I randomly discovered this site, dubbed (rather modestly) the American Principles Project. It is not a Catholic site, but it was founded by Catholic philosopher Robert George and has as its “communications director” a certain Thomas Peters, who has some minor renown as the proprietor of the American Papist blog that in reality leans far more American than papist. Anyway, this American Principles Project epitomizes everything I find troublesome with the Catholic right — its America-centered view of the world, its selective approach to morality, its misapplication of the term “conservative” to encompass radically individualist beliefs. Let me just give a few examples.
The principles of the project:
“The United States of America does not need new principles. It needs renewed fidelity to the principles set forth in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are timeless principles: truths that we hold, in Jefferson’s immortal words, to be, “self-evident.””
Not quite. Instead of holding up the positive law as a shining beacon, it should instead seek to have the positive law mirror the natural law to the extent possible. The only “timeless principles” are those of the natural law. Instead, these guys resort to a kind of sola scriptura constitutionalism. After all, these constitutional principles were forged in the furnace of Enlightenment-era liberalism, with its utilitarian-inspired call for the “pursuit of happiness”. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to commend this kind of liberalism, such as a greater emphasis on human dignity than what came before, but there is also much to criticize — especially the individualist anthropology that gave rise to a kind of laissez-faire constitutionalism that stood squarely against the development of Catholic social teaching in the area of economics.
“a new voice is needed in American politics, a voice that is unafraid to stand up for what is right and speak out against what is wrong.”
“Indeed, that “voice” must be nothing less than millions of American voices raised in unison in defense of political liberty and economic freedom, the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage and the family, and the sovereignty and security of our nation.”
Wait a minute. The only “right and wrong” I see in this statement relates to the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage. What do they mean by political liberty? I can see that as an issue in some countries (see Iran), but it most certainly not an issue right now in the United States and the rest of the developed world. And what does economic freedom mean? I suspect it means the kind of laissez-faire individualism that sits uneasily with Catholic teaching and its insistence on the universal destination of goods, solidarity, and the preferential option for the poor. After all, property has a twofold nature of private possession and common use. After all, the Church teaches that an equitable distribution of wealth is just as important as the accumulation of wealth. After all, the right of the state to intervene in the economy for the sake of the common good has been recognized by the Church since the days of Pope Leo XXIII. After all, the right to decent wages, rather than whatever comes out of the free market, is a core tenet of Catholic social teaching, as is support for organized labor. No, this “economic freedom” tradition in the US context is one that puts private liberty ahead of the common good. It is a philosophy that regards market outcomes as virtuous. Ironically, it is this very same notion of “private liberty” that led to the “right” to abortion and the “right” to gay marriage. But these people do not recognize these clear links.
And what of the other “right and wrong” issues? Where is the blanket condemnation of torture, surely a live issue in the current US political context? Where is the condemnation of a war mentality, a justification of pre-emptive war condemned squarely by the Church, a misuse of the just war principles as a fig-leaf to defend American foreign policy? Again, these were grave sins in the American policy over the last decade. And even today, we have people calling for bombing Iran, and supporting grave injustices (even war crimes) undertaken by the people deemed friends of America. This was an evil policy under Reagan, and it is an evil policy today.
And what about the structural sins on our society, the pervasive violence and gun deaths, the marginalization of the poor and minorities into economically-deprived ghettos, the lingering legacy of racism, the breakdown of the social order? Are these not compelling moral issues? What about the death penalty? What about the immoral nuclear arsenal that still exists? What about the injunction to care for the immigrant, to be stewards of the earth, to be peacemakers and try to understand the injustices that fosters terrorism and hatred of the United States? What about those who suffer and even die from inadequate healthcare in a society of great affluence? None of this is radical. It is all standard Catholic teaching, it all flows directly from morality and yet…it is not important enough to be an “American principle”.
“Are we conservatives? You bet we are, if by a “conservative” one means a believer in the rule of law, democracy, limited government and respect for civil liberties, private property and the free market, equality of opportunity, the sanctity of human life, the protection of marriage and the family, and the defense of our nation’s sovereignty and security. For us, these convictions are not platitudes.”
In the “what is at stake” section, we are treated to further elaboration of this selective morality. What seems to drive most of all is the intrusion of the government into affairs they deem private:
“All of this has been accompanied by the growth of central state power which usurps individual responsibility and the rights and responsibilities of individuals, families, religious institutions, and other forms of private association…Lack of a moral compass and restraint in business practices has provided an excuse for the state now to intrude deeply into the economy and to claim the authority to exercise unprecedented control over the affairs of private business firms. The net result is the weakening of all authority structures apart from the state itself.”
On one hand, they (quite justifiably) call for greater state involvement to protect the lives of the most vulnerable in society, and to stand firm on the definition of marriage. And yet, in most other areas, they want the government to stay far far away. This division makes no sense. Of course, state ownership of the means of production has always been condemned by Catholic social teaching, and Pope John Paul II wrote clearly about the problems of welfare dependence in Centesimus Annus. And yet, the state can be called upon to serve the common good in economic life just as in social life. Striving to seek the appropriate balance is exactly what animates Catholic social teaching– it was Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno who condemned both socialism and free market capitalism as the “twin rocks of shipwreck”. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II, while accepting the legitimacy of the free market, nonetheless warned against the “idolatry” of the market, noting that there are some areas where the free market can work well, and others where it cannot.
If these people want to argue that we have crossed some kind of boundary, they should do so, but they do not. For in fact, this would be extremely difficult to do. As I pointed out recently, only in Rush Limbaugh’s drug-addled brain could the United States be described as “socialist”. For in the United States, the government owns a whopping 0.2 percent of corporate and business assets, and taxes are at the very bottom of the OECD scale. In fact, there is a strong case to be made for a decent progressive tax system, especially giving the steadily rising inequality and income erosion over the past few decades– given the importance attached to an equitable distribution of resources in Catholic social teaching. And as for the (strictly limited) government intervention in the economy, I would defer again to Centesimus Annus, which notes that governments may want to intervene directly in the business economy for “urgent reasons touching on the common good”. I think the worst recession since the Great Depression might qualify. But no, I fear that much of these kinds of arguments are driven more by ideology than practical reason.
It gets worse. The “national security” banner links to an essay by Andrew McCarthy calling for Gitmo to be kept open. This is the same Andrew McCarthy who has made a habit of defending torture when instituted by the United States, and who recently argued that all that matters is the mind of the torturer — “It doesn’t matter what the average person might think the “logical” result of the action would be; it matters what specifically was in the mind of the alleged torturer — if his motive was not to torture, it is not torture.” Of course, what McCarthy means is that if the US does it, they are only doing it to save lives, and don’t mean any harm. If the Iranian government or the Khmer Rouge does it, it’s torture, because they are sick and sadistic by nature. Of course, a proper reading of the natural law tells us that what matters is the object of the act, the directly chosen behavior. Because torture is an intrinsically evil act, the purity of intentions or the virtuous consequences don’t matter at all (see Veritatis Splendour). So here we have it, a defender of an intrinsically evil act who employs moral relativistic reasoning to defend this act is called upon by the “American Principles Project” to make the case for continued unjust imprisonment of those men whose torture he once defended. That says it all really, doesn’t it? Principles indeed.