Ed Morrissey’s Reasonable Talk on Catholic Reasons

A point I frequently try to make, around here, is that Catholicism is too large, too wide, too nuanced, too small-c-catholic to permit ideological purity. Catholic politicians or ideologues who manage such “purity” have always had to betray a tenet of Catholicism to get to that place.

And that, to my way of thinking, is actually one of the best arguments for Catholicism, and Catholic Orthodoxy, in the world. It brings reasonable resistance against sophist trends and the sentimentalist’s means of movement. It discourages lock-stepped conformity to any ideology by forcing us to actually apply a well-reasoned understanding of faith and the world, the dignity of the human person and our humility before the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Catholics certainly may become ideologues — and for that matter, some may even become partisan hacks — but the only way they can get there is by being willing to abandon Catholic thought, and Catholic teaching, for the non-thinking of what Flip Wilson used to call “The Church of What’s Happening Now”.

And lots of us fall into that trap at one time or another.

Ed Morrissey does a good job, today, in attempting to explain to his readers the subtleties of Catholic thought that allow so many Catholics to identify as Democrats (as I used to) and particularly as it pertains to the notion of “social justice.”

Thanks to Glenn Beck, there are some out there who think “social justice” is code for “commie plots and socialism” but in truth, our notion of social justice is well defined by our mission as we have demonstrated it in the world — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, treat the sick, comfort the stricken, companion the abandoned, rescue the captive. Our economic ideas — as Ed touches on — have less to do with socialism (which we will endlessly argue only works when it is undertaken voluntarily, as in monasticism) and more to do with subsidiarity — the notion that the best people to serve the public, create jobs and stimulate an economy are the people nearest to those in need, as opposed to some depersonalized, central governing body who — well-intentioned as it might be — can only apply one-size-fits-all solutions to sometimes very unique situations.

Writes Ed:

Catholic conservatives sometimes feel as though we are sometimes scorned for our approach, though, because Republicans and conservatives rarely offer a coherent philosophy on how best to deal with the very real social problems in our communities, other than insisting that more government won’t solve them. I was glad to see Paul Ryan discussing subsidiarity in his defense of his budget proposal, as many conservative Catholics see the overwhelming entitlement growth as a threat to personal and institutional action — perhaps less so than the HHS mandate, but the mandate itself springs from that accumulation of power to entitlement-program bureaucracies that conservatives within and outside of the faith see as dangerous. Few conservatives in American politics offer that kind of coherent approach, though, and to Catholics who rightly see the pain and suffering of the poor and infirm as a priority, that makes the Democratic Party look legitimately like a better option.

Read Ed’s whole piece. I think you’ll like it! And I’m really glad to see the very level-headed, non-emoting Mr. Morrissey broach this subject. I am too often accused of working with a knife between my teeth. No one has ever felt compelled to utter such a thought about Ed!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Maggie Goff

    Ha ha about the knife ;)

  • Montjoie

    I’ve always been suspicious of the term “social justice” because it sounds like it means revising all of society to conform to somebody’s idea of justice. Revising all of society would require a large top, central power, and who knows who would be chosen to decide what justice means. But what your ideas do is turn that on its head. Subsidiarity means a diversified power that starts at the bottom, nearest to the problem being solved. And, instead of take some random philosopher’s idea of justice, we can embrace what the Bible says justice means. Good work Paul Ryan bringing that idea back into play

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    “…our notion of social justice is well defined by our mission as we have demonstrated it in the world — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, treat the sick, comfort the stricken, companion the abandoned, rescue the captive.”

    I may be a “partisan hack” but I agree with that statement. What people don’t realize is that by and large, those objectives have been met in our society. We have poverty programs that provide shelter and food and living expenses, we have free education and job training, we have libraries and public parks and even some publically funded entertainment, we have free medical for the poor. Where is the lack of dignity? I would love to provide more for the poor. It is tough being poor. But at what point is a lifestyle embedded in destitute because one is accommodated with every need? There is dignity in self sufficiency. There is humility in being poor, and that is not undignified. In fact it is Christian. Taking money from some to provide for more than needs to others is not justice.

    There are three reasons I see why Catholics are gravitating toward the right. (1) The principles of social justice have been met in this country; the issue is mostly over. We can argue over a funding the programs a little more or less here and there, but the programs are in place. When was the last time a Democrat proposed a new program for the poor? What they propose are programs for the middle class. (2) The left side of the political divide has become anti-religious. I’m not going to claim they consciously want to be anti religious but because they are fundamentally secularists they have a bias against religion and they have a mind set, a world view if you will, formulated by the sexual revolution. That mindset is inherently anti Judeo-Christian. (3) Conservatives rely on tradition for the basis of social evolution, and I would argue that’s in natural sympathy with Catholicism, especially the notion of the Magisterium.

