Boehner and Catholic University

Boehner and Catholic University May 12, 2011

We all know the issues, and we all know the inconsistencies. John Boehner speaks at Catholic University, with barely any fuss, while a similar visit by Obama to Notre Dame caused great ruptures. This story is covered well by Michael Sean Winters and our friends at Faith in Public Life. In both cases, we have prominent national leaders who deviate from core aspects of Catholic social teaching in certain areas. But we are told that one is rock-solid “non-negotiable” and the other is as negotiable as a the price of a carpet in a Turkish bazaar.

There are two basic arguments. The first, made by Robert Sirico, is that critics “do not understand the distinctions the Church herself makes between fundamental, non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines, and the prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching”. The second, and flowing from the first, is that Boehner’s economic policies are in full accord with Catholic social teaching. In the words of Kathryn Lopez,  “the needs of the poor are not always best served by an overreaching, hydra of a bureaucracy. Certainly not at a time when that hydra is unsustainable. Many of John Boehner’s and Republican attempts to reign in government spending and encourage job growth might be considered morally responsible.”

Both positions are untenable.

Sirico tries to conjure up a dualist approach to Catholic social teaching where none exists. In this view, the “life” issues are on one level, and the “justice” issues are on another, subordinate, level. The former teachings are crystal clear, the latter are murky. One is a world of objective reality, the other is highly subjective. Of course – and as Pope Benedict never tires of pointing out – this is precisely the wrong way to look at Catholic social teaching. Right near the beginning of Caritas in Veritate, he argues that “clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”. In the core of the document, he goes on to argue that respect for life and the development of peoples cannot be detached.

This is a theme the pope has stressed for many years. Back in 2006, he was saying something quite similar: “In our age morality is, as it were, split in two..[One] dimension includes the great topics of peace, non-violence, justice for all, concern for the poor and respect for creation…The other part of morality, often received controversially by politics, concerns life…“[w]e must commit ourselves to reconnecting these two parts of morality and to making it clear that they must be inseparably united”.

Of course, it is perfectly valid to argue that issues of life are foundational, and a society that does not respect life will never to able to fully attain social justice. But this is not what Sirico is arguing. He is not talking of interdependence between the various strands of Catholic social teaching; he is talking about a radical separation. In this, he is venturing down a very Protestant path. As de Lubac noted, Protestantism “generally occurs as a religion of antitheses… but Catholicism does not accept these dichotomies and refuses to be merely Protestantism turned inside out”. This is an important point, because Sirico’s approach to economics owes far more to Calvinism and the Enlightenment (both step-children of the nominalist revolution) than it does to the heritage of Catholic social teaching.

Let me now address the heart of Sirico’s argument. On one level, he is correct. There are general moral principles that must always be accepted, including the sacredness of life, solidarity with the poor, the pursuit of peace etc. But translating these principles into concrete action means taking a few steps down the ladder of certainty. We are applying universal principles to specific facts and circumstances. We make prudential judgments. We are often fumbling in the dark. So far so good. But there are a couple of implications here.

In the first place, this holds true for abortion just as much as economic policy. Does the Affordable Care Act lead to a greater moral proximity between taxpayers and abortion? This was the great question of last year, and an incredibly complex issue. I believe it does not. Others disagree. But people like Sirico would argue that Catholics must adopt a maximalist position here, simply because it relates to abortion. But on other matters, they propose a minimalist position, in effect, creating no constraints whatsoever. Because of uncertainties, Catholics are free to believe anything they want.

This is not just about economics. It’s not about intrinsically evil acts  – on a core issues like torture, both Sirico and Lopez are in open dissent from a clear “non-negotiable” teaching. It’s not even about life issues. On war, for example, there are no constraints – on the justice of any particular war, make up your own mind, interpret the just war conditions as flexibly as you wish! It is a relativism no different from the relativism of the leftist rebuke of core teachings on sexuality.

So calling “prudential judgment” is really like playing the “get out of jail free” card in Catholic moral teaching. But it only works for a certain, and incoherent, subset of issues. Those issues happen to be the issues of the Republican party and the modern American movement of economic liberalism, an individualist anthropology condemned consistently by Catholic social teaching. This is not only flawed, but incredibly cynical, and even has a hint of nihilism about it.

