…and then people read them and responded by trying to figure out how to incorporate the Church’s teaching into their lives.
Then, the pope wrote Humanae Vitae and the left pioneered the strategy of deploying “primacy of conscience” as the fig leaf for ignoring whatever the Church said. This was given a huge boost in the 70s and 80s as the “spirit of Vatican II” instructed those navigating by “primacy of conscience” that the Holy Spirit could pretty much always be counted on to tell you exactly what you wanted to hear, particularly about your desires for Pelvic Adventure and liturgical loopiness.
It was around here that I entered the Church (1987) and fairly quickly surveyed what I took to be the lay of the land. The Church, I gathered, was divided between the loopy left and what Peter Kreeft called “non-revisionist Catholics”, aka “faithful conservative Catholics” who accepted the whole of the Church’s teaching, including the inconvenient and difficult Pelvic Bits, and tried to live that out. Having endured numerous nutball Seattle liturgies (“in the Name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, may God our Father/Mother bless you”) with edited scripture readings sanitized for my protection and commentary such as “This passage is a crock” from the Seattle priestly caste, as well as instructions to just feel free to blow off the Church’s more inconvenient teaching, I came into the Church ready to stick it out defiantly against the lefty Seattle fiefdom with its sneering contempt for orthodoxy and its naked disdain for the Holy Father (my DRE loved to mock the Polish accent for the benefit of the RCIA class and tell the newbies what a buffoon the pope was for upholding the Church’s teaching. It made my blood boil. Only silly ultramontanes believed all that junk JPII said, I was assured.)
So I entered the Church in 1987 and set out to seriously live by the profession “I believe all that the holy, Catholic Church, believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God.” Found a great parish in Seattle (Blessed Sacrament) full of wonderful Dominicans who taught me that the key to happiness as a Catholic was what Sherry Weddell has come to term”intentional discipleship”. That means not merely getting the sacramental card punched once a week, nor figuring out strategies for doing as I pleased while checking off a minimum daily adult requirement checklist on bare minimum cooperation with the Holy Spirit when he doesn’t get in my way, but making a serious stab at asking “What do you want me to do today, Jesus?” In this, I assumed that the great secret underground of Faithful Conservative Catholics was my allies and that the mission was to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy from within the regime of liberal dissent I’d seen up close and personal here in Seattle. Seemed reasonable.
Consequently, I took the formulation of the Five Non-Negotiables (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem call research, human cloning, and gay “marriage”) as common sense as, I have no doubt, did whoever formulated them. I can’t remember when I first ran across them (sometime in the 90s I think) and I have no idea who came up with them, but they seemed (and seem) to me to have a certain prima facie common sense to them: Here are five big issues that, at the very least, Catholics should agree on. The “at the very least” was always, for me, the key phrase. It never occurred to me that Catholics would insist that these are the only things Catholics should care about, much less that Catholics should seize on these things to attack other aspects of the Church’s teaching. That was, I assumed, what the Liberals did with their hyperfocus on protesting the Trident base over at Bangor while turning a blind eye to Seattle’s abortion mills. So I happily embraced the five non-negotiables as as a sort of quick and dirty summary of bare minimum adherence to the Church’s fundamental teachings about the dignity of human life, and the family. It didn’t and shouldn’t exhaust our understanding for the Church’s social teaching. But it sketched out the floor of that teaching, below which we cannot go. If you wanted a much fuller teaching, there was the Seamless Garment, which always impressed me as a fine, nuanced, balanced, and sane approach to articulating the whole of the Church’s consistent ethic of life. Indeed, back in the day, I once wrote a piece for the National Catholic Register, sketching out the sanity of the Seamless Garment and more or less naively assumed all Catholics agreed with this obvious, catechism-based, common sense.
Boy, was I naive. In fact, there was tremendous hostility to the Seamless Garment, because there was tremendous hostility from secular political conservatives to applying Catholic teaching consistently. And that hostility was skillfully brought to bear on sincere Catholic prolifers in order to shape as many of us as possible, not into intentional disciples of Jesus, but into useful pawns for the GOP.
I experienced this first hand on various occasions, as when I was once contacted by the Bush White House in early Januar 2003 (I am not making this up) and asked to sit in on a conference call in order to be fed talking points about the rampup to war in Iraq, with the purpose of then disseminating those talking points to my audience and conditioning them to support that war (something that I, at that time, was already stupidly doing).