    I would argue there’s a fourth reason why Christians should be more free market conservative. There’s a point of social justice diminishing returns. There’s a point where we put all human charity through a government agency, and that is sterile at its core. It’s not really charity. Christ touched people. Human contact with the poor is contact with Christ Himself. Through a mentality that the government is there to help the poor we have lost that Christ touch. I’ve been saying that for years. It was so satisfying when a few weeks ago a quote from Dorothy Day actually substantiated my premise. Is it any wonder that the more we rely on the government to solve social problems, the more society becomes atheistic?

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Ha, it was so satisfying to finally be able to leave a comment! Between you and Deacon Greg closing comments the last few weeks, I was going bonkers. :D

    [Glad you're happy. Not sure how long they'll be left open, though. I am frankly just way too busy to moderate. -admin]

  • Dennis Mahon

    Is that a reference to a H.L. Mencken quote?

  • meerkat

    Sorry. After Roe v. Wade, there’s no “subtlety of thought” in a catholic identifying as Democrat. There is only dishonesty or ignorance.

  • meerkat

    And even if one accepts the term “social justice” without its dystopian overtones — but nice scapegoating of Glenn Beck there, I’ve noticed it’s de rigeur — there is nothing holy about catholics voting for politicians to tax American citizens. Catholics are supposed to care not only for the material well-being of the poor but — what is far more important — the state of their souls, and therefore must not vote for politicians who will provide the poor with free abortions. Not should not, MUST NOT.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    Mr Morrissey offers a safe view of “social justice,” mistaking it, as many do, for charity.

    When you or I feed the poor, visit the sick or jailed, care for the dying, we act in caritas, a loving charity. This is commanded by the Lord, and on that point, every orthodox Christian agrees.

    Social justice is more edgy and dangerous. It acknowledges that sinful human systems give us not a trickle, but a hemorrhage of people in need. The powers-that-be are more content that Christians minister at the tide pools of this, serving pb&j sandwiches, conducting dental check-ups, building a habitat house, and setting up hospices. Or complaining about communists.

    It seems to come down to this: are Christians willing to take our principles and apply them to secular law and policy? For me, it’s less about insisting that Dems and the GOP conform to my idea of justice. It’s really about getting any–*any*–concession on matters that demean brother and sister human beings. Closing Gitmo. Shutting down capital punishment in Texas. Stuff like that.

    Proponents of social justice are doing nothing more and nothing less than saying, “Making a million sandwiches a year is fine. But why are so many poor people in need of food when farmland is put to use producing fuel? If we allowed people to feed themselves, we could concentrate on some other need, like pre-natal care for mothers or such.”

    Seriously: I’d like to see a conservative distinguish between justice and charity and make a comprehensive statement on the former. Conservatives who are otherwise fine Christians seem to just be supporting hand-outs. I’d like to staqrt working on ending the handouts, and giving hands up.

  • John Powers

    Gotta agree that scapegoating Glenn Beck is inappropriate. I have been on various Social Justice committees and boards for around 10 years now that accomplished absolutely nothing. The Catholic Church was funding violent anti-Catholic groups, and openly Communist organizations dedicated to the destruction of the Church. We sat around for interminable meetings and politely asked the grant recipients to refrain from their demands to hang the Bishops, which of course, accomplished nothing.

    Glenn Beck gets on the airwaves, and says this directly, rather than discreetly, and the Social Justice movement finally stops (to an extent) funding enemies of Religion. Beck deserves the credit here.


  • The Producer

    … “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, treat the sick, comfort the stricken, companion the abandoned, rescue the captive” are really acts of compassion. Calling such acts “social justice” is a misuse of both words creating endless arguments over whose ox has been gored, or if one has been harmed at all. This created terminology, “Social Justice” is incorrect and is a misdirection; few would argue with “compassion,” whether a secularist or a spiritual person and, in my view, is a better term for the behavior.
    Cheers !!!

  • Mark Greta

    Have been absent almost totally from blog site comments now for a number of weeks. I did from time to time look in to see what was being posted. Saw that the comments section had been shut down for a while. I left because it did not seem to make any difference with both sides dug in on their position and was in many ways turning me into an angry person. I would imagine that Anchoress and Deacon did enjoy not having to deal with posts. Not sure how long people come to a site to see someone else’s opinion and no ability to comment. What I have been doing with my extra time is spending it working with the local parish on issues around religious freedom attacks by the President and his party and the fortnight for freedom coming up in a few weeks. I hope that this is at the top of everyone’s agenda. We also have been running a teaching program on subsidiarity to educate Catholics on this important issue. Todd does not seem to understand this in his comment above on social justice. It applies not only to charity, but to the so called social justice issues as well. The more you can keep decision making and funding on a local level to help the poor or the prisoners in jails or women pregnant and needing help, the greater the end result. FDR did not understand this and his party has tried to use the issue of centralized power to hammer every nail for decades with little positive results. It is way past time to end the socialist thought forever and to look for new ways to improve peoples lives. Political hacks on both sides hate this as it is what allows them to have power. Courts hate this as it puts them back into the role of deciding laws constitionality based on what is written and not with them legislating what they want to see. The more local you go, the more it is clear what needs to be done for those around us and usually that is to help build jobs and families and end evil such as abortions and removal of God from schools. One Nation Under God is essential to our country and to the people of this nation.