If effect, what they are doing is rejecting the underlying principles of Catholic social teaching, not just the application of those principles. Can anybody possibly argue that the Boehner budget protects the poor? Let’s use some good old-fashioned practical reason. The modern GOP insists first of all on upper income tax cuts and an estate tax cut. Then it plans $4.3 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, matched by $4.2 trillion in further tax cuts for the rich. And here’s the punchline – two-thirds of the cuts come from programs that help the poor and people of limited means, including Medicaid, the safety net health care program for the poor – to pay for these upper-income tax cuts. This is wrong. This is immoral. This cannot be compatible with the tenets of Catholic social teaching. The bishops are clear about that.

But go back to the arguments of the right. Lopez call safety nets a “bureaucracy”. Does she ever wonder how the poor would fare in dealing with the “bureaucracy” of private insurance companies? We know the answer to that. What about the rising poverty rate, and the rising rate on uninsurance? What about the emergence of the most unequal society since the gilded era? Lopez also talks the need to cut spending, which again, completely side steps the issue. The high deficit today is caused by the huge collapse in revenue from the crisis. The secondary cause is the Bush tax cuts. Spending is temporarily higher not because of any discretionary spike, but because of automatic recession-related spending like unemployment insurance, food stamps, SSI, refundable tax credits etc. 

Simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire would have the deficit over the next decade, and save the poor from the ruin now being contemplated. But this is real non-negotiable, isn’t it? So please, let’s not play games and pretend all of this is somehow compatible with Catholic social teaching.

As the pope said, there is “a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”. John Boehner goes against some of the key tenets of Catholic social teaching. And since everything is interwoven, his stance also cheapens human life and human dignity. What do you think happens to abortion when poverty increases, and when uninsurance reaches record levels? What do you think happens to abortion when Medicaid is gutted? What do you think happens to abortion when you oppose a plan to bring health insurance to all, guaranteeing maternity costs as part of the basic package? What do you think happens to abortion when you present a woman with a choice between paying $25,000 to have a child or $450 to terminate the pregnancy?

As the Declaration on Procured Abortion says quite clearly, “One can never approve of abortion; but it is above all necessary to combat its causes” and “Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption – a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion”.

What’s more, John Boehner also supports torture. He supports actions that the international community has long considered torture – not just waterboarding, but severe stress positions, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and cold cells. He supports a list of techniques that overlap almost completely with the gestapo’s preferred techniques. The Church is quite clear on this – the prohibition on torture cannot be contravened in any circumstances, even if you think it saves lives. This is a clear, “non-negotiable” teaching pertaining to an intrinsically evil act. But the defenders of Boehner don’t mention this…probably because both Lopez and Sirico are both notorious defenders of torture.

John Boehner is not pro-life. In modern America, he is not any more pro-life than Barack Obama. How God will judge both men is not for me to comment on. We can only judge them on how they affect the common good in society. I would contend that, despite the starkly different rhetorical starting points, it is Boehner’s policies that do most to cheapen life today, and contribute most to the incidence of abortion. And that is how we must judge them, not on the state of their souls, but by their behavior in the public square.

Despite all of this, I have no problem with Boehner speaking at Catholic University. The Church has been dealing with very flawed political leaders for 2000 years. Invite him, but challenge him. My problem is more with those who attempt to draw a sharp line in the sand between this event and Obama and Notre Dame. But this line in the sand has long been washed away by the incoming tide. And yet the Canutes are still standing on the beach shaking their fists.

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  • Sirico is not talking about a radical separation. He’s talking about a hierarchy, in which one thing is dependent upon another. Abortion, stem cells, euthanasia, and gay marriage are foundational issues for Catholic Social Teaching. These things are not subject to debate. They are impermissible, always. The best way to give everyone access to the best health care, on the other hand, is not something that is prescribed by CST. Reasonable people can disagree about the best means. This does not mean there is not a best means, just that it is not something divinely revealed. The immorality of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and gay marriage, on the other hand, are non-negotiable social ills.

    • Incorrect. if Sirico was talking about a hierarachy, crowned by respect for life, he would…well, follow the hierarchy as laid down explicitly in Gaudium Et Spes where torture comes right after murder, abortion, and genocide. Sirico laughs and jokes about torture, and defends the right of the US to do it (like any other relativist, he plays Cartesian games with definitions).

