Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gingrich and Obama on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, Respectively: A Study in Contrasts (Oh, and Love Your Enemies)

If Ralph Waldo Emerson is correct in asserting that, "There can be no high civility without a deep morality," Newt Gingrich may have provided us with some priceless insight into his character at last weekend's Thanksgiving Family Forum in Iowa.
     The nastiness of modern American politics might fairly be compared to a football scrum, and no one emerges with the ball, so to speak, without throwing a few elbows. But still there remain some standards of decency--however relative they may be. For example, Rick Perry's bald-faced lie that Obama called the American people "lazy", would probably hurt his campaign if it was still viable. And Representative Joe Walsh recently learned that screaming at constituents is generally looked down upon. Another rule is that one should save his harshest punches for fellow pols, treating more magnanimously groups of citizens who don't share your philosophy.
     Which brings us to this demonstration of incivility from a man who will, thankfully, never be the president of the United States:

In comparison, President Obama's analysis of the Tea Party's significance certainly seems like "high civility":

     But since Obama is indeed a politician, and not without his own transgressions, let's conclude with some pertinent advice from a more pristine source:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
-Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-48

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gingrich's Climate Change Reversal is Not at All "Inexplicable"

Until very recently, it's been easy to ignore the two Catholic Republicans running for president. That's largely because Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum so tidily fit the stereotype of conservative Catholics: faithful to the Church on social issues, and at odds with the Church on just about everything else. Add to this cliché the fact that neither will be the next president, and it becomes difficult to gather the inertia to pay them serious attention.
     But now that recent polling has confirmed Gingrich's status as the right's flavor-of-the-month, his questionable character and penchant for making objectionable statements take on added import.
     While earning the distinction of 'the intellectual' amongst a field of candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachmann may be somewhat dubious, the former House speaker did demonstrate passing intelligence (and decency) when he urged bold action on climate change in this 2008 ad with Nancy Pelosi:

     Last week, however, Gingrich seemed markedly less brilliant as he tried to explain this conservative heresy on Fox News:

     His explanation for the "the dumbest single thing" he's done is that it was simply "inexplicable." But the decision to film a commercial advocating-- alongside a political nemesis--a policy violently at odds with a majority in your party is not the result of a momentary lapse in judgment. It's a decidedly deliberate decision--and actually quite explicable.
     Gingrich is an intelligent human being who, when unbound by the pressure of appealing to an anti-science conservative base, is capable of seeing what is demonstrably true: that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is substantially contributing to a markedly warming planet. Gingrich rightly points out that the "vast majority" of the National Academy of Sciences' members hold this view; he could have also mentioned the plethora of other national science academies that concur, or made note of the lack of a single national or international body that dissents. In any case, there is no rational cause for the 99% of us who are non-experts in climate science to deny the probability that the experts are right.
     This is why Gingrich made the ad with Pelosi. It is why John Huntsman advocates this position even though it reduces to zero his chances of making a plausible run for the Republican nomination. It is why Mitt Romney and (former candidate) Tim Pawlenty once advocated regional cap and trade programs. Like Gingrich, they've subsequently seen the light.
     Gingrich will never reclaim the power he once held as Speaker of the House, but if he tells the truth about his noble motivation for making this ad, he can recover some of his integrity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Did Thomas Merton travel through time to witness this year's Republican primaries?

Any blogger worth his salt will quote extensively from far superior writers to buy a little time until his next post. Thomas Merton's body of work may represent the most poetic, world embracing, and broadly appealing Catholic rhetoric of the 20th Century. I'm not sure if anyone like him exists today. If so, let me know.
“We have to recognize that a spirit of individualism and confusion has reduced us to an ethic of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ This ethic, unfortunately sometimes consecrated by Christian formulas, is nothing but the secular ethic of the affluent society, based on the false assumption that if everyone is bent on making money for himself the common good will automatically follow, due to the operation of economic laws.

