St. Francis Univ Ethics Lecture

Last week, I was invited to give the 20th annual ethics lecture by the Institute for Ethics at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. I chose to address Catholic Social Teaching and politics. Here is the text:

Time for Caesar to Render: How Catholic Social Teaching Can Heal What’s Wrong With American Politics

When I was asked to deliver this lecture last autumn, little did I know that the issue of rendering unto Caesar, that is, the relationship between Church & State, would become the stuff of nightly news and newspaper op-eds and polling data, and all the accoutrement of a modern democracy. The recent battle over if and how government mandates should extend to religious institutions reminded us all of something, actually many things, that we would rather forget:
The Constitution did not resolve the issue of the relationship of Church and State;

The Church never fits neatly into any political framework, many of the issues in contemporary political life have many answers and people of good will and good conscience can disagree, and disagree profoundly, as to which answer is best and, more importantly, which answers are even tolerable.

That is my first point: American democracy’s relationship to religion is, as it has always been, more sloppy than precise, more improvisational than programmatic. The line between Church and State and more generally between religion and society is always a contentious line. Nor is this unique to America on account of our democracy.

The boundary between Church and State was contentious when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether they should pay taxes.

It was contentious when certain Christian Emperors exercised undue and unholy influence over the Church.

It was contentious during the Middle Ages when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood in the snows at Canossa to beg pardon of Pope Gregory VII and when the English King Henry II was forced to do public penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket.

It was contentious when King Henry VIII demanded that all his subjects take the Oath of Supremacy, and St. Thomas More accepted martyrdom rather than swear to the Oath.

It was contentious, certainly in colonial America. We Catholics are justly proud of the fact that the only colony founded by Catholics, Maryland, passed the first legislative enactment regarding religious liberty in 1649, but we like to forget that within a few years, the government of the Catholic proprietor, Lord Baltimore, was overthrown, and the first law to go was that guaranteeing religious liberty, making our early Catholic contribution to religious liberty a mere footnote in history with no practical consequence.

The line between Church and State was contentious at the time of the American Revolution, when the First Continental Congress, deeply imbued with the writings of anti-Catholic Britons, wrote an Open Letter to the People of Great Britain, a letter drafted by John Jay, who would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the United States, but adopted by the entire Congress. The letter had this to say about Catholicism, and I quote, “a religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets,” and, quoting again, “a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the world.” The next time you hear someone speak about the profound Christian impulses that motivated the founding fathers, remember that they were not motivated by Catholic religious impulses.

The adoption of the First Amendment did not resolve matters.

The line between Church and State was contentious when our public schools required reading the Protestant version of the Bible and Protestant prayers from all students.

It was contentious when Pope Pius IX sent a block of marble to be used in the construction of the Washington Monument, but a mob seized the stone and hurled it into the Potomac, an act of vandalism for which no one was punished.

It was contentious in the 1920s when the people of the state of Oregon passed a referendum effectively shuttering the Catholic schools of that state by making attendance at public schools compulsory.

So, there was nothing particularly new about our recent debate about whether or not, and if so how, Catholic institutions should respond to a government mandate that the Church finds morally objectionable. But, a funny thing happened during this debate. A symmetry emerged between the most histrionic voices on both sides. One side, which we can associate with the more extreme voices on the Catholic Left, said, “It doesn’t matter what Obama does, the bishops are all Republicans and so they hate Obama and they will find a new way to make war against him.” The other side said the exact same words, only with the subject and object of the sentence reversed, “It doesn’t matter what the Church does, Obama is a Democrat and so he hates the Church and he will find a new way to make war on her.” Whenever both sides of an argument employ the exact same language to denounce their opponents and make their own case, it is incumbent upon everyone to take a step back, set aside their prejudices, and look more deeply at the issues that are at stake. This is my second point: political upheavals usually reflect deeper social and cultural realities than mere political bickering. In this most recent kerfuffle along the boundary separating Church and State, those deeper realities were quite fascinating.

