National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Double standard in public life hurts Catholic credibility


Conservative Catholics are on the attack. On Jan. 22 of this year, Sacramento Bishop William Weigand publicly chastised California Gov. Gray Davis for claiming to be a pro-choice Catholic. Weigand declared, “Anyone, politician or otherwise, who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the church.” On April 14, Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., sent a letter to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), stating that Daschle should remove his Catholic affiliation from his congressional biography because he also is a pro-choice Catholic. And just recently, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), hiding behind the Supreme Court’s 17-year-old ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, equated homosexuality with incest, bigamy, polygamy and adultery.

One must wonder where these self-described “true” Catholics are getting their ammunition for these attacks. The answer lies in the Jan. 16 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The note, promulgated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, states that Catholics have a “duty to be morally coherent,” and that issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage are not subject to political compromise. This note is an effort by the church hierarchy to challenge what George Weigel calls “Cuomoism”: the belief that a person can accept the church’s teachings on abortion while at the same time oppose outlawing abortions. Conservative Catholics have used this note as a moral litmus test in order to determine who is and who is not a “true” Catholic. Simply put, conservative Catholics believe Catholic politicians who are not going to oppose abortion should not call themselves Catholics.

Unfortunately for conservative Catholics, the argument is not that simple. Conservative Catholics are just as morally incoherent in their views as their liberal counterparts. Take the death penalty for instance. In March 1995, Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical Evangelium Vitae stating that the death penalty is only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Even Ratzinger himself admitted that the death penalty “would be very difficult to meet the conditions today.” In spite of this declaration by the church, so-called “true” Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was able to reconcile his views on the permissibility of the death penalty with church teachings. Scalia argued that since the pope’s teaching on the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae did not come ex cathedra (i.e., with formal infallibility) he is not obligated as a Catholic to accept it, only to give it “serious consideration.” Using Scalia’s logic, it is just as easy for a pro-choice Catholic to justify his belief in the right of a woman to choose because Humanae Vitae also did not come ex cathedra. However, the pro-choice Catholic would be considered more reprehensible than Scalia simply because well-entrenched conservative Catholics at the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops consider abortion to be the greater of the two evils and thus they turn a blind eye to Scalia’s inconsistent views. This is an unfair double standard imposed by conservative Catholics and it must end in order for the church to have any credibility in the world.

Conservative Catholics also are not morally coherent on issues dealing with the poor. On Holy Thursday, the pope issued an encyclical titled Ecclesia de Eucharistia emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist to the Roman Catholic church. In this encyclical, the pope suggested that people who are indifferent to the poor are not worthy of Communion. In this country, over 9 million poor children live without health insurance. The primary source of juvenile health insurance is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, CHIP. Over the next 3 years, CHIP funding is going to be reduced in order to pay for President Bush’s 2001 tax cut, which benefits the top 1 percent of wage earners in the United States. This tax cut was supported by “true” Catholics like Santorum and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). I find it morally incoherent for conservative Catholic public servants to claim they are Catholic and then not act according to their faith, which requires them to care for what Jesus calls “the least of my brothers.” I also find it morally dishonest for conservative Catholics to say issues like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage are moral and issues like the minimum wage and child poverty are not. Conservative Catholics are just as guilty as liberal Catholics of being selective in what church teachings they choose to agree with and they should stop denying they engage in this practice.

Many conservative Catholics claim that public officials like Santorum are noble for carrying their religious convictions into political life. That may be so, but taken to an extreme, the use of a religious worldview as the sole basis for a political ideology can lead to imposition of that worldview on the entire population, and this is inconsistent with a pluralistic democracy. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo echoed these sentiments in a speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame in 1984: “The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on, namely, the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. We know that the price of seeking to force our own beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

God gives every person the wonderful gift of free will, and for conservative Catholics to claim that liberal Catholics are not Catholic based on the single issue of abortion is both shortsighted and hypocritical. Conservative Catholics likewise hold views inconsistent with the church on issues dealing with the death penalty, poverty and war. Jesus warns us of those who “preach but do not practice.” Conservative Catholics should heed this advice and stop condemning liberal Catholics and work to create a better dialogue with their fellow Catholic brethren.

Michael L. Shields practices law in Washington, D.C.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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