Toward a Consistent Life Ethic: How Did We Get Here

Toward a Consistent Life Ethic: How Did We Get Here May 12, 2016

The way we got here was, I think, well-meaning for most Christians (and deeply deceptive for the GOP that Pied Pipered them).

Conservative Catholics were presented with a basic choice about 30 years ago.  They could simply accept in toto the Church’s whole teaching about its social doctrine or they could focus on what would eventually get narrowed down to the Five Non-Negotiables (a non-magisterial doctrine that originated with the well-meaning Catholic Answers during the 2004 elections and zeroing in on abortion, euthanasia, gay “marriage”, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research).

People being what they are–not inclined to try to master big complicated thought systems when “Save the Babies!” is easy to grasp–well-meaning Catholics focused their energies on the biggest problem they could see: abortion (and gay “marriage”, with a minor in euthanasia).  The GOP, ever on the lookout for a demographic they can exploit, found in them a pliant and willing group: particularly since Dems often treated them with complete and utter contempt and opposed them on those issues).

And so the die was cast.  Over time, conservative prolife Catholics spoke more and more of the 5NN and less and less about most of the rest of the Church’s social doctrine. And again, this is, within certainly parameters, completely reasonable.  The Church has, in fact, always recognized that people can respond to particular calls and charisms and in so doing they have to let other things pass them by.  A Dominican is not wrong to spend his life studying and preaching while not spending time on, say, running a hospital as a Sister of Providence does.  People focused on trying to stop abortion are not wrong if they are not running a homeless shelter.  That kind of diversity of call and charism is part and parcel of the Catholic Church.

But political alliance with American Movement Conservatism eventually became political domination by American Movement Conservatism.  And under its increasing sinister influence, the prolife movement more and more came to regard the 5NNs, not merely as the most important issues, but as the only issues that mattered.  The result is a curious paradox.

The more prolifers have spoken about the 5NNs over the past decade, the more they have devoted themselves, not to stopping abortion, but to making war on the Church’s teaching whenever and wherever it gets in the way of Movement Conservative priorities.

Does the Bush Administration want to launch an unjust war that two popes and all the bishops of the world warn does not meet just war criteria?  The prolife conservative swings into action to say that abortion is a non-negotiable, but just war is a “prudential judgment” (and by this term of art, they mean not “It is a matter of prudence *how* we can obey the Church’s guidance to avoid war, but *whether* to obey the Church at all).  After this, it was easy pickings.  Many prolife conservatives became the staunchest allies and supporters of a disastrous and immoral war and continue, to this day, to fight the Church on the question of its morality.  Meanwhile, the unborn go wholly neglected while such battles rage.  In practical fact, they serve as human shields for the *real* Core Non-Negotiable: fighting the Church for the justice of the Iraq War.

The same pattern has played out again and again on the “prolife” Right.  We must battle the Church to support torture because that too is a core GOP value (and never more so than with the rise of Donald Trump).  And so all the old arguments are brought out of mothballs to defend (as “prolife conservative Christians” defended in the highest percentages of any American demographic) the glory of torture (and now murder of civilians in Trumpworld).  Argument like “Who cares about terrorist!  Abortion is the real torture!” are routinely deployed and only prove, once again, that the unborn only matter insofar as they function as human shields for making war on the Church’s teaching against torture.

And again and again, the “prolife” movement falls for the same sucker strategy.  Conservative Catholics are not *silent* about issues the Church speaks to: they are openly and actively hostile to the Church’s guidance on a whole raft of issues, all while continually using the unborn as human shields for what their *real* energy is striving to achieve: the defeat of the Church on the death penalty, gun violence, refugees, denial of a living wage to the poor, health care, racism, misogyny, and a social safety net (among many other “liberal-sounding” things they have been condition to loathe).

And the proof of this is seen, very simply, in the fact that we are now being told that Donald Trump’s policies are in some way compatible with the Church’s teaching while Pope Francis is a liberal menace and real Catholics need to regard him with fear, hostility and suspicion.

But Benedict XVI *said* that abortion and euthanasia were not negotiable and those other things are prudential judgments!