An ethic of barely disguised selfishness is no longer a Christian ethic. Nor can we afford to raise this to the national level and assume that the world will adjust itself if every nation seeks its own advantage before everything else. On the contrary, we are obliged to widen our horizons and to recognize our responsibility to build an international community in which the right of all nations and other groups will be respected and guaranteed. We cannot expect a peaceful world society to emerge all by itself from the turmoil of a ruthless power struggle – we have to work, sacrifice and cooperate to lay the foundations on which future generations may build a stable and peaceful international community. Every Christian is involved in this task, and consequently every Christian is obliged to seek information and form his conscience so that he may be able to contribute his own share of intelligent political action toward this end.” - From Peace in the Post-Christian Era

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Indifference (Almost) to Occupy Wall Street and in Praise of Alec Baldwin

Not my favorite Occupy Wall Street tactic
    Here are a few reasons why I won't share many words about Occupy Wall Street. First, I'm a big fan of coherent arguments. I can sympathize with them, learn from them, or be enraged by them (perhaps enjoying that last option too much). But I, along with everyone else, can glean no clear set of positions or demands from these protesters. Perhaps this will come with time.
    Second, I'm actually quite a fan of capitalism. While I am dumbfounded by the intensity of the faith many have in the free market, in the absence of any semblance of a credible alternative, I'm willing to give capitalism its due.
     My next point works in tandem with the last: I advocate arguments and movements that--resting on the premise that most people we disagree with are fundamentally decent--avoid needlessly demonizing groups or individuals. Offering up the richest 1% as scapegoats for all that ails us is a tantalizing proposition. But I won't assent to it.
     And last, as a person of deep faith, whenever I come across a complex issue or situation, one question guides my response: "What would Alec Baldwin do?" Okay, I'm mostly joking about this one, though after his polished performance in the midst of a thicket of Zuccotti Park squatters, I may be ready to endorse him for president in 2020 (giving him ample time to first make the requisite run for U.S. Senate).

    One minute and twenty-four seconds in, Baldwin hits the nail on the head: "Capitalism is worthwhile." It's not perfect. It's not a panacea. It's not precious or holy. It's worthwhile. And sometimes worthwhile endeavors need course corrections--or someone to "throw the flag," as Baldwin puts it.
     While the Occupiers so far lack lucidity and reasonableness, they have accomplished something really important. They have finally highlighted a long known, but little reported fact: income disparity in the United States is far greater than the average citizen would guess--and it has only been growing. It's not demonization therefore, to suggest that the 1%, whose combined wealth is substantially greater than the entire bottom 90%, should pay marginally higher tax rates as one element of a deficit reduction program. This new appreciation of the wealth gap has likely contributed to the possible softening of congressional Republicans' absolutism regarding new revenues.
     Not all have been made aware of this reality, though. I'll end by linking to yesterday's post by the Atlantic's James Fallows, who highlights what a sweet deal Rick Perry and Herman Cain offer the ultra-wealthy with their flat(ish) tax plans. It's not so sweet for the rest of us, as you'll see. Fallows also provides the following chart from the Congressional Budget Office, which demonstrates the inequality of income growth over the past three decades:

Thursday, October 27, 2011


No, Obama is not a socialist; nor is this blogger
Lest anyone assume that my jokey title suggests a particular affinity for Occupy Wall Street, I'll simply state that while I sympathize with some of their concerns, they don't much impress me--excepting, of course, the creator of the placard above. (I'll explore OWS in more depth in another post.)
   Rather, the title is meant to convey my exasperation with my friends at, who have been the subject of my non-Pulitzer Prize winning series, "(The Republican)". I was set to deliver Part III of my critique of this very partisan site, when fate--in the form of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace (the PCJP)--stepped in.
   I had planned to extol the marvelous craftsmanship of an essay under the heading of "Economic Justice" on's 'Issues' page, which expertly manages to avoid completely the spirit of Catholic social teaching since Vatican II--while not making any baldly unorthodox claims, of course. The author's conclusion: socialism bad, markets good. Next, I intended to point out that any mention of the poor, living wages, inequality, and exploitative business practices is predictably absent. And I would've closed by providing a lush array of quotes from the Gospels and papal encyclicals that show what a farce this essay is. Powerful stuff.
   But that was before the the release this week of a note, or "White Paper", by the PCJP, Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority. In a document ideologically to the left of Harry Belafonte, this pontifical council calls for the creation of a supranational Authority to govern global finance, demands "a fair distribution of world wealth", and advises a tax on financial transactions. Conservative Catholics aren't happy.
   The animus some of these proudly 'orthodox' folk have shown towards a document coming from the Roman Curia is extraordinary. Thomas Peters, the featured blogger at, posted three rather long responses to the 'White Paper' within 48 hours. None of them are favorable, to say the least. Two were even written before he read the document, he admits. Peters' uneasiness with Towards Reforming is apparent in his telling selection of quotations for each post. In the first, he quotes Samuel Gregg, an economist, who tries to downplay the significance of the note's content:

