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Catholic Bishops’ Political Winks and Nods

September 25, 2012, 12:36 pm | Posted by John Gehring

Ever notice that just before a Catholic bishop dives head first into roiling political waters he insists that he floats above the partisan fray? One of the latest wink-and-nod assurance comes from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who in recent years has made an election-year habit out of denouncing Democrats. In a wide-ranging interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the former Denver archbishop who essentially told Catholics during the 2004 election that voting for John Kerry was a sin, now has this to say less than two months before the polls open:

We’re speaking on the night Barack Obama is delivering his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Let me ask flat-out: Do you believe a Catholic in good faith can vote for Obama? I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion. I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. I’m registered as an independent, because I don’t think the church should be identified with one party or another. As an individual and voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances, wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom. Those kinds of issues cause me a great deal of uneasiness.

Let’s first acknowledge that when archbishops speak, especially with news outlets, they are never just offering their “personal” views. Archbishop Chaput is not any Joe Voter hit up by a reporter for a man-on-the street interview. His words and identity are inextricably linked to the institutional church he represents. Chaput goes on to give some handy political cover for Paul Ryan, a Catholic vice presidential candidate who is the architect of a GOP budget that draws 62 percent of its savings from slashing food stamps, nutrition programs for women and infants, and safety nets that protect the elderly. Ryan continues to justify his libertarian, trickle-down economic philosophy in specifically Catholic terms. This is a bit like McDonald’s trying to sell Big Macs as a weight loss option. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described Ryan’s radical budget proposal (tax breaks for the rich, increases in Pentagon spending and cuts to safety nets ) as failing to pass a “basic moral test.”  Theologians and Catholic scholars have challenged Ryan to stop distorting Catholic social teaching. This doesn’t bother Chaput and a few other bishops who insist that the church can only speak with authority when it comes to the “non-negotiable” issues like abortion.

Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic…You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.

Mitt Romney’s campaign must love to see this convenient argument. If Republicans say the right things about opposing abortion church leaders will give you a free pass. Never mind the pesky details of economic policies that undermine human dignity and the sanctity of life by making it harder for struggling families to access health care and food. We’re a long way from the days when Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin championed a “consistent ethic of life” that framed respect for life not as a single-issue, but as a “seamless garment” that recognized myriad threats to human dignity. George Weigel and other prominent conservative Catholics are cheerleading the death of that era.

A new generation of Catholic bishops like Chaput have all kinds of detailed things to say about sexuality, marriage and abortion. When it comes to the real life implications of budgets and other economic policies not a few church leaders bow out with references to “prudential judgement.” Catholic bishops who were deep in the legislative weeds when it came to opposing the final health care reform law because of their technical legislative interpretations suddenly withdraw from economic debates with profound moral consequences or at trumpet Republican talking points about that evil Leviathan of government.

Chaput’s breezy reference to Jesus not telling us “government” has to take care of the poor or “that we have to pay taxes to take care of them” ignores several facts. Jesus didn’t tell us specifically how to handle many policy challenges a modern society faces. As Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics pointed out in his 2008 Commonweal essay, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free Market Theology,” Jesus didn’t talk about a lot of things – including free markets or democracy. “Catholic biblical scholarship and magisterial teaching have rejected the fundamentalism of “If the Bible doesn’t say it, it shouldn’t be done,” Finn wrote. Even more relevant to the particulars of Chaput’s “let them have charity” approach is the fact that churches, faith-based agencies and other charities are already strained to the breaking point. When the free market has little interest in anything but being profitable and social service agencies are barely able to meet existing demand, I’m curious to know who Archbishop Chaput thinks is going to pick up the slack? David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said it well a few months ago:

Some representatives even argued that feeding hungry people is really the work of churches, not government. But churches can’t be solely responsible for feeding poor women, children, seniors and disabled people. We also need strong government programs. In fact, all of the food churches and charities provide to hungry and poor people in the United States amounts to only about 6 percent of what the federal government spends on programs such as SNAP and school meals for students. The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. Some congressional leaders are essentially saying that every church in America — big or tiny — needs to come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts.

It’s also worth noting that as much as Chaput and some other bishops have a visceral dislike for government, the Catholic Church’s vital social service infrastructure would be a shadow of itself without government funding. A lengthy analysis of the Catholic Church’s finances in The Economist magazine estimated that 62 percent of Catholic charities’ $4.7 billion annual revenues comes from local, state, or federal government agencies. While Catholic bishops battle with President Obama over contraception funding, his administration has not exactly been miserly when it comes to the church. More than $1.5 billion in government funding went to Catholic organizations over the last few years. This includes an increase in USDA food assistance to Catholic Relief Services from $12.4 million in 2008 to 57.8 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA saw an increase from just over $440 million in government aid in 2008 to more than $554 million in 2010. Let’s have a robust debate about the proper role of government, not a cartoonish battle that pits “big government” v. “free markets.”

When it comes to Catholic voters and a candidate’s position on abortion things are also more complicated than Chaput’s approach suggests. Read Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent piece, “The Single Issue Trap,” in Commonweal. I agree that the Democratic Party should be more open to “pro-life” voices (as many Catholic Democrats argued persuasively at the Democratic National Convention). Some Democrats like Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan have shown real leadership in pushing abortion reduction legislation that focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. More of these efforts are needed.  Democrats running for office (or those working to hold on to seats) are frequently fearful of having fundraising spigots turned off by pro-choice lobbying organizations if they stray too far from the party’s ideological orthodoxy.

At the same time, Republican pro-life rhetoric is rarely matched by public policy decisions that help women and families. Many Republicans limit their pro-life advocacy to railing against Roe v. Wade while ignoring the fact that even if it was overturned many states would not criminalize abortion. This means that building a “culture of life,” as Pope John Paul II argued, must go deeper than a legalistic approach and include robust social and economic supports for pregnant women and vulnerable families. When it comes to policies like universal health care that can actually help reduce the abortion rate, most Republicans these days punt and fall back on free-market bromides and a libertarian philosophy of radical individualism. Consider that abortion rates in Massachusetts have gone down since the state implemented health care reform in 2006, an awkward fact for Republicans since Obamacare is based largely on the Massachusetts model that one former governor now vying for president can’t run away from fast enough.

Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have an obligation to raise moral questions in a political context, but they erode the church’s credibility in the public square when they reduce Catholic teaching to a single issue and give political cover to a Republican Party that is out of sync with Catholic teaching on many issues.

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