It has been suggested that the reason the HHS mandates was seen as a Catholic issue was because the Church has a quirky position on the subject of contraception. But, the actual policy issue was not only about contraception; it was about an employer mandate. The reason this was seen as a “Catholic issue” was because the Church employs so many people in its schools, its hospitals and its charities. The original mandate drew a distinction between houses of worship, which were exempt, and religious institutions like charities and schools, that were not exempt. This is a distinction we Catholics must categorically reject. Religion, for us, is not something we only do on Sunday and amongst ourselves. Our faith leads us beyond the walls of the sanctuary of our churches, into the highways and byways of human suffering. Our faith compels us to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the immigrant, to instruct the ignorant. These actions are as integral to our faith as our Sunday worship. Some Protestants may have a hard time realizing this because of their traditional concern about the relationship between faith and works.

It is true that many of our Catholic institutions were built because our forbears, fighting anti-Catholic bigotry and Nativism, were denied access to mainstream institutions or because those mainstream institutions, and I am thinking here especially of colleges and universities, were inimical to Catholic ideas. The Catholic ghetto grew out of necessity, and the experience of a ghetto, especially a splendid ghetto, creates a sense of tribal identity. During the recent debate, the Obama administration seems to me to have been completely unalert to that tribal identity and so, could not anticipate a backlash that spanned the usual political divides. Longtime supporters of the administration recoiled at the prospect of the institutions fashioned in the Catholic ghetto of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century being told to do something against their conscience by those outside. Even if, as many polls indicate, most Catholics in the U.S. disagree with their bishops on the subject of contraception, they did not want any outsider entering a family disagreement. I may disagree with my Dad, but he is still my Dad and if someone outside the family criticizes him, I am going to defend my Dad, even if he is wrong and even if I know he is wrong. Something similar, I think, happened with progressive and conservative Catholics alike uniting behind the bishops in defense of Catholic institutions in the face of what they perceived as a non-family member entering into a family debate.

But, there was something deeper than a tribal reaction at work, something that has to do with the way Catholics understand the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to be sure, but something too about the nature of the Christian Church. During the debate, there was much talk of conscience, and some pro-choice advocates countered our Catholic objections about the rights of conscience our institutions should enjoy by asserting the conscience rights of employees. This assertion was not nonsensical. In America, we view all rights as essentially individual rights. The “libertas ecclesiae,” or liberty of the Church, is unknown in the American legal and constitutional framework. In this regard, we can say that America’s constitutional and legal framework is derived not only from ideas associated with the Enlightenment, but with distinctly Protestant understandings of religion. For the early Protestants who most profoundly shaped American culture, religion was a private affair, a relationship exclusively between the individual and God. Each and every individual Christian was free to interpret the Bible as he or she saw fit and there was no mediating authority other than the Bible. The Puritans and the Baptists and Methodists shaped the thought of future generations of Americans about religion in many and enduring ways, and those ways were reinforced by Enlightenment ideas about the role of religion in society as well, ideas that further encouraged a view of religion as an essentially private affair.

Needless to say, this is not a traditional Catholic view of the matter although, regrettably, many U.S. Catholics have grown unable to recognize the differences between a Catholic view of religion and conscience and the view held by the ambient culture, drawn from Enlightenment and Reformation ideas about what religion and conscience are, and how they function in a culture.

Unfortunately, in recent weeks, after the president announced his “accommodation” for our religious institutions, the bishops’ conference has been emphasizing a different argument. They have insisted that all employers and individuals, including secular employers and individuals, should be able to exempt themselves from the HHS mandates. This is bad politics to be sure: Catholics were able to force the Obama administration to make an accommodation for Notre Dame and the University of St. Francis, but they are not going to go to the mat for the conscience rights of Taco Bell.

There is a deeper problem with this idea that any individual, citing his or her conscience, should be able to exempt themselves from a government mandate. We should not feed the individualistic beast in our hyper-individualistic culture. If we posit that all individuals have an unfettered right to conscience exemptions from laws enacted as part of the common good, which is clearly how libertarians view the matter, what is the role of the Magisterium? And how do we differentiate between conscience and whim?

Those who support this argument cite Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty, #2:

“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

First, of all the conciliar documents, Dignitatis Humanae is the worst one from which to cull one paragraph and not the entire text. The document represented a compromise in many ways and because no one could create a genuine synthesis between the ideas of John Courtney Murray and the European theologians who resisted his views, between a negative conception of liberty and a positive conception of liberty, both views reside somewhat uneasily within the same document. Murray himself acknowledged this difficulty, speaking of the “difficult and troubled waters, that the Declaration itself tried to skate around.”

