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Why I am not Voting on the Marriage Amendment

October 6, 2012

Warning: Ridiculously long post. Reader discretion is advised.

Minneapolis neighborhood lawn signs sometimes make it seems as though there is not a single homo sapiens in favor of defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In reality, 31 states have amended their constitution to ban same sex marriage and Minnesota might very well be the next. Still, a majority of Americans now favor same sex marriage and Minnesotans United has been pushing hard to get out the “no” vote.

Whatever the outcome this November, neither side will receive support from yours truly. Read more…

Humanae Vitae Apologists Still Aren’t Making Sense

September 29, 2012

In my quest to come to terms with Catholic sexual morality, I have poured over countless essays by lay apologists and professional theologians. Like a gambler pumping coins into a slot machine, I read each essay with the hope that maybe—just maybe—this will be the time I hit the jackpot: a clear understanding of the rationale behind Humanae Vitae. So far, no luck.

Part of the challenge is that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Christopher West), lay apologists shy away from making full throated defenses of the encyclical. You’ll find plenty of denunciations of the HHS Mandate on the internet, but nary a word on why the Church has drawn such a hard line on this issue. Revealingly, Catholic sexual morality is more often than not treated by religious conservatives as a theological idiosyncracy, rather than a universal moral imperative. (Except in the gay marriage debate, where it is simply assumed to be the foundation of Western civilization.) Thus, for example, Rod Dreher compared Church teaching to Jewish dietary law in his commentary on the HHS Mandate.

While I could certainly comment on the essays I’ve photocopied out of obscure academic journals, for blogging purposes it makes more sense to focus on online content, however scant it may be. Anyhow, the difference between the two mediums, I have found, is more a matter of word count than substantive content. So to illustrate why it is I find “defenses” of Humanae vitae so exasperating, I will take an example from a recent post by Mark Shea, which epitomizes much of the literature out there on Catholic sexual morality in tone and substance. (I am not unsympathetic to Shea’s post, which makes a number of wise and insightful points.) Shea writes:

The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power.

Everything in these two sentences is either a self-evident statement or an unsupported assertion. As for the latter, Shea simply assumes that contraceptive sex cannot be a union of love. For Shea, true sexual union is by definition open to fruitfulness. Why is this the case? We aren’t told. And yet the logic behind this link is precisely what Humanae Vitae skeptics such as I claim not to understand.

Even supposing Shea were to concede that contraceptive sex can amount to a union of love, all he is left saying is that contraceptive sex separates pleasure and love from fruitfulness—which is by definition true. We don’t gain any new insight. Shea simply redescribes contraceptive sex so as to imbue it with sinister overtones: on the one hand you have a “permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure”; on the other, the “sacramental union of love and fruitfulness.” While I don’t deny that Shea is a fine prose stylist, what’s missing is a substantive argument. Finally, Shea makes an appeal to revelation, which is a typical last resort for pro-Humanae Vitae apologists. We are to accept the teaching because the Church speaks for Christ. And yet the Church also wants to claim that Humanae Vitae is rooted in natural law, which any rational animal is in theory capable of grasping.

I realize that Shea’s post was not an attempt to provide a sophisticated defense of Humanae Vitae. One ought not give passing remarks the same weight as a doctoral dissertation. With that said, defenses of Humanae Vitae–whether academic or popular–never seem to rise above this level of discourse. What you typically get instead are theologicaly rich rhetorical flourishes, or self-evident statements masquerading as arguments, or reminders of the fact that Catholics are obligated to accept definitive Church teaching, or diatribes about how the hierarchy’s right to believe these things is being crushed by tyrant Obama. All diversions if you ask me.

The Need for Self-Criticism

September 29, 2012

I read somewhere that people tend to measure their wealth not in absolute terms, but by comparison with others. A family living in an affluent gated community may feel poor by comparison with yacht-owning, globe trotting neighbors. But plop that family down in an urban ghetto and their perception is likely to shift dramatically.

