Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s inaugural essay as an opinion columnist at the Washington Post critiques the performance of Catholic Republicans in allowing Church teaching to guide their policies. Bruenig presents a tale of Catholic conservatives abandoning Catholic social teaching and respect for papal and episcopal guidance in exchange for a political alliance with evangelical Christians that focuses on “issues related to sexuality” rather than the social safety net. This is framed as a lamentable development, a trade by Catholics of their moral birthright for a mess of laissez-faire pottage. In her estimation, Catholic conservatives are failing to live out Church teaching in the public square.
But beyond Bruenig’s frame we see a larger picture, one that also includes the compromises of Catholics on the other end of the political spectrum. While Bruenig alludes to the traditional alliance of American Catholics with the Democrat Party, she makes no mention of the extremes to which some Catholic Democrats have gone to maintain that relationship. Bruenig argues that Catholic Republicans betray the Church’s social doctrine in their budgets; but she makes no mention of the acquiescence of Catholic Democrats to that party’s extremist abortion platform. (Extreme is an apt word, as the Washington Post recently discovered: America is one of only seven nations to allow abortion after 20 weeks, yet the Democrat Party enthusiastically supports the legality of abortion right up to birth, including partial-birth abortions.) The sight of Catholic Democrat politicians making excuses for their party’s position, from “I’m personally opposed, but” to the slanderous contention that St. Thomas Aquinas was not opposed to abortion, is all too familiar. And certainly such a capitulation is noteworthy in a discussion on Catholics upholding Church teaching in public policy. Yet this dimension of Catholic political engagement is absent from Bruenig’s essay, and the lacuna has the appearance of mere partisanship.
Bruenig raises important challenges to the actions of some Catholic Republicans. Catholics are called to show deference and respect to even the prudential judgments of the pope and bishops, and in certain examples she raises, from Bobby Jindal refusing the bishops’ request to at least not execute a prisoner on Ash Wednesday to Chris Christie stating in a debate, “I think the pope is wrong,” some have failed to do so. Many would likewise point to the elimination of the adoption tax credit in the recently proposed budget as another example of a policy that would not be in accord with Catholic values. But while each party’s faithful are deserving of criticism, there is a significant difference between the two kinds of failure.
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The distinction lies in the nature of positive commands versus negative commands. As Pope St. John Paul II explained in Veritatis Splendor, particularly paragraph 52, negative commands are fulfilled simply: do not do the proscribed act, and you have fulfilled the law. I can obey “Do not torture” by not torturing, or “do not kidnap” by not kidnapping. But fulfilling positive commands is more complicated since there is no upper limit to the demands of charity—which also makes the “lower limit” harder to identify, precisely because the moral life is not about bare minimums and checking boxes, but reflecting and manifesting the love of God, which has no limits.
Of course, not everything forbidden by the moral law is likewise made a civil crime. It is wrong to lie, but lying does not mean jail time unless one is under oath. It is wrong to commit adultery, but adultery in itself carries no criminal penalties. But as St. Thomas teaches, human law does not forbid every evil, “but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like” (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 2, c.). It is (or should not be) hard to see why abortion and euthanasia fall under that category, and why society ought not to change the definition of such a fundamental institution as marriage.
It is also not hard to see how in failing to oppose these actions, Catholic Democrats have failed to fulfill commands of the moral law—if the law says “Do not support abortion,” and you support abortion, you have violated the law. But when Catholic Republicans or conservatives are charged with failing to “provide for the poor” or “care for the earth” by their policies, we can see how unlike the two situations are. No one disputes that we ought to care for the poor and the planet, but they do dispute how it ought to be done, and whether a given policy sufficiently works toward this goal is a matter for discussion and debate.
Yet many Catholic Democrats do indeed dispute whether we ought to oppose abortion or same-sex “marriage” or euthanasia, but these are precisely the issues that are not up for debate. The demand of the moral law is clear, but it is ignored. In the case of budget proposals for government programs, the dispute is over whether the moral law has been fulfilled adequately through civil law and policy; in the case of Catholic Democrats’ approach to matters such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex “marriage,” the dispute is whether the moral law ought to be fulfilled in civil law, the tired “we can’t legislate morality” bit.
(This, of course, is a red herring. Every bit of legislation is a legislation of morality: it is society’s answer through its elected representatives to questions of what is good, what is evil, and what is permissible. Notice how no Catholic Democrat objects to “legislating morality” when gun restrictions come up—indeed, they deem it a “moral imperative”!)
The Church’s teaching, and the nature of the moral imperatives themselves, allow for a multitude of legitimate answers in fulfilling positive commands. There is no such multiplicity in fulfilling negative commands. Catholic Democrats who argue the contrary deserve correction.
All Catholics in public life should reflect upon whether their policies properly reflect and fulfill the love of God and neighbor that is the greatest of commandments, and Bruenig’s essay provides good food for thought for those on the right. Yet it gives insufficient attention both to the nature of different kinds of moral laws, and to the failings of Catholics on the left to live up to them.