...more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking...
   Within twenty-four hours, Peters must have realized that this tack was grossly insufficient, the 'offensive' language of the document being too bold for a conservative to simply dismiss. So he closes out his next post by quoting Nicholas Hahn, who provides a scathing attack. Hahn rants about an omnipotent 'king' supposedly proposed by the council (though I haven't been able to find it), and then delivers an ode to the free market (emphasis of this remarkably loaded phrase is mine):

People of good will know better. There is a brighter horizon. One of self-government and free markets. One that has lifted more people out of poverty than any other. One that has empowered the disenfranchised and most vulnerable. Indeed, one that has some measure of Truth, albeit imperfect.
The Council concludes its document with a reference to the Tower of Babel “where selfishness and divisions endure.” Yet, the real towers of Babel these days are precisely the kind of bureaucratic authorities the Council seeks to proliferate.
   But the coup de grâce comes in Peters' third installment,  wherein he compiles a generous sampling of conservative responses to Towards Reforming. Peters prefaces these appraisals by calling them all 'excellent' in the post's title. What follows are a jumble of critiques that hammer the document from every possible angle--even if those angles conflict. In one excerpt the council's note makes Catholic social teaching seem "irrelevant"; another accuses the council of putting the Vatican's imprimatur on the rantings of a "socialist ideologue"; another claims the note doesn't actually complement liberal economics; one points out that this note carries little authoritative weight; yet another laments the tax and spend approach taken by the council; and the last discredits Towards Reforming by bashing its formally intended audience, the United Nations.
   So how can all these responses--it's meaningless, it's radically liberal, it's not that liberal--be "excellent"? The logic that binds them is that they allow conservatives to continue denying that the Church is heavily critical of their veneration of the free market.
   But here's the truth: I'm not that keen on Towards Reforming. And Peters and others are correct when they point out that this document does not bear the authoritative weight of, say, a papal encyclical. Furthermore, I have no problem with conservative Catholics criticizing the PCJP's work--particularly the more specifically prescriptive elements. But the shockingly harsh manner in which these folks dismiss wholesale the spirit and principles of Towards Reforming--which are so absolutely consistent with Caritas in Veritate, John Paul II's condemnation of "idolatry of the market", Populorum Progressio, and Jesus Christ's passionate love for the poor--tells us everything we need to know.
   For me, this isn't about quibbling over a 'minor' document. Rather, it's about some Catholics who see themselves as more orthodox than the Pope, holy enough to judge anyone who disagrees with them, yet stubbornly oblivious to the Church's profound message of justice, of solidarity, of charity, of care for the environment, and of deep and abiding love for the poor--even after they're born.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

(The Republican) (Part II)

A quick overview of my last post: claims to be a non-partisan organization applying Catholic doctrine to political issues. That's half true. My contention is that this right wing site waters-down or misrepresents numerous Church teachings on issues that, at a minimum, seem to complement a politically liberal viewpoint (and are therefore in conflict with conservative political orthodoxy).
     In the first part of this series, I focused on health care. Now, I'll turn my attention to "Environmental Stewardship," another of the icons on their "Issues" page.
     When one clicks on the aforementioned icon, she is directed to an essay by Father Roger Landry, which is largely made up of quotes from Benedict XVI's encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. This is certainly a fine source--and one that I have relied upon--and I have no objections to the use of any of the quotes included. But when what is included from this document is set against what is not included, we see an example of's typical evasions on teachings that are in conflict with prevailing Republican thought.
    Unsurprisingly, the Holy Father's condemnation of an atheistic approach to the environment is included. Along with the author's added commentary, it neatly fits the conservative caricature of a godless Left, whose environmental concerns, we can surmise, stem from all the wrong motives:

Benedict notes that the modern atheism that has tried to turn the theory of evolution into an argument against God’s existence has actually led to the environmental abuses. “When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism,” he argues, “our sense of responsibility wanes.” If nature is just matter, then it does not matter in the final analysis what you do with it. Only if nature has a built-in purpose is it possible to speak about violating that purpose.

     Fr. Landry also includes the correlation Benedict XVI draws between abortion and the environment:

The Pope says: “If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology.