Politics is a bit like that. Although the temptation for liberals right now is smugness and complacency, our glowing self-image has more to do with our rivals’ lack of intellectual seriousness and credibility than with the intrinsic merits of liberalism. It’s easy to feel cosmopolitan when your point of reference is Sarah Palin, to feel brainy by comparison with George Bush, or to feel like a dedicated champion of the poor relative to Mitt Romney. In short, next to the wretched hag that is the modern conservative establishment liberals look like beauty queens. And yet according to our own narrative, the conservative establishment is in a death spiral. If that’s the case, the test of liberalism’s merits will soon come from other quarters within the conservative movement: from social conservatives like Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher and Mark Shea; from civil libertarians like Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald; and from distributists like John Medaille and Phillip Blond.

I don’t for a moment want to downplay the importance of debunking misinformation. The conservative establishment may not be intellectually serious, but it does have money and influence. For this reason, liberals have a responsibility to expose conservative deceptions, such as those buttressing Paul Ryan’s convention speech and Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story.

At the same time, my concern–underscored by this excellent post by Conor Friedersdorf on why he refuses to vote Obama–is that, in our quest to take down the conservative establishment, liberals are losing sight of the need for self-criticism. This is especially so with respect to civil liberties and foreign policy. We may not agree with Friedersdorf’s verdict on Obama (I for one don’t), but surely our guy is more than a little vulnerable to critiques of the drone war in Pakistan, the extrajudicial killing of American citizen, and the war in Libya.

As for economic issues, liberal policy wonks–notably Paul Krugman–have in general been good about critiquing the president. What they’ve failed to do is imagine alternatives to liberal policy prescriptions. Libertarianism may be a barren wasteland–but what is the liberal response to conservatives who shun big business and big government alike? Such conservatives are obviously in the minority and don’t play enough of a role in elections to receive widespread attention. But marginal status is not the same thing as non-existence and I hope that liberals will learn to recognize and respond to economic policy proposals more nuanced than trickle down.

Three Ways to Select a Candidate

September 23, 2012

Breaking news: Mitt Romney is an out of touch plutocrat who holds 47% of America in contempt. In all seriousness, I think Romney’s remarks were as inaccurate and insulting as his critics have made them out to be. Still, it seems to me that most critics are missing Romney’s point, which was not so much to slander working Americans as to draw attention to the fact that he needs to appeal to undecided voters to win the election. Romney may be wrong about the 47%–but surely he is right about the 3.1%.

Thus far, Romney’s strategy for winning over the 3% or so of undecideds has been to make the election a referendum on Obama. In doing so, he has taken it for granted–wrongly, judging by recent polls–that independents won’t carefully consider the merits of the stimulus package, auto industry bailouts, or other Obama administration initiatives. While it is possible that there are enough easily manipulated voters in the electorate to secure a Romney victory, I am not so sure. Certainly, there is no dearth of voting guides out there. And my hunch is that a trusted friend or website is going to have more influence on undecideds than Romney campaign messaging.

In Catholic circles, at least, the main question being asked by undecideds right now is not “am I better off today than I was four years ago?” but rather “which candidate is most committed to protecting life from conception to natural death–if any?” Obviously answers to the second question vary. Catholic social thought does not map easily onto American politics, with the result that Catholics face a complex set of considerations when deciding which lever to pull in November. (I am voting Obama, in part because I am a Catholic, but mostly because I am a liberal.) Leaving aside Romney’s appeal to the lowest common denominator, I have come across three main schools of thought in the Catholic blogosphere and elsewhere. While I will focus on undecided Catholic voters in what follows, adherents to each of the “three schools” I have identified can be found both inside and outside of the Catholic Church.

