David Cloutier

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.

By this author

Naming What We're Doing: A Case Study

There is a fascinating story in today’s Washington Post about an FDA panel debating the question of whether to allow genetic modification of human embryos to “insert” genes of a third person, when there are genetic defects in the original DNA.

Abortion, Poverty, Contraception, and Promiscuity

There has been much attention given to the latest report that abortions have fallen to their lowest rate in 40 years. The rate of below 17 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44 is nearly half of the rate at its peak in 1980. Discussions in the wake of the report have focused on causation, an almost-impossible task given the complexity of the phenomenon of abortion. Isolating causes is certainly not possible, and it seems more reasonable to suggest that more-successful contraception and a more negative public attitude toward the morality of abortion have both contributed to the decline. The question of whether state-level legal restrictions on abortion make any difference is hotly disputed; since these restrictions ordinarily are passed in states where abortions are geographically less available and where the general moral culture is more anti-abortion, it would be hard to know how to separate out these factors.

I want to put these numbers in some larger perspective, by diving more deeply into the statistics about abortion. To me, these raise questions about the level to which one could drive down this abortion rate; as with our economic analysis, a focus on up-or-down trend numbers often obscures the larger phenomenon.

Pope Francis: Priorities Make Him Person of the Year

I'm glad he beat out Edward Snowden and Ted Cruz! As I wrote over at Catholic moral theology, the Time article accompanying Pope Francis’ award of “person of the year” is an able, constructive, accurate piece that is a nice way to sum up the state of play after nearly a year.

Long on Lament, Short on Solutions? Dealing with Economic Inequality

Increasing inequality in the United States is a big problem. One recent analysis shows a disturbing graph, which displays not only that, in 2012, the top 1% captured 20% of income, but that the top 10% captured over 50% of income, a number that is higher than at any time in the last century, surpassing even the 1920’s. The graphs show this is not merely a matter of all the rewards of the recent recovery going to the top. As Eduardo Porter outlines it in brief, we are enduring a 30-plus-year stagnation of the middle-class. Bishops are speaking out on this. For many, a long lament on our “new Gilded Age” leads to a hope for a revival of Catholic social teaching. Even Catholic conservatives are taking note that “trickle-down” theories of dealing with poverty are failing. Michael Peppard and Michael Sean Winters have both recently commented that taking this problem seriously is both urgent and yet very difficult. (It is being made much more difficult by our absurd politics. But that would be a different post.)

It’s a difficult problem because we are long on lament, but really short on solutions that pay attention to the specific dynamics of our economy as it exists now. It is a truism that military leaders often “fight the last war” rather than the present one – so too, Catholics and their allies in fighting poverty can fall into talking about solutions that sound like “fighting the last economic war” – namely, that of the early 20th century.

Francis: The Bridge-Builder Washington Needs?

The inaugural dialogue of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, launched Tuesday night at Georgetown University (at least something was working in the nation’s capital), offered a glimpse into the Church’s future. The dialogue, entitled “The Francis Factor,” sought to begin a conversation about how Catholics can better engage and shape public life with their “whole package”… and Pope Francis was a subject for much joy and exaltation, from Cardinal Wuerl to Mark Shields to the initiative’s director, the long-time head of the USCCB’s justice and peace efforts, John Carr. The conversation, playing to a packed house, offered an opportunity not for in-depth analysis of Francis’ words, but rather for the broad question of “impact” – and in particular, what impact does he have on Catholics in public life? Six months in, it was a nice opportunity for taking stock.

What did we learn? Well, I learned that David Brooks has a better grasp of Christian theology than many Christian theologians, when he described the “glittering vice of magnanimity” as a temptation, in contrast to Christianity’s account of “inverse, ironical, paradoxical powers,” which Pope Francis better reflects. But the panel reflected a convergence on four elements:

First, Francis’ “authenticity” was praised by all. This obvious lack of pretense and elaborate “spin” offers a stark contrast to and challenge for our standard political culture. These are some of the same compliments showered on President Obama when he first appeared on the screen – and it is interesting that there is a deep hunger for figures who come across as “genuine” or “real” in an age of constructs.

Francis does it again

In his first extended interview, the Pope says things like this:

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

Immigration: The Prudential Judgment Excuse Reappears

Happily, Catholic leaders are making a big push for legislators to get behind immigration reform. The good news is that immigration reform is an issue that brings forces within the Church together, rather than setting them against one another. But unfortunately, Catholic legislators have their dodge at the ready: “prudential judgment.”

Representative Daniel Lipinski, a Catholic Democrat from Illinois, said he had listened to the bishops and priests from his district. But he said he viewed their opinions on immigration as less binding than the church’s positions on social issues.

“There are some issues that the church speaks authoritatively on, such as abortion, in protecting life,” said Mr. Lipinski, who remains skeptical about promises of increased border security. “And then there are prudential judgments that are made, informed by Catholic theology, but it’s not something that Catholics are required to follow.”

