Rick Santorum on the Catholic cafeteria
At RealClearReligion.org, Rick Santorum has a column talking about how “It Is Hard to Be Catholic in Public Life.” The Republican candidate for president makes it easier for himself, however, by distinguishing between “prudential matters” and “moral absolutes,” a division that happens to cleave neatly along the Democratic-Republican divide:
As it has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions, there are moral issues where I have differed from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and even the pope — welfare reform, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some immigration policies. While all of these issues have profound moral underpinnings none of them involve moral absolutes. War is not always unjust; government aid is not always just or loving. The bishops and I may disagree on such prudential matters, but as with all people of good will with whom I disagree, I have an obligation to them and my country to listen to their perspective and perform a healthy reexamination of my own position.
Give Santorum credit for honesty. He seems to have finished that reexamination, and concluded that the bishops and the magisterium are wrong on a number of issues, including torture and the death penalty, two points of disagreement he does not mention. And the bishops don’t appear to be holding his feet to the fire.
Santorum has hit some of these notes before, but they have ever greater resonance today, not least after Pope Benedict’s remarks about bringing Catholic social teaching to bear on a Catholic’s public life.
Santorum’s division of “prudential matters” and “moral absolutes” strikes me as far too convenient, as I said, but also far too clear and simplistic. Many of the teachings he categorizes as optional are fairly non-negotiable, and the teachings he holds out as absolute (namely opposition to abortion rights, though I imagine he would include gay marriage) are less absolute than he would like: the church doesn’t back the so-called personhood laws, for example, and even overturning Roe wouldn’t end legalized abortion in states, and abortion rates are pegged to “prudential” policies on poverty and such as much as anything else.
But Santorum’s division does appear to accurately reflect the view of many Catholics as regards public policies and Catholic teaching. That seems to include much of the hierarchy. In other times, the bishops have not been as unwilling to tackle “prudential” issues, like war and peace and the economy. The (false, to me) bifurcation between principles and prudential judgments in Catholic teaching is somewhat inherent to the Catholic polity, however, as bishops are teachers who generally espouse principles, while clergy and religious and lay people have the hard work of putting them into practice.
Principles are much easier to enunciate and defend, hence the appeal of the religious freedom context for framing disputes — it’s not about problems with a particular policy, but about a compromised principle, a precedent that will be set. The Obama administration can funnel more funds than ever to Catholic agencies, but if they deny one relatively small grant because the Catholic recipient does not refer victims for contraception or abortion services, then that is religious discrimination that threatens the entire process. Same with the contraception mandate, and its slippery slope to forced euthanasia and the persecution of believers.
Sometimes, however, the understandable preference for absolute clarity winds up obscuring with false certainty, and it can certainly wind up overshadowing too many other “hard teachings” that may indeed be more in the realm of prudential policy judgments but which nonetheless can’t be dismissed as easily as Rick Santorum does.