The Long View 2004-05-21: Preemptive Explanations

Every American election season, pretty much the same thing plays out among American Catholics that John Reilly describes here: a few bishops and some lay Catholics come out strongly against abortion and the politicians who support, the vast majority say something a bit softer, and a few decry the mixing of religion and politics. Some things never change.

On the other hand, this election season is a bit different in that the ascendance of the Cultural Left, along with Donald Trump, have broken the trend for churchgoing Catholics to either vote Republican for anti-abortion reasons, or not vote at all, since many Catholics are traditionally Democrat, but cannot bring themselves to vote for a pro-abortion candidate or Republican [little yellow dogs lost in the primary].

Perhaps the most interesting development of all is the rise of Tradinistas, young orthodox but Leftist Catholics, who think establishment Catholic Democrats like Tim Kaine are not far enough left on economics or Catholic enough on sex.

Interesting times.


Preemptive Explanations

Now that it seems likely again that substantial WMD stocks will turn up in Iraq, the back and forth is already beginning about just what these discoveries would mean. I discussed the point briefly in the entry for May 14, but just let me clarify.

Any WMDs that the Baathist government had would be important as evidence that the regime was ignoring and subverting the UN's disarmament regime. The chief US justification for the war was that such behavior cannot be tolerated after 911. In point of fact, the Kay inspections showed that Iraq was ignoring and subverting the disarmament regime. However, the evidence was scattered and circumstantial, and the Bush Administration had indeed said that some actual weapons would be found: weapons manufactured and ready to use. It was critics of the war who chose to hold the Administration to its word. Those critics are already trying to backtrack, pointing out that the gas and germs the Baathist government had did not by themselves justify the war. That's true, strictly speaking, but it's too late for them to raise the point.

The critics of the war long ago abandoned the argument that President Bush was imprudent. Now they say, and say again, that he lied. It's their issue, and they are stuck with it.

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I just finished reviewing a memoir of the 1820s and '30s by one Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, an English evangelist whose dearest aim in life was to rid Ireland of popery. One of her arguments against giving Catholics the franchise was that Catholics would simply do whatever their bishops told them. It is thus with a great sense of historical resonance that I view the recent attempts by a small number of American Catholic bishops (four, I believe) to publicly exclude pro-abortion politicians from the eucharist, and even to extend the prohibition (necessarily self-policing) to people who vote for pro-abortion politicians. Even more interesting, though, is the explosive reaction by Catholic politicians who are terrified by the prospect of alienating the cultural-left segment of the Democratic base.

Here is an example of what we are talking about:

John G. Vlazny, archbishop of about 298,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Portland, said in his May 6 column that Catholics who "publicly disagree" with church teaching on abortion or same-sex marriage should refrain from taking Communion. He also addressed Catholic voters faced with endorsing "pro-choice politicians."

"If they vote for them precisely because they are pro-choice, I believe they too should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion because they are not in communion with the Church on a serious matter," Vlazny wrote.

"But if they are voting for that particular politician because, in their judgment, other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to Church teaching and reception of Holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial," he added.

This is much less radical than has been made out. For one thing, no one is being excommunicated, or even "disfellowshiped," to use a Protestant term. For another, the statement takes care to avoid the "Arlen Specter Problem," which is whether one may support a candidate for parliamentary purposes even if his public positions are contrary to Catholic moral doctrine. The archbishop's policy is aimed narrowly at avoiding "scandal," which in this case means a situation in which politicians campaign in part on their Catholic identities, while at the same time voting against Catholic doctrine on issues about which they have discretion.

I am not entirely happy about bishops entering politics in this fashion (which is what they are doing, though they may deny it). It would be wholly intolerable if, like the Supreme Court, they claimed the prerogative to create and nullify doctrine at will. The fact is, though, they are not saying anything new, and their method of enforcement is just inside the ballpark. One could imagine a situation in which bishops issued anathemas for partisan reasons, or to promote policies that are prudentially debatable. In that case, they would be acting ultra vires, and could be ignored. That is not what is happening in this case, however.

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This brings us to the reaction from some Catholics in Congress:

Forty-eight Roman Catholic members of Congress have warned in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that U.S. bishops will revive anti-Catholic bigotry and severely harm the church if they deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights...

The letter questioned how the bishops could limit the denial of Communion to abortion, noting that Pope John Paul II and many U.S. bishops have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

As for the war in Iraq, that is a classic prudential question. Catholic politicians cannot be required to conform their foreign policy to the foreign policy of the Holy See, which for most purposes is just another state. The death penalty is more difficult: Catholic moral theologians, including the one-time Karol Wojtla, have been hostile to it for some time. However, the fact is that the Magisterium does allow for the death penalty in principle; even the new Catechism, which makes rather a muddle of the issue, does not condemn it outright. Again, this is one of the strengths of Catholicism: you just can't make this stuff up.

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Dedicated readers of this site will have noticed that I have more than once alluded to those Underwood-keyboard computers in the Terry Gilliam movie, Brazil. Imagine my surprise on learning that there really are such things. Remember the old saying: be careful what you wish for because someone might send you a URL to it.

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