  • meerkat

    “Catholic politicians or ideologues who manage such ‘purity’ have always had to betray a tenet of Catholicism to get to that place.”

    Which tenets have conservative politicians had to betray?

    [Wow, you're still annoyed about this, eh? Illegal immigration, for one, and the absolute reluctance to consider the illegal immigrant as a human being, first and foremost and reform our NIS policies constructively. Instead they do nothing, because it's either "ship them all back" or nothing. -admin]

  • kevin

    Being against illegal immigration is not a sin no matter how many times America magazine claims otherwise. If our immigration laws were enforced, many people here illegally would repatriate themselves, and millions more would never come here in the first place.

    [I never used the word "sin." I said that in order to perfectly conform to an ideology -- left or right -- Catholics end up abandoning, or rationalizing away, those teachings of the church which impede that purity and perfection. The Bishops teach about human dignity and urge comprehensive immigration reform; it is, I think, impossible to be in harmony with the teachings of the bishops and also take the most strident and extreme line against illegal immigrants; those who start huffing hysterically and crying "shamnesty" -- or who oversimplify the thing by suggesting that "just enforcing laws" (how would you do that to ten million people? At gunpoint?) without reforming our broken, mishandled NIS would be the answer -- have put themselves out of alignment with the church in order to indulge the purity of their ideology. These are usually the same people who dislike the folks on the left for ignoring the bishop's position on abortion or gay marriage. And those folks, it goes without saying, dislike the right for badmouthing the bishops on social justice issues. Like I said -- the only way a Catholic can wholly conform to his political ideals is to abandon some part of his Catholic ideals. -admin]

  • Gail Finke

    Glenn Beck may have popularized mistrust of “social justice,” but he could do so only because it is indeed called upon in the name of nutsy things in many places. Sometimes they are just a little nutsy, and sometimes a lot. When you start thinking of everything in terms of justice, there is no room for mercy. Societies need both. Many “social justice” people and programs are all about being unfair to one group of people in the name of being fair to another. There are some really wonderful people doing wonderful work in the name of “social justice,” but to pretend that “solving systemic problems” by creating bigger and bigger social programs administered by bureaucrats who are further and further removed from the people they are supposed to help is absurd. I know someone whose son has a bizarre ailment and will have to rely on the VA for healthcare for the rest of his life. There are some great doctors and facilites, but overall it’s an awful system that is extremely difficult to navigate. That’s what you get with a huge government in charge of an even bigger country. One size never fits all.

  • Meerkat

    Conservative politicians don’t consider illegal immigrants to be human?! REALLY?! Oooookay.

    So what else? What other tenets of catholic faith are being trashed by conservative catholic politicians, since you said “illegal immigration, for one”?

    [Nah, you want to willfully distort my meaning, I stop engaging -admin]

  • Meerkat

    By the way, I’m not “annoyed”. I’m genuinely appalled at, and fascinated by, the weakness of your arguments.

    [Actually I have made extremely strong arguments about illegal immigration -- strong because they are in line with church teaching and also willing to look beyond ideological ranting -- to the point where some of the most passionately engaged have ended up agreeing with me. But I don't have time to run through those again. I barely have time to moderate comments at all, these days. They may have to go, entirely. -admin]

  • kevin

    Well again, as you’ve said yourself correctly many times I believe, you can’t equate something like illegal immigration and its related issues on the one hand with abortion on the other. That’s a false Left-Right equivalence which I think undermines Church teaching more than anything in that it obscures the first right without which there are no other rights. But just briefly on the specific immigration point, I don’t think someone like, say, Michelle Malkin, is a bad Catholic because she is outspoken against illegal immigration, especially the horrific crimes that have been committed by some of our romanticized “brothers” on the other side of the border. I don’t see that her advocacy against illegal immigration is inconsistent with magisterial Catholic teaching in any respect. When the bishops of the entire world (not just the United States) start condemning all laws forbidding illegal immigration (including those of Mexico), I will start taking that a tad more seriously. For the meantime, there’s no need for guns to anyone’s heads; when people threw up their hands at the lawlessness of New York City in the 1970s, despairing that it could ever be fixed, a new mayor had a revolutionary idea: start enforcing the laws, the smaller the better. And it worked. It sets an example and word gets out. There’s no need to naturalize those already here when there are many going through the process legally. For those who don’t leave voluntarily, they can stay here but they don’t get the status of citizen. There are consequences to our actions.

    [Once again, you are putting words in my mouth, which is a bullying, passive-aggressive tactic and one that will prevent me from further engaging, but for the record, I never said "sin" earlier, and I call no one a "bad catholic." I never would presume to. I am not judging anyone Catholicity when I say that in order to conform perfectly to any ideology, one must abandon some teaching of the church; it is simply a fact. The church does not conform perfectly to any ideology, period. admin]