      My post made clear there are differences between core principles (“non-negotiable”) and the application of these principles. The problem is that Sirico fails to respect the unity of Catholic social teaching. The health care debate was an eye opener for me. I realized very quickly that the vast majority of Catholics who opposed the Affordable Care Act did so not because of abortion, but because of a liberal ideology. That ideology in itself goes directly against the non-negotiable principle of solidarity. They used the unborn for a cheap political stunt.

      Let’s talk about health care. The Church regards health care as a basic right. How do we do that in modern society? There are many ways. Some involve greater state action, some less. But doing nothing is not an option. The Affordable Care Act used the most “free market” way possible – combine a variant of community rating with an individual mandate (without the former, it becomes unaffordable, and without the latter, insurance companies would survive). This used to be conventional wisdom on the right, until they went into the completely insane world of cold laissez-faire liberalism.

      While there are many roads to reform, it is NOT persmissible to say the current health care system is compatible with solidarity (and NONE of the Republican plans I have read to anything to solve the core problem). It is NOT persmissible to say that the Ryan budget is compatible with protecting the poor. To say otherwise is to lose one’s grounding in practical reason, and dip into the everything-is-allowed world of relativism.

    • Jimmy Martello

      Well said.

  • Oh, and is Boehner being given an honorary degree?

    Obama was awarded an honorary “Doctorate of Laws”

    • What does that have to do with anything?

      • Thales

        Nobody (at least nobody serious) had a problem with inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame — it was the giving of an honor that was the problem.

        • Boehner is being given an honorary degree, too…

      • MM: The honorary doctorate/no doctorate is totally relevant and reflects their relative intellectual octane levels: Obama holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) magna cum laude from Harvard and taught constitutional law at a highly respected law school. Boehner has a B.A. in Business Administration.

        We don’t have to agree with everything Obama does, but for God’s sake let’s at least wake up to reality as it really is, and notice that he’s a damn smart fellow, a very hard worker, and has demonstrated genuine compassion for the poor. Fancy degrees amplified with phrases in Latin don’t always prove intelligence nor industriousness, but there is a rather strong correlation.

        And while we’re waking up, could we also please wake up and notice that the Church and specifically CST is much smarter and more demanding than myopic blow-hards of the right or left can imagine. Genuinely absorbing it, following it, giving it full attention and responding with a full heart, seems well beyond what either “side” is prepared to do. It just isn’t about this political or theological agendum or that.

      • Kurt

        Nobody (at least nobody serious) had a problem with inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame — it was the giving of an honor that was the problem.

        That is simply not true. The Notre Dame bashers changed their rhetoric mid-course to focus on the degree when it was clear that most people thought they were silly or worse. You can find their original statements in various places. but among those who opposed the President giving even address (until the focus groups told them to change course) include:

        The Cardinal Newman Society
        Pro-Life Action League
        Fr. Thomas Eutheneuer
        Dr. Janet Smith
        Michael Novak
        George Weigel

        the names go on, but I bore at this point.

      • Thales

        That is simply not true.

        I dunno. At the time, I heard over and over again the distinction that there would be no problem with inviting Obama to participate in a discussion on campus, but it was the honoring him that was the problem. I don’t have the time to look up every person you listed, but the first two that I did – Janet Smith and Weigel – confirms my point: they take issue with honoring Obama and they wouldn’t have a problem with inviting him to a debate or dialogue.

        But maybe you are making a distinction about receiving the honorary degree versus being a commencement speaker. If we set aside the honorary degree, I think most people like Weigel and Smith would say that a commencement address is another example of an honor. I tend to agree: a commencement speech is a honor and the person giving it is presented as a model to the graduates. It’s certainly different from inviting someone with whom you disagree to give a talk or to participate in a debate. Again, it’s pretty clear that someone like Weigel wouldn’t have a problem with Obama being invited to Notre Dame for a dialogue.

        Regardless, this is all besides the point of the post. Just as Obama was honored at Notre Dame, Boehner is being honored too. Whether Boehner’s honor deserves criticism, I make no comment.

      • Kurt

        But maybe you are making a distinction about receiving the honorary degree versus being a commencement speaker.

        Well, now you are backtracking. You said no one had a problem with the President speaking. Now you are saying you do have a problem with him speaking at a commencement.

        I note you go on to suggest that you might allow the President to speak if there could be a rebuttal (i.e. a dialogue or a debate). Exactly WHAT in the topic of his commencement address required a rebuttal? He wasn’t debating his views on the legal status of abortion. It was a great speech, warmly received by the graduating class and simply made the President’s critics look like ninnies.