The first school of thought seeks to influence public policy by beating politicians at their own game: power. This school sees cynicism and manipulation behind the politician’s mask of high-minded slogans and rhetoric. Yet rather than withdraw from the political process in disgust, this school seeks to advance its interests through campaign contributions and voting decisions. A secular example is the Wall Street firm that makes campaign contributions to both major candidates with the goal of gaining influence no matter what the outcome of the election. More relevant here are the Evangelicals and other religious conservatives who have reliably voted Republican since Reagan. While the GOP needs support from this voting bloc to win elections, abortion and same sex marriage are generally low on its list of priorities–a reality that has become especially apparent through the candidacy of Mitt Romney. In response, some religious conservatives now seek to re-assert their influence over the GOP. Here, for example, is the advice of Mark Shea to conservatives:

We’re not at Election Day. You don’t have to vote today. What you and I have to do–today–is tell this cynical, manipulative, unprincipled man whose moral center is made of tofu that he had better knuckle under and do exactly what we, his employers, demand he do or we will make life hell for him and his party. We have to tell him that if he complies with what we want, we will reward him and his party. We have to, in short, remember that they work for us, not we for them.

Shea knows full well that Romney is far more interested in protecting the wealth of the 1% than in protecting the unborn or the institution of marriage. He nevertheless seeks to mobilize fellow conservatives to beat Romney into submission. There are two reasons why Shea’s strategy is likely to fail. For one thing, shifting to the right on social issues may win Romney some votes, but it will cost him others. A majority of Americans now favor same sex marriage, which doesn’t bode well for a power play on the part of religious conservatives. Second, if Romney is indeed cynical, manipulative, and unprincipled (as surely everyone who has been closely following this election agrees), then religious conservatives can expect that any campaign promise he makes to curtail abortion or same sex marriage will become null and void the moment he assumes the oath of office.

The second school of thought holds that undecideds should carefully weigh the issues and select the candidate accordingly. A secular example of this school is the MPR “select a candidate survey.” For Catholics, there is the USCCB’s voting guide, Forming Consciences. What this school overlooks is, to quote Cathleen Kaveny, that “apart from referenda items, voters are asked to select among people, not positions.” The Catholic voter who votes for Romney based on his ostensible position on abortion makes the basic mistake of this school. While it is surely possible that Romney has changed his mind since he vehemently defended abortion rights in 2002, abortion has not featured prominently in his campaign rhetoric and, moreover, his track-record of opportunism calls into question the sincerity of his position.

Finally, a third school of thought encourages undecided voters to balance a broad consideration of issues with a consideration of particulars. In the current issue of Commonweal, for example, Cathleen Kaveny critiques the USCCB’s voting guide for falling into what she calls “the single-issue trap” of encouraging Catholics to “first consider abortion and then consider everything else.” Generally, when this point is made it is by Catholics who wish to highlight other morally significant issues: torture, unjust war, and so on. Kaveny’s point is that the USCCB’s discussion of abortion and other issues is too abstract:

How, then, should citizens think morally and practically about the issues relevant to a particular election? In my view the term “issue” is vague; too often the word simultaneously encompasses the diagnosis of a problem, an account of its cause, and a proposed solution. Evaluating a candidate’s stand on the issues requires careful attention to each of these three factors. Furthermore, political issues and the underlying problems they highlight claim our attention in different ways. Some are important, even fundamental, because they go to the basic structure of the political community; others are urgent because the mandate to protect the well-being of the community demands that they be addressed here and now. Issues, then, are not abstract propositions about the community; they are action items, indicating the problems that can be addressed by the tools available to political officeholders. Instead of evaluating the relative significance of issues in the abstract, voters should consider whether and to what degree the problems identified by the issues can be ameliorated by the particular candidate seeking a particular office.

Of the three schools of thought, I am most sympathetic to the third. I do wonder, though, how realistic it is to expect voters to grapple with candidates and issues at this level of sophistication. We may not be a confederacy of dunces, as Romney seems to suppose, but does that make us a nation of philosopher kings? Someday, I hope.

Catholicism in Crisis

September 13, 2012

Pope John Paul II once said that “The Church does not impose; she only proposes.” On the face of it, the Pope’s remark seems unobjectionable. Parish priests do not fine the laity for skipping mass. No one has, to my knowledge, been imprisoned for dissenting from Humanae vitae. That said, it seems to me that the Church does in at least one sense impose. The Church does may not impose fines or prison sentences, but it does impose beliefs.