Second, even in #2 you find an example of the care with which Church teachings are crafted. Those words – “within due limits” – at the end, do not defeat but they certainly condition what went before. The right to conscience is manifested within a political culture in which other important values must be made manifest, most obviously public order, which concerned Murray, but also the common good. Vatican documents tend to always have this kind of qualifier, to keep any of the truths they proclaim from running amok, Lord Acton’s famous definition of heresy. In this case, the heresy of an excessive belief in human autonomy as the essential key in political life is qualified by the “due limits” imposed by other political considerations.

For Catholics, religion is a group activity. This is rooted, we believe, in our most central doctrine, the Trinity, which holds that God is not some atomistic unmoved mover, nor a foundational philosophic principle, but a God whose essence is love itself, expressed in a profound relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe that through baptism, we are invited to participate in the divine life and love of the Trinity. Consequently, all we do, our teaching as well as our worship, must be done together. But, to teach authentically, the bishops’ teaching must be drawn not merely from the challenges of the moment in a given place and country, but must take account of what the universal Church teaches and what she has always taught. We are in communion not just with those who gather at Mass in our parish church on Sunday. We are in communion with the Church of Rome, and the Church of Mexico City, and the Church of Paris, and the Church of Jakarta. We are in communion with the Church of the fourth century and the Church of the thirteenth century and, even though it is sometimes difficult for theologians to admit it, in communion with the Church of the years immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council. It is that eternal teaching, which we call apostolic, that must inform our consciences.

At the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Pope John XXIII called all Catholics to discern the signs of the times, he called for an aggiornamento, a bringing up-to-date of the Church’s teaching. This was indeed necessary as the teaching of the Church had become dry and arid, expressed through a singular, and most would argue stilted, reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. In response to the intellectual challenges of the Enlightenment, our teaching had become defensive, and was demonstrably incapable of engaging modern man with his experiences and ideas. But, we were called to DISCERN the signs of the times, not to adopt them wholesale. Discernment suggests weighing what is good and rejecting what is bad. A young theologian, one of the “radicals” at Vatican II, wrote in 1966 of the renewal of the Church’s teaching at Vatican II, “[this renewal’s] point of reference is contemporary man in his reality and in his world, taken as it is. But the measure of its renewal is Christ, as Scripture witnesses Him.” It will surprise no one to recognize that those words are the words of a still young Josef Ratzinger.

Nowhere is this need for discerning the signs of the times with Christ as the measure more important than in our understanding of conscience. “Conscience” and “freedom” may be the most ambiguous words in the English language today. But, their meaning is not ambiguous to us Catholics. Conscience is not whim. Conscience is not permission to do whatever one pleases. It is not private judgment. Conscience is the voice of God Himself, speaking to us in the concrete situations of our day, calling us to do right and avoid wrong. Here is Blessed John Henry Newman, from his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:

“The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”

That text is arresting in every way – the words “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” ring in one’s ears. And, Newman finished his letter to the Duke by famously observing that if he were asked to give an after dinner toast to the Holy Father, he would toast the Pope, yes, but conscience first. This letter of Newman’s had a profound influence on our young theologian from Bavaria who is now our Pope and I hope it will have a profound influence on all Catholics. If you listen to your own conscience, and you only hear your own voice, or the voice of your political party, or the voice of the editors at the New York Times, you need to listen more deeply.

Conscience must be rooted for us in the revelation of Jesus Christ, as that revelation is made manifest to us in our Scripture and tradition and through the Magisterium of the Church today. Christ is the measure. Yet, God chose many prophets, not one, and twelve apostles, not only Peter. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that not all the twelve saw eye-to-eye on every matter and we know from our reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that the vision of, say, the wisdom literature, which suggests a kind of natural ethics, stands in stark contrast to the vision of man’s natural capacities put forward in the Book of Job. Although God does not contradict Himself, He reveals Himself differently to different people in the course of human time. Thus, we can affirm that the guidance the Church offers us in the formation of our consciences may be authoritative, it may be persuasive, but it is never precisely definitive, better to say, the teaching must always be applied to a concrete set of circumstances and that it where our individual conscience comes in.

