Render unto Caesar
Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life
Charles J. Chaput
Doubleday, $21.95, 272 pp.

A Nation for All
How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division
Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley
Jossey-Bass, $24.95, 176 pp.

It is not clear whether Barack Obama passed on Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as a running mate because her archbishop reprimanded her for refusing to sign laws she deemed threatening to Roe v. Wade. But it didn’t help her chances. Of course, Obama’s vice-presidential pick—Sen. Joe Biden, a Catholic—recently took his own lumps from bishops. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver publicly instructed Biden not to present himself for Communion while in town for the Democratic National Convention. Several bishops corrected Biden again after a Meet the Press appearance in which he affirmed his belief that life begins at conception but declared it a private matter.

Is it prudent for bishops to involve themselves so publicly in a national election? Two recent books give contrasting and constructive perspectives. Both are well written and cogently argued. The more optimistic volume is Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley’s A Nation for All, written to help put an “end to both the politics of division and the culture of going it alone.” Korzen and Kelley are two of the most astute young leaders in the effort to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on American culture. They argue that the United States “is hungry for a new vision of leadership and community.” Satisfying that hunger means strengthening the country’s commitment to peace, to a more just exercise of governmental power, to environmental protection, and to providing essential services to those in need. While those values have declined over the past four decades, corporate power has risen—and church leaders have become preoccupied with abortion.

According to Korzen and Kelley, that preoccupation has played into the hands of Republicans, who have won several national elections promising to address abortion without delivering on that pledge. Catholic voters are therefore free to tackle the problem outside the Republican Party. But in order to do so they must overcome the misinformation from Republicans who would have them believe any antiabortion strategy that goes around Roe is ineffective and, worse, sinful.

In a thoughtful chapter on issues of church and state, Korzen and Kelley demonstrate how emphasizing anti-Roe strategies alone sits uneasily with the church’s promise of religious freedom to all in Vatican II’s Dignitatis humanae (1965). Catholic social doctrine, they write, quoting Benedict XVI’s Deus caritas est, “has no intention of giving the church power over the state. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith.” And quoting John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae, Korzen and Kelley note that “when it is impossible to overturn or repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in elected official...[may] support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law.” To reduce abortion they suggest

providing health care and economic assistance to women and families, robust alternatives such as support for adoption and appropriate and effective sex education for young people, and a host of other policy measures that have proved capable of reducing the abortion rate in the United States and around the world.

Thanks to the efforts of Sen. Obama, much of that language is now in the Democratic Party platform. In Render unto Caesar, Archbishop Chaput argues that such efforts are insufficient. While admitting to knowing “sincere Catholics who reason differently” (as I do), the archbishop sees a lack of “proportionate reason” in the Korzen-Kelley path. Chaput says that in order to justify a vote for a prochoice candidate, Catholic voters must have a reason of such magnitude that we could, “with an honest heart, expect unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.”

That is indeed a high threshold; unfortunately Chaput applies it only to the cultural methods of promoting life usually favored by Democrats. Of course, voting for a “prolife” candidate does not guarantee that he will appoint Supreme Court justices who accept the church’s natural-law arguments against abortion. Nor does it mean that anti-Roe appointees will be approved by what is sure to be a Democratic Congress. Is a Catholic voter supposed to overlook how the Republican Party has failed to deliver Roe’s reversal in thirty-five years? Given that political reality, how could “voting prolife” in that narrow and unsuccessful sense be a sufficient explanation to the victims of abortion?

That criticism aside, Render unto Caesar does offer well-constructed, thoughtful, and accessible arguments. The archbishop displays an impressive command of church documents and literature. Chaput writes because he is “increasingly tired of the church and her people being told to be quiet on public issues.” And it is clear that he has no intention of being quiet, nor, given his insight and erudition, should he be. Still, it is puzzling that, apart from the issue of abortion and related sexual matters, most of the social gospel that dominates Korzen and Kelley’s book is absent from Chaput’s. Korzen and Kelley argue that the GOP’s claim that voting for anti-Roe candidates is the way to vote Catholic has hampered a fuller presentation of the church’s social teaching. Does Chaput make their point for them?

The archbishop is correct to insist that “Christian faith is always personal but never private.” Yet he fails to highlight the tension between that proposition and the (post-JFK) Catholic acceptance of the religious freedom of others who may contest church teaching. Chaput clearly desires the Catholic position on life issues to be the law of the land, but how does that happen when the majority resists? His answer is familiar: truth cannot be denied. But to the unconvinced non-Catholic, that answer begs the question, or at least elides the major difficulty. And if the wrong-headed, truth-denying majority resists for three decades and more, why not look for another way to reduce the number of abortions? Indeed, is not one duty-bound to look?

More than Korzen and Kelley, Chaput blames deficient moral formation and resistance to sexual self-control for the wider culture’s unwillingness to protect the unborn. He stresses the importance of struggling against personal sin. Here the book returns to its underlying emphasis: the truth of the church’s views on contraception and “other inconvenient teachings,” as Chaput puts it. The contraceptive mentality, he argues, reshapes sexual morality, leads to higher divorce and illegitimacy, creates pressures for legalized abortion, and coarsens male-female relations. He speculates that the Catholic Church gets bad reviews in the national media for telling that truth.

Toward the end of the book, Chaput takes up the tendency of politicians to dissemble, which resonates strongly with readers confronted by presidential campaigns fighting over the “change” mantle. But these are passing observations, and the archbishop again returns to the injustice and sinfulness of abortion. “The law must be changed,” he declares. Yes, of course, but why understate how Catholic faith also requires believers to change conditions that apparently give rise to the horrible practice? As Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical Deus caritas est:

[I]f in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be "devout" and perform "my religious duties," then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely "proper," but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.... Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment.

This is common ground worthy of the scholarly work of Archbishop Chaput and the hope-filled effort of Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley. Both books commend themselves to Catholics who take their faith seriously.


Related: Pro-life, Pro-Obama? by William J. Gould
The Bishops & Obama, by the Editors

Douglas W. Kmiec, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Malta, is the author of Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama (Overlook Press).
Also by this author

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Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: View Contents
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