When the USCCB first issued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship a few years ago, I was one of its biggest fans. It provided an elegant theoretical framework for making moral decisions in the public square, and I am rather fond of elegant theoretical frameworks. Although I still agree with pretty much everything in it, I now find think it problematic for two key reasons. Let me explain.
First – framing the debate around intrinsically evil acts. This is a neat way to do it. After all, in making moral decisions, we can never do something that is intrinsically evil and we can never (formally) cooperate with an intrinsically evil act. The problem is, this doesn’t map very well to voting. For a start, there are plenty of things that are intrinsically evil that have no political relevance, such as masturbation. On the other hand, there are plenty of things that are not intrinsically evil that matter a lot for public morality and justice. Take the death penalty, for example. Since there are circumstances when it is licit, it cannot be intrinsically evil. But since these circumstances are “rare, if practically non-existent”, then it is as good as intrinsically evil, but somehow slips through the net. The same is true for war. And we can simply brush off all matters of economic and social justice.
Here’s the problem – this approach allows people to define themselves and their favored candidates solely in terms of where they stand on a (short) list of intrinsically evil acts. It creates a false dichotomy between what really matters and what can safely be ignored. Even worse, since intrinsic evil covers intent, it somehow becomes valid to merely express one’s opposition to the act in question. Think of the obvious case – abortion. According to one interpretation, all that matter is a political candidate’s views on the legal status of abortion. So one can declare one’s total opposition to abortion, while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to help the unborn, or form a culture of life, and even in some cases supporting actions that make abortion more likely. Of course, this is a false reading of the underlying moral theology, but it is a reading that has been seized strenuously by the Catholic right.
I would prefer a shift in emphasis towards the entire spectrum of grave moral acts that feature in political decision-making. This would prevent people drawing artificial lines, or as Pope Benedict puts it, “clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”. I would prefer an approach like Gaudium Et Spes, which listed as “infamies”: “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons”.
The current framing is not wrong – and it is very neat – but it opens itself up to some egregious misinterpretation.
Second – the economic crisis changed everything. In such circumstances, simply re-issuing a document from 2008 seems almost bizarre. It has the feel of a different era. It reinforces a general feeling that the bishops are out of touch on basic economic issues, that they are not capable of applying the strong messages of Economic Justice for All, written a quarter of a century ago, to the problems of today.
The crisis taught us that there is something deeply immoral in our economic structures, and that we went terribly astray over the past 30 years or so. With their zeal to maximize shareholder values, corporations lost their sense of a deeper social responsibility. Profits could no longer be merely adequate, they had to be maximum. Greed itself became the new social norm. This is a core theme of Caritas in Veritate, but it hardly features in Faithful Citizenship.
The crisis taught us that rising inequality not only rips apart the social fabric, but also makes financial crises more likely and puts economic stability in jeopardy. And while the Church has spoken out strongly for distributive justice, this barely features in Faithful Citizenship.
The crisis taught us that the people who suffer most from such a crisis are the poor, the unemployed, the wage earner. The countries that did well during the crisis tended to have robust safety nets and social norms that allowed corporations to hold onto workers, with all agreeing to work less and the firm taking a hit in profits. But in countries like the United States, the poor are forced to bear the burden of austerity, and labor unions are stripped of bargaining power. Again, the Church has strong opinions on this – Caritas in Veritate speaks out against the “downsizing of social security systems” in the global market and the temptation to “limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions”. But here too, Faithful Citizenship barely scratches the surface.
The problem with such relative silence in this area is that it creates far too much leeway for Catholics to ignore some of the key principles of Catholic social teaching as applied to economic justice. It allows Catholics to support choosing the rich over the poor, and adopting a false and reckless libertarian approach to economic decision-making. It allows people to refuse to help others meet healthcare needs through institutional means, whether directly through subsidies or indirectly through regulations. It provides liberty for all kinds of extreme and farfetched falsehoods, such as when people like Deal Hudson and Matt Smith write that the economic crisis was “worsened by the insistence of the present administration to put our country deeper and deeper into debt”. Such invincible economic ignorance must not go unrefuted, as it has dangerous consequences.
All in all, I much prefer the approach of the Irish bishops. In their voting guide, they thundered in a way that evoked Pius XI in the 1930s, lambasting a “radical individualism” that manifested in a ”bonus culture” that is “regrettably still a feature of banks and financial institutions”, which in turn gave rise to “inequality and damage to social cohesion”. They talk about the need to check the “excesses of advanced capitalism” with “a robust regulatory environment and a concern for the welfare state”. Remember, the Irish crisis and the US crisis have similar roots. These teachings are valid for American Catholics too. Somebody inform the Catholic neocons and tea party acolytes!
Of course, the documents of the US and Irish bishops are both fully in line with Catholic social teaching. I agree with both of them. But ultimately, it’s a matter of emphasis, style, relevance, and tone. And on that, I prefer the Irish version.