      • Thales


        No backtracking – I’m just trying to be clear: people had a problem with Obama coming to Notre Dame and giving the commencement address…. because this was an honoring of Obama, not because he would be merely “speaking” on campus. As I said earlier, Weigel, Smith, et al, wouldn’t have a problem with Obama visiting Notre Dame under circumstances where it was clear that Notre Dame was not conveying an honor on Obama.

        But again, this is all besides the point. Clearly Obama was given an honor at Notre Dame, and clearly Boehner was honored at Catholic U.

  • Charles

    Can we say that budget programs Boehner has cut even protected the poor? Which is not even the fullest of the Church’s teaching. A better question is whether those programs have empowered the poor and treated them dignity? Is there any thing beyond the usual claptrap of activists and community organizers losing their patronage benefits that truly suggests Boehner’s alternatives do any less? Recall the one issue he stuck his neck out for was for school vouchers, which were narrowly defined to have no benefit (but also no observed negative results either) but did empower the poor and treat them with dignity than the alternative. If we can truly can not say, sans that ideological claptrap that is more about protecting the system of power than helping the poor, that Boehner’s programs inflict any worse outcomes on the poor for the short-term and long-term then we can’t make the claim Boehner is forbaying Catholic social principles in leading Congress to addreessing the needs of the whole nation with careful respect to those most in need.
    However, then, we are still left with that nasty mess of justifying torture and failing to challenge a just war extending beyond its mandate.
    Unfortunately you know as I that this letter is part of the modern political PR playbook of ‘who can make who look the worst over the 2-4 cycle’ than any thing to do with making a definitive policy stand that serves a sincere political interest. This has nothing to do about the Catholic identity of CUA. I would expected these Catholic intellectuals to be above this nonsense. But apparently liberals get bitter when they lose influence and their patronage benefits.

  • Eric Brown

    Perfectly said. The very notion that there are five “non-negotiables” says nothing other than modern Catholics have negotiated away our social doctrines and the rich intellectual tradition, in theology and philosophy, in dialogue with other disciplines that have provided a clear theological anthropology and from there a coherent ethical point of view to assess changing matters of social economics.

    It really stems from a lack of understanding Catholic (or classical) philosophy. Prudential judgment, for instance, is simply any opinion or whatever even seems “reasonable” given the facts of circumstance. Prudence is “right reason” in action; that is, to reason correctly and reach the correct objective answer by properly assessing varying circumstances and understanding the hierarchy and interplay of moral principles to properly apply them.

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  • Kurt

    What is not news that conservatives drag out their tired old focused groups tested phrases to defend Boehner. What is news is that contrary to the principles of subsidiarity, the graduating class was excluded from any role — even a consultative one — in deciding their graduation speaker.

    Even though CUA’s graduating class has many of the demographic attributes of the Republican base — disproportionantely white, non-hispanic, from non-union affluent families — they like most Americans under age 30, are not buying the GOP line. The conservative plan to keep Hispanics and Blacks disenfranchised will need to be expanded to raise the voting age to 30 (and the increasing each year) if they are to have any hope.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    What an impressive essay!! In my view, if one wanted to be Catholic, that is the way one should think. I can’t say, as an intellectual historian, that I find the conceptual trajectories you sketch utterly solid, but still at least you are trying to be what the whole notion of modern Catholicism proposes as its raison d’etre: Namely, inclusive and encompassing in the integrity of its views. I do not write this as a Catholic myself anymore, nor as someone frankly convinced of its clear authenticity of mission in the modern world. Yet, if you will allow a comment from someone who has considerable interest and, I think ,knowledge of the Church, perhaps it can further help clarify matters.

    The wonderfully monikered “Morning’s Minion” seems to misunderstand that for a time Nominalism was the official philosophy of the Church. The Council of Constance, without which the whole basic continuance of the Roman Church would have been unlikely, was based on Nominalist thinking. Jan Hus was essentially put to death for not being a Nominalist like the Fathers of the Council of Constance. So to say that the Enlightenment is beholden particularly to Nominalism is a misprision. We would do a lot better to follow the utterly wonderful (Catholic) scholar Charles Taylor to see the Enlightenment both as beholden something quite new as well as to very traditional notions of Christianity. I would like to seem as respectful as possible in this forum for the views of the current Pope, that Catholic doctrine constitutes a single unity through time and space. But the aforementioned involvement in Nominalist thinking, and then later rejection of it would seem to argue otherwise. Yet, I hope this will not be taken as the most immediate point I am trying to make here, for it is not. It is simply collateral to the notion that there has been a change, on this and many other factors, and that at least the change starting with Rerum Novarum of an official position of concern for workers and the poor was a change in the right direction.

