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).