Partisan Ideology vs. the Common Good

Partisan Ideology vs. the Common Good August 4, 2012

Richard E. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, has an excellent essay in America on how the Catholic faith should supersede partisanship. The message is so sorely needed and well-articulated that it’s hard to keep from quoting the whole thing (if you are an American Catholic, whatever your political affiliation, read it!), but here are some not-to-be-missed highlights:

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and Catholic convert, says Catholics use their most deeply held values, whether that means defense of the unborn or care for the poor, to choose a party, but sooner or later they join “the side they’re on.” This is the opposite of what the U.S. bishops advocate in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” “As Catholics,” it says, “we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”

The idea is that Catholics should work within their parties to change them, creating a diverse and substantial group motivated not so much by ideology but by challenging cultural issues, large and small.

This is easier said than done. The bishops are asking Catholics to raise uncomfortable issues in sometimes exceedingly hostile environments. Many Democrats have worked strenuously since Roe v. Wade to purge dissenters on legalized abortion from party ranks. They have succeeded to the extent that pro-life Democrats find themselves in a no-man’s land, often reviled for their views and distrusted by pro-lifers because of their party affiliation. More recently, Republicans have sought to purify party ranks of even the slightest variations from party orthodoxy. Republican candidates and legislators espouse increasingly hard-line positions punitive to immigrants and cut disproportionately programs that help the poor.

In this partisan environment, Catholics may feel “politically homeless,” to borrow a phrase from John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The parties’ retreat from the ideological center has left Catholics with the understandable, but unfortunate impression that their only political option is to choose a side and join in to win the culture war. The resulting toxic acrimony has long since seeped into the church. Catholics must reverse this trend….

Catholics must … act in a way that reflects a belief in a higher truth, seeing a greater horizon beyond that of a partisan agenda. This is the essence of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which urges Catholics to place the church’s priority teachings at the heart of their worldview and moral decision-making. Practically speaking, this means that political positions should be judged by how well they express the values and truths of the faith, not the other way around….

Both parties should pursue the common good more than partisan advantage. For instance, as Catholics work for legal protection for the unborn as a matter of justice, they can also advance pro-life goals by strengthening and enforcing anti-discrimination laws for pregnant women in the workforce. And they can advocate for more generous parental-leave benefits. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not require employers to provide paid parental leave for workers. If Bolivia and Haiti, among the poorest countries in this hemisphere, can offer two and three months of paid leave, the United States—among the richest nations in history—can certainly do more. Increased attention to this issue would show that the United States places a high value on human life. And it would help forge a cultural perception that pregnant women really do have options and that abortion does not have to be tolerated, even as a “necessary evil.” The pro-life cause is also helped by making poor families a priority instead of an afterthought, so that no one can hide behind the excuse that people need abortions because “they just can’t afford another child.”

Meanwhile, the challenges of the highest domestic poverty rate in 15 years are too great for one party or philosophy to solve. Democrats must take seriously the concerns of Republicans that the government cannot be all things to all people. Republicans must take seriously the concerns of Democrats that the government has a role to play. Members of both parties must acknowledge the risk of future unsustainable deficits and put everything on the table to address the problem, including revenue, unnecessary defense spending, and just and fair entitlement reform.

The Catholic vision is one of collaboration, not coercion, among individuals, governments, businesses and other institutions. Its focus is not on profit or a winning ideology. Its focus is on creating conditions in which people can develop and ultimately flourish, in which their lives enjoy non-negotiable protection from conception to natural death, and thus can fully reflect the dignity God intended. This applies to every level, from individual to global. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the Catholic vision is to ensure that problems are tackled in the best possible context and that all stakeholders meet their responsibilities to one another. Subsidiarity locates responsibility at the lowest feasible level of society and requires other levels to support them in meeting their responsibilities. Both parties lack this vision or at least do not trust each other enough to make decisions that favor the common good consistently. Catholics could help and lead by example.

Catholicism has appeal across centuries, cultures and ideologies. Today the church can evangelize by working among people with various perspectives to counter the excesses of ideology. It might often make people angry, but it also would make the Catholic voice more difficult to ignore, elevating it above mere partisan agendas. It would give the church renewed credibility as a moral voice and force in the culture. In the words of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” “We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world.”

Preach it, Bishop Pates!

Now, at the risk of veering off into a whole other topic, an editorial in the same issue of America provides a timely example of how just such a transpartisan approach can apply to a particular issue, not by way of a noncommittal neutrality or by trying to somehow split the distance between left and right, but by looking beyond facile political categorizations of the “issues” to the principles connecting them, and by acknowledging the ways in which both major parties fall short and are subject to critique.

The editorial, which reflects on some of the moral, societal and political implications raised by the Aurora, CO shooting, resonates with a haunting comment I heard in conversation just after the tragedy, to the effect that a mass shooting happens somewhere in the United States about every 1-2 years almost like clockwork, and this is the sin we’re willing to put up with rather than sacrificing any autonomy in the form of gun ownership.  “If some say that gun violence is the cost society must pay for citizens to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms,” the editors say in response to this chilling compromise, “then others must insist that the cost is too high.”  A couple of further key points:

In the weighing of rights, a gun-owner’s “freedom” ought not to trump all the societal benefits to be gained from limiting it. That view is no longer popular….

After a massacre, questions about the collective good are typically raised. Yet they are put aside once the gunman is portrayed as a lone actor among millions of law-abiding gun-owners, whose constitutional rights ought not be infringed because of one oddball’s misbehavior. Thus society allows individuals to build an armory, heedless of the rights of all Americans to live in safety….

Until society’s preference for the unlimited exercise of individual rights over those of the common good is tempered, our nation will remain hostage to the gun lobby. And our politicians will be reduced to offering victims condolences rather than solutions to gun violence. Is this the society we want?

Bishop Pates and the editors of America are raising exactly the kind of question Americans need to be asking, especially those of us whose political participation is informed by Catholic faith: where is the place of the common good in a society that idolizes the autonomy of the individual (an idolatry that can all to easily dress itself in either red or blue)?  Catholic citizens have a moral duty to stand for the protection of all human life and dignity, “from conception to natural death.”  This means insisting, wherever the issues fall within the absurdities of our political sphere, that an individual’s “freedom of choice” is never more valuable than anyone’s life.

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