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How Our Politics Corrupt Catholic Religion

October 21, 2012

Earlier this month, in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert astutely observed that religious leaders who engage in political advocacy typically assume they’ll “get religion into our politics” but forget that “politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion.”  If I have learned anything from the HHS mandate controversy, it is the truth of these remarks.

To be fair, the Catholic bishops view themselves as playing defense, not offense.  Their stated goal is not to impose Catholic sexual morality on the public, but to protect the religious liberty of Catholic institutions.   And yet, as I have discussed elsewhere, the bishops’ libertarian rhetoric is altogether inconsistent with the traditional Catholic teaching that the use of contraceptives violates natural law, which is in principle applicable to everyone, not just Catholics.  Have the bishops’ abandoned the premise that Catholic sexual morality is universally valid?  Apparently not, for they oppose same sex unions partially on the basis that the “proper mission” of marriage is “having children and raising them”—a position that presupposes the wrongness of contraceptive sex.  So the bishops want to have their Catholic kosher and eat it too: the Church’s contraception ban is at once understood to be a theological idiosyncrasy (HHS mandate) and the basis of public morality (same sex marriage).

I think I’m beginning to understand the bishops’ intellectual inconsistency.  The bishops may continue to espouse orthodoxy on pelvic issues, but they have ceased to understand it in any kind of meaningful way.  Like the liberals they continually chastise, the bishops and their conservative allies tend to evaluate moral issues in terms of the categories of American political thought. Their stances may be authentically Catholic, but the reasoning often reeks of American politics.

Lest readers suppose that contraception is an isolated occurrence, I will take another example of this phenomenon.  As anyone familiar with Catholicism knows, the Church opposes legalized abortion on the grounds that all persons have a right to life—a right which government has a responsibility to protect.  The Church has likewise consistently taught that all persons have a right to health care.  Each of these teachings is part of a seamless intellectual fabric.  The trouble is, they don’t jive with American political thinking.  Social conservatives may adamantly oppose abortion, but they’ve hardly been leading the charge on universal health care—quite the contrary.  Due to what I take to be the corrupting influence of politics, some bishops are now attempting to reconcile their pro-life stance with conservative opposition to Obamacare.  Here, for example, is what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the National Catholic Register when asked about the universal right to health care:

The bishops really do believe it. Health is a basic human right; we have a right to be healthy. There’s no declaration on the part of the Church that that has to be accomplished through government intervention.  There are many ways of approaching health care, and I think it’s very important for Catholics to understand the fact that the Church, seeing health care as a basic human right, does not mean [to say] there’s a particular method of obtaining that [right that’s] better than another.

On the face of it, Chaput’s position seems tenable.  However, as J. Peter Nixon of Commonweal has shown, the Church has consistently taught that the state should proactively ensure that all citizens have access to health care.  And with good reason: for if state intervention is not necessary as a means of protecting basic human rights, then there is no compelling reason to be pro-life!  To paraphrase Chaput—and, for that matter, Joe Biden—we could say that the Church’s view that all persons have a right to life need not entail the position that the criminalization of abortion is the best method of obtaining that right.  Surely, no bishop would endorse such a view—and yet the view is difficult to oppose once one has conceded, along with Chaput, that government doesn’t have a responsibility to protect basic human rights.

As a quick addendum, none of this is to suggest that I think we ought to erect a wall of separation between church and state. To be clear, I doubt that it is possible to separate “public” and “private” morality. As Alasdair MacIntyre brilliantly explains in After Virtue, the Enlightenment project has failed. No one has, as of yet, convincingly identified universally valid moral norms, apart from those we inherit from culture, tradition, and (gasp!) religion. So what? Some on the Catholic right have used MacIntyre’s insight as cover for theocratic ambitions. I am not among them. Enlightenment thinkers may not have provided us with a solid basis for separating church and state, but Stephen Colbert does. Political activism tends to corrupt Church leaders, not just morally but also intellectually. And while it would be foolish to turn the separation of church and state into a religion—for example, by making ex cathedra pronunciations in the New Yorker on the role of religion in American life—caution and restraint are surely prudent.

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