MSW v. the Catholic Left

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Yesterday, I wrote about the dispute between Cathleen Kaveny at Commonweal and her critics at First Things and elsewhere. At issue in that dispute, essentially, was the degree to which the late Richard John Neuhaus, who founded First Things, and his intellectual heirs let their political ambitions overwhelm other important Catholic intellectual commitments, and the whether or not the dualism between the religious and the secular was too pronounced, at least when it was inconvenient, and too absent when the doctrinal sledge hammer served a useful political purpose. In that dispute, I side with Kaveny.

But, dualism is found not only on the right. It is not uncommon for me to have conversations with Catholics on the left who bend over backwards to make excuses for Catholic politicians who are ardently pro-choice. “But, those pro-lifers don’t care about the child once it’s born,” they say, which often is not true and even if it were, does not answer the problem. Or, frequently, if I am having this discussion with a woman, I am told that as a man I have no business even having an opinion about abortion, to which I reply: “I am not a burglar, and I have never been burgled, but I have an opinion on that and I think it is wrong.” Or, you get some mashed potato argument about separation of Church and State.

Sometimes, I am invited to meetings at which politicians bring in prominent Catholics to discuss given issues and our opinions are solicited. I am always slightly surprised by such meetings, that the Catholic guests are excessively deferential to the politician host. It is not for me to attribute motives, but the desire to be invited back, to maintain access to the powerful, certainly goes a long way in shaping the way Washington works. I was rather blunt at one point during a meeting before Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., saying something to the effect that instead of figuring out a way to glom on to the pope’s message, perhaps the politician could think of ways to assist the Church the pope leads, and encourage politicians to stop sticking their finger in the Church’s eye, otherwise, they risk looking like hypocrites. Afterwards, I was told by some of my fellow Catholic attendees that I was a little too outspoken.

Like many liberal Catholics, I was appalled by the hysterical reaction to Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Obama. That reaction was not only hysterical, it was uncharitable. I remember a discussion with a bishop who did not publicly attack Notre Dame but who thought it had been a mistake to invite Obama. I said to him, “Okay. Notre Dame has invited every other president since Eisenhower. If you think it is okay to not invite the first black president, I want you to go to an all black parish in your diocese and explain your reasoning to them. If they agree, we can talk.” The bishop agreed that I had a point but added that the president did not get a pass on abortion because he is the first black president. The bishop had a point too.

There are many issues on which the Catholic left adopts a trendy attitude and says things that are unworthy of our Catholic intellectual, moral and doctrinal tradition. One can criticize the policies of the Israeli government without trafficking in the charge of dual loyalties by calling the U.S. Congress the “Knesset on the Potomac.” Whatever one’s views on same sex marriage, it is not a “no-brainer” for a Catholic. Concern about the reach of the federal government should not be exclusively a concern of Catholic conservatives. I could go on.

There is a better way. Two fairly recent contributions to public discourse point to that better way. In her book, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights, Meghan Clark set forth some of the doctrinal foundations of Catholic Social Thought. Most especially, she pointed out that Catholics believe the human person is created in the image and likeness of God, and that the God we worship is a Trinitarian God. This sets some very obvious limits on the degree to which an excessive sense of human autonomy can govern Catholic thinking. I reviewed that book here. Too often, even those who value Catholic Social Thought treat it as sui generis, as if it dropped out of the sky when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, and then act surprised when it is treated as an add-on, something with which a serious Catholic can be concerned or not depending on their political affiliation.  It is my sincere hope that other academic theologians will take up Clark’s work and expand upon it and always, always, link the particulars of Catholic Social Thought with their doctrinal and scriptural foundations.

Another contribution came from Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich. In an address to the Chicago Federation of Labor last September, +Cupich spoke of “a consistent ethic of solidarity” and said:

Let me also say that the Church’s search for the common good takes other forms as well. Friends can disagree and can see things in different ways. Admittedly, these differences can create tensions, but they should not break relationships. In times of tension, I ask you to keep in mind that the Church’s commitment to solidarity with workers is rooted in our commitment to solidarity with all. The Church stands in solidarity with the undocumented. We stand in solidarity with the poor and homeless. We stand in solidarity with unborn children and their mothers. We stand in solidarity with the unemployed. We stand in solidarity with families and their children and their right to a good education. We stand in solidarity with the elderly and the sick. Some of you will not share our commitments on one or more of these priorities. I ask that you respect that these commitments flow from the same, core belief in human life, human dignity and solidarity as our support for workers and their unions.

Catholics on the right who are indifferent to the plight of immigrants, and who do not think twice about voting for candidates who fail to support reforms to our unjust immigration laws fail this consistent ethic of solidarity. But, so do Catholics on the left who dismiss concerns about the need to reform our excessively liberal abortion laws, laws that are far less restrictive of the practice than those in Western Europe where, so far as I can tell, women do not feel oppressed by their circumstances anymore than women in the U.S. do. Theologians should explore the archbishop’s idea of a “consistent ethic of solidarity” and those of us in the commentariat should do so also, not with a view towards bolstering our partisan friends, but to see where it leads on its own terms.

At this moment in history, and for a variety of reasons, I believe it is the conservative side of the ledger that is the more morally obtuse and the less able to connect their various political positions with the fullness of Catholic thought. This is most obvious in their excessive confidence in the market as a kind of magic wand that can address varied social problems better than any other solution. The root cause of most of the difficulties current political parties pose for a serious Catholic is an excessive valuation of human autonomy, with conservatives valuing such autonomy in the world of business and politics and liberals valuing such autonomy in the world of private sexual ethics. Few on either side are willing to confront the linkages between libertarianism in the consumer sphere and the changes in traditional sexual morality. The Catholic right may think it is focused on “first things” but they tend to ignore those “first things” that get in the way of their political agenda and, as the recent controversy shows, they get testy when invited to think about first things that do not neatly reinforce their vision. But, let’s not kid ourselves: Something very similar often happens on the Catholic left too.


Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters