Partisan Ideology vs. the Common Good

Richard E. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, has an excellent essay in America on how the Catholic faith should supersede partisanship. The message is so sorely needed and well-articulated that it’s hard to keep from quoting the whole thing (if you are an American Catholic, whatever your political affiliation, read it!), but here are some not-to-be-missed highlights:

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and Catholic convert, says Catholics use their most deeply held values, whether that means defense of the unborn or care for the poor, to choose a party, but sooner or later they join “the side they’re on.” This is the opposite of what the U.S. bishops advocate in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” “As Catholics,” it says, “we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”

The idea is that Catholics should work within their parties to change them, creating a diverse and substantial group motivated not so much by ideology but by challenging cultural issues, large and small.

This is easier said than done. The bishops are asking Catholics to raise uncomfortable issues in sometimes exceedingly hostile environments. Many Democrats have worked strenuously since Roe v. Wade to purge dissenters on legalized abortion from party ranks. They have succeeded to the extent that pro-life Democrats find themselves in a no-man’s land, often reviled for their views and distrusted by pro-lifers because of their party affiliation. More recently, Republicans have sought to purify party ranks of even the slightest variations from party orthodoxy. Republican candidates and legislators espouse increasingly hard-line positions punitive to immigrants and cut disproportionately programs that help the poor.

In this partisan environment, Catholics may feel “politically homeless,” to borrow a phrase from John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The parties’ retreat from the ideological center has left Catholics with the understandable, but unfortunate impression that their only political option is to choose a side and join in to win the culture war. The resulting toxic acrimony has long since seeped into the church. Catholics must reverse this trend….

Catholics must … act in a way that reflects a belief in a higher truth, seeing a greater horizon beyond that of a partisan agenda. This is the essence of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which urges Catholics to place the church’s priority teachings at the heart of their worldview and moral decision-making. Practically speaking, this means that political positions should be judged by how well they express the values and truths of the faith, not the other way around….

Both parties should pursue the common good more than partisan advantage. For instance, as Catholics work for legal protection for the unborn as a matter of justice, they can also advance pro-life goals by strengthening and enforcing anti-discrimination laws for pregnant women in the workforce. And they can advocate for more generous parental-leave benefits. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not require employers to provide paid parental leave for workers. If Bolivia and Haiti, among the poorest countries in this hemisphere, can offer two and three months of paid leave, the United States—among the richest nations in history—can certainly do more. Increased attention to this issue would show that the United States places a high value on human life. And it would help forge a cultural perception that pregnant women really do have options and that abortion does not have to be tolerated, even as a “necessary evil.” The pro-life cause is also helped by making poor families a priority instead of an afterthought, so that no one can hide behind the excuse that people need abortions because “they just can’t afford another child.”

Meanwhile, the challenges of the highest domestic poverty rate in 15 years are too great for one party or philosophy to solve. Democrats must take seriously the concerns of Republicans that the government cannot be all things to all people. Republicans must take seriously the concerns of Democrats that the government has a role to play. Members of both parties must acknowledge the risk of future unsustainable deficits and put everything on the table to address the problem, including revenue, unnecessary defense spending, and just and fair entitlement reform.

The Catholic vision is one of collaboration, not coercion, among individuals, governments, businesses and other institutions. Its focus is not on profit or a winning ideology. Its focus is on creating conditions in which people can develop and ultimately flourish, in which their lives enjoy non-negotiable protection from conception to natural death, and thus can fully reflect the dignity God intended. This applies to every level, from individual to global. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the Catholic vision is to ensure that problems are tackled in the best possible context and that all stakeholders meet their responsibilities to one another. Subsidiarity locates responsibility at the lowest feasible level of society and requires other levels to support them in meeting their responsibilities. Both parties lack this vision or at least do not trust each other enough to make decisions that favor the common good consistently. Catholics could help and lead by example.

Catholicism has appeal across centuries, cultures and ideologies. Today the church can evangelize by working among people with various perspectives to counter the excesses of ideology. It might often make people angry, but it also would make the Catholic voice more difficult to ignore, elevating it above mere partisan agendas. It would give the church renewed credibility as a moral voice and force in the culture. In the words of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” “We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world.”

Preach it, Bishop Pates!

