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 grĂ¢ce 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.