It left a bad taste in my mouth. I was instructed to repeat the talking points, but not say where I had received them. I realized that I was, with a wink and a nod, being told to play ball as a Catholic writer and be a good instrument of policy. As time went on and it became more and more obvious to me that two popes and all the world’s bishop’s were warning that this war did not meet just war principles (“the concept of preventive war is not in the Catechism”: Ratzinger), and yet “faithful conservative Catholics” were obeying the White House Catholic Press Manipulation Strategists and not listening to the bishops, that started to bother me. Far too late, I realized I had put party loyalty over the Church’s teaching–and on a matter of the life and death of innocents that differed only in body count from that of abortion.
It started to bother me even more as I entered on a solid decade of listening to “faithful conservative Catholics” pull out every lie, fallacy, rhetorical trick, denial, threat, and falsehood they could possibly imagine to defend a completely indefensible commitment to the use of torture. Then I noticed the same thing being done with dissent against the Church’s obvious teaching on the death penalty. Then again with the Annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki Rationalization Festival. Then with numerous other aspects of the Church’s teaching big and small, that did not fit the GOP playbook. And most astonishing to me, every time such acts of dissent from the Church’s obvious guidance were bruited “faithful, non-revisionist” Catholics would then brandish their Precious Feet pins and suggest that if you sided with “liberal doctrine” (as they termed the Church’s guidance) on the death penalty or torture or gun violence, you were somehow supporting abortion.
That was when I belatedly began to realize that, however well-intended they had been, the Five Non-Negotiables had morphed, in the hands of anti-abortion-but-not-prolife conservatives into the Five Only Things that Matter Which We Selectively Apply.
So for many (not all) conservative Catholics, the murder of innocents is bad (unless those innocents are in cities we want to bomb in unjust wars opposed by every bishop in the world and two popes).
For many (not all) conservative Catholics, euthanasia is wrong (unless it is the euthanasia of prisoners on death row in defiance of the obvious teaching of the Church).
For many (not all) conservative Catholics, gay “marriage” is a crisis, but not the multiple marriages of Limbaugh or the adulterous trysts of conservative folk hero Dinesh D’Souza. Both continue to be lionized by conservative and the egregious D’Souza continues to be cheered by the manufacturers of conservative Catholic thought.
For many (not all) conservative Catholics, ESCR turns out to be highly negotiable when Bush and McCain want to do it.
And when the GOP wants to torture and murder prisoners, polls show, for years, that white conservative “prolife” Catholics don’t merely go along with that, they lead the charge, cheerlead for it, and fill the air with the most ridiculous and repulsive blasphemous lies for it to be heard in our culture.
In reality, the five non-negotiables are now the five highly negotiables when they get in the way of conservative agenda items.
What is not negotiable for many conservatives is defense of war, massive spending on war, defense of torture, defense of the death penalty, opposition to every common sense move to help the weak, and a dogmatism on a host of other prudential matters from gun rights to the minimum wage about which large percentages of conservatives will not budge one inch while they pretend to focus on the “non-negotiables”.
And so eager are “Faithful” Catholic leaders to elevate their dogmatic views on alleged prudential judgments that they are upping their game. Time was they waited till the pope had at least opened his mouth before, for instance, writing dismissals of Caritas in Veritate that would make a Soviet propagandist blush. Now they are not even waiting for the pope to speak. They are getting out ahead of him through various organs of the Right Wing Noise Machine to instruct the faithful to ignore and defy the Commie pope and his Population Planner pals on whatever it is he might say about the environment. The Noise Machine is already shouting him down before he opens his mouth–and with grotesque transparent smears that only a fool would believe, declaring that Francis is “aligning with some church enemies,” including “a few environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth redistribution.”. Because the pope and the Church are just *all about* population control and only the brave Fox network is holding the line in its profound respect for Jesus’ and his teaching.
Meanwhile, some of us can not only walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, we can uphold the Church’s teaching on abortion *and* on other items ranging from war crimes like torture and murder to whatever guidance the Magisterium might have to offer on the environment. Some of us even have the extraordinary capacity to wait until Francis actually says something before commenting on it, much less smacking it down and declaring it a “catastrophe”. (Personally, I’m interested in what Francis will have to say since my interest in the climate change debate has always focused on the fact that the whole thing is conducted, on both sides, in the language of faith anyway. With Francis, we will actually have somebody who understands and speaks the language of faith intelligently, instead of the ill-informed mashup of pop science and pop theology that governs both sides of the climate change argument.) But for the Right Wing Noise Machine, the mere thought of Francis speaking to the environment is a disaster and he must be pre-empted with dismissals, disavowals, denunciation, minimization, and an arsenal of rhetoric to instruct the “faithful conservative Catholic” on his duty to uphold right wing talking points against the Magisterium’s guidance well ahead of the hour the Magisterium presents that guidance.