    In my view, and I dare say many other people of goodwill, to the extent that the Catholic Church emphasizes this aspect of its teaching which began in the late 19th Century, it is a contributing force for the good of the world. And let me stress this is also because it as an institution, because of its other doctrinal concerns, is unlikely to get into the extremes of leftist thinking that have so damaged left-leaning causes in the past. So the Catholic Church by its very institutional nature could serve a good role in this precise way, in my view, as having potentially a more balanced left-leaning view. But we must recall that for most of its history the Church was in the opposite position of being, in every conceivable way, on the side of the powerful. I do not think this is a debatable issue historically. So it is not surprising that the powerful are keen to try to use this ancient organization for the concerns of the powerful again. Enter people like Robert Sirico. His entire efforts can be seen as a sort of grim performance -piece for the nefarious puppetry of the powerful. It does not matter that his positions make no sense in light of recent Church pronouncements. I think Mike Winters is right, Mr. Minion demolished his views in the Catholic context. But please note that strangely Sirico’s efforts are NOT AIMED AT CATHOLICS. This is the cryptic point of his efforts. His whole propaganda effort from his vanity “Institute” is aimed at perhaps waffling lawmakers who might be “tempted” to think that doing something utterly against the announced views of the leaders of the largest denomination in the country (Catholics) will make trouble for them with that very denomination. Sirico and his friends, like Mr. Garnett at the Mirror of Justice, are there to reassure these lawmakers and their assistants that “we have got the Catholic thing covered.” In other words, we will provide the necessary rationalizations to confuse the issue so you will have “cover”, even with Catholics, when you do the exact opposite of of what the Church teaches!! How else did these people get their “positions” at their vanity Institute or Notre Dame?? So one should see the whole performance as just that, a performance by pampered puppets for quite inhumane powerful people. The type of people that want to get rid of protections for poor people and then work on pulling the rug out from under the middle class as well. How else can they defend Boehner?? If the Catholic Church can get its act together and fight this tendency they will be appreciated. If not, not. So, I thank you for your effort in that salutary direction.

  • Dcn. Brian

    Dear MM,
    (I love you man. Please pick up on this for me as my frustration is getting to screaming point and that’s not good at my age.)

    I’m told by my bishops that I must not vote to support abortion and nothing is further from my intention. But even if one admits that Abortion trumps Social Justice (that’s about as crudely as I could put it) IN THE ABSTRACT, surely there is a calculus to be made depending on my own conscientious assessment of the relative damage that would be done to each cause if my vote carries the day at the election. I’m morally convinced that a Republican win in 2012 will result in not one single child saved from abortion but in the deaths of thousands from withdrawal of government support programs. My reasons and reasoning are not important to anyone but me, and may well be full of holes, but I do think that those who would be guardians of my conscience need to recognize the validity of my approach.

  • Liam

    Sirico has a good gig going for himself. He’s not, however, to be mistaken for a serious Catholic thinker.

    • Kurt

      He does seem to get a lot of international trips to soft spots. He never got to travel like that back when he was a Protestant minister.

  • Charles

    Dcn. Brian asked if trusting in a conscious that is not formed in Truth, tested by logic and held to be reasonable, but the contortions of one’s own personal wisdom, is a valid and acceptable approach. No, it is not. Such a conscious needs to humble itself to be open to the graces of God and the teachings of the Church.

    • Dcn. Brian

      With your “not formed in Truth or tested by logic…” you have completely mis-characterized my question; secondly “conscious” is an adjective not a noun, I believe you meant to say “conscience”; thirdly your response reeks of arrogance…

      • Charles

        What then did you mean by “my reasons and reasoning” and “may well be full of holes”? If indeed the reasons are personal, can not be held up to the test by “anyone but [you]” and you’re willing to ignore the strong possibility of being “full of holes”, why then trust such a conscience? To me that’s a sign of a malformed conscience that can not be trusted and is in need of reconciliation with Truth.

  • Dcn. Brian

    You mistook a gratuitous flourish of faux-humility for an admission of incompetence … I apologize.

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