Now, at the risk of veering off into a whole other topic, an editorial in the same issue of America provides a timely example of how just such a transpartisan approach can apply to a particular issue, not by way of a noncommittal neutrality or by trying to somehow split the distance between left and right, but by looking beyond facile political categorizations of the “issues” to the principles connecting them, and by acknowledging the ways in which both major parties fall short and are subject to critique.

The editorial, which reflects on some of the moral, societal and political implications raised by the Aurora, CO shooting, resonates with a haunting comment I heard in conversation just after the tragedy, to the effect that a mass shooting happens somewhere in the United States about every 1-2 years almost like clockwork, and this is the sin we’re willing to put up with rather than sacrificing any autonomy in the form of gun ownership.  “If some say that gun violence is the cost society must pay for citizens to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms,” the editors say in response to this chilling compromise, “then others must insist that the cost is too high.”  A couple of further key points:

In the weighing of rights, a gun-owner’s “freedom” ought not to trump all the societal benefits to be gained from limiting it. That view is no longer popular….

After a massacre, questions about the collective good are typically raised. Yet they are put aside once the gunman is portrayed as a lone actor among millions of law-abiding gun-owners, whose constitutional rights ought not be infringed because of one oddball’s misbehavior. Thus society allows individuals to build an armory, heedless of the rights of all Americans to live in safety….

Until society’s preference for the unlimited exercise of individual rights over those of the common good is tempered, our nation will remain hostage to the gun lobby. And our politicians will be reduced to offering victims condolences rather than solutions to gun violence. Is this the society we want?

Bishop Pates and the editors of America are raising exactly the kind of question Americans need to be asking, especially those of us whose political participation is informed by Catholic faith: where is the place of the common good in a society that idolizes the autonomy of the individual (an idolatry that can all to easily dress itself in either red or blue)?  Catholic citizens have a moral duty to stand for the protection of all human life and dignity, “from conception to natural death.”  This means insisting, wherever the issues fall within the absurdities of our political sphere, that an individual’s “freedom of choice” is never more valuable than anyone’s life.

About Julia Smucker
  • Rat-biter

    Plenty of interesting stuff there – but does the quarter it comes from have any credibility left ?

  • Kurt

    The Bishop writes: Both parties should pursue the common good more than partisan advantage. For instance, as Catholics work for legal protection for the unborn as a matter of justice, they can also advance pro-life goals by … [advocating] for more generous parental-leave benefits….. Increased attention to this issue would show that the United States places a high value on human life. And it would help forge a cultural perception that pregnant women really do have options and that abortion does not have to be tolerated, even as a “necessary evil.”

    And then he notes: Today the church can evangelize by working among people with various perspectives to counter the excesses of ideology.

    Twenty years ago, I was part of an effort to win enactment of what became the Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing many workers to take unpaid parental leave. I considered it a modest first step with the hope we would one day turn to paid parental leave. Myself and others representing labor were joined by representatives of the Catholic Bishops and many (pro-choice) women’s organizations. Beyond the fact that we were successful in getting the bill passed, the Catholic pro-life witness at these meetings had other positive impacts.

    Today, there is a similar coalition effort for paid parental leave and, despite the Bishop’s warm words, there is no Catholic or pro-life participation in this effort.

    I agree with what the Bishop is saying. I think he would have been better to say it to his brother bishops than to the readership of America magazine.

  • Jordan

    Bishop Pates [from the America article cited]: This is the essence of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which urges Catholics to place the church’s priority teachings at the heart of their worldview and moral decision-making. Practically speaking, this means that political positions should be judged by how well they express the values and truths of the faith, not the other way around.

    A few months ago I happened to be at home with Mom and Dad during a weekday. On that day, like every day of her later life, Mom was chain-watching EWTN. When I saw Raymond Arroyo fawning over Rep. Paul Ryan, I fumed with internal rage. Although I already expected very little social justice empathy from EWTN, the network’s shameless endorsement of Rep. Ryan’s plan for the economic serfdom of 99% of America was more than scandalous. To me, EWTN’s invitation of Rep. Ryan to speak was an aggressive abdication of the pilgrim church and the inherent dignity of all citizens despite means.

    My previous rant on the impossibility of a democratic Catholic confessionalism stems from a great despair over the apparent inability of Catholics to build a comprehensively pro-life state that is moral not out of dictatorial compulsion but because democratic moral leadership will lead to a moral renovation of citizens. An electorate would consistently vote for a comprehensively pro-life state because of the evident restorative power of the Catholic faith in action. I am convinced that Bishop Pates desires to build this state. He is, I fear, quite in the minority among the hierarchs. Most bishops, if EWTN is any barometer, would rather lap up a shortsighted Republican pro-natalism. This behavior, I am convinced, is the antithesis of comprehensive-life Catholic social democracy. Still, many of our lay and clerical leaders act in bad faith because the road to social justice is often anonymous and without material reward.