    Somehow, though, the pope's call for meaningful international action on the environment is excluded. The following quote from Caritas might have helped to round things out (emphasis is mine):

Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. One of the greatest challenges facing the economy is to achieve the most efficient use — not abuse — of natural resources, based on a realization that the notion of “efficiency” is not value-free.
When this call to action is added to Benedict's commentary about the equitable distribution of resources and the duty of countries like ours to limit consumption (from the same document)--

The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy.
--it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that the author's carefully selected quotations are designed to keep readers from thinking about the aggressive environmental policies championed by Democrats, which correspond so nicely with the environmental admonitions of both of our recent pontiffs. And if Father Landry sought to escape the ire of Catholics enamored of the Republican party, whose chief energy policy is to drill for more oil, he likely succeeded .
     Finally, there is that small matter of climate change and the devastating impact scientists tell us it will likely wreak upon humanity. You've probably already guessed that this issue is not mentioned in Fr. Landry's essay. But make no mistake, the days of Galileo are long gone. Pope Benedict XVI (perhaps brainwashed by the liberal media!) has consistently endorsed the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists world wide. I'll close with an excerpt from an address to the United Nations by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's permanent observer to that body:

The scientific evidence for global warming and for humanity's role in the increase of greenhouse gasses becomes ever more unimpeachable, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings are going to suggest; and such activity has a profound relevance, not just for the environment, but in ethical, economic, social and political terms as well. The consequences of climate change are being felt not only in the environment, but in the entire socioeconomic system and, as seen in the findings of numerous reports already available, they will impact first and foremost the poorest and weakest who, even if they are among the least responsible for global warming, are the most vulnerable because they have limited resources or live in areas at greater risk.

Monday, October 17, 2011

(The Republican) (Part 1)

Google search any combination of variants of ‘Catholics’ and ‘voters’ (i.e. “How should Catholics vote?”) and at the very top of the list will appear the website Once there, you will be shrewdly instructed on the platform of the Republican Party— under the guise of official Church teaching.
     Having created a blog called The Catholic Left, it would certainly be hypocritical of me to condemn those on the opposite side of the political spectrum for putting a rightward slant on issues pertinent to Catholics. And I won’t do so.
     But what I do take exception to is the way the site promotes itself as non-partisan while ignoring or misrepresenting a myriad of issues that the Vatican and U.S. bishops have placed at the front and center of global and national politics, respectively.
     The site lists “Are you liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat?” as a question frequently asked about them, and they answer this way (my emphasis added): is Catholic. As Catholics we know our home is in heaven, not in a party platform. Being non-partisan allows us to approach issues and candidates with an open mind, and with a clear conscience formed by the principles of our faith. At the same time, being non-partisan preserves Catholics from being “owned” by any party or movement. With this freedom we will be able to more effectively pursue the common good which all people should seek.
     Great answer, in the abstract. But it simply does not accurately portray the views advocated by the site’s creators or bloggers. Predictably, they forcefully and consistently promote the Church’s teaching on abortion and “protecting marriage.” (I have a duty to admit that I’m not so keen on the latter, as I’d like the writers at to acknowledge their obvious disagreements with Church teaching.) And while capital punishment doesn’t exactly receive copious attention, they do take a stand against it. Indeed, all of these positions are in keeping with their dual claims of obedience to the teaching Magesterium of the Church” and of non-partisanship.
     But when it comes to social justice, healthcare, and the environment, they are patently out of step with Church proclamations from Vatican II through Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate. Seeking to convey an ethos of absolute orthodoxy, much of their divergence with Catholic doctrine is masked by a preposterously narrow selection of details and blatant omissions. For now, I’ll highlight just one example from their ‘Issues’ page.           
     Under an icon for “Healthcare” is featured an essay by Dr. William G. White, who writes this (again, my emphasis):
The Church’s social teachings refine our understanding of the role of medicine in society.  The Church teaches, for example, that society has an obligation to provide basic care to all the sick, regardless of their economic status.  Some assume that this responsibility requires government-run programs not only for the poor, but even for everyone.
This extrapolation of Catholic teaching is invalid.  Catholic social teaching does not require ignoring economic principles.  If private endeavors are more effective and more efficient than government, society may employ those means without neglecting its obligation to address basic human needs.  In fact, there is ample evidence that government involvement in medicine leads to lower quality, less responsive, more expensive care.
      Yes, the Church does teach, in essence, that if private means truly address this responsibility, government should stay out of it. But by what standard could that claim possibly be made? Is Dr. White unaware of the nearly 50 million uninsured? Clearly, the emergency room care that is obligatory to all is neither ‘effective’ nor humane. And is it acceptable that those with pre-existing conditions—who are of course most in need of health insurance—have, prior to Obamacare, been routinely denied coverage?
      As for efficiency, let's let the facts speak for themselves. The United States boasts the most privatized health system in the developed world. In contrast, Canada’s health insurance system is entirely state run; Great Britain has both socialized insurance and medicine; Japan relies on government price controls to keep a lid on costs; the French system is a public and private mix, with heavy government mandates. All feature much more governmental control than the United States’ model—even after Obamacare.
      And how do these nations, and many other similar ones, fare? Well, measure Dr. White's statement about government's ineptitude in providing health care against the following statistics:
      1) The U.S. spends significantly more on health care than any of them (We're No. 1!):