When Catholic Democrats resort to the “prudential judgment escape hatch” on an issue where bishops and liberal Catholics hold a united front, something is broken. One thing that is broken is our congressional districting system. If you look at Rep. Lipinski’s gerrymandered district, you might wonder why it was drawn that way… until you look at the incredible gerrymander created in 2011 for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Lipinski’s (sometime) neighbor. This gerrymander is there to ensure Gutierrez a majority Latino district… with the effect of pulling Latinos out of Lipinski’s distinct to fill it with more suburban Chicago white ethnics, who are generally hard sells on immigration. What a disaster for the solidarity needed for immigration reform! 

Five (More) Lessons from Francis

While all of the publicity has gone to Francis’ gentle and entirely helpful remarks about homosexuality in the clergy, which MSW nails in a few sentences today, a full read of John Allen’s excellent summary of his comments reveals some other gems worthy of note:

1. “John XXIII was the figure of a country priest who loves all of his faithful and knows how to take care of them. He was a great bishop, and also a great nuncio. When he was in Turkey, he was responsible for so many false baptisms in order to save Jews ... he was courageous.” Here we get a stunning reminder of what the pope might mean by “creating a mess” in the Church. I am guessing sacramental theologians do not have an account of the theology behind “false baptisms,” and that the use of the Church’s primary sacrament as a social screen to protect the lives of the vulnerable would make some nervous (to say the least). But here we see John XXIII’s saintliness displayed in his willingness to lie and to use the Church’s sacraments as tools of deception!

2. “I'll tell you something about the Charismatic Movement ... at the end of the '70s and in the '80s, I wasn't a big fan. I used to say they confused the holy liturgy with a school of samba. I was converted when I got to know them better and saw the good they do. In this moment of the life of the church, the movements are necessary.” Two insights packed into the same quote. First, notice the pope’s willingness to change his mind by becoming acquainted with practices that at first he sees as questionable. This is not a blithe acceptance of everything, but rather a humility that refuses to stop at initial impressions. Second, it suggests a liturgical flexibility that does not dismiss the importance of “reverence” and holiness and tradition, but rather refuses to make them ultimate. There are limits to liturgical flexibility (or else we would cease to be Catholic), but they have significant elasticity, and one should look at the fruits.

Cars, Congregations, and Conspicuous Consumption

Poor Pope Benedict. The current issue of Time magazine, highlights four “ways the pope is cleaning house,” and labels the pope emeritus the “Prada pope” for his “lavish apartment” and “custom red shoes.” Elsewhere, the Huffington Post mentions Benedict’s “luxury cars” that “included a custom-made Renault, a BMW X5, and a Mercedes.” The context is Pope Francis arriving at Castel Gandolfo in…a Ford Focus.

Happily, Francis’s stern message of the prior week is getting around. As a Reuters story says:

  As part of his drive to make the Catholic Church more austere and focus on the poor, Francis told young and trainee priests and nuns from around the world that having the latest smartphone or fashion accessory was not the route to happiness.

"It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car, you can't do this," he said.

"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world," he said.  

This teaching is for all Catholics, not just priests and nuns. It is of course more embarrassing for the Church when its clerics and religious spend exorbitant amounts of money on luxury goods. But it really should be obvious from our church parking lots whether we are in fact a church of the poor…or not.

The Church’s teaching about property, about modest use of goods, and of the necessity of putting surplus at the disposal of others is not new. It’s old. It’s all over Scripture and the patristic writers. It’s in Aquinas, who distinguishes between natural and artificial wealth. It’s in all the modern social encyclicals—take Pope Paul VI's straightforward claim that "the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations" (Populorum Progressio, no. 49) or Pope John Paul II's scathing criticism of "superdevelopment." It’s in the Catechism—paragraphs 2405 and 2407 are pretty clear. It’s entirely practical—that is, a person could go out and start living it out tomorrow. It is amazing to me that the American church sometimes pretends that this teaching simply doesn’t exist. Of course, the Church doesn't teach that everyone is supposed to be St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day. But it does teach that simplicity should govern the lives of all Christians, and it does warn us—all of us—against conspicuous and never-ending consumption.

Lumen Fidei and Taking the Right Stand

If you do not take a stand, you will not understand. Understanding requires standing. These are the culminating themes of the account of the concept of faith in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 Introduction to Christianity, in which faith is named as “taking up a position” and “to take one’s stand on something.” Ratzinger is trying to identify faith with a certain type of stance toward reality, rather than with any formulae, claiming that faith is the prerequisite of all real human understanding. Without faith, he suggests, all understanding eventually is reduced to “making” – that is, not to standing somewhere, but to remaking the world in one’s own image. (By “faith” here, I hasten to add that Ratzinger is speaking more broadly that about “the Faith” – he’s showing that understanding is really only possible if there is acknowledgment of meaning in the world that is PRIOR TO my own definitions, and to acknowledge such meaning is to trust, have faith.

Chapter 2 of Lumen Fidei quotes Isaiah 7:9, “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” the very verse on which Ratzinger bases his reflection in his 1968.