Three years ago this spring, we saw how consciences can differ during the controversy of the decision of the University of Notre Dame to continue its tradition of inviting the President of the United States to deliver the school’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Some were outraged, insisting that a pro-choice politician, even though he was not a Catholic, should not receive an honorary degree from a Catholic institution. Some were outraged by the outrage, noting that while they too found President Obama’s views on abortion objectionable, the idea that you would fail to invite the first African-American president in the history of the nation to come to Notre Dame entailed a different kind of moral blindness. The 2009 recipient of Notre Dame’s Laetare Award, Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, decided not to share the stage with President Obama, so Judge John Noonan, also a conservative Catholic and legal scholar, and a previous recipient of the Laetare Medal, gave the Laetare address instead. He spoke these words about Ambassador Glendon’s decision:

“One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous, and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same; that we can recognize great goodness in our nation’s president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice on this wholly happy occasion.”

How is it that two conservative Catholics of impeccable intellectual and moral character could reach such different conclusions? As we have seen, the Church’s teachings, which guide our conscience, permit different emphases. In the case of President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, some thought his pro-choice position so egregious that he should not be welcome on a Catholic campus. Others, while just as committed to the pro-life cause, recognized that the president’s faulty position on that issue did not disqualify us Catholics from celebrating other aspects of his political agenda or even the fact, the important fact, his election represented in the life of the nation, one more long step in America’s effort to rid itself of its original national sin, racial animus.

I have dwelt at some length on the role of conscience because, as you know, the bishops’ document on voting is entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The bishops do not issue a voter guide. This is no checklist. They do not tell us how to vote nor whom to vote for. Instead, they give us some key ideas, and an overall framework, for shaping our own consciences. That framework is drawn from the Church’s long tradition of social teachings. Sometimes, this social teaching is called “the Church’s best kept secret.” It is time to let others in on the secret. In a word, the twin pillars of Catholic social teaching are human dignity and the common good. We believe that all society, including politics, should enhance, not diminish, human dignity. And, because we believe that human persons are, by nature social and by grace called to communion with others, we believe it is part of the human vocation to achieve the common good of all. Selfishness, you might say, is not only a private sin, but a sin against our nature as social beings called to communion with each other and with God.

In the modern era, Catholic social teaching became more explicit than previously, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Since then, various popes and bishops have elaborated the Church’s social teaching, always applying these twin concerns for human dignity and the common good to the issues of the day, usually in ways that challenge the dominant political ideologies. For example, Pope Leo argued against socialism and communism, insisting that the Church recognizes the right to private property but, against laissez-faire capitalism, Leo argued that property rights are never absolute, and that all social systems, including the economy, must enhance human dignity and serve the common good.

And, so it is that the U.S. Bishops have recently issued a document on political responsibility every four years at election time. Last year, as many of you know, the bishops decided not to alter the text of the document as they had done in previous election cycles, opting instead to attach an Introductory Note that both encapsulated the teaching of the underlying text and called attention to six key issues in the 2012 election year. Some bishops wanted a new statement that focused more heavily on pro-life issues, and other bishops, noting the economic downturn since their last draft, wanted to strengthen the document as it addresses issues of social justice. But, when the bishops looked at the pro-life sections of the original text, and the social justice sections of the original text, the language was already pretty strong.

The document, and the Introductory Note, are carefully done and well balanced. For example, of the six specific issues the bishops highlight in their Introductory Note, three find greater support from today’s Republican Party – abortion, religious liberty, and traditional marriage – while the other three find more support from today’s Democratic Party – economic justice, immigration reform, and issues of war and peace. I would suggest that this balance was not accidental, nor is it only the result of a desire to appear balanced. Instead, this balance shows how the bishops support a consistent ethic of life in all its many manifestations. The bishops understand that the Gospel transcends all political parties and that neither major political party in the U.S. today completely embodies the Church’s teachings in their platforms. Furthermore, there is a value in not being seen as pawns of either party. To borrow the language of ethics regulations, it is not only a conflict of interest that must be avoided, but the appearance of such a conflict as well. The document challenges both parties alike and therefore, Catholics who belong to either party. Catholics who are Republicans are challenged to bring their party around on issues of economic justice, immigration and war and peace and Catholics who are Democrats are called on to make their party more sensitive to concerns about the sanctity of life, the importance of traditional marriage and the religious liberty rights we cherish as Americans and as Catholics.

