Why I Have Soured a Little Bit on Faithful Citizenship

Why I Have Soured a Little Bit on Faithful Citizenship October 12, 2011

When the USCCB first issued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship a few years ago, I was one of its biggest fans. It provided an elegant theoretical framework for making moral decisions in the public square, and I am rather fond of elegant theoretical frameworks. Although I still agree with pretty much everything in it, I now find think it problematic for two key reasons. Let me explain.

First – framing the debate around intrinsically evil acts. This is a neat way to do it. After all, in making moral decisions, we can never do something that is intrinsically evil and we can never (formally) cooperate with an intrinsically evil act. The problem is, this doesn’t map very well to voting. For a start, there are plenty of things that are intrinsically evil that have no political relevance, such as masturbation. On the other hand, there are plenty of things that are not intrinsically evil that matter a lot for public morality and justice. Take the death penalty, for example. Since there are circumstances when it is licit, it cannot be intrinsically evil. But since these circumstances are “rare, if practically non-existent”, then it is as good as intrinsically evil, but somehow slips through the net. The same is true for war. And we can simply brush off all matters of economic and social justice.

Here’s the problem – this approach allows people to define themselves and their favored candidates solely in terms of where they stand on a (short) list of intrinsically evil acts. It creates a false dichotomy between what really matters and what can safely be ignored. Even worse, since intrinsic evil covers intent, it somehow becomes valid to merely express one’s opposition to the act in question. Think of the obvious case – abortion. According to one interpretation, all that matter is a political candidate’s views on the legal status of abortion. So one can declare one’s total opposition to abortion, while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to help the unborn, or form a culture of life, and even in some cases supporting actions that make abortion more likely. Of course, this is a false reading of the underlying moral theology, but it is a reading that has been seized strenuously by the Catholic right.

I would prefer a shift in emphasis towards the entire spectrum of grave moral acts that feature in political decision-making. This would prevent people drawing artificial lines, or as Pope Benedict puts it, “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”. I would prefer an approach like Gaudium Et Spes, which listed as “infamies”: “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons”.

The current framing is not wrong – and it is very neat – but it opens itself up to some egregious misinterpretation.

Second – the economic crisis changed everything. In such circumstances, simply re-issuing a document from 2008 seems almost bizarre. It has the feel of a different era. It reinforces a general feeling that the bishops are out of touch on basic economic issues, that they are not capable of applying the strong messages of Economic Justice for All, written a quarter of a century ago, to the problems of today.

The crisis taught us that there is something deeply immoral in our economic structures, and that we went terribly astray over the past 30 years or so. With their zeal to maximize shareholder values, corporations lost their sense of a deeper social responsibility. Profits could no longer be merely adequate, they had to be maximum. Greed itself became the new social norm. This is a core theme of Caritas in Veritate, but it hardly features in Faithful Citizenship.

The crisis taught us that the “financialization” of the economy, with the growth of an outsized and politically-dominant financial sector, engaged in egregious leverage and risk taking, in an atmosphere of sustained financial deregulation, sowed the seeds of economic ruin. This was a core theme of Quadragesimo Anno, written during the Great Depression, but it does not feature in Faithful Citizenship.

The crisis taught us that rising inequality not only rips apart the social fabric, but also makes financial crises more likely and puts economic stability in jeopardy. And while  the Church has spoken out strongly for distributive justice, this barely features in Faithful Citizenship.

The crisis taught us that the people who suffer most from such a crisis are the poor, the unemployed, the wage earner. The countries that did well during the crisis tended to have robust safety nets and social norms that allowed corporations to hold onto workers, with all agreeing to work less and the firm taking a hit in profits. But in countries like the United States, the poor are forced to bear the burden of austerity, and labor unions are stripped of bargaining power. Again, the Church has strong opinions on this – Caritas in Veritate speaks out against the  “downsizing of social security systems” in the global market and the temptation to  “limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions”. But here too, Faithful Citizenship barely scratches the surface.