Admittedly, there are Catholics who take the Catholic faith to be a mere extension of what reason can discover on its own. GK Chesterton, for example, famously argued that “to become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.” While Chesterton may have been a fast learner, for many Catholics learning to think with the Church does not come easily. Moreover, certain doctrines—the contraception ban comes to mind—are so arcane and so badly articulated as to call into question the Church’s overall credibility.

Liberal and conservative Catholics alike tend to avoid the uncertainty and confusion associated with an authentic encounter with Catholic doctrine. (I include myself.) The difference is that whereas liberal Catholics grapple with the doctrines while disregarding the authority, conservatives respect the authority while accepting the doctrines uncritically. More generally, if the Catholic faith calls believers to be in the world but not of it, liberal Catholics err on the side of being both “in” and “of” the world, whereas conservative Catholics do just the opposite, being neither “in” nor “of” the world.

Liberal Catholicism too often simply maps secular norms and ideals onto Catholic theology. Certainly, this approach achieves gains in inclusivity–e.g. by not alienating gay and lesbian Catholics on the basis of teachings on sexual morality that have yet to be supported by coherent arguments. These gains are offset, however, by a loss of theological distinctiveness. Catholicism becomes a mere appendage to the Democratic party platform, causing sensible people to ask along with Ross Douthat: “Why would you need to wash down your left-wing convictions with a draft of Communion wine, when you could take the activism straight and do something else with your weekends?”* Christianity seems redundant. For liberal Catholics of a more mystical bent–e.g. Fr. Thomas Keating and his followers–another question posed by Douthat seems relevant: “Why would you get your mysticism from somebody who was just play-acting, when you could get it instead from someone who really believed it—whether that someone was a swami or a Pentecosalist?” Why, in other words, practice Centering prayer and not Zen?

To their credit, conservative Catholics manage to embrace and defend much of what is distinctive about the faith. Too often, however, conservatives fail to authentically engage with the culture, preferring instead to shield Catholicism from outside influence and criticism. With respect to doctrine, opponents of the HHS mandate virtually never defend Church teaching on its merits. Instead, we are subjected to a constant refrain about religious liberty.

With respect to the beloved figures of conservative Catholicism, one is simply not allowed to question them. I have experienced this personally. Awhile back, in a review of Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion I advanced an argument not unlike the one I am advancing here, taking Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, as an example of a conservative Catholic who had failed to engage Chesterton with secular culture. Rather than engage me in respectful debate, the American Chesterton Society responded by simply dismissing me as a “dishonest blogger.” At EWTN, that bastion of conservative Catholicism, criticism of beloved figures is even more taboo. Not long ago, when Kevin O’Brien speculated—correctly as it turned out—that Raymond Arroyo’s interview of Mitt Romney was going to be more of an exercise in PR than journalism, he was, in his words

inundated with comments and emails, two of which told me that I was sinning by criticizing Raymond Arroyo, and that I should repent in the confessional.

Yesterday, the powers-that-be at EWTN called me and said that they were fielding complaints from viewers who were saying, in effect, “You must choose between airing Kevin O’Brien or airing Raymond Arroyo. You can’t put them both on the air.

O’Brien, being a conservative Catholic himself, defused the conflict by removing the offensive post and stating that

I will not criticize the Network again – either in public or in private.

And I have decided I will remove myself from any future appearances on the Network. I do not want to force them to choose between Raymond Arroyo and me.

Even more recently, John Burger, the writer and editor at the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register, was fired after conducting an interview with celebrity priest Fr. Benedict Groeschel in which Groeschel made remarks sympathetic to pedophile priests, causing a media uproar. Burgher had commited what Rod Dreher incisively refers to as “the sin of journalism.” Dreher continues:

At the Register, the truth won’t set you free; it’ll cost you your job. See, this is part of the reason why so many talented men and women of faith stay away from church-affiliated news and entertainment media. People who run churches and church organizations often don’t understand what communications (journalism, filmmaking, etc.) is. They think it’s all supposed to be publicity, and so they guarantee mediocrity, and ultimately the discouragement of talented people — artists and journalists — who have good and useful talents to give to the whole church.

Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked that it is a “mark of a degenerate tradition that it has contrived a set of epistemological defenses that enable it to avoid being put in question.” This is quite plainly the case with conservative Catholicism. But it is also true of liberal Catholicism. While it is true that liberals question the Catholic tradition’s stance on sexual morality, liberals too often simply take it for granted that their own dissent is compatible with full participation in the sacraments—despite very clear statements from the USCCB to the contrary.**

Catholicism is in crisis. For liberals, the crisis is how to remain loyal to a Church that imposes teachings (specifically, with respect to sexual morality) unable to withstand rational scrutiny. How is it possible to combine loyalty with skepticism? For conservative, the crisis is how to question received dogmas and respected figures in the Church while remaining loyal. How is it possible to combine skepticism with loyalty? Really, there are not two crises, but one. There is one holy, Catholic, apostolic, and seriously flawed Church.

* Quotes are from Douthat’s highly recommended book, Bad Religion.
** See Happy are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist.

Basic Principles, Not Just a List of Numbers

September 3, 2012

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s new book, White House Burning for a thorough, balanced discussion of the national debt. (How’s that for a concise book review?) I’m about a third of the way through it and just came across a quote that neatly encapsulates a point I’ve been making repeatedly on this blog (though not specifically with respect to deficits):

Our national debt problem will be solved, one way or another. After all, even default is a solution, though probably the worst possible one. How we solve that problem will shape the role of government in twenty-first century America and the society that our children and grandchildren will live in. We could have a minimal federal government that protects our borders, runs the federal court system, and largely leaves people and companies to their own devices, regulated only by state and local governments. We could have a social-democratic welfare state, where the government ensures that everyone can meet her basic needs, including subsistence, housing, health care, and education, from cradle to grave. Or we could have something in between. Ultimately, any major deficit reduction strategy implies a vision of society. This is all the more reason why any discussion of the national debt must begin with basic principles, not just a list of numbers [emphasis mine].

The really good policy wonks get this. They’re willing to venture outside of their comfort zone of charts and equations to discuss basic principles; they do not, to quote Paul Krugman, mistake “beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth”; they recognize that economics does not possess the impartial objectivity of the hard sciences.

Some Non-Negotiables

September 2, 2012

In 1992, speaking at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, George H.W. Bush famously declared that “the American way of life is not-negotiable.” In other words, America wasn’t about to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the long-term well-being of the planet.

Increasingly, it seems that the precise opposite of Bush’s remark is true (not an uncommon occurrence). Which is to say that Americans are no longer in a position to negotiate on behalf of our way of life: it simply cannot be sustained. The environmental crisis is but one example of this. Others include: long-term budget deficits, the rising costs of health care and education, and extreme income inequality.

To this familiar list, I would like to add one more example–an example impressed upon me by a conversation I had last night with some friends who recently became parents. It turns out that many new parents find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, rising costs of living virtually require that both parents work a full-time 9-5. On the other, much of that income gets eaten up by child care costs. For the lower-earning parent, soaring child care costs can even be a “pay neutral” proposition. (For more on that, see this article from the Guardian.)

This is obviously a complex problem. In searching for a culprit, liberals can point to growing income equality and the gutting of the social safety net, while conservatives can point to the erosion of family values. I’m inclined to think that both sides have something to offer and that what’s needed is creative problem solving that brings together the best of each. What won’t work is simply treating children as a luxury item or lifestyle choice, as do several readers in the comments section of this recent NYT article on “Straightening Out the Work-Life Balance.” Here is a sample:

As a childless woman, I have been taken advantage of by colleagues with children who felt entitled to my time because they had kids, and often because of their poorly organized personal lives. If your child is sick, then you are entitled. If your child has a softball game, I really don’t care. That is not more important to me than my time at the gym or making a nice, healthy dinner for myself at home vs. picking up something fast.

Environmentally speaking, the American way of life may not last for more than a few generations. But this kind of individualistic attitude is enough to wipe it out in just one. Or, at least, if everyone thought like this reader, successful parenting would quickly become the province of the fortunate few. The rest of us would be required to either contracept the problem away or make a series of harrowing trade-offs.