October 05, 2005

The Catholic Conundrum

Catholic conservatives (as well as conservatives in general) are in a bit of an uproar over President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Apparently, Ms. Miers isn't conservative enough for President Bush's conservative base. Even though she lobbied for the American Bar Association to repudiate its support for Roe v. Wade and take a more neutral position, the conservatives don't feel that Ms. Miers is sufficiently opposed to abortion rights. Even though she didn't want the Texas sodomy law repealed and wouldn't commit to any concrete civil rights for gays and lesbians, the conservatives don't feel that Ms. Miers is "pro-family" enough because she said back in 1989 that she supported civil rights in general for gays and lesbians.

Conservatives fear what is a distinct possibility -- that Ms. Miers is yet another Justice O'Connor or Justice Souter, that she is another nominee by a conservative Republican President who will turn out to be moderate or perhaps even liberal at times. This concern was expressed by some conservatives when John Roberts was nominated, but it has been amplified this time (perhaps due to the fact that Miers is a woman). There is some validity to the conservatives' concern, and it is possible that she will turn out to be another O'Connor or Souter, but it is equally possible that she will turn out to be another Thomas or Scalia. The real problem here is that we don't know how she'll turn out, just like we didn't know how Roberts would turn out. Conservatives and liberals alike should be angry at the President for denying the American people the right to know what his nominees to the Supreme Court are all about. The administration makes a point of saying that they are very familiar with Ms. Miers's judicial philosophy. Great. And when are they going to make the rest of us familiar with it?

But I digress. Ms. Miers is not ultimately the point of this entry. As with Chief Justice Roberts, I don't know enough about Ms. Miers to make a judgement at this time, and I suspect that I won't know enough about her to make a judgement until she is already on the court. And that, in my opinion, is a pitiful state of affairs. Is this a democracy or not?

What this entry is really about is Catholic political conservatism. This entry is about the conservative assumption that they have a monopoly on Catholic moral values, that Catholic liberals aren't at all rooted in the Catholic moral tradition. Our way of looking at Catholic values has become so irrelevant to the Catholic Right that they now ignore us completely, preferring to fight amongst themselves. The fight now is whether or not to stick with the Republican Party. Excessive Catholicism has a post up right now entitled The Mark Shea Fallacy, gently taking the popular Catholic writer to task for not being conservative enough, or for not being Republican enough, which is synonymous in some conservative sectors. In this entry, the blogger refers to the conservative "conviction on non-negotiable truths, attacked so vociferously by the Left." This left me wondering: What's he talking about?

You'd be hard-pressed to find very many Catholic liberals who don't believe in non-negotiable truth. The difference is that we regard as non-negotiable truth what our blogging friend has relegated to the ambiguity of "prudential judgment," whatever that's supposed to mean, exactly. Meanwhile, there are many Catholic liberals who strenuously assert the inherent truth of Catholic teaching on issues dominated by Catholic conservatives, like abortion, for instance. I think you'd have trouble finding a Catholic liberal who is committed to the Catholic faith who finds abortion to be a morally acceptable option -- where some of us disagree with the Church is on matters of "prudential judgement" (or perhaps some of us would call it imprudent judgement) on how this truth should be carried over into the political arena.

We ask questions. That's often what liberals do. We ask, for instance: Is it better to simply legislate against abortion, or is it better to legislate social and economic justice in order to curb the abortion rate? In either case, we're realists rather than idealists. We recognize that Utopia is impossible; that social and economic justice will never be universal, and that even if it were somehow made universal, that wouldn't prevent some women and men who won't accept responsibility for the lives they've brought into the world from seeking abortion.

On the other hand, we recognize that legislating against abortion will not stop abortion altogether, and it may not even significantly curb the abortion rate. Rather, legislating against abortion will force it underground, and it will drive the most desperate women (and often the women who are most deprived of social and economic justice) to seek abortion under dangerous circumstances. All abortion leads to the end of at least one human life; but legislating against abortion could increasingly lead to the death of both child and mother. As a result of this questioning, many liberals come to the conclusion that since abortion will never be ended, it is better to curb the abortion rate by working for economic and social justice than by legislating against it. We believe that this is the more humane way to oppose abortion, the way that is more in line with the Gospel.

I've explained this in order to demonstrate that liberal values are not opposed to the absolute truth of the Gospel; rather, many Catholic liberals affirm this absolute truth, but don't believe that the "absolute" part extends quite as far as conservatives like to extend it. You won't find most Catholic liberals providing a wholesale endorsement of abortion, which is what distinguishes us to some degree from other liberals. Rather, most Catholic liberals recognize the fundamental and grave immorality of abortion -- I certainly do -- but we believe that there are different ways of approaching opposition to abortion. Our approach tends to be centered around social and economic justice, versus the conservative approach which tends to be centered around legislative and legal measures. This is not to say that there aren't some Catholic liberals who take the legislative and legal approach, nor is it to say that there aren't many Catholic conservatives who work for social and economic justice for pregnant women. I'm simply saying that Catholic liberals generally accept the truth that abortion is gravely immoral, but we are hesitant to extend the label of "truth" to the various ways in which abortion can or should be prevented.