John Carr, who delivered this lecture a few years back and who is now as then the director of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has noted that perhaps the most counter-cultural aspect of “Faithful Citizenship” is that it upholds politics as a good. We Americans have long enjoyed heaping scorn on politics and those who practice that craft. Mark Twain famously opined: “Suppose I were a member of Congress. And suppose I was an idiot. But I repeat myself.” We Catholics must resist that view, and we must invite our politicians to practice their craft in such a way that they do not demean the noble calling that is theirs. Politics is not the only way a culture discerns the common good, but it is the principal means by which certain aspects of the common good are discerned and acted upon. I cannot, on my own, protect the environment, nor guarantee access to health care, nor provide income for our senior citizens. We need government to do these things, and these are good things to do. I encourage all of you, especially the students here, not only to vote, but to make sure your representatives know how you feel on issues. There is in Washington an aristocracy of interest groups, many of them well-funded, whose access to, and influence upon, political leaders must continually be checked by constituents who are not slavishly devoted to particular ideological positions but who champion the common good. Write letters. Make phone calls. Run for office yourself. There are few things more morally obtuse than a man who complains endlessly about politics but does not avail himself of the means our free democracy furnishes for finding solutions to those complaints.

One of the reasons the bishops do not say “vote for this person or that party” is because while the Church teaches certain core principles as essential to public life, we voters do not cast our ballots for principles but for people. As voters, we must look beyond a candidate’s stated positions and weigh other considerations, not only what it is right to do, but what is the likelihood that a given candidate will be able to achieve the good they propose or how a political coalition will be able to deliver one desirable objective, say universal health care, but will at the same time frustrate the attainment of other politically desirable goals, say a further limitation of legal abortion. It is not unknown that some politicians give lip-service to ideas we cherish but do nothing to enact those ideas into legislation if they win. Our conscience is permitted to take cognizance of such factors when we decide how to vote and for whom.

There are difficulties with Faithful Citizenship. The bishops state: “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called ‘intrinsically evil’ actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.” It is true that there are such things as intrinsically evil actions, indeed there are hundreds of them. But, not all of them are fit subjects for civil legislation. In a splendid new book by Nicholas Cafardi, Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny has a splendid chapter on the why the category of “intrinsically evil” actions is the wrong category. She points out that there are many things that are intrinsically evil, such as lying, that we only criminalize when the lying entails fraud or perjury, and other actions, like driving under the influence, which are not intrinsically evil but which are properly made criminal by our laws. Kaveny writes, “to say that an act is intrinsically evil does not, by itself, say anything about the comparative gravity (or seriousness) of the act. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in the Catholic moral tradition, some acts that are not intrinsically evil can on occasion be worse both objectively and subjectively than acts that are intrinsically evil.” And, there may be gravely evil acts which might, or might not, be fit for civil legislation: It is gravely evil and very cruel to cheat on one’s spouse, and the fact of such cheating may have consequences in divorce court, but do we want to criminalize it? To be clear: I believe abortion is both an intrinsic and a grave evil and support efforts to restrict it. But, I believe it is possible to hold that position and also believe that affecting such restrictions is a very complicated business, and that while the moral issue may be “black and white” the political issue is not.

