A new Washington Post-ABC News poll should be a source of reflection for every Catholic, especially those in leadership. The poll indicated that among white Catholics, 44 percent thought torture was sometimes justified, and an additional 24 percent thought it was often justified. Only 17 percent said it was rarely justified and 12 percent said torture could never be justified. Conversely, among those who profess no religion, 33 percent said torture was sometimes justified and 7 percent said it was often justified, while 26 percent said it was rarely justified and 32 percent of non-religious people took the position of the Catholic Church that it is never justified.
Hmmmmm. The next time someone in a miter speaks breezily about secularization being the cause of all that ails the world, ask them about this poll. I am not a fan of secularization, to be sure. But, this poll indicates that instead of wringing our hands about the forces of secularization, perhaps we should concentrate on our own witness to the truth about God and, therefore, the truth about the human person. I believe that the heart of the much-discussed New Evangelization, instead of focusing on methodology, needed to focus on facts like the one disclosed in this poll: How can it be that people who do not consider themselves religious sometimes adopt the more humane and morally upright position than regular church-goers?
If there has been one, on-going, theme in this space since I began the blog four years ago, it is that the reduction of religion to ethics is the root of the problem. The problem was not Humanae Vitae. The problem was not the clergy sex abuse scandal. The problem is that over the past many years, Christian pastors have often spoken on moral issues with a certainty and a precision while lacking in the Christian witness that is the sole ground for moral authority in the Christian Church. Our bishops are successors of the apostles, and an apostle is someone who witnesses the Resurrection of the Lord. Consequently, all of our moral teachings must find their source in the empty tomb. I have speculated before that if you went to the annual USCCB meeting, and listened to a discussion of, say, same sex marriage, and then gave each bishop a blank piece of paper, a pen, and five minutes, and asked them to connect the empty tomb to what they just said about same sex marriage, many could not come up with much of an answer.
Ah, yes, but what about the natural law? As the lineamenta for last autumn’s synod said, the natural law is often incomprehensible to our own flocks, let alone non-Catholics. And, it was a remarkable fact that the final report of the synod did not even use the phrase! This is not an altogether lovely development. There is such a thing as human nature and we need to pay attention to it in a disciplined manner. But, as an intellectual instrument, it has become blunt at best or, as the relation indicated, irrelevant and easily ignored. I suspect part of the reason is that while the principal defenders of natural law reasoning often proposed it as a basis for civic discourse because it did not rely on revelation and, therefore, permitted a dialogue with any and all, in actual practice, they did not deploy natural law reasoning as an invitation to shared moral discourse, but as a bludgeon to beat other people over the head. Certainly, many of the arguments and reasons the natural law furnishes us can be useful, but overtime, the people in the pews recognize the disconnect between the readings from the Scripture and the homily by the priest when the priest relies on non-Scriptural arguments in his homily.
Similarly, this, in a nutshell, has been my difficulty with the USCCB’s religious liberty effort. It is not that the issue is unimportant. It is that the Master did not address First Amendment issues in the Gospel. Neither Mark, nor Matthew, nor Luke, nor John contributed to the Federalist papers. One Sunday, I was at my home parish and the priest was a lovely man from India. It was during the “Fortnight for Freedom” and he did his best to explain the materials he had been looking at on the USCCB website. It was bizarre. A priest from India, speaking to a roomful of American Catholics, on a subject that was unmentioned in the readings we had just heard.
In the case at hand, the poll on torture, I suspect that there are additional reasons for the fact that the Christians express the non-Christian attitudes and the non-believers are closer to the Church’s teaching. First, although the Golden Rule would seem to be the most obvious moral reason to oppose torture, in dealing with terrorists, we see the limits of the Golden Rule. The Master, of course, allowed Himself to be tortured and crucified, exemplifying the moral lesson he had taught the disciples: Do not repay evil with evil. But, when someone acts in a depraved way, as terrorists do, we tend to want pay back, which is wrong, and we wish to protect innocents from future terrorism, which is right. Working through the difference in those motives is never easy this side of the eschaton. Second, the conflation of patriotism with Catholicism which has been such a part of the American Catholic experience has made Catholics very susceptible to reasons of state serving as moral justification. Third, too many bishops have left the impression over the past couple of decades that the Church will never publicly criticize a Republican administration because they are the good guys. Why else was it so hard to find the statement by Bishop Cantu on torture and so easy to find the statement by four bishops on the LGBT-nondiscrimination regulations? Why did the USCCB not post or put out a press release when they wrote to President Obama in September supporting the kind of executive action on immigration that he has since taken?
Is there a solution to any of this? Yes, I think there is. When I ask people what they like about Pope Francis, one of the first and most common adjectives I hear back is that people find him “human.” I think the stunningly positive press about Archbishop Blase Cupich in Chicago is rooted in a similar observation: they like his lack of airs and the easy way he meets people. Not every bishop can be gregarious, to be sure, but too many have spoken with the kind of moral certitude, and a lack of human compassion, on issues from contraception to same sex marriage to the First Amendment that people no longer look to them when they look for moral authority. The Church has no moral authority except and insofar as we witness to the empty tomb that once held the One who alone gives the Church the authority she claims. This is not news: Kierkegaard’s essay “Without Authority” has been widely available in English for 150 years. It is the Incarnation, the doctrine of the faith at which we bow our heads each Sunday during the Creed, that provides the key to leadership in the Church: If we wish to re-establish the moral authority of the Church, Her leaders must, repeat must, draw all their claims and arguments from Him who became human, and you can’t do that convincingly if you set yourself above and apart from the flock, you can’t do it if you are wagging your finger at a secular culture that turns out to hold more humane views than those you instruct every Sunday, and you can’t do it unless what comes out of your mouth is consistent with how you behave towards other people. This is what we love about Francis: He is so obviously and authentically human. And that is essential to his ability, and anyone’s, to instruct other humans in the moral life.