He certainly did.  And I don’t unsay a word of that.  What I deny is “prudential judgment” means “Feel free to blow off the Church’s guidance”, much less, “Use the unborn as human shields for fighting the Church.”

The central problem facing Movement Conservatism is that there is zero evidence to demonstrate that it has the virtue of Prudence that is key to Prudential Judgment.  From the Iraq War to its foolish and impenitent embrace of the stupid evil of torture, from its exaltation of folk heroes like Maciel, Euteneuer, Corapi, Palin, Cliven Bundy and now Trump to its incredible ability to be stampeded by every dumb culture war meme from red coffee cups to panics about Francis the Commie Pope, Movement Conservatism–and the “prolife movement” in its thrall–has shown that the claim of “prudential judgment” superior to the Magisterium is folly.

So what to do?  Well, the long term goal is simple:

Stop.  Fighting. The. Church.

That’s it.  That’s all.  Listen to the Church even when she “sounds liberal”.  Try to think with the Church.  When a Conservative Catholic celebrity like Laura Ingraham rejects the Church’s teaching on the sin of racism in order to seduce you into supporting Trump and declares (I am not making this up) that criticism of the KKK makes you sound like a “liberal” or “Obama” don’t make excuses for that because she’s “prolife”.  Reject it.  Opposition to abortion does not take away the sins of the world.  Likewise, with any other darling issue the GOP tells you to fight the Church about.  Just stop it.  Stop fighting the Church.

When you do, you suddenly discover you have a lot of free time on your hands.  No longer do you have to waste time trying to figure out how much abuse you can heap on a prisoner before it is technically torture.  You just listen to the Church when she says to treat prisoners humanely.  You don’t have to lie to yourself and others that Trump’s shouts for torture are compatible with Church teaching.  You can’t just acknowledge that Rerum Novarum is right that every worker deserves a living wage and not waste time making excuses for employers who commit sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance.  You can simply agree with the bishop and the pope that the arms industry is a menace and not pretend that the Church’s call to curb gun violence is somehow evil.  You can just agree that refugees and the poor should be treated like human beings and not treated like vermin.  You can simply agree with the Church that the death penalty is no longer necessary and can be abolished.  You can stop battling to rationalize a war that met none of the criteria of Just War teaching.  You can stop trying to tell yourself that a racist, misogynist swine who sees you as a useful idiot cares about you, your faith, or the unborn.

And as you do all this, you can then turn your energies back to what the GOP has skillfully diverted them from: fighting to save the lives of unborn children.  In losing your life, you find you gain it and, what is more, that in listening to all the Church’s teaching, that you are more prolife, not less.



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  • Anniloh

    Everything you say is true, but I have a slightly different idea about what motivates conservatives. Conservative Catholics, protestants, and non- religious have a primary motivation in common – the belief that wealth, the pursuit of comfort, and the protection of wealth are the ultimate goods. This is especially unfortunate for Christians since this could be considered a heresy. How often does Jesus regale the benefits of wealth. But it is a heresy that many Christians seem comfortable with. Pope Francis – the first Pope in modern times to refuse many of the perks of being Pope – the elaborate clothing, residence, vehicles, etc., has offended people who believe that these things are important – that they show that he has found favor with God. The idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favor is ancient. It can be found in the Old Testament. But Jesus makes it quite clear that this is human misunderstanding and not Divine law. Christian saints and mystics have added to the Christian understanding of humility and service to others – especially the poor – as being necessary for union with God. And if anything, God is sometimes a little rough on those He loves the most. This is not what conservatives want to hear. But it is the message Pope Francis is trying to convey. God Bless Pope Francis.

    • Rachel

      Very good point and needs to be said more often. I’m glad that Pope Francis is getting that message out.

    • Artevelde

      You are right, but perhaps too kind in continuing to bestow the label ‘conservative’ on them. Conservatism is a mindset, a feeling that upholding tradition is important, and that while progress should be made, it is always subject to local and temporal circumstances and should be dealt with prudentially. This, I would say, is a fertile soil for Christian life, but only, and that is something American Christians still have to come to grasp with, when there is a ”demos” that by and large supports Christian values. In the absence of that, Christianity is revolutionary and subversive and will be seen as such by its enemies.