As well, the bishops state, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.” As noted earlier, one may recognize that a candidate espouses his or her opposition to a grave moral evil, but also recognize that the candidate has little chance of accomplishing anything significant regarding that opposition, or may be paying lip-service to the issue, or may articulate his or her opposition to the grave evil in such a way that the candidate is unlikely to persuade those who do not share that view but instead alienate them and actually harm efforts to limit or restrict the grave evil. Prudential judgment is never something we can set aside, it is always necessary, and I fear that in presenting the issues the way they do, sometimes the bishops confuse the moral issue from the political calculi apporpriate in deciding how to vote.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to read “Faithful Citizenship” and not be moved to see our vocation as voters, as participants in our democracy, as a noble calling. Amidst the soundbites, and the negative ads, and the bumper sticker talking points, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the issues at stake in an election matter and they matter hugely. As Catholic Christians, we are called to bring the light of Christ to everything that we do, including our political involvement. And, it would be difficult to find a time when that light is more needed than now.
Every four years, we are told that this will be the most important election of our lifetime. That is usually hogwash. Certainly, the elections of 1800, 1860, and 1936 were very consequential, perhaps more than the election of 2012 is likely to be. Nonetheless, there is a vital need for Catholic political involvement today because there has grown inside both political parties an ideological cancer that is antithetical to Catholic social teaching, and that cancer is called libertarianism.

I mentioned earlier that the words “conscience” and “freedom” may be among the most ambiguous in our contemporary political culture, and we have looked at conscience already. Let us now turn to the issue of freedom, in part because it is a foundational concern of the American experiment in governance and also because the Introductory Note to Faithful Citizenship cites religious liberty as one of its principal concerns.

This is not the place for a disquisition on the scholarship of the concept of liberty – nor am I qualified to give one. But, it is important, I think, for even a commoner in the Academy to recognize that there are difficulties between what Sir Isaiah Berlin called the negative conception of liberty at the heart of the First Amendment, the idea that one should be “free from” coercion by government, and what St. Paul meant when he spoke of the “freedom of the children of God.” These difficulties were not resolved by Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. These are the “troubled waters” of which Murray spoke. And, clearly, one of the themes of this pontificate has been that ideas of freedom untethered to ideas of truth become not only brittle but feeble, unable to defend not only other important human goods besides freedom, but unable to even defend freedom itself. As I say, I am not the person to solve these difficulties – I am niether learned nor smart enough. I can say that one of the tasks of Christian humanism in our day is to rescue the undeniable achievements of modernity, including its emphasis on freedom, from the faulty anthropology that has so far accompanied it.

I can also say that we do not have to go far into these deep, troubled philosophic waters to recognize the threat that libertarianism poses today not only to Catholicism but to liberalism. Libertarianism perfectly fits the description of heresy as “a truth run amok.” Libertarianism takes a genuine, and proper concern for personal liberty, and turns it into the sole criterion of political judgement. We hear its exponents say that the sole purpose of our Constitution was to protect individual liberty when, as the Preamble of that document clearly states, our government is also charged with providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare.

The cancer of libertarianism has afflicted both political parties. For Democrats, it manifests itself in areas of personal, and mostly sexual, liberty. For Republicans, it manifests itself on issues of economic policy and social justice. Sometimes, this produces great ironies. After four years of defending government mandates in health care reform, Democrats resisted efforts, such as that in Virginia, to mandate ultrasounds for women before they obtain an abortion. And, Republicans who have been warning that government has no place getting between an individual and his or her doctor, now seek to place a clear government mandate in the examining room. Irony, even when it is rich, and has a place to play in literature, is a sign of unhealth in politics.

America is quite unique among modern, industrialized democracies in that it has always been simultaneously a deeply religious culture and a deeply materialistic culture. De Toqueville commented upon this, so it is hardly new. But, in the past several decades, America has become less religious and more materialistic so I believe that the threat posed by economic libertarianism is the more profound threat we face today. It was chilling, during one of the GOP primary debates, to hear the audience cheer the prospect of letting a patient die in the hospital because he lacked health insurance. It is chilling to hear those who champion budget cuts above all else, but who also tout their pro-life credentials, suggest that we should cut foreign aid, including those programs that fight malaria in the many impoverished nations of the world, programs that are manifestly pro-life. It is chilling to hear a variety of Social Darwinism championed, a vision of society in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and so long as the iron laws of laissez-faire economics are followed, no one should complain. I use the term “Social Darwinism” advisedly because this hyper-individualism is as often as not accompanied by a hatefulness that is similar to the brutishness of the state of nature. There is an ignorance of history in such a worldview: A society that embraces this survival of the fittest nonsense is a society doomed to civil strife. Has Congressman Ron Paul ever read A Tale of Two Cities?

