Nothing brings out the hammer of a human psyche like politics. A recent Richmond Times-Dispatch commentary by A. Barton Hinkle provides excellent illustration. [i] Hinkle explains that when the Catholic Church objects to its institutions having to pay for employees’ birth control, it is viewed as embracing right-wing positions. When groups of Catholics such as the “Nuns on the Bus” conduct a nine-state tour denouncing the Paul Ryan budget proposal, the Church is viewed as left-wing. “The Catholic position on the death penalty irks the right,” says Hinkle, and “the Catholic position on abortion irks the left. Political enthusiasts are by turns infuriated and delighted by the church. Yet the church, which reasons from first principles to policy conclusions rather than the other way around, seems never to check its positions against their partisan predispositions. How refreshing.”
It would be refreshing if budgets and abortion were moral equals. There not. While a budget is certainly morally relevant and it is doctrinal that we must care for the poor, a wide spectrum of practical solutions may be used to address the problems of poverty – some more valuable than others. For example, while Church teaching has many serious warnings about the perils of free enterprise, its warnings about Statist economic solutions are even direr. More particularly, socialism has been consistently and emphatically denounced. So, whatever discussions we have may have about budget proposals, only an utterly Statist-oriented budget would be, intrinsically, at odds with Church teaching. Beyond that, from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, there’s room for people to disagree about what best serves the common good.
The issue of abortion, on the other hand, is far less complex. The Church teaches that intentional abortions are always moral evils. Period. Laws that work to support or inculcate abortion (and abortifacient contraceptives, one might add) are evil laws – even if they also do some good.
So, one can speak of “right-wing” or “left-wing” approach to the work of building a more humane budget. Somewhere between the furthest “left” ambition of total State control of a country’s economic life – and therefore total control of its citizenry – or the furthest “right” ambition of complete public indifference to the plight of its citizenry, there is an appropriate degree of interference, regulation, and involvement.
There is no “right-wing” or “left-wing” position on abortion, any more than there is a “right-wing” or “left-wing” position about lynching. To politicize murder is, ironically, to treat it as if somewhere between the extreme positions of total accommodation for murder or total repudiation of it, there is some sort of “sweet spot” about which disagreeing factions in society can legitimately come to a compromise. There is no such legitimate place.
In other words, when entities within the Church – such as lay organizations, USCCB bureaucrats, or Catholic politicians – involve themselves in politics, it is all too tempting to treat pet projects based on what those individuals sincerely believe are the best applications of universal principles as if they were the principles themselves. So, while an anti-abortion stand is, in and of itself, an authentic moral position and therefore only coincidentally aligned with right-wing politics, the issue of a federal budget may be resolved with and number of competing possibilities, all conceived toward the common good.
This is perhaps the point Hinkle (and other analysts who have made similar comments) would like to make when they point out that Church teaching is above the political fray and therefore doesn’t play nicely with the plastic fault lines of the zeitgeist. This is true, of course, but doesn’t mean that all positions taken by Church-related entities are equal. Economic and immigration policies are creatures of political fashion and shifting perspectives, hopefully inspired by strong moral foundations. Human life and marriage are timeless moral facts. Apples and oranges, really.
So, it isn’t “whipsawing,” as Hinkle puts it, to find that some Church entities are engaged in the ambiguous work of “left-wing” or “right-wing” politics anymore than it’s “whipsawing” to find other entities less ambiguously engaged in assisting the poor, helping pregnant women, or counseling faltering marriages. It is, unfortunately, a clever political strategy (not, necessarily, Hinkle’s intention) to confuse the two when one political side or the other wants a “moral garment” to cover its political aspirations. This means that one is more concerned about appearing to have the high road than whether one actually does.
And, like any other lie, there is a built-in punishment: the person who politicizes the moral dimension flattens his world, ironically rendering everything a political matter without real moral reference – which is exactly the opposite of what Church teaching offers. They are hammers that know nothing but nails.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.
[i] A. Barton Hinkle, “Catholic Church - right-wing pawn or commie front group?” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8-26-12: www2.timesdispatch.com/news/rtd-opinion/2012/aug/26/tdopin02-hinkle-catholic-church-right-wing-pawn-or-ar-2152250. All quotes are from this article.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.