The Problem with “Movements”

Since 2004, there has been a discussion of so called “non-negotiables” in Catholic public life, often tied with the term “intrinsic evils.” I have problems with the usage of both terms as they have their ambiguous elements.

However, they have been introduced into Catholic political discourse to emphasize that the Church is unequivocal on some issues.

Almost all teachings of the Church regarding public life have some level of nuance to them. Usually, the Church teaches a totally different way of looking at politics or economics (notably subsidiarity and distributism) that, despite more than a century and a quarter since _Rerum Novarum_, still don’t quite fit into established secular political movements. Part of this is due to the fact that people have listened to the social encyclicals only reflexively by rejection (“Mater si, Magistra No”) or by intentionally misinterpreting (“If you’d only read the social encyclicals, you’d vote Democrat”).

With almost every issue, there’s some nuance. The Church almost always advises more on which principles to consider in regard to an issue rather than prescribing a particular course of action.

War: Just War Doctrine
Death Penalty: Equivalent strict standards of application
Economics: distributism; right to property, but the right to property is not absolute, etc.
Environment: Care for God’s resources; be good stewards; don’t blindly destroy nature; yet don’t put nature above humanity
Immigration: Have generous immigration laws; respect human dignity; keep families together; secure borders; don’t allow illegal immigration.
Even with the War in Iraq, there is some level of nuance in the Church’s teachings. Indeed, the War in Iraq was going on in 2004 when then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote his now infamous letter to Cardinal McCarrick saying specifically that war does not carry the same weight as abortion, since the Church teaches that some wars are just, and we can’t always be 100% sure of the justice or injustice of a cause. Yet Popes Benedict and John Paul have made comments against the Iraq War. Yet again, before the war, John Paul appealed not to the US but to Saddam Hussein to do what was right, since he was the one being uncooperative with the UN. And yet again, when B16 came here in April 2007, he praised our troops for fighting for the cause of freedom.

There’s always *something*. There’s always a level of room for adaptation of the general principles to one’s own perspective and situation, and the Popes acknowledge this.

However, there are issues for which there is no nuance. Abortion is wrong, period. The Church has always taught that and makes no exceptions.

Two equal and opposite problems arise from this.

The first problem involves voting. Since parties are coalitions, voting involves some kind of compromise. In theory, people “tally” votes, where, in reality, they vote on their pet issues. I’ve often heard it said, “The Democrats are in line with Catholic teaching on more issues than the Republicans,” though I’ve never been able to figure out which ones. Another justification Catholics will use for voting Democrat is trying to apply to abortion the level of nuance that other issues have, making up arguments about ensoulment and so forth, or else just saying that the Church is “hypocritical.”

And that, right there, gets to the problem of “movements.” I will grant that politics is one thing, and sometimes holding one’s nose and voting for the least evil of the candidates is what one must do.

However, most “movements” become so focused on their issue that they lose sight of the Church. It’s one thing when this happens in terms of political alliances. It’s quite another when the movement turns to criticizing the Church.

So, for example, with the “Peace Movement.” Peace is a good thing. However, I have a hard time maintaining dialogue with peace activists, with whom I largely agree, because they are so adamant about pacifism as such. I may not approve of the war, but I approve of the existence of the military, and I believe in the possibility of a Just war that is defensive or one that liberates one country from another’s attack.

However, that mere distinction is too much for many peace activists. Indeed, they’ll say that “Just War” theory itself is wrong and “goes against the teachings of Jesus.” To show how it goes against the teachings of Jesus, they’ll quote Dorothy Day, or Eileen Egan, or the Berrigans, Sr. Joan Chittister, or one of several dubious bishops. Challenge them with actual writings of Popes and Saints, and they’ll shut you out.

I have no problem with conscientious objection. Indeed, I support it. I have no problem with criticizing a war if one sincerely believes it is wrong. I have no objection to a person living a pacifist life, save for the question of protecting a loved one from assault. However, I *do* have a problem when someone’s zeal for peace takes the form of criticizing the Church and saying that Just War Doctrine itself is wrong.

Similarly, the Holy Father recently gave a speech about environmental concerns, which has spurred the usual debates on that topic. Again, the Church teaches that the environment must be honored and safeguarded, but the needs of humanity must come first. Radical Environmentalists conveniently ignore the latter qualification and use the Church to promote their agenda. Their opponents will ignore the first part and focus on the latter.

Again, it’s one thing to make an unhappy allegiance for voting purposes; it is quite another to call the Church’s teaching on a subject “wrong,” whether that subject is “peace” or divorce or economics or contraception.

So as much as I sympathize with their causes, I can’t get behind the “Peace” Movement or the “Environmental” Movement because they involve too much criticism of the Church and too many sketchy interpretations of Church teaching. The pro-life movement may compromise itself sometimes in its political allegiances, but the movement itself does not go around saying the Church is wrong on matters of dogma.

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