I'd like to point out, as a side note, that perhaps we too have become too dogmatic in this regard. Shouldn't we continue to ask questions, rather than assuming that we have all the answers? I think we need to ask ourselves in all seriousness if we shouldn't reconsider the propriety of some legal and legislative measures against abortion. For instance, can we really say with confidence that it is appropriate for minors, who cannot undergo any medical procedure without parental consent, to obtain abortions without even parental notification? Can we really say with confidence that it is appropriate for babies -- at this point, we must call them babies -- who have reached the point of viability, who can live outside the womb, to be killed in an abortion procedure? Without compromising established liberal values with regard to abortion, I think it's important for us to continue to explore the validity of other values and other ways of dealing with this. I think it's important for us not to become closed in on ourselves, for us not to turn our views into dogma. We should be open to the opinion and experience of others. That's why we're liberals.

But let's move on to my second point.

My second point is that Catholic liberals believe that there are other non-negotiable truths, relegated to the irrelevance of "prudential judgement" by most Catholic conservatives. For instance, we believe that the truth that there should exist a preferential option for the poor in society is at least as non-negotiable as the truth that unborn life should not be killed, and furthermore that these non-negotiable truths are related. We believe that the truth that human beings should not be killed by the mandate of the state, either through capital punishment or unjust war, is at least as non-negotiable as the truth that human beings should not be killed by the permission or even mandate of the state, through assisted suicide or euthanasia. The reason we have trouble with voting for politicians who endorse the non-negotiable truths that abortion, euthanasia, and the like are wrong isn't necesarily because we don't believe in these non-negotiable truths. Rather, it's because we believe in other non-negotiable truths that these politicians don't seem to have any respect for. And for us, these other non-negotiable truths are often viewed as the foundation that must be laid in order to work for respect for the other non-negotiable truths. Many of us believe, for example, that there can be no respect for any human life without a preferential option for the poor.

And so it is not a matter of repudiating the existence of non-negotiable truth for most of us. Rather, it is a willingness on our part to expand non-negotiable truth to some areas that conservatives won't expand it to, and an unwillingness on our part to expand non-negotiable truth to some areas that conservatives want to expand it to. It's not a matter of liberals not having any boundaries; rather, it's a difference in opinion as to where those boundaries should be. One might say that we're having a moral border dispute; but we're not arguing that there are no borders. To most Catholic liberals, such a proposition would be absurd.

Finally, let me point out what should now be obvious. While we're having this border dispute, the society within the disputed boundaries is falling apart around us. One need only look at the recent expansion of eminent domain under the Rehnquist Court to see a clear example of this. We have become so entrenched in the debate over Roe v. Wade that nobody really noticed when the judicial activists on the Supreme Court so expanded the right of the government to invoke eminent domain that the government -- from the smallest local government to the federal government -- can now take any American's private property for just about any reason. Soon, senators on both sides of the aisle will grill Ms. Miers on Roe v. Wade, but I wonder if even one of the senators will bother to speak up and ask her about her philosophy on eminent domain. We continue this incessant argument, which will never be resolved, at our society's peril.

While we have continued to argue about these few issues instead of trying to seek a compromise and therefore a resolution, the government -- under both Republican and Democratic control -- has been doing some rather unpleasant things to our democracy, and we've barely noticed. They've picked up on the fact that we've barely noticed, and so they keep us constantly fired up over these few issues so that we will be fighting about them while they sneak around and continue to kill our democratic government. And we're letting them do it. We've become like the proverbial sheep to the proverbial slaughter. We can't wake up and see that they like it when we're this way, because they can do some rather unsavory things without our even noticing, because we're too busy pummeling each other in the public square.

Isn't it time for Catholic liberals and Catholic conservatives to put an end to this? Can't we be the example for the rest of our society, can't we show them that a resolution can be reached? Can't we show them that there can be unity in universality, and universality in unity? Isn't that fundamentally why we call ourselves both one and catholic (universal), because we know that this unity in essentials and liberty in non-essentials can be achieved, that the only way to be truly united is to be universal, and that the only way to be truly universal is to be united? We should know this -- but we don't provide any evidence that we do know it. And we need to show what we say we've learned to the world. Because while we continue to bicker, politicians from both of our nation's major political parties are destroying our democratic society. Our nation is no longer what it was created to be, and we will not be what we were created to be until we stop bickering about these "hot button issues" and stand up as one united constituency to demand the resurrection of our democracy. I hope and pray that we're coming to a point at which the creation of this united and democratic front will be a possibility.