2) Each of the aforementioned countries (and many others) boasts longer life expectancy than the U.S.:

3) Each of these socialized healthcare systems is ranked higher than the United States' (We're No. 37!) system by the World Health Organization:

            So to sum up, we spend more, live shorter lives, and are ranked lower than most of the countries that deliver universal care through substantial governmental controls. Yet Dr. White trumpets "the success of voluntary private medicine." Dr. White’s essay is essentially Republican apologetics, not the primer on Catholic theology it espouses itself to be. is certainly under no obligation to endorse a specific piece of legislation like the Affordable Care Act. But they should give a full-throated endorsement of the goal of universal coverage while acknowledging that the federal government is going to play a substantial role. A non-partisan site would have no trepidation about doing so; a definitively conservative site, apparently, will not.
In an upcoming post, I'll give more examples of's theological equivocations, and I'll end this one by quoting that great socialist, Pope Benedict the XVI. In an address to the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry last year, he said the following (my emphasis):

Important also in the field of health, integral part of each one's existence and of the common good, is to establish a true distributive justice that guarantees to all, on the basis of objective needs, adequate care. Consequently, the world of health cannot be subtracted from the moral rules that should govern it so that it will not become inhuman. As I stressed in the encyclical "Caritas in Veritate," the social doctrine of the Church has always evidenced the importance of distributive justice and of social justice in the different sectors of human relations (No. 35). Justice is promoted when one receives the life of the other and one assumes responsibility for him, responding to his expectations, because in him one grasps the face itself of the Son of God...
Health justice should be among the priorities of governments and international institutions.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Criminal (In)justice

I've mentioned my high regard for New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in an earlier post, and his column from a week ago, a response to the execution of Troy Davis, is a good illustration of his proclivity for advancing the dialogue surrounding seemingly intractable debates by dramatically recontextualizing the issues.
     Cleverly, Douthat never reveals his own opinion about the morality of capital punishment itself. Nevertheless, he crafts a unique critique of death penalty abolitionists, citing the imperative to address what is perhaps a more profound injustice: the abject brutality of our prison system:
Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.

This point was made well last week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The American Scene. In any penal system, he pointed out, but especially in our own — which can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence — a lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution. And a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn’t necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts’ lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity. It’s just become better at self-deception about what’s really going on.
     Douthat may be right that abolishing the death penalty would simply provide cover for a penal system rife with pervasive injustice. Though for the time being this may be a moot point, as a solid majority still favors capital punishment. And it could also be argued that the type of shift in societal views required to catalyze abolition would likely indicate a greater recognition of the humanity of those incarcerated. And therein lies the rub: our dehumanization of those in prison is precisely the reason why both genuine prison reform and abolition of the death penalty are politically impossible. For now.
     In any case, two indisputable realities suggest that our broken system of criminal justice cannot be ignored by people of faith. The first is that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on the face of the earth, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of population, as the chart below (from Dayton Daily News) demonstrates:


For a nation that holds itself up as "a shining city on a hill," this is an abysmal statistic. Either we have in our nation the worst collection of human beings on the planet, or (and I'm going to suggest this is far more likely) we are failing to contend with our citizenry's shortcomings in a sensible way.
     The second reality is that these 2.3 million prisoners are often subjected to conditions that are beneath the dignity of human beings. The non-profit organization Prison Fellowship thoroughly explicates the pervasive and systemic nature of this crisis on its website. It is more than the sexual assaults that Douthat mentions. More than the rampant violence that occurs when we fail to provide the resources necessary to keep order. More than the fact that our prisons now function in lieu of yesterday's mental hospitals. We are mishandling the process of justice at every point: the way we define crime, provide representation, sentence, incarcerate, treat mental health issues, and reintegrate ex-offenders into society. All are in need of substantial reform.
     Some people commit acts for which they must be held accountable. Sometimes the punishment should be harsh, and perhaps sustained over a long period of time--or in extreme cases for the remainder of a criminal's life. But the penalty should never entail lack of mental health care, assault, or rape (or death). Nor should the prison atmosphere rob individuals of the opportunity to develop as human beings in a manner consistent with their punishment. While they are not entitled to luxuries like cable television or gourmet fare, the fundamental spiritual necessities of human beings (not defined in an exclusively religious sense) cannot be taken away. The need to sustain relationships, to maintain physical and mental health, to gain meaning through work or other activities, and to learn about the world should be recognized and accommodated. These are the rights of every person formed in the image of God.
     A foundational tenet of the Catholic faith is that regardless of his actions, no individual ever relinquishes his God-given dignity. That more than two million persons inhabit a system that violates this principle so flagrantly should be a call to arms for all of the faithful. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Liberal-Conservative Coalition