    • Jimmy Mac

      Unfortunately, when bishops urge “Catholics to place the church’s priority teachings at the heart of their worldview and moral decision-making” everything is colored by and directed toward life before birth. They are sadly minimal with other life issues compared to abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and the usual pelvic issues.

      • Julia Smucker

        I think the bishops themselves would beg to differ: check out their extensive list of human life and dignity issues. And their quiz on the facts about political issues that is currently featured on their website reflects this breadth and is visibly informed by Catholic Social Teaching.

        It’s not that the bishops are minimal with other life issues, it’s that the “pelvic issues” get all the press.

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com digbydolben

    You do understand that what you’re advocating is “social democracy,” alongside traditional Catholic communitarian values, right? And you do understand, right? that the Protestant “Gospel of Abundance,” as well as the Protestant theological tenets of “predestination” and “salvation by faith alone” (not the “works” that cannot “sanctify” and emphasis upon which the Protestants deem “blasphemy”) mitigate against what you’re advocating. It is upon THESE theological principles that the American faith in “rugged individualism” and the “myth of Horatio Alger” are founded–creating the default position in American politics of “faith in the market” and “economic liberalism.” It always astounds me how little American Catholics know about the intellectual history of the culture that surrounds them, and how little they appreciate how firmly it rests on Reformation heresy.

  • Julia Smucker

    Wow, I wasn’t expecting such an outpouring of negative sentiment toward the bishops from this post. If this is how we react whenever a bishop says something true and eloquent, our cynicism may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which essentially proves Pates’ point about how the toxicity of our political atmosphere has seeped into the Church. Can’t we give at least some of our shepherds a little credit when they get it right, rather than automatically assuming they are all the enemy?

    • Kurt

      Bishop Pates deserves a little credit for getting it intellectually right. Is there something more he is owed?

      • Julia Smucker

        Refraining from dismissing his spot-on social critique simply by virtue of his being a bishop is the least we can do to show him some respect for his message, I think.

        • Kurt

          I don’t dismiss his spot on social critique. I long for an actual Catholic, particularly episcopal, presence in the efforts he describes, for example paid parental leave. I long for it less because of the help it brings the cause but more that I believe an active Catholic presence in causes like this helps also the pro-life cause in the ways the bishop suggests.

          On the other hand, it is probably a waste of time to try to engage the episcopacy on this issue. If a paid parental leave bill comes before Congress that includes gay families, the USCCB will likely issue an letter saying they cannot support paid parental leave because it includes gay people. That is what the bishops did on immigration, walking away from immigrant family unification legislation.

          • Julia Smucker

            What are you saying, that the bishops have refused to support immigration reform that included gay immigrants? I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Everything I’ve seen from the USCCB on immigration has been very supportive of immigrant rights, and they often connect this to being pro-family. Besides which, one of their major concerns about the Affordable Care Act (by far the most overlooked in public discourse) is that it does not allow undocumented immigrants to buy health insurance (see their response to the supreme court ruling here).

        • Kurt

          From the USCCB:

          June 2, 2009

          Honorable Mike Honda
          United States House of Representatives
          1713 Longworth House Office Bldg.
          Washington, DC 20515

          Dear Representative Honda:

          On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, I write to offer our views on the Reuniting Families Act, which you have indicated you will introduce in the 111th Congress. As you know, the USCCB supported H.R. 6638, similar legislation that you introduced during the 110th Congress. Unfortunately, however, while the bishops support many of the provisions in the Reuniting Families Act, your decision to include in the bill the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would provide marriage-like immigration benefits to same sex relationships, makes it impossible for the bishops to support this year’s version of your bill. …

          http://old.usccb.org/comm/archives/2009/09-122.shtml

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=756600456 Ron Chandonia

      Thanks, Julia. Your presence here has brought real level-headedness to Vox Nova. To Catholic partisans on the left, our bishops (Gumbleton perhaps excepted) have become the enemy. It’s part of the problem Bishop Pates so thoughtfully described here: the all-or-nothingness of American partisanship. If I like the Republican stance on marriage or abortion, I have to defend war-wongering (or budget-cutting) and those who monger it (or cut it). If I prefer the Dems on health care or the rest of the social safety net, I have to boycott Chick-fil-A and declare abortion a problem too “complex” to be a fit subject of legislation. Despite its continued support for many progressive causes, today’s institutional Church (especially its bishops) is seen as a component of the Republican team, and so anyone doing church work who has not done the “I am Catholic BUT . . . ” number is persona non grata to most of the people who comment regularly on this blog.

