The Crazed Politics of Religion

Yesterday, I linked to an article about former Sen. Rick Santorum’s comments on Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical on the environment. He said the pope was “not credible” on the subject of climate change, and urged the Church to “leave science to the scientists.” Of course, GOP politicians have not been content to leave science to the scientists but have glommed on to every crank scientist they can find to rebut the conclusions of virtually all climate scientists, namely, that human activity has a profound effect on climate change.

Santorum said something else, however, that was even worse. Here is the relevant quote from the article:

Santorum encouraged the church to focus on “what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

“I think when we get involved with controversial political and scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible,” he remarked. “And I’ve said this to the bishops many times when they get involved in agriculture policy or things like that, that are really outside of the scope of what the church’s main message is.”

Mr. Santorum completely misunderstands Catholic Social Teaching, indeed, you could say that he seems to forget what the “S” in CST stands for, the social. For him, morality is only about the personal and the pelvic, not about things like climate change which, in the event, will require personal conversions as well as social ones.

None of us knows what the encyclical will say, but I am pretty confident that the Holy Father will, in fact, “leave science to the scientists.” What he will also do is explain, as his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI did on several occasions, that for us Catholics the “environment” has another name, “creation,” and he will set forth the moral reasons we should do a better job caring for creation than we have do so far. I suspect he will also have some choice words for the economic imperatives for profit that have overwhelmed the moral imperatives for responsible care of creation. And, I hope the pope will tell politicians to be true to their vocation, which is to advance the common good, not the profits of the extraction industries.

Santorum’s argument is not entirely new. As far as I can tell, the first person to set forth the claim that there are five “non-negotiables” for Catholics in the public square was Princeton Professor Robert George. The five on his list were: abortion, euthansia, same sex marriage, stem cell research, and human cloning. The problem with this list was, in the first place, its transparency. All five non-negotiables align with positions articulated by today’s socially conservative Republican Party. (Euthanasia and human cloning are exceptions to a degree – happily, there are many liberal Democrats who oppose euthanasia and human cloning has not really emerged as a political issue.) But, it was telling that there was no mention of poverty, or war, or environmental degradation on Professor George’s list.  He seems unfamiliar or at least uncomfortable with the idea of systemic sin, although Pope Francis clearly called the Church to consider systemic sin in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and the idea has been around for a long time before that.

There is a deeper problem with Professor George’s list of five non-negotiables. In a sense, all the Church’s teachings are non-negotiable. We Catholics believe that the Church’s teachings, all the teachings, those on abortion and those on poverty, flow from the truth revealed by Jesus Christ. In a pluralistic society, of course, we must negotiate how our Catholic views can and cannot be translated into public policy. But, by saying that these five, and only these five, are negotiable, Professor George, and his political followers, gave the impression that the Church’s commitment to fighting poverty or environmental degradation was negotiable. By the end of next week, when the encyclical will be released, Pope Francis will have made it perfectly clear that Catholics have a moral obligation to protect the environment.

If Mr. Santorum’s and Professor George’s attempts to co-opt the Church’s teaching authority for crass political ends is not new, it is also not exclusively theirs. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly tried to link her decision to bring her grandchildren to a gay rights event to her commitment to the Church’s teaching. Here is the video:



Democrats too often make the opposite mistake from that made by Republicans. The GOP Catholics deny or downplay the social aspects of Church teaching, while Democrats like Pelosi confuse the personal with the private and then claim government should not interfere with the private. Abortion is truly a personal decision, but it is not a private one, and to assert that it is rigs the game. If there are two persons involved, and affected, it is not private. Besides, there are plenty of laws which forbid a person from doing certain things with their bodies: We are not legally permitted to take illicit drugs, nor to drink legal alcoholic beverages and then get behind the wheel of a car. Confusion is as lamentable as it is common, and Democratic Catholic politicians exhibit as much of it as their Republican Catholic colleagues. Indeed, it is bizarre, and noteworthy, that both groups of politicians deviate from Church teaching in the exact same way, by invoking a kind of libertarian exemption. Pro-choice women say “you can’t tell me what to do with my body” and pro-business Republicans say “you can’t tell me what to do with my corporation.”

This ideological confusion will not be settled anytime soon. But, it would be nice if politicians of all varieties would observe this simple rule: Acknowledge that you are not a theologian and leave the theology to the Church. True, Catholic politicians, like all Catholics, should inform their conscience, a process that aims at thinking with the Church. But, it is emphatically not a politician’s job to use their political microphone to pass judgment on what a Church, their own Church or another, believes and teaches. They can explain how their positions relate to the teachings of the Church to which they belong, even though the results may not be pretty. But, they should not use a public, and secular, microphone to deride the Church’s teaching.

I can’t finish this column without pointing to the fact that the bishops bear some responsibility for the confusion that exists among so many Catholic politicians. In the first place, some bishops have been all too happy to turn the USCCB into an arm of the Republican National Committee. But, the deeper problem is that the bishops have not done a great job explaining to the flock why the Church teaches what it does. Everyone knows the Church is opposed to abortion. Everyone knows the Church believes poverty must be alleviated. But, do they know why? A few years back, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. gave a talk on a matter of bio-ethical concern to a group of hospital administrators. Like a good Dominican, he began with the Trinity. I intend no slight to my Jesuit friends or to the Holy Cross Fathers in suggesting that we should all be good Dominicans for a bit. The Church needs to do a much better job of explaining that our commitment to the poor, like our commitment to the unborn, is rooted not in the politics of our day, but in the revealed truth given us by Jesus Christ, handed down through the ages, its implications worked out and developed over the centuries, always confronting the signs of the times and engaging the culture in which the Church finds itself.

Next week, the bishops will be in St. Louis for their spring meeting and they will likely receive an update on their quadrennial document “Faithful Citizenship.” The last iteration of that document had strengths and weaknesses, about which I have written many times previously. But, it would be a good idea for the bishops to collectively undertake an exercise before they suggest amendments. They should pass out a blank sheet of paper and a pen to all the members of the conference, and give them five minutes to explain in writing, bullet points would be fine, how they relate the Trinity to, say, the issue of same sex marriage or to the issue of environmental protection. We all bemoan the dearth of catechesis these past few decades. It is time to start doing something about it. And, maybe, just maybe, the degree and extent of public confusion about the relationship between faith and politics will be diminished, and the common good might be advanced.



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