The problem with such relative silence in this area is that it creates far too much leeway for Catholics to ignore some of the key principles of Catholic social teaching as applied to economic justice. It allows Catholics to support choosing the rich over the poor, and adopting a false and reckless libertarian approach to economic decision-making. It allows people to refuse to help others meet healthcare needs through institutional means, whether directly through subsidies or indirectly through regulations. It provides liberty for all kinds of extreme and farfetched falsehoods, such as when people like Deal Hudson and Matt Smith write that the economic crisis was “worsened by the insistence of the present administration to put our country deeper and deeper into debt”. Such invincible economic ignorance must not go unrefuted, as it has dangerous consequences.

All in all, I much prefer the approach of the Irish bishops. In their voting guide, they thundered in a way that evoked Pius XI in the 1930s, lambasting a “radical individualism” that manifested in a  ”bonus culture” that is “regrettably still a feature of banks and financial institutions”,  which in turn gave rise to “inequality and damage to social cohesion”. They talk about the need to check the “excesses of advanced capitalism” with “a robust regulatory environment and a concern for the welfare state”. Remember, the Irish crisis and the US crisis have similar roots. These teachings are valid for American Catholics too. Somebody inform the Catholic neocons and tea party acolytes!

Of course, the documents of the US and Irish bishops are both fully in line with Catholic social teaching. I agree with both of them. But ultimately, it’s a matter of emphasis, style, relevance, and tone. And on that, I prefer the Irish version.

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"I've lived through this in another direction: a pastor who hectored his congregation to join ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"Given what some of the Father of the Church said (I am thinking it was ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The Irish bishops issued that document only four days before the election, meaning it had minimal (if any) electoral impact. They should have released it early on in the election.

    • But remember, election campaigns in Ireland last only about 2-3 weeks (from when election is called to voting). It is the US that is abnormal in that regard.

  • I agree that the theology of the document is valid, and what it said was right in so far as it went, however, I also think you are right in saying it doesn’t really address prudential reasoning properly and so many go idealist with it because of this imbalance.

  • MM, a five star post…very thought provoking. I did read the revised USCCB document (and the Irish Bishops document too). I wanted to assess ‘Faithful Citizenship’ based upon your commentary.

    First of all, is the Irish document designed to serve the same purpose as FC? If so, that wasn’t clear to me. I read it as a moral response weighted specifically towards the impact of the financial crisis…the other ProLife concerns were brought in on a minor note. Their critique of the bonus culture was direct; and their highlight of the ‘principle of gift’ in a social culture was right on.

    Regarding FC: Sadly, this document is too often read and invoked for partisan purposes; namely to ‘search’ for elements that justify a particular stance. Should someone actually pray with the document they would find it very useful.

    The dilemna is not so much in the document as in the real life freakish choices we have in the political sphere. Using the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ story as a metaphor; we actually have the the baby being split in order to satisfy the political protagonists. We’ve done exactly what the document warns against, namely descending into ideological camps which are rigid and intorerant. Catholics have created a Frankenstein version of CST.

    • What I meant to say was that American Catholics are dueling with two Frankenstein versions of CST.

      • Kurt

        Yes. Maybe what we need to do is get off the idea that our faith leads us (collectively) to vote for a certain candidate. What would really be best for the Catholic faith is to have Catholics active in various campaigns, political parties and social movements witness Catholic social principles. Witness for life at Democratic Party meetings and witness for economic justice, worker rights and world peace at GOP con-fabs.

  • Mark Gordon

    MM, I couldn’t agree with your assessment of Faithful Citizenship more. And yes, there really is a need right now for a robust, full-orbed teaching on economic justice. To one degree or another, and with only a very few exceptions, the entire world is now enmeshed in one global capitalist system that lurches from crisis to crisis. It seems to me that the universal Church has a duty to address the moral implications of that system and its relationship to human persons.

  • Do you have a link to the Irish doc? Obliged.

  • Paul DuBois

    The real problem I have with Faithful Citizenship is that it leaves me no one to vote for. We can choose between a pro-life party that talks good but has done nothing to actually reduce the number of abortions in the country and a party that talks social justice, but continues two wars with the torture and poverty they create. The Affordable Care Act is a great example. It produced no real advancement to improve quality of care, but could have included the most restrictive abortion limits since Row v Wade. It did not advance a truly socially just way of distributing care because the Democrats could not get it pass their party and did not include the most stringent restrictions on abortion because not a single Republican would vote for them.
    We not only do not have choices that are acceptable to the whole of Catholic teaching, we do not have choices that even try to fully implement any part of Catholic teaching.