    • Jordan

      Julia: If this is how we react whenever a bishop says something true and eloquent, our cynicism may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which essentially proves Pates’ point about how the toxicity of our political atmosphere has seeped into the Church.

      Thank you for the familial correction, Julia. I was wrong to push aside Bishop Pates’s call for tolerance and instead blast away at perceived enemies. I am sincerely convinced that Bp. Pates is trying to reconcile the torn and troubled Catholic family. He must be given due and his courage praised.

      I will take some time off of Vox Nova, pray, and reflect. I should investigate why I harbor hatred towards my economically and socially conservative brothers and sisters. I should also honestly try to understand why some Catholics abhor progressive politics and economics to the same degree I abhor political and economic conservatism. And, when reason will inevitably fail, I must resolve to worship alongside those I disagree with in a heartfelt charity.

      Thank you for indirectly illustrating my faults.

      • Julia Smucker

        Jordan, thank you in turn for this introspective and irenic response, and for indirectly holding me accountable as well. Too often my own zeal against partisan bitterness turns into the same bitterness in me toward the partisans. To quote a favorite hymn line that so often springs to my mind, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

        We all have a lot to learn, myself included.

    • brettsalkeld

      Thank you Julia! Really. Let’s rejoice when our bishops get something THIS right.

      Also, I don’t imagine other bishops were not part of Pates’ imagined audience. Bishops read America, especially when their brother Bishops write in it.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I truly agree with Bishop Pates—thank you for sharing this. But I share some of the despair (though not all the cynicism) expressed in the previous comments. In my last year as minister of my fraternity, prior to the 2008 election, I led a two part discussion about the issues (nothing about candidates). In the first part, we just tried to list all the issues that a Catholic should be concerned about; my hope was that we could then discuss what Catholic social policies to address these issues would look like. This fell apart completely at the second meeting. One member started the discussion by asking point blank if I supported the “five non-negotiables” (from the Catholic Answers pamphlet) and when I demurred (because I thought the list was reductionist and not an official Cath), she walked out. Another member read a long statement in which she basically denied that any social issues mattered except abortion. The discussion went downhill after that.

    Somehow, we are unable to have the conversations we need to work together.

    • Julia Smucker

      David, I very much share your frustration, and I think your anecdote shows that the laity bear as much responsibility for the polarization as the hierarchy.

      • Carl Diederichs

        But the hierarchy should be leaders and teachers and they simply buy into the “my way or the highway” mentality. See how Pates relates to the Republicans in his state. No questions asked.

        • Julia Smucker

          An awfully sweeping and uncharitable generalization there. Maybe you should take a lesson from Jordan and do some prayer and reflection.

        • Carl Diederichs

          I thought I was being too generous to the bishops. I will do some praying and reflecting, as you suggest.

    • Jimmy Mac

      What was single-issue politics has migrated into single-issue Catholicism in the public square.

      If that is part of the “New Evangelization,” fuggedaboutit.

    • Pinky

      David, you’re not going to have a political discussion without some confrontational people attending. And there are definitely going to be differences of opinion, and differences of priority. The question is, how did you respond to this development? You might be able to get through a lecture without disagreement, but that’s never going to happen with an open discussion. And do you think that anyone had a positive experience? Again, you can’t expect everyone to come out on the same page, but you may be underestimating the results of the events.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Pinky, my disappointment arises from the fact that this was not any random collection of people, but a Franciscan fraternity. Franciscans are, by charism, peacemakers: we are called to bring peace, openness and love to all that we do. Yet here we are, gathered in meeting with our brothers and sisters, and the bonds of partisan ideology were stronger than the bonds of community.

        • Pinky

          And up until that point you thought you were in a jerk-free community? I recall Carmelites irritating each other in The Story of a Soul. Franciscans were even unpleasant to Francis at times. It seems to me that the least Franciscan thing to do is to be discouraged.