      • MT

        There really aren’t American conservatives. So the so called liberal conservative decide is false because both are liberals. One side says humanity is free to determine for themselves what their sexuality is and what they do with it (ie: abortion is pushed to keep up the illusion of consequence free sex), the other what their method of economic gain is (ie: drill that oil for profit, no matter what the consequences for others are). If anything blocks these, that thing is encroaching on the ultimate liberal value of a freedom to determine what is right for one’s self.

        • Anniloh

          You mean libertarians. Libertarians want nothing to interfere with their right to get richer at the expense of the worker & the environment, and they are also behind the attempt to remove all restrictions on sexual freedom. And because there are a lot of rich libertarians, they seem to be getting what they want. And they work thru both political parties.

    • Dan13

      The prosperity Gospel teaches this as does some strains of Calvinism but if a Catholic believes this then he or she must have been sick the day they taught Catholicism in CCD. One can simply look to the horrible suffering of many of the saints as evidence.

      • Artevelde

        Joel Osteen and his wife have now moved beyond the prosperity gospel and proclaim the greatest commandment as ”Please God. Thinking it’s all about yourself pleases God”. Inevitable outcome.

      • Anniloh

        No, not sick. Just a product of Catholic education.

  • Ken

    My experience in my Diocese is that the Priests had all the best intentions and wanted the congregation to defend life but instead of explaining the entire concept of what being Pro Life really means they just said “vote Republican.” I’ve sat through two homilies where the Priest said exactly that. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t think that we could handle the concept of a political party being right on one issue but wrong on so many others. Perhaps, they thought it would be confusing so they just made it as simple as possible. This has caused a lot of issues with family members and friends who really believe all we have to do is vote Republican. They have no idea, or don’t care, about the death penalty, torture, the poor etc…
    I think this has also caused problems for other side. People that are Pro Choice look at some of the members of the Church who are wrong about so many issues and think that if they are wrong on those issues maybe they are wrong about abortion. If the other side can pick and choose why can’t they?
    It’s become a pick and choose church and the ramifications are terrible.

    • Artevelde

      That’s a scary diocese. Can I assume the bishop is fine with that? Did anyone stand up and face said priests?

      • Ken

        The first time it happened I was visiting a parish I hadn’t been at for a long time and didn’t know the priest so I don’t know the reaction but at the time I was a very ardent Republican so it didn’t bother me. The second time it was for Bush’s reelection and several people stood up and walked out in protest. The second time I was starting to come around to the concept that the Republican party was advocating and participating in gravel evils but I wasn’t all the way there yet. Now, the party has gotten worse and I’m better informed. I’m glad Mark and others are posting these thoughts. I’ve felt this way for a while now and thought I was all alone.

        • Artevelde

          It’s never easy. We all have to examine our conscience, weigh in the teachings of the Church and then use our best judgement. In Belgium, where I live, basically all parties are what you’d call social liberals. Nothing much that differentiates them in terms of life issues, for instance. It’s coalition politics anyway, so the outcome is always a muddled consensus, which is never ideal when dealing with serious evils. So most of us Catholics vote according to our respective preferences in other matters, mostly economy related. My vote actually matters, since we have a proportional parliamentary system, not a winner-takes-all, so I usually vote for the Christian Democrats, heirs of a Rerum Novarum movement, but -alas- in life matters about as liberal as anyone else these days. Once though, because Eurthanasia law was a hot topic, I voted for an almost insignificantly small hardcore black-stocking-and-black-bonnets fringe Calvinist party. They didn’t have a chance of getting even one person elected. Or as Mark might understand it .. ‘I voted for a Shriner’.

  • asecularfranciscan

    Thank you for coming back Mark. Glad your here saying the things that need to be said. Pax et bonum.

  • I think that we don’t even have an appropriate grasp on where we are. Confidently describing how we got here before knowing where we are is just not impressive.