speak up on political matters?

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