Debating Faithful Citizenship

What happened to the debate on “Faithful Citizenship” at the USCCB meeting in Seattle? Perhaps, dealing with the Dallas Charter was enough contentiousness for one meeting. But, the debate on Faithful Citizenship will happen and it is vital that the bishops get it right.

Faithful Citizenship is the statement the bishops issue every four years before a national election. It examines the principal moral issues facing the nation. It speaks to the need for Catholics to form their consciences, not just invoke them. The document continues to articulate the Church’s on-going concern for human life, dignity, justice and peace. Taken in toto, it is a fine document and the USCCB has developed a bunch of catechetical aids for pastors, teachers and parents, all available at a very well done website.

Of course, a lot has changed since the autumn of 2007 when the USCCB last approved the text of Faithful Citizenship. The most alarming developments, and they are related, have been the rise of a very hateful Tea Party and the rise to prominence in the counsels of the powerful of a range of ideas, especially about the economy, that are decidedly at odds with Catholic social teaching.

There are many people in the Tea Party who are sincere in their concerns about the growth of the federal government to be sure. There are many who have been duped or confused by political propaganda, for example, the Tea Party rally at which two signs predominated, one reading “No Gov’t Run Health Care” and the other proclaiming “Hands Off My Medicare.”

There is also, however, a darker undercurrent to the Tea Party that must be addressed. Some Tea Party members express an acute hostility to government per se, seeming to deny it any legitimate functions. Other Tea Party members are simply racist. I know, I know. Here come the nasty comments. But, people, the whole debate about the President’s birth certificate, the posters of Obama as a monkey, the posters of Obama as an African witch doctor, the phone calls to congressional offices denouncing the health care reform as “reparations,” and referring to the President using a filthy racial slur, the fact is that a significant part of the Tea Party just can’t swallow the fact that we have a black man in the White House.

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Alongside this ugliness has been a much more respectable, and just so, more dangerous, increase in the promotion of a set of economic ideas that are antithetical to Catholic social thought. Ayn Rand is the easy case, to be sure. But, more generally, and relying on Mises, Hayek and others, some Catholic politicians and thinkers are promoting an idea of the market, and of the role of the market in human affairs, that does not cohere with Catholic anthropology. For them, the market must be permitted to operate without external constraints, most especially government regulation. We can all acknowledge the legitimacy of debate about any particular regulation, but the idea that other important human goods, such as clean air and water, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the right to a living wage, guaranteeing safe work environments, etc., these have an equal claim on the polity.

There is something akin to a belief in magic in this worship of the free market. But, it is an insult to the Catholic idea that all human activity must be viewed in moral terms and is subject to moral, not merely economic, analysis. The pro-market folk misunderstand the difference between engagement with the world and complicity with the world. They misunderstand the relationship of markets to human beings. If the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, surely the market must be made for man too. This misunderstanding, you will recall, was the central issue in Rome’s debate with Liberation Theology – you can get a lot wrong, but once you start messing with anthropology, the CDF takes notice. To which I say: Three cheers for the CDF!

The bishops must take cognizance of this new Social Darwinism that has reared its ugly head in the American political landscape. And they must speak out against it. There are other changes I would want to make in the document but they are minor compared to this need to speak out against the hatefulness that characterizes so much of the Tea Party’s political rhetoric and the un-Catholic disposition of the promoters of untrammeled capitalism. As Catholics, we are called to demand that our political life be humane, that it reflect our Christian understanding of human values, and that it demonstrate a preferential option for the poor.

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July 14-27, 2017