  • The Pachyderminator

    Are war and the death penalty “as good as” intrinsically evil? It seems to me the bishops may have had a reason for not saying that, one good reason being that it’s not true.

    • An ‘intrinsically evil’ act doesn’t imply that it is a greater evil than other acts. It simply means that are no circumstances when it could not be considered evil in itself. War may at some point be considered ‘just’ and therefore not intrinsically evil. But it doesn’t follow that all wars are just and this should be obvious. If a nation had serious fears that its ‘prolife’ candidate might propel them into an unjust war, or begin war preemptively to secure ‘its interests’, or even for nefarious purposes…can Catholic voters resist to the point of voting for an opposing candidate who is not prolife?

      • Deacon Chip

        And this is where it gets so difficult to agree with many bloggers. I agree with The Pachyderminator in that war and the death penalty are, neither one of them, intrinsically evil. The Church teaches that those in civil authority over the decision to go to war or impose the death penalty, and thus are in possession of the facts necessary to make a prudential judgment about the justice of either war or a specific death penalty, are the morally culpable ones in a decision. IT is always deplorable that either war or the death penalty would be judged necessary. But unless I am the National Command Authority, or the judge in a criminal case, I am not in possession of all the facts that go into deciding to impose either.

        And yet, may speak of both war and capital punishment as if both were strictly forbidden by Catholic social teaching. Neither is. And no candidate would be faithful to Catholic teaching were s/he to absolutely rule out ever going to war (in the case of a President or Congresscritter) or imposeing the death penalty (in the case of a judge or Governor of a State.

        We are right to prefer a world in which neither exists. But both the death penalty and war are justifiable in some circumstances in Catholic moral teaching.

  • Anne

    If abortion (say it) is the deciding factor, we either can’t vote at all or we have to vote for
    candidates who advocate policies that not only stand in opposition to the Church on war, torture and capital punishment, but also harm the poor, the old, the ill, the alien and all those other groups we as Christians are supposed to befriend. That can’t be right.

  • The Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letters cut through the crap and tell it like it is.It’s time to revisit them.

  • Brian Killian

    Kathleen Caveny wrote an excellent article in 2008 about the misuse of moral concepts like ‘intrinsic evils’ and how ‘intrinsic’ is not a concept about the gravity of a moral evil etc. This misuse of moral terms will come back in 2012. One of the misuses is dismissing non-intrinsic evils as unimportant, simply because they are prudential. They don’t even play a role in conservative voting guides. But this is backwards.

    Voting is a prudential act and therefore prudential moral issues like war and capital punishment are totally relevant and ‘at play’. Furthermore, unjust wars are intrinsically evil. State execution when it is not necessary is intrinsically evil. Disproportionate violence in warfare is intrinsically evil. If the voter determines that a war is unjust, or that capital punishment is unjust, these evils are just as much at play as other intrinsic evils in the voter’s moral calculus. But in the rhetoric of Conservative Catholics, prudential judgement just means it’s unimportant and can never compare with intrinsic evils.

    Henry is right about the idealism of the Conservative CAtholics and their voting philosophy. Voting for them is easy. All you have to do is check off if some candidate is anti-abortion or not. Or you just have to count how many intrinsic evils he holds and then make a simple quantitative comparison with another candidate to see who’s better. These comparisons all take place in some platonic heaven far above earthly reality with its complicated consequences and messy gray areas and uncertainty. Of course, this runs afoul of FC ‘s declaration that politics is the ‘art of the possible’, and that the relevancy of a candidate’s belief states is relative to what is possible.

    Ultimately, the conservative CAtholic’s voting philosophy will always be screwed up because they don’t hold a Catholic view of what it means to be pro-life. It isn’t a consistent ethic of life. And because it’s not, voting is an absurdly simple black and white activity for them.

  • The problem I have with voter guides in general is that they focus on issues apart from the the people who 1) may or may not be able to do anything about them and 2) may have lousy ideas for addressing said issues.

  • Brian Killian

    That should be Cathleen Kaveny. And the article, which I think will be as relevant in 2012 as it was in 2008, is here. “Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility”


  • Pingback: dotCommonweal » Blog Archive » Reservations on ‘Faithful Citizenship’()