The cramping of Catholic moral reasoning.
The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento recently announced that it will no longer provide grants to a local nonprofit that serves the homeless. Why? Was it financial scandal? No. Egregious incompetence? No. The diocese decided to defund the group, which it had been working with for over two decades, because the agency's new director has publicly supported abortion rights and gay marriage. The Sacramento Bee reports:
"I have never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House," said Whitmore, formerly the senior pastor at St. Mark's United Methodist Church. "I was speaking as an individual. So for me, this came out of the blue."[...]In its letter to Whitmore, the Sacramento Diocese said it respects the work Francis House does and cannot expect every organization it supports financially to "actively promote Catholic teaching.""We can expect, however, that they or their leaders not publicly oppose Catholic teaching and that, unfortunately, is the situation in which we find ourselves," the letter reads.
Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said the decision to drop Francis House as a beneficiary of the pastoral center's annual fundraising appeal stemmed in part from public confusion about the agency's affiliation with the church. Although Francis House was born at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish in Sacramento, it has long been nondenominational and no longer is part of the church.However, "a lot of people still think Francis House is a Catholic charity," he said, and some are concerned that Whitmore's views are a reflection of those of the church.Eckery said he was unsure whether the diocese had received complaints about its donations to Whitmore's agency. "But if we haven't had one yet, we would get one," he said. "We like to get out in front of these things."
But in its zeal to avoid confusing "a lot of people," the diocese has gotten so far in front of the issue that it may be in danger of leaving behind its own moral tradition. In what universe should one expect that providing a grant to an agency whose director holds public-policy views at odds with Catholic teaching (for the moment, leave aside the question of whether the church's teaching on marriage requires Catholics to oppose legalizing gay marriage) suggests support for such views, especially when they have nothing to do with the services the agency provides? We're talking about a homeless shelter. It does not provide abortions. It does not marry gay people. It feeds, houses, and clothes the homeless. Funding such an organization communicates nothing more than the church's traditional concern for the poor. Maybe you've heard of it.What does this decision mean? That the Diocese of Sacramento will begin screening its partner agencies to make sure their employees have not publicly disagreed with policy positions endorsed by the bishop, or the bishops? As Fr. Tom Reese told the Bee, "If the bishops are going to defund every organization headed by someone who disagrees with their views on gay marriage, birth control and abortion, they are going to find very few agencies to fund." Why stop there? Why not find out whether partner agencies have employees in leadership positions who are divorced? Or have attended civil unions of gay people? Or have publicly supported the Affordable Care Act?Here's one reason: the Catholic moral tradition is not kidding about original sin.Let me explain. Early this week I had an interesting e-mail exchange with a friend who expressed his frustration with certain aspects of the contraception-mandate debate. Why are so many people confused about the way insurance works? He wrote:
The fact that insurance itself requires premiums to be pooled tells me that any theory that an employer group is not paying for contraception when it is available in the wider pool of the insured is at best a polite fiction. The desire to maintain polite fictions is part of the problem with society in general and the church in particular. It comes from morality being thought of in legalistic terms and is purely and simply a means for one to avoid responsibility for things while appearing rigorously responsible. Maybe someone should address that.
Of course, the Catholic Church has never been above employing legalistic moral reasoning to justify morally questionable actions. But legalism cuts two ways. And when it comes to casuistry, I replied, I'm pro. It may seem absurdly legalistic to work with categories of cooperation to help us figure out whether our actions are morally permissible, but they were developed to acknowledge a crucial point of Christian theology: original sin. As the contraception-mandate debate has unfolded, I worry that some arguments coming from the bishops conference and its defenders skate too close to a Manichean view of moral acts. It's as though some have forgotten that the Catholic tradition acknowledges how difficult it is to engage in morally pure acts in a fallen world. The categories of cooperation force us to think about our responsibility as moral agents -- as people whose decisions have consequences, and a lineage, always tainted by structural sin. And, when properly used, that framework acts as a bulwark against sectarianism.Now, I agree that the accommodation could be called a polite fiction. But that doesn't make it a useless fiction, because it does something important, from the standpoint of Catholic moral thought: It permits Catholic institutions to avoid explicitly contracting for services they deem inimical to church teaching. Obviously, anyone who pays insurance companies -- whether Taco Bell owners, employees, or bishops -- is to some extent subsidizing medical services the church rejects. But whether you explicitly consent is not inconsequential.How many bishops are thinking that way right now? How many are thinking like the Amish? The Catholic tradition provides a wealth of resources to help us think through these sorts of problems. Why haven't bishops used this moment to make a Catholic argument in defense of their position that even the accommodation threatens to trample the religious freedom of Catholic institutions? It's bizarre.