In a piece of centrist politico-religious commentary at Religion News Service yesterday that I find singularly unconvincing, Georgetown Ph.D. student Jacob Lupfer argues that American Catholics have valuable lessons to teach the American public square about non-polarized political-religious discourse. Several of the responses to Lupfer's arguments illustrate, to my way of thinking, precisely how little American Catholics may have to teach the U.S. public square about non-polarized political-religious discourse, and just how polarized American Catholic political-religious discourse actually is.
One James Carr quickly responded to Lupfer's argument by noting that Catholics "cannot succumb to secular laws or behaviors" that contradict Catholic teachings because, well, the church has the Truth and cannot in any way compromise or argue with secular culture. It can only seek to impose its Truth (which Catholics possess in some way that sets them apart from everyone else in the world) on the public square.
A contributor named Greg logged in to agree with Carr. It's his commentary on which I want to focus here. Greg writes,
Indeed, I believe the saying in the Church is, we live in this world, but are not of this world. A Catholic should always state that he/she is Catholic, not a Dem or Republican. And when it comes to voting, well the Church has worked out hierarchy of principles. The first being Life: if one politician is more Pro-Life than the other one, then that is the one to vote for, regardless of party. If they are both Pro-Life, then look at things like gay-marriage, and if both are opposed to gay marriage, then work your way down to the social justice teachings. In the end, you should choose the candidate that best reflects your beliefs as a Catholic. You, however, would find yourself in grave error if you voted for a rabidly Anti-Life Politician, just because he/she wanted to feed the poor. That one will not fly at your judgment. There’s a good voter’s guide out there called, Voters Guide for Serious Catholics.
Did you get that? Catholics must vote on the basis of candidates' (and parties') stands on the issue of abortion (the "Pro-Life" issue par excellence, for Greg and Catholics of his ilk) and same-sex marriage. Then, having satisfied themselves about whether a candidate concurs with Catholic Truth about those two non-negotiable matters, Catholics can "work their way down" to the "social justice teachings." Which are clearly not Catholic Truth — or, if they are Catholic Truth, they function far down the chain of Catholic Truth, such that they are optional for Catholics interested in the non-negotiable "Pro-Life" and same-sex marriage issues.
The social justice teachings of the church are, in Greg's mind, clearly disconnected from the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, such that a candidate can presumably want to remove healthcare coverage from the poor, ignore the needs of poor women seeking to feed large families, write off the many ways in which LGBT couples are discriminated against and find it much harder to live fulfilling lives as a result of discrimination, and still be the Catholic choice. "Pro-life" has, in this schema, totally taken leave of the plethora of other life issues with which it has to cohere, if it's to be any kind of meaningful ethical approach to anything at all.
Being a Catholic voter is a matter of finding a checklist on which the boxes "abortion" and "same-sex marriage" appear, checking off those boxes, and having done with it — since all other issues, notably "the social justice teachings" of the church, are "down" the way from those two non-negotiable issues. We Catholics can pride ourselves on voting pro-life while we vote for candidates who attack the human rights of targeted minority groups, who participate in schemes to deny climate change and block attempts to address that serious life issue, who support capital punishment and clamor for war and for the production of endless supplies of war matériel, who ignore the needs of working families and deny rights to women.
Because we vote "pro-life." Telling Jesus at the final judgment that you fed the poor will not fly, if you voted for a pro-choice candidate or one supporting marriage equality — though Jesus himself explicitly tells us that our salvation will depend on whether we saw and responded to him in the poor, and never said a single word about abortion or homosexuality.
If this complete moral nonsense has something to teach the U.S. Catholic public square, then I myself want to opt out of the lesson. Since it is, quite precisely, moral non-sense.
And the fact that it dominates the moral thinking of a sizable percentage of American Catholics — one suspects, of the 60% of white Catholics who just voted Republican in the fall elections in 2014 — illustrates not the success of the Catholic church in the U.S. in catechizing its adherents and assisting the American public to think more carefully about complex ethical challenges, but the opposite of success.
It illustrates the failure of the Catholic church under its recent and current pastoral leaders to teach large numbers of the faithful to engage in ethical thinking in any coherent or compelling way. This is a failure so fully in evidence in threads like the one following Lupfer's essay that one wonders at the temerity of those young, white, heterosexual males who craft this kind of centrist discourse in the American Catholic media as they keep imagining that they're offering us insightful, convincing political-religious discourse about some imaginary middle path, when the very moment the real-life Catholics to whom they address their analysis respond to these centrist arguments online, they spectacularly subvert them and demonstrate just how polarized and unthinking many U.S. Catholics are as they approach the public square.
I'll say it again: if folks like James Carr and Greg are offering lessons in non-polarized, ethically sensitive moral analysis to the American public square, I, for one, intend to opt out of those lessons as a fellow Catholic schooled to apply very different measures to moral and political life, as I assess candidates' positions and parties' platforms. As will any American with much of a brain at all, or with much ethical sensitivity at all — since the partisan non-sense these folks are spewing in the name of Catholic Truth is a downright toxic brew for our political life, albeit one offered to us with the USCCB stamp.