Fr. Fessio forgets a few

Fr. Fessio forgets a few June 8, 2008

Via Catholics in the Public Square, I came across a rather fascinating generalization offered by the usually dependable Fr. Joseph Fessio which purports there are no incongruities between Catholic social teaching and President Bush’s social policies. You read that right. Here’s the snippet:

Benedict, who has warned against the increasing secularization of Europe and praised the prominent role of religion in American public life, is likely to appreciate a head of state who is “not afraid to express his faith as a Christian,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of the pope who now runs Ignatius Press, Benedict’s principal English-language publisher.

In the president, the pope finds a key supporter of the Catholic church’s positions on such controversial questions as abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage. Bush’s arguments have frequently echoed Benedict’s appeals to “natural law” and even employ the terms of Catholic social doctrine (despite the fact that the president is a Methodist).

Nowhere has the congruence of their thinking been clearer than at April’s welcoming ceremony at the White House, when Bush cited Benedict’s denunciation of the “dictatorship of relativism,” and the pope noted the importance of American religiosity as inspiration for abolitionism and the civil-rights movement.

To which Bush replied, “Thank you, Your Holiness. Awesome speech.”

“They could pretty much have given each other’s speech,” said William McGurn, Bush’s former head speechwriter and a Catholic, who was present at the ceremony (but did not write the president’s remarks).

Fessio agreed. “In terms of authentic, normative Catholic teaching, I don’t see any area in which the pope and President Bush disagree,” he said.

The most notable case of disharmony between the two leaders was over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opposed at least as ardently as Pope John Paul II.

“But Iraq is not a matter of Catholic social teaching,” Fessio said.

Likewise, Benedict’s views on economics, taxation and government regulation (which are known to lie to the left of Bush’s) are merely his personal opinions, not doctrine that he holds as binding on the faithful, Fessio said.

Boy that Pope sure spends a lot of time using his supreme office to dictate his “personal opinions”! I suppose Pope Benedict XVI has confused the papal pulpit with the bully pulpit. There’s a lot here that Fr. Fessio cannot square with authoritative Catholic teaching on the extension of papal authority on such matters as economics and political ideology, but let us confine ourselves to a critique of that one curious and seemingly inclusive line: “In terms of authentic, normative Catholic teaching, I don’t see any area in which the pope and President Bush disagree.”

Several things wrong in this statement, not least of which is its imprecision and superficiality. Within its context, it is clear that Fr. Fessio is speaking about authentic, normative Catholic social teaching rather that the full scope of Catholic doctrine. But in a world that prefers the sound bite to the conversation, such a line is subservient to obfuscation.

Is there any area in which Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush do not agree in terms of authentic, normative Catholic social teaching? Well, for starters we can go with torture. Despite the fact that torture has been practiced in the Catholic Church and with the complicit approval of some of its ordinaries (just as in adultery and murder), the normative Catholic teaching is that torture is an intrinsic evil. President Bush’s policies on torture are clear: Last March he vetoed a bill that would ban water-boarding as a mode of torture in interrogation. I note parenthetically that presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are actually closer to agreement with the Catholic Church on the issue of torture.

What about abortion? The Catholic Church’s normative position is that directly procured abortion is always and in every case intrinsically evil. President Bush, like McCain, supports the right to abortion in the cases of rape and incest, which led to much controversy with and among pro-life conservatives during his 2000 campaign.  Don’t forget Bush’s explicit approval of over-the-counter access to Plan B, which possibly induces early abortion.

What about embryonic stem cell research? Bush’s 2001 compromise–despite pleas from Pope John Paul II to ban any sort of federal funding–is well known and need not detain us here. Likewise, the Catholic Church’s rejection of this sort of policy is well known.

I can only assume that, unlike the case of the Iraq War, Fr. Fessio considers Church teaching on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and torture to be “authentic” and “normative.” So why such eagerness to heap such adulation upon Bush’s supposed “Catholic” view of social issues? Has Fr. Fessio stolen a card from Michael Novak’s deck? I mean, it’s fun to pretend and all, but we must be cautious not to mistake fantasy for reality; political persuasion ought never to replace clear Catholic thinking.  It is a real shame when the bar is set so low by someone who is held in such high regard as is Fr. Fessio.

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