The Real Problem with 'Faithful Citizenship'

At their current meeting, the USCCB is considering a new version of their document "Faithful Citizenship." Michael Sean Winters at NCR has a good commentary on the problems with the new draft, especially its reconfiguration of the previous seven headings into four and its continued misleading use of the term “intrinsically evil.” I have commented elsewhere on why discussions of “intrinsic evil” are misleading when dealing with public-policy matters. And the reconfiguration of topic headings is at least questionable. When presenting the previous seven headings in the classroom, I have always suggested that the special attention paid to the poor, to workers, and to creation are justified, since each of these represents a “constituency” that is uniquely vulnerable in a capitalist system. The bishops must lend an extra voice to those who are lacking power and therefore are vulnerable in the current system. Such a justification is consistent with other areas of concern, especially the unborn and the dying. To eliminate these headings is potentially to marginalize the already marginalized.

But the reconfiguration seems to me to indicate the deeper challenge the bishops face: abstraction. The new categories are  inarguably less specific than the old ones. Reading through the draft, one gets the feeling that (perhaps in order to produce a consensus document?) the bishops are trying to offer a presentation that resists partisan co-optation. They insist multiple times that all the issues must be considered together. In a spirit of charity, I won’t speculate about the possibility that such an insistance is itself a partisan move. However, even understood charitably, this retreat to abstraction isn’t the right way to address the existing problem. Do we really need another document that functions as a mini-encyclical or mini-catechesis on general themes in Catholic social teaching?

I wish the bishops could do something else: confront the real problem faithful Catholic citizens face in 2015. They should just say it: At this point, neither national party is acceptable, judged on the full range of teachings. Why can’t the bishops come right out and name this problem specifically? Certainly it would be easy enough for them to say that, at the national level, the Democratic party rejects their basic principles due to their positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, and that the party risks further entrenchment against the principles in the growing support for assisted suicide. But is it really any more controversial for the bishops to call out the Republican party for flagrantly ignoring basic principles of Catholic social teaching—especially on the critical and pressing issues of immigration and the environment? To be sure, these issues present real policy challenges, but to my knowledge, no one among the vast field of contenders for the Republican nomination has come out and forthrightly affirmed the basic principles of the Catholic tradition on immigration and the environment—even if they then might present policies that would be disagreeable. This is a fundamental problem with the typical use of the term "prudential judgment": what is open to prudential judgment are the merits of a particular policy approach. But the principles themselves are authoritative and should be affirmed. It would be refreshing to hear a Republican affirm Catholic principles on immigration, the environment, the right to health care, and the need for an economy that gives special attention to the needs of the poor. Again, there will still be policy differences. But in reality, Republicans reject the principles. Or at least they appear to—and if the appearance is wrong, they should be invited by the bishops to clarify their agreement on the basic principles.

Such a document would be a timely act of courage, which acknowledged the real challenges of the political world that actually exists in America in 2015. Moreover, perhaps such a document could be seen as a real challenge to partisans of both sides to admit the inadequacies of their respective positions. I do understand the instinct, when writing in our context, to write something that will be acceptable to everyone by making language more generic. But by writing a careful document reiterating abstractions, rather than addressing the actual political situation of the current two-party set-up, their words are more likely to continue the underlying partisan maneuvering (as people seek to exploit this or that abstraction for their advantage)…or to be ignored. A bold document that actually called parties to account might be controversial. But I’m pretty sure it would be less likely to be ignored.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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