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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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