The Moral Coherence of the Catholic Politician

On January 16, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued something it called a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” Declaring that Catholic politicians have “a duty to be morally coherent,” the note insisted that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

This note from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s office cannot mean that Catholic politicians have a duty to cease to be politicians—which is to say, a big chunk of incoherence has to be allowed, politicians being what they are. Nobody ever won an election trying to hold to the level of intellectual coherence we demand from mathematicians and logicians; a certain flexibility (shall we say) typifies the people drawn to electoral politics.

But, at least in part, that’s a good thing, for the practice of politics is not a science, whatever the professors of political science might like to claim. Like all arts, it requires the application of prudence, and its principles exist at a lower level of certainty than do the principles of any science, which is one of the reasons that politics necessarily involves some give and take. Suppose a senator votes for another senator’s program—a program he thinks mildly silly and unimportant— in return for that second senator’s vote on something the first senator thinks is important. That may be incoherent in some strict sense, but it doesn’t enter deeply into the realm of sin. It may even be praiseworthy, insofar as anything in the curious trade of politics can be worthy of praise.

So what does it mean when Cardinal Ratzinger demands that Catholic politicians fulfill their “duty to be morally coherent”? What does it mean to say that they may not vote for something that “contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals”?

Mere Christianity?

The Catholic laity may be forgiven for being unable to sort out the differences in weight and authority among the documents that flow in a never-ceasing stream from Rome. In his work on papal teaching, the Catholic philosopher Russell Hittinger has identified more than 25 distinct species of Vatican pronouncements. Who, apart from a professional Romanist, can distinguish among an encyclical letter, apostolic letter, exhortation, allocution, bull, declaration, moto proprio, decretal, and instructio? And that’s just from Italy. Closer to home, American Catholics are also faced by their local pastor’s homilies, statements from their local bishop, and a wide variety of proclamations from their national bishops’ conference. Meanwhile, there hardly seems to be a single Catholic theologian in America who isn’t quoted by some newspaper on the “Catholic view” of whatever the issue of the day happens to be.

If we add to all this, for one final twist, the difference between what a Catholic figure may assert in private and what he may responsibly promote in public, the result is very hard to grasp. What does it mean when the pope asks a Catholic governor to commute a death sentence? How much incoherence does a politician admit by calling himself a Catholic and failing to follow a position paper from the American bishops’ conference on welfare reform? Does it matter that a Catholic politician supports a war when the Vatican’s diplomatic corps is working overtime to stop that war? And why exactly shouldn’t people in public life call themselves “pro-choice Catholics” if they want to?

It’s fairly common, in this context, to speak loosely of what is central to Catholic teaching and what is peripheral—as though “the fundamental contents of faith and morals” were a sort of inner core, with various accretions more or less strongly attached.

The metaphor isn’t inaccurate; theologically, it represents a version of what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity”: those tenets of the faith necessary for something to be considered even a version of Christianity. But the metaphor of centrality also breaks down in a number of places, and it seems unhelpful for sorting out all that needs sorting out. One difficulty is determining the exact place in Christianity of any kind of moral teaching at all. Looked at from the perspective of immediate personal conversion, what lies at the center of Catholicism is a belief in the salvation of Jesus Christ. Looked at from the perspective of usual religious practice, what lies at the center of Catholicism is the efficacy of the sacraments. Looked at from the perspective of a particular Christian people, what lies at the center of Catholicism is the shared history of apostolic descent through the Church. In all of these, the answer to any particular moral question is important, but it is also the consequence of conversion rather than the content of conversion—as, indeed, must be the case when Christianity is understood as first a claim about the metaphysical reality of God’s love for the world, rather than first a claim about human ethics.

Another difficulty with the metaphor of centrality is knowing who is doing the defining as central. The phrase “cultural Catholics” is often used in a way that expresses a deep corruption and cynicism about the capacity of the Church to teach specific lessons of faith and morals in America. But the phrase nonetheless captures something true about Catholic spirituality. Whatever the Church’s critics, from Voltaire to Mary Daly, might say, Catholicism has never been a strict hierarchy. Innumerable cults of the saints and religious practices—like the miracle of Lourdes and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, to take only two modern examples—have bubbled up from the people to force themselves on more-or-less dubious theologians and a reluctant Roman Curia. The idea of “cultural Catholics” captures something about how a Catholic consensus emerges in the shared sensibility and practice of the people of God. And that way of achieving consensus makes it hard to apply the metaphor of centrality to the disputed barricades where Catholicism and culture meet.

The Larger Problem

All these difficulties about defining what’s central to Catholic teaching combine to place bishops in an awkward position—and the CDF’s doctrinal note doesn’t resolve the matter by using the essentially equivalent phrase of “the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” (Indeed, as Hittinger points out, the note may make things rather more confused by its statement that the state may not interfere in “specifically religious activities” except “when it is a question of public order”—leaving out the formula “in accord with the objective moral order,” which Karol Wojtyla had insisted at Vatican II be used to qualify any defense of “public order.”)

As it happens, we have manifest proof that politicians can find a Catholic theologian to provide grounds for allowing almost any political position. So, for instance, Senator Ted Kennedy has insisted for years that he has theological advisers who tell him his support for abortion is fine, despite such clear teaching to the contrary as Evangelium Vitae. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has written in the pages of First Things a strong defense of his support for the death penalty, despite the undeniable opposition of Pope

John Paul II. In Rome on April 18 (the Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. reports), Tommy Thompson, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, defended the Bush administration’s solution to the 2001 stem-cell debate, despite its apparent distance from Catholic understanding. “I feel morally correct,” Thompson said. “I think it’s in line with Church teaching that instead of throwing valuable resources away we make use of them.” And the list of supporters for war with Iraq, despite Vatican disagreement, included many American politicians known to be very serious Catholics indeed—starting with Senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum.

If Catholic bishops in America were faced just with problems like these, they would still have awkward sheep to tend. But, meanwhile, there are two even larger wolves waiting to devour any shepherd foolish enough to venture out of the fold.

The first is the distaste Americans seem to have for anyone telling them they have to do or believe anything. “Don’t tread on me” was a distinctly national boast, once upon a time. Both an admirable individualism and a despicable moral relativism have their roots in the American temperament that has been a problem for Rome ever since the formation of the American Church.

It can reach absurd dimensions. On January 22, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento rejected the claim of California Governor Gray Davis to be a “pro-choice Catholic”—and was promptly denounced by Davis’s spokesman for “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.” There’s something both deeply hilarious and deeply revealing about that complaint from the governor’s office. The promise of the separation of church and state, in which no political figure gets to tell believers how to practice their faith, has apparently turned into a need for the separation of church and church, in which not even a religious figure gets to tell believers how to practice their faith. What’s comic about this is its utter incoherence. What’s revealing is the way in which the natural American mistrust of authority, which began in the 1940s to express itself through the Supreme Court in a certain extreme vision of the separation of church and state, has grown into a hatred of any public appearance by faith.

The second wolf that waits for American bishops is the scandals about Catholic priests that dominated news reports about religion for over a year. The full consequences of that heartbreaking moment have yet to be calculated, either in America or in Rome, but here’s one small measure, as viewed from Washington, D.C.: On December 1, 2001, the Catholic Church was at the absolute forefront of the fight against cloning. Three months later, by February 1, 2002, the Catholic Church had essentially disappeared from the battle. In the middle of the campaign to force Tom Daschle, then majority leader, to allow an anti-cloning bill to come to the floor of the Senate, one major metropolitan bishop told me that he didn’t dare lobby his senators on the issue—for fear they would answer, “Who the hell are you to lecture me on a moral issue?” and rupture their relationship forever.

Weighing the Issues

Nonetheless—and for the first time since the story of the priest scandals broke—American bishops are beginning to act again on the public stage. It makes for an interesting test of the damage done. But the bishops’ capacity to speak on moral concerns needs to be defined, not by the metaphor of centrality, but by ranking each particular issue on three different scales. The first is the certainty with which the Church, both in the consensus of the people and the teaching of the Magisterium, holds a position. The second is the immediacy of the harm being done by public figures who publicly declare or support a contrary position. And the third scale on which a bishop’s intervention needs to be measured is the prudential one of effectiveness—the likelihood that an attempt to impose Church discipline will have good effect either on the person to whom it is applied or on the rest of the faithful.

