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Kieran Raval August 22, 2012
Paul Ryan’s appointment to the 2012 Republican presidential ticket has reignited a firestorm over the congressman’s Catholicity that is reflective of an emerging divide in the Catholic Church in America. The Ryan debacle started in April when he was chastised by 90 Georgetown University professors, led by Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., for “profoundly misreading Church teaching.” It was then the bus-riding-nuns’ turn to play magisterium and critique his policies by calling into question his Catholic faith. This, of course, had the effect of taking any legitimate critique that may have originally existed and burying it beneath a lot of conscious evolution and new age feminism masquerading as Christianity. The issue went dormant for a few months but has now resurfaced in a big way.
Here, I recall my previous refrain that many, including the activist Catholic left, have a very limited vision of Catholic Social Teaching that is a convenient fit for a particular political philosophy. It is not my intention to explicitly support or decry Paul Ryan’s policies. Rather, I intend to evaluate the way in which people, like the Georgetown 90 or the nuns on the bus, make such policy evaluations in light of the teachings of the Catholic Church. At issue here is a proper understanding of moral equivalence and ecclesiology, insofar as they are integral to an authentic hermeneutic for interpreting Catholic Social Teaching.
Not all political issues are created equal, at least from the Church’s point of view. Yet, there is a clear attempt being made by the Catholic left to draw a moral equivalence between issues like abortion and issues like the budget. This is because, deep down, many apologists of the Catholic left realize that their political persuasions are incompatible with the Church’s strong, clear, and consistent teaching on certain key moral issues that have important implications in the public sphere. Rather than humbly acknowledging such a blaring inconsistency, they have tried the red herring approach: “Never mind partial birth abortion or the redefinition of marriage. Look at that budget!”
In a 2004 letter on this very question, then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reinforced the idea that certain issues carry significantly more moral weight than others. Ratzinger wrote, “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.” To that list, we might today add the issues of marriage and the freedom of the Church (or what many would call “religious liberty” issues). Indeed, in a recent column, Ryan’s own bishop, Robert Morlino, says as much: “Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.”
The reality is that Catholic Social Teaching inherently contains a hierarchy of issues. If the society’s most innocent and vulnerable citizens are legally murdered on the order of 1 million per year, or if the basic foundations of society, natural marriage and the family, are subject to activist revision, then other social issues will matter little. Furthermore, beyond the somewhat more-utilitarian question of the importance of these issues for the health of society, there is the more essential question of how one’s political positions affect one’s soul. Before trying to guide any social outcomes, the Church is most concerned with this point.
The criterion for evaluating the morality of supporting a particular position on a social or political issue is whether the position involves an intrinsic moral evil. Support of a position or policy that directly results in an intrinsic moral evil is tantamount to formal or remote cooperation with evil, depending on the circumstances. Policies that allow for the taking innocent human life, or the violation of the definition of marriage, as expressed in natural and divine law, are intrinsic moral evils. Policies about the national budget, welfare, the environment, and even in many cases, warfare, do not exist on the same moral plane.
Thankfully, the Church offers a way forward on these social and political issues that do not hold the moral weight of involving intrinsic moral evil, but are nevertheless very important. The key here is the virtue and concept of prudence. The Magisterium (that is, the teaching authority of the Church: the bishops in union with the Pope), in Catholic Social Teaching, lays out principles like the preferential option for the poor. The Magisterium does not prescribe specific policies as to how the preferential option for the poor is to be actualized. This is, generally speaking, the domain of the laity, who are to be informed by the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and guided by the virtue of prudence. Within this domain, there is much room for reasonable debate and disagreement, even among faithful Catholics. This is because the Church does not prescribe specific social policies.
At least, that should be the case, if one is operating within an ecclesiology (that is, an understanding of the Church) that is in keeping with the Church’s understanding of herself. Here, Bishop Morlino was very clear in his article. It is not for the bishops to be crafting social policy, as if they were policy consultants, or as if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) were a think tank.
We see a problem in ecclesiology, for example, in Bishop Stephen Blaire’s comments that the Ryan budget “fails to meet moral criteria.” Bishop Blaire made his comments in his capacity as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development. This was taken as some kind of official ecclesiastical pronouncement against Ryan by the likes of the Georgetown 90 and the nuns on the bus. Yet, in reality, it was nothing of the sort.
The USCCB, as an episcopal conference, has virtually no teaching authority according to canon law. Cardinal Ratzinger has confirmed this: “No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.” The teaching authority of the Church is exercised by individual bishops, in union with Rome. Bishop Blaire’s position as chairman of his committee, and indeed his statements about the budget, have no weight canonically and make no demands on the faithful. That is not to say that he should be ignored or disregarded, but rather that his statements are his alone, and should not be construed as any official teaching of the Church.
The USCCB and individual bishops ought to be careful not to prescribe particular policies in areas that allow for prudential judgment and do not involve intrinsic moral evils. The bishops must allow for the laity, guided by the Church’s teachings and principles, to be free to address such matters in the public square. Such is the vocation and role of the laity. Furthermore, a more careful posture on the part of the bishops will preclude them from becoming co-opted in service of a partisan political agenda. Not only will this help to ensure a proper ecclesiology, it will allow the bishops to stay above much of the political fray and be a credible voice for the teachings of Jesus Christ, rather than a group of wannabe policy wonks swayed by the winds of partisanship. We may then even be able to re-discover an authentic hermeneutic for Catholic Social Teaching.
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