Sadly, some Catholics have hitched their wagons to this cancer of libertarianism. The Acton Institute, led by Father Robert Sirico, has made it its mission to neglect or distort more than one hundred years of papal social teaching, championing efforts to restrict the rights of workers, opposing key programs that constitute our social safety net, and even going so far as to suggest that John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is a Christ-like figure, writing, “Galt is for Rand the ideal man—the Man of the Mind (the logos); the One upon whom the world and its creative capacity depend. He is, in a real sense for Rand, the God-Man.” I blushed for Fr. Sirico when I read those words but I fear he did not blush for himself.

Other Catholics have also been busy distorting Catholic social teaching. Mr. George Weigel never misses an opportunity to mis-characterize the Church’s teaching about subsidiarity, viewing it as a one-way street opposing government intervention in the marketplace. Of course, subsidiarity is a two-way street, recognizing not only a preference for solutions to societal problems that are closest to the source, but also recognizing the need for government to intervene when intermediate social actors, such as the family, the community, and local government, have failed to secure basic human necessities like access to health care.

And, on the left, one still hears the tired refrain that it is not our place as Catholics to impose our religious beliefs on others, as if such a thing were possible in our democracy, or that one can be personally opposed to a grave social evil but feel no compulsion to do anything about it, or that our concern for the homeless and for the immigrant somehow should not be extended to the unborn.

I do not think you have to be particularly imaginative to grasp where the next threat to human dignity is going to arise: the elderly. The secular left is embracing euthanasia – there will be a referendum on euthanasia in Massachusetts this autumn and powerful and wealthy interests are coming together to advocate for it. At the same time, the libertarian right is asking the nation to consider privatizing Medicare because it is too expensive. The cost of caring for the elderly through Medicare and Social Security has indeed been rising and looks to be larger still in the years ahead. Think of all the fun things we can do with that money if we could convince them to kill themselves or strip them of their health care? It is barbaric. Protecting the elderly should become an issue around which all Catholics can find common ground.

Similarly, immigration reform strikes me as an issue in which pro-family conservatives and social justice liberals should join hands. It is un-Christian and un-American that our government separates children from their parents and husbands from their wives because a family may have members with different legal status. The border between the United States and Mexico was not put there by God and crossing that border does not make one less than human. As Catholics, we are always, always called to recognize the human dignity of all, whether they be undocumented immigrants or unborn children.

What can we do? What can you do, as members of the Catholic intellectual community. I would note here that pro-life Democrats and pro-immigration reform Republicans may be the most precious political actors in our culture because their views cannot be dismissed by their fellow party members as mere partisanship. Yet, it is precisely such politicians who are the most likely to be challenged, vilified, labeled as RINOs – Republicans In Name Only – or as Blue Dog Democrats, both terms delivered with derision. Indeed, because they are willing to break with party orthodoxy, they are seen as traitors, betrayers of the party, and powerful more rigidly partisan groups try to take them down. Any of us who cherish the art of compromise and, more importantly, hope to affect change in our culture to make it more welcoming to both the unborn and the undocumented, and more protective of the elderly, must protect these politicians who are willing to argue within their own parties for a different, more humane, view on these contentious issues.

The other thing we must do is educate ourselves and our children in the rich resources of our Catholic tradition. “Christ is the measure,” as Pope Benedict wrote. At this time in our nation’s history, when both of our parties are afflicted with the cancer of libertarianism, our long tradition of Catholic social thought, reaching back before John Courtney Murray, before Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, before John Henry Newman, back to Augustine and Aquinas, to Bellarmine and Suarez, that tradition must come to the rescue. This tradition provides us the ground upon which to stand and fight the idea that man’s autonomy is the only thing to know about him. Caesar may not care to listen to what we have to say and, in a democracy, there is not one but many Caesars. But the Church has within herself a tradition which, it seems to me, answers the gravest challenges facing American politics today. We are not infringing on anyone’s liberty, nor their conscience, by bringing our faith into the public square, indeed, our faith may be, and I believe is, the thing that might save America from mistaken understandings of conscience and freedom, mistaken understandings that have led us astray. It is not we who should render unto Caesar today: It is Caesar who stands in desperate need of hearing what we Catholics have to say about the human person, about human dignity, and about human conscience and freedom.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here