On the first scale, measuring by the certainty with which a position is held, the various issues bedeviling American society can be arranged in rank. Opposition to the war in Iraq seems to come fairly low, however fervently it was preached in Rome. But the key word here is preached. The Catechism clearly leaves the job of deciding to go to war to the prudential judgment of the competent civil authorities, subject only to the canons of just-war theory. And, during the run-up to the military action against Iraq, American Catholics seemed in general neither to have blamed the Vatican for its opposition to the war nor to have followed the Vatican in that opposition. To a surprisingly uniform degree, the sense of the Catholic faithful was that the pope was right, in a certain way, to insist that war is terrible. What else could—what else should—the leader of Christ’s Church say? War always represents a failure of human mercy, somewhere along the line, and it’s the pope’s job to say so. But there are requirements of justice, as well as pleas for mercy, and the burden of fulfilling that justice fell on the American and British soldiers.

This general consensus of American Catholics would have less force if it were in clear contradiction to the deposit of the long history of the teachings of the Church; the Bible warns, one remembers, about the recalcitrance of a stiff-necked people. But though a drift toward a functional pacifism seems to be taking slow effect among numerous theologians, we haven’t arrived at the complete inversion of just-war theory to mean, somehow, that no war can ever be just. And short of that apocalyptic goal, dissent from the Vatican’s preaching on the Iraqi war was allowable— and more than allowable: Both the astonishingly minimal way in which the war was actually carried out and the postwar revelations of the scale of evil practiced under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny demonstrate the correctness of the American politicians’ prudential judgment.

Placing capital punishment on the scale of certainty is more of a problem. The anti–death penalty changes to the Catechism over the past decade still allow the application of prudential judgment—as do the pope’s many preachings against the use of judicial death sentences in developed countries. But Evangelium Vitae suggested strong grounds for the prudential judgment against capital punishment, beginning with the corruption endemic to a culture of death. At its best, the death penalty is supposed to teach the culture about reverence for life: We honor life so much that we will not allow those who murder to live. But in a culture already turned away from life, the death penalty teaches merely that yet more life is dismissable, that yet more life doesn’t count.

This forcing of capital punishment entirely into the context of the life issues seems to me a superior view of the American reality, and polls appear to show that Catholics’ support for the death penalty is broad but not deep, easily shaken, for instance, by recent claims that DNA evidence exonerates many death-row inmates. What’s more, opposition to the death penalty finds at least some support in the long tradition of Catholic teaching, which (though often allowing capital punishment in a cultural context in which it was universally applied) consistently argued for the amelio-ration of the judicial punishments of the time. Nonetheless, the Catechism admits the use of capital punishment in situations where the preservation of society demands it. And with the question of just when the preservation of society so demands, the matter still seems in the realm of prudential judgment—which means that dissent from the hierarchy’s preaching on the matter is possible.

Placing abortion on the scale of certainty, however, requires very little prudential judgment at all—and dissent from the Church’s teaching is extremely difficult to justify. There’s a rumor that the first draft of Evangelium Vitae declared the impermissibility of abortion an infallible teaching of the Church, and the pope was persuaded to tone down the language only by the argument that news reports about his use of his power to speak infallibly would overshadow the thing he was speaking about. Regardless of its truth (and it has too much of the shape of an apocryphal story to be trustworthy), the rumor reflects something about the level of certainty with which the Church knows that abortion is wrong.

Indeed, even without the language of infallibility, the Catechism could hardly be clearer: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception…. Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.” Something of this certainty is recognized even in Mario Cuomo’s famous formula of “personally opposed” but politically supportive of abortion—the fallback of nearly every Catholic politician in the Democratic Party after the banning of pro-life governor Robert Casey from the party platform in 1992 proved that the Democrats were determined to limit their national figures to proponents of abortion. No one spoke this year of being “personally opposed” but politically supportive of war with Iraq—for the simple reason that no such distinction was necessary.

Signs of Change

However much the doctrinal note from Cardinal Ratzinger’s office insists that “the Christian faith is an integral unity,” it also admits about questions of war and peace that “certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved.” By the time we arrive at abortion, however, we have left the proper realm of politics. “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise, or derogation,” the note continues, “the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility.”

One could perform this same sort of analysis on the second scale on which the bishops’ capacity to speak on moral concerns in the political realm needs to be measured— which is to say, by the immediacy and extent of the harm being addressed. On this scale, capital punishment would, for example, slip below the question of war with Iraq. As it turned out, the war was as justly and humanely waged as it is possible for war to be. But in its pressingness and its potential for the loss of human life, it ranked very high indeed.

Nonetheless, both war and the death penalty are dwarfed by the immediacy and extent of abortion in America. The Church believes abortion murderous with a high degree of certainty, and if abortion is murder, then we are ankle-deep in blood. Only on the third scale—the scale of the effectiveness of intervention by the Church in the political realm—do any questions about abortion remain. They are, however, very important questions about what a bishop can do in the American polity today without making things worse.

Some efforts have been made before. Six years ago, for instance, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, announced the automatic excommunication of anyone belonging to Planned Parenthood and other “anti-Catholic” organizations. Four years later, the archbishop of Lima, Peru, Juan Luis Cardinal Cipriani, instructed his pastors to refuse Communion to public figures who support abortion. At the end of the Michigan gubernatorial campaign last fall, Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit preached on the “special moral obligation” of Catholics—especially politicians—to oppose abortion.

Since the doctrinal note about Catholics in political life appeared in January, however, two American bishops have tested the waters by attempting to discipline pro-abortion Catholic politicians. It was at a pro-life Mass on January 22 that Bishop Weigand of Sacramento first publicly spoke of Gray Davis’s claim to be a “pro-choice Catholic.” After describing the efforts by Davis’s pastor to get the governor to see the moral incoherence of his position, Weigand went on to declare, “As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone—politician or otherwise—who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.”

And then, this spring, the bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Robert Carlson, sent a private letter to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle that sources say called on Daschle to remove from his congressional biography and campaign literature his identification as a Catholic. This isn’t exactly excommunication, and direct excommunication is unnecessary, in any case, since Daschle made himself ineligible for Communion with his divorce in 1983 and his remarriage, to a Washington lobbyist, a year later.

Bishop Carlson consistently refused to discuss the contents of the letter after the story was first reported (by me, in the Weekly Standard, as it happens), and his letter was, in any case, something less than direct excommunication. At the same time, it appeared to be something even more than excommunication: a declaration that Daschle’s identification of himself as a Catholic constitutes, in technical Catholic vocabulary, a grave public scandal. He was brought up as a Catholic, and he may still be in some genuine mental and spiritual relation to the Church. (Who besides his confessor could say?) But Daschle’s consistent political opposition to Catholic teachings on abortion (his direct fundraising for NARAL, in fact) has made him such a problem for ordinary churchgoers that the Church must deny him the use of the word “Catholic.”

 Looking Ahead

For both Bishops Weigand and Carlson—indeed, for all American bishops—the question of effectiveness remains unanswered so far. Many of the tools of intervention have grown rusty over the years. Who can imagine the Catholic Church using an interdiction that prohibits the sacraments for entire geographical regions anymore? The last great bulls of excommunication issued by the papacy against a national leader were those directed at Napoleon and England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and it would be hard to say either of those worked out particularly well. Besides, many of these tools never seemed applicable to the situation in the United States, and the cultural and ethnic unity of American Catholics— deliverable as solid blocks of voters, the ultimate political argument in a democracy— has massively declined.

Of course, there may be a genuine pastoral purpose in forcing Catholic politicians to assume their “duty to be morally coherent.” But even that is open to interpretation, for what happens if they abandon their claims to be Catholics as a result? Is coherence achieved in the wrong direction a coherence worth achieving?

This is still a matter left to the prudential judgment of the individual bishops. But Cardinal Ratzinger’s doctrinal note raises the stakes considerably, and the answer, in both the consensus of the Catholic people and the guide of the hierarchy, is becoming increasingly clear. There are fundamental contents of faith and morals that the Church knows with certainty, and these contents need to be taught in a way that conveys the seriousness of that certainty—both for the souls of Catholic politicians who have tried to finesse them away and for the sake of the ordinary faithful who are scandalized and weakened by such politicians’ incoherence.

There’s quite a list of pro-abortion Catholics in Washington who could use instruction in “the duty to be morally coherent.” The time has come to banish both the phrase “pro-choice Catholic” and the Cuomoism of “personally opposed” from the lexicon of American politics. Public figures who aren’t going to oppose abortion shouldn’t call themselves Catholic anymore.


  • J. Bottum

    At the time this article was published, J. Bottum was books and arts editor of The Weekly Standard and a Crisis contributing editor.

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