Here’s the deal: Just as the Left has perverted “primacy of conscience” from meaning “form your conscience well and always obey it” to “do whatever you feel like and claim God’s blessing on it”, now the Right has perverted “prudential judgment” from meaning “How can we best and most prudently obey the guidance of the Church?” to “Feel free to blow off and mock the Church’s clear guidance if it does not jibe with the hivemind of Movement Conservatism”. Here, in short, what the “conservative Catholic” hivemind sounds like, and all before it has heard a single word of what the pope actually says:
“The American bishops are equally leftist. As a lifelong practising catholic, I am out.”
“I feel like sending my Catholic Membership card back! So frustrating!!!”
“He’s a material heretic, not just for this, but for a lot of other stuff he’s said; modernist to the core if you ask me, and apparently Bishop Fellay said the same thing. But the ‘traditionilsts’ are the problem? Please.”
“Just another major disappointment for me in my Catholic church.”
“I am Catholic but, am very disappointed by the Current Holy Father — am beginning to think he is an idiot. Stay the hell out of Politics and Fraud Science…..”
“I am a Catholic Convert . I have no respect for this leftist pope & no longer consider myself a Catholic.”
“It is time for an American Catholic Church separate and independent from the Vatican, which is a foreign power.”
“Leftist ideology working without the facts, as most progressives do. I’m done with this PolitiPope!”
“will not pay any attention to this man. I am Catholic and he is off the reservation on this one. Yes he does swing to the left. With abortion and Christians being slaughtered in the middle east he is worried about Climate change. You have got to be kidding.”
The way out of these twin lies of perverted primacy of conscience and perverted prudential judgment is docility. Those still serious about the actual teaching (as distinct from the “spirit”) of Vatican II can get their instruction on what that looks like from, bump ba dum!, the documents of Vatican II:
Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)
This means that the goal of the faithful Catholic is not to figure out which teachings of the Church are binding and only listen to them (unless they forbid torture–in which case we try to lawyer our way into defining waterboarding as ‘not torture’–or abortion–in which case we try to lawyer fetuses into ‘not persons’ in order to kill them) but to assume that all of the Church’s guidance, even the prudential stuff, is reliable and should be implemented unless there is a damn good reason not to.
This is particularly pointed guidance for those (again, many, not all) conservative Catholics who–for all their reliance on the concept of prudential judgment as the loophole for ignoring the Church–seem to be unaware that on almost every issue beyond the selectively applied non-negotiables they consistently demonstrate massive, visible-from-space imprudence. Whether it’s the folly of the Iraq War, or coming to the defense of such obviously dodgy figures as Fr. Corapi and Fr. Maciel, or anointing Cliven Bundy as their Folk Hero, or coming down hard on the side of making war on pope Francis as the enemy of the Church, or attacking gay Catholics who are chaste and disobedient to no teaching of holy Church, or spending countless hours trying to figure out why “CIA-style waterboarding” is compatible with Catholic teaching, or screaming at desperate children at the border and longing to remand them to sex slavery and murder in their native lands, or wasting years trying to prove Obama is Kenyan, or a host of other matters big and small, conservative Catholics repeatedly raise the question “Why trust the prudential judgment of such a hugely imprudent demographic over the perfectly reasonable and common sense guidance of the Church?”
All of which is to say, I haven’t moved an inch since I said, back in 1987, “I believe all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God.” What has moved is a considerable portion of the Catholic conservative demographic, which no longer believes that such a profession is sufficient to define what constitutes a “faithful Catholic” and which, on countless occasions, has informed me that I am a “so-called Catholic” or a “fake Catholic” for failing to despise and mock the pope, to support torture and unjust war, to believe that our gun regime is perfect, to accept that screaming at terrified children at the border is morally good, and to think that our treatment of the weak and poor cannot be improved upon, etc. It turns out the profession of faith in the Church’s teaching and the non-negotiables are not the core issues for many (not all) “faithful conservative” Catholics. Rather, adherence to Movement Conservative shibboleths and economic and culture policies is. Being sure to always despise Obama is. The second amendment is. Defense of waterboarding is.
No thanks. I will stick with the Church’s guidance, not merely on bare minimum matters of dogma and not committing mortal sin, but on even prudential issues. I want the whole megillah, not just the bits acceptable to some some small suffocating subculture in the Church.