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Rick Santorum vs. Pope Pius XI — one candidate, two encyclicals

Rick Santorum vs. Pope Pius XI — one candidate, two encyclicals January 10, 2012

I read two recent items about former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum that both turned out to be, oddly, about former Pope Pius XI.

First up is an excellent question from Mary at The Left Coaster, who notes that Republican presidential candidate Santorum opposes contraception, arguing that sex without the possibility of conception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Mary suggests a follow-up question for the candidate:

Perhaps someone should ask him whether he plans to be celibate after his wife passes through menopause.

That’s an interesting question. The answer I’ve usually heard to that question was that the story of Abraham and Sarah shows that even post-menopause, there remains the possibility of conception due to a miracle.

That’s pretty weak, and a transparent bit of retro-fitting — an excuse seized as a rationale for the teaching rather than a belief from which the teaching is derived. If the possibility of a divine miracle overcoming menopause is sufficient, then why isn’t the same true of the possibility of a divine miracle overcoming condom-use?*

For the official Catholic answer to Mary’s question, we need to turn to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, or “Of Chaste Wedlock” (or “A Celibate Virgin Talks About Sex”). Pius XI, like Rick Santorum, sought to rule out the use of contraception. The only substantial difference between their views is Santorum’s desire to make this teaching civil law here in America. (And, unlike Santorum, Pius XI never said he wanted to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut — although that’s probably on account of his dying some 26 years before it was decided.)

Santorum’s phrase — “counter to how things are supposed to be” — echoes the central thrust of the argument in Casti Connubii. That encyclical says that sex deliberately separated from procreation is regarded as “a grave sin” because it is against nature. How can we be sure that it is against nature? Because it is regarded as a sin.

That’s either a powerful double proof or else a silly bit of circular reasoning, I’ll let you decide which. But either way — whether you see this as a potent argument or merely an undefended assertion — the answer to Mary’s question lies in that word “deliberately.” Pius XI argues that infertility due to menopause isn’t deliberate and, therefore, he said that it isn’t “acting against nature” for a married couple to get all connubii even if due to “natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth.”

So there is an answer to Mary’s question, it’s just not terribly compelling in that it depends utterly on the underlying assertion. And it’s not at all compelling for those of us who are not Catholic and, therefore, are not compelled by the coercive threat of eternal damnation to accept it.

And that, of course, brings us to the next follow-up questions for Rick Santorum. “Why should everyone in America be compelled to follow Catholic doctrine?” And “Why should anyone in America be compelled to follow any doctrine?”

You can probably tell that I’m not overly impressed with the arguments Pius XI puts forward in Casti Connubii. I am, however, quite impressed with the arguments he affirmed in the encyclical he released a few months later, Quadragesimo Anno, or “In the 40th Year” (following 40 years after Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which laid the foundation for later Catholic social teaching). It was there that Pius XI made official his church’s support for the principle of subsidiarity. That’s an idea I find enormously helpful for thinking about the world and our differentiated, complementary responsibilities within it. (It’s even more helpful once it’s shorn of the hierarchical medieval outlook that Pius XI preserves in his discussion of it, but let that pass for now.)

As it turns out, Rick Santorum has also been talking about subsidiarity, leading two conservative columnists — David Brooks and Michael Gerson — to hail the candidate as bringing about either “A New Social Agenda” or perhaps “The Return of Compassionate Conservatism.” But despite their attempts to ascribe to him some new and substantive intellectual approach, Santorum’s references to the principle lead me to agree with The Christian Century’s David Heim: “I doubt Santorum has thought much about subsidiarity.”

Vincent Miller, in the Catholic magazine America (via Bold Faith Type), goes further than Heim, discussing, “Rick Santorum and the Lobotomization of Subsidiarity“:

This debate is important not only for politics, but for Catholic social thought. Santorum and other so-called “conservative” uses of subsidiarity are deeply distorted and threaten to confuse believers and deprive the republic of the full force of this Catholic moral principle.

The full Catholic version of Subsidiarity is outlined in the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. As a moral principle subsidiarity has both a positive and negative meaning. In its positive sense, “ all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies.” (#186) In its negative sense subsidiarity limits such intervention from usurping the power and agency of lower level governments, communities and institutions, including the family.

The distortions are not Santorum’s fault. Catholic neo-liberals (who generally call themselves conservatives) have worked tirelessly to reduce subsidiarity to its negative sense and establish this as the keystone of Catholic social thought. They do so by selective reading — and outright editing — of Papal teaching from Pius XI through John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

This careful lobotomization of subsidiarity renders Catholic social teaching a docile partner in the neo-liberal program of limiting government and subjecting social institutions (schools, healthcare) to market logic. (Witness Ayn Rand devotee Congressman Paul Ryan’s invocation of subsidiarity in his attempted apologia for his radical budget to Archbishop Dolan this summer).

… Families and communities are being profoundly disempowered in precisely the way subsidiarity cautions against, but not by government. Our lives are ruled by insurance companies, banks, media conglomerates and transnational corporations.

While Santorum is willing to take aim at big media, the rest of the epochal growth in corporate power is outside of his subsidiarity lens.

Subsidarity has much to contribute to our political thought. In order for it to do so, we must retrieve its full meaning, and develop it further to address the new challenges we face. Those wishing to do so (including Brooks and Gerson) would be better served by starting with the discussion of governance in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and the Pontificial Council on Justice and Peace’s document on Financial Reform. Pay particular attention to the parts that George Wiegel says should be ignored.

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* I posed that question to an acquaintance who is a Catholic theologian. Unfortunately, he answered my question with a question of his own: “So you believe that sex can occur primarily for pleasure?” My response — “Believe it? I’ve seen it with my own two eyes!” — prematurely ended our discussion.


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