There is a group of Catholics who feel they are persistently persecuted for their religious beliefs. I'm generally not among them. But regarding the Department of Health and Human Services' new contraceptive mandate for health care providers, Catholics are right to protest vigorously.
     The widespread availability of contraceptives is not the issue.  But on this point, let me first acknowledge that on the part of many Catholics there is a lack of willingness to face reality where sexual ethics are concerned. I'll offer one illustration: that many young people will continue to have sex is an immutable fact, and their contracting STDs or becoming pregnant is absolutely not preferable to their using condoms. On the other hand, the notion that widely available contraception is a comprehensive solution to these problems is equally absurd. Rampant promiscuity amongst teens is plainly harmful to our society. Some people's behavior can be changed, and we should work towards that end.
     But again, none of this is the central issue here. Freedom to practice one's religion is. The HHS's requirement that new insurance plans provide free access to contraceptives (and sterilization) does include a proposed exemption for religious organizations (for which the period for public comment has just ended) that offer plans to their employees.  The problem lies in how HHS defines 'religious employer':

(B) For purposes of this subsection, a ``religious employer'' is an
organization that meets all of the following criteria:
(1) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the
(2) The organization primarily employs persons who share the
religious tenets of the organization.
(3) The organization serves primarily persons who share the
religious tenets of the organization.
(4) The organization is a nonprofit organization as described in
section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the
Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended.

     The majority of Catholic hospitals, which do not seek to 'inculcate religious values' to the millions of sick people they serve--who are not predominantly Catholic (see Rule 3)--do not qualify for the exemption. This is intolerable. First, it makes no sense to penalize Catholic hospitals for opening their doors to those of other faiths (and those with no faith). Additionally, if one does accept the premise that easy access to contraception benefits society, it follows that policies should promote that access; it does not follow, however, that religious institutions should be forced to violate important tenets of the very faith that provides the impetus for their mission to help the sick.
     This blatant violation of religious freedom has raised the ire of a broad array of Catholic leaders and organizations--of every philosophical and political stripe--who vociferously object to the proposed rules. The breadth of this coalition should be a strong signal to HHS that the wording of this exemption needs to be altered to make it more inclusive. In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a group of prominent Roman Catholics, many of whom have repeatedly defended Obama administration policies, has proposed the following amendment to the definition of 'religious employer':

If it 1) is non-profit religious, educational, or charitable organization; 2) if it engages its religious, charitable, or educational activities for bona fide religious purposes or reasons; and if 3) it holds itself out to the public as a religious organization.

     This is a vast improvement. If HHS desires to show respect to Catholics in general--and if the Obama administration seeks to avoid an unnecessary political firestorm--they will adopt changes along these lines. I'm optimistic that they will.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis and the Catholic Bishops

Noticeably absent from the public outcry over the travesty of Troy Davis's execution was any audible protest from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as Andrew Sullivan lamented today in The Dish. While Georgia's bishops requested clemency in a letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I can't find any other protest of note from the U.S. Bishops. This is quite an omission for such a high profile controversy surrounding capital punishment, a practice they have roundly denounced in the past.
   I have no idea whether Troy Davis was guilty or not. Nor does anyone else. This patent uncertainty is exactly why Davis' killing so flagrantly offends the principle of respect for life. Even conscientious advocates of the death penalty should be offended by its use in a case like this. The bishops cannot be expected to speak out in every instance of injustice, but given the international spotlight this story directed at the death penalty in the United States, our bishops' voices would have been a welcome voice in the large, world-wide chorus crying for justice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gov. Perry and the Death Penalty

"I am always going to error on the side of life," claimed Texas Governor Rick Perry in last night's Tea Party sponsored Republican presidential debate. He wasn't being ironic. Not intentionally, anyway.
   At the time, Perry was defending himself against an onslaught by his opponents regarding his decision to mandate an HPV vaccine for 12 year-old girls in his state. If his statement accurately describes his thought process regarding that particular issue, whatever its merits, good for him. But it's a maxim he seems to abandon when it comes to meting out the ultimate penalty. When in last week's debate Brian Williams asked him to reflect upon the 234 executions he has presided over as governor (a statistic that excited the audience), Perry performed his version of waxing philosophic.

   Perry's unequivocal assertion that he has "never struggled with that at all" is chilling considering the incredibly strong evidence that he signed off on the execution of a completely innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, in 2004. Aided by improvements in arson investigation forensics since Willingham's conviction, numerous experts in the field have concluded that the 1992 fire that killed his three small children was accidental and that the original indicators of Willingham's guilt are now without any factual basis. Perry knows this.
   Another likely innocent victim of Texas's liberal application of capital punishment is Ruben Cantu. While Cantu was executed before Perry became governor, it was during his term (2005) that the Houston Chronicle reported that both of the key witnesses against him admitted to lying about his participation in the crime, leading the district attorney who recommended that Cantu be charge with capital murder to believe he had made a grave mistake. Perry, however, remains confident enough in Texas's judicial system to proudly continue engineering its train of executions.
   These travesties—along with numerous cases of dubious executions and proven wrongful convictions from around the country—should humble Perry. However, the analogy he used in this same debate, conflating Galileo and climate science deniers like himself, suggests that Perry is not the type to let facts spoil his conveniently held beliefs. His callousness—or genuine inability to reflect—on this question of life and death should disqualify him from the presidency.
   In so much of the Western world, the death penalty is considered a remnant of a more barbaric time—a form of justice more suited to a society that locked the mentally ill away in barred asylums than to the more sanitized epoch in which we live. This monstrous practice is dying its own very slow death. But for now, there are still places like China, Iran, and Texas where it receives a willing stay of execution.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Thinking Catholic Award

   Catholics, along with all conscientious folks, do well to avoid thinking reflexively about politics. No person who places Truth above party can retreat mechanically to his partisan corner in every political fight and claim intellectual integrity. Most of the really important issues are tremendously complex, which means that while desiring a certain goal, such as alleviating abject poverty, might be obligatory for one claiming to follow Christ, people of good faith can advocate various means to reach such an end. And the likelihood that one party always advocates the best plan to reach desired ends such as a healthier economy, improved education, a more peaceful world, etc. is zero.
   Some fairly pedestrian claims, I know, but perhaps they need to be repeated more often to be internalized. For my own part, I’ll admit to requiring conscious effort to avoid reflexively liberal thinking. Consumption of a wide variety of opinions is one of the best antidotes to narrowness of mind, but it's also paramount to read and listen to the best of what the other side has to offer. (Reading the simplistic moralizing of Cal Thomas, for example, reinforces my preconceived notions instead of challenging them.)
   That said, I'd like to bestow the very first, but no less prestigious, Thinking Catholic Award to one of my favorite conservative writers, New York Times columnist Russ Douthat. He exemplifies integrity and non-reflexive thinking. With almost every issue he handles in his column and blog, Douthat demonstrates a rare understanding of multiple viewpoints, credits the merits of his opponents’ thinking, and insightfully reframes stale arguments. His commentary where culture, ethics, and morality are concerned is particularly cogent and fresh.
     One of his posts last fall, following Pope Benedict XVI's striking comments about condom use, shows Douthat at his best. In it, he forcefully argues for the relevance of the Church's teachings on sexual morality, highlighting some of the more prescient insights from Humanae Vitae, the landmark 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church's opposition to birth control. But he also thoughtfully explains why, for so many thoughtful Catholics, the arguments are difficult to assent to intellectually—even when fully understood. Douthat skillfully uses Benedict's (then Cardinal Ratzinger) own commentary from a decade earlier to highlight the beauty, power, and difficulty of the Church's position.
    This post, along with just about everything else Douthat writes, is well worth reading. His next challenge, no doubt, will be maintaining the humble tenor of his writing after receiving such a weighty accolade as the Thinking Catholic Award. (Whether this is a weekly or biennial honor is still to be determined).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Redistribution of wealth, the environment, etc.

Here are a couple of provocative thoughts on economics. See if you can guess the author. (Italics are author's emphasis; highlights are mine.)

Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution…

Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics...

   No, they're not the musings of Barack Obama. One can imagine the vitriolic response from the right if they were. In fact, these endorsements of redistribution of wealth are excerpts from His Holiness Benedict XVI's papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Sound surprisingly far to the left, politically? Let’s just say he's unlikely to be accused of plagiarizing from the Fox Business Channel.
   Before making my main point, though, let me add a couple of quotes from the same source on the environment.

Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole... 

On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized. The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy. What is also needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils, or whoever is able to prevail over the rest. Here we are dealing with major issues; if they are to be faced adequately, then everyone must responsibly recognize the impact they will have on future generations, particularly on the many young people in the poorer nations, who “ask to assume their active part in the construction of a better world.

   It could well be argued that the encyclical as a whole (which is great in scope and difficult to grasp entirely) puts the pope rhetorically, at least, far to the left of most American politicians—farther even than the so-called socialist in the White House. It's probably a mistake, though, to try to place what is ultimately a theological document onto the political spectrum of one nation's politics. So I won't try to claim that if Benedict XVI was an American he would be a registered Democrat. I won't even claim, for now, that the complementarity of these ideas with mainstream liberal thought suggest it's acceptable to vote for a pro-choice Democrat.
   I will make two observations, however, that I wish many Catholic conservatives would acknowledge as self-evident. The first is that many of the deepest motivations for liberals—justice for workers, care for the poor, concern about environmental degradation—square really well with Church teaching. The dichotomy that views Republicans as holy defenders of the Catholic catechism and Democrats as its godless opponents is obviously false to anyone aware of the Catholic Church's social justice doctrine. Thus, people who care about the poor, the immigrant, the innocent Iraqi, and the planet that makes all life possible should at least be accorded respect, even if simultaneously regarded as naive, bleeding hearts.
   The second point is that, while I would never judge someone negatively for voting for a Republican (or for only Republicans), the free market agenda of the right—which extols accumulation of wealth as a prime virtue and which generally possesses scorn for any environmental regulation which might hurt the bottom line—should make a Catholic voter uncomfortable, at a minimum. If an individual is aware of the dissonance between most conservative candidates' positions and those of the Church, and for other reasons (i.e. abortion) they vote Republican, I respect that choice. But there are many Catholics who speak the ultra-capitalist language of Ronald Reagan, Sean Hannity, John Stossel, or Rick Perry as if their words echo the voices of the Vatican corridors. Read Caritas in Veritate. They do not.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A political blog for Catholics (and everyone else)

This blog is dedicated to examining politics through the lens of Catholic teaching, and—as you may have deduced from the blog's name—with a somewhat liberal bent. In large part, it is a response to politically conservative Catholics, who are often the loudest voices in this sphere. Particularly troublesome are those that go so far as to harshly condemn not only Catholic politicians who are pro-choice, but also any Catholic who votes for such a candidate—even if that vote is in spite of that candidate’s abortion stance, and not at all because of it. Before the 2008 election, for example, numerous priests and bishops warned (sometimes implicitly, but in some instances explicitly) of eternal damnation for Catholics voting for Barack Obama, whatever their motivations. This is a deeply unfortunate and, I would suggest, indefensible position.
   I believe that the richness of Catholic doctrine must indeed inform the voting of all serious Catholics. However, the myopic and judgmental views described above are beneath the respectful, nurturing character an authentic Christian discourse deserves. What is often lacking from the discussion within right wing circles is an appreciation for some very serious issues that should not be written off by anyone claiming to follow Jesus Christ—or common sense.
  Of course these same authorities that view abortion as the fundamental political issue do admit some other issues to the top tier of consideration: gay marriage (or "protecting marriage"), embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia. Other issues—war, immigration, the death penalty, the environment—that seem to conflict with Republican orthodoxy are usually brushed aside, perhaps because they are not fully understood (I will address these arguments in greater depth in the future.).
   My primary contentions regarding Catholics' political participation are these:
     1) Modern politics, like modern life/society, is incredibly complex, with myriad issues having a profound impact on the common good.
     2) Impassioned but respectful arguments regarding the way our values should shape our participation in the complex political realm are of great value.
     3) No one should seek certainty that they have voted as God would vote (see Contention #1), but should instead vote in a deeply conscientious way.
     4) It is genuine concern for the common good that defines a "vote of good conscience".
   The reason I've included the phrase "and everyone else" in this post's title is that I believe the above principles apply to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Voting is a moral responsibility for all, whether one is Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or Atheist. The principles of Catholic dogma most germane to politics—respect for life, a deep concern for justice, stewardship for the environment—appeal to a broad swath of conscientious people. I hope my contribution is inclusive and insightful enough to be interesting to many (or at least a few).