Should Catholics “Feel the Bern”?

Can a Catholic support Bernie Sanders for president? In recent weeks, several noteworthy figures (including Mark Shea, Charles Camosy, and Fr. Dwight Longenecker) have tentatively suggested it might be possible to do this in good conscience. It’s an interesting discussion insofar as it raises important questions about how we should view our relationship to the modern state.

Sanders is a staunch supporter of legalized abortion. NARAL, America’s leading abortion activist group, has given Sanders a squeaky-clean bill of health, which is clearly a dis-recommendation in the eyes of a faithful Catholic. Recognizing this, the above commentators focus their attention on whether or not Sanders’s support for abortion could potentially be outweighed by other positives in his agenda.

Shea focuses his remarks on the disastrous scenario in which we are forced to choose between two terrible candidates, both of whom have an obvious taste for authoritarian rule and a decades-long history of supporting abortion. Although this is becoming an alarmingly realistic possibility, I will defer the question for the time being. (I personally would warmly recommend a Trump/Sanders Democratic candidacy as a happy solution to this problem.)

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A more interesting and revealing line of argument is explored by the other two authors (somewhat tentatively by Longenecker, and more enthusiastically by Camosy). These authors suggest that the evil of a pro-abortion candidate might in some instances be outweighed by the good of a candidate who is willing to use state resources to support “the little guys.” As Camosy points out, there may be destitute women for whom state support might mean the difference between choosing abortion and choosing life. We saw various versions of this argument in 2008, as numerous Catholics attempted to justify their support for then-ascendant Barack Obama.

Longenecker makes clear that in his own view, Sanders’s strong support for abortion rules him out as an acceptable candidate. Nevertheless, Longenecker cautions Catholics against rejecting Sanders’s “socialism,” which in his view might even be a good. Pulling a page from Pope Benedict, he argues that “socialism” is not always and necessarily anti-Catholic. Democratic Socialism, such as appeared in Europe in the nineteenth century, can be consonant with our faith, which is why European Catholics have in the past regarded it as an acceptable alternative to the more rigidly materialistic socialism of Bolsheviks or Maoists. Longenecker suggests that Sanders may be the right kind of socialist, and that his candidacy might in that sense be seen as a healthy check on capitalist excess.

Intuitively, this idea has obvious appeal. Socialism is bad insofar as the state uses our resources for bad ends. What if the state appropriated resources for good ends? Mightn’t that be an eligible alternative to unfettered capitalism or materialistic socialism? America has in recent decades witnessed a growing wealth gap, along with increasing economic instability in the middle class. This has obviously contributed to the popularity of populists like Sanders and Trump, who promise to improve middle-class prospects while taking corrupt elites to task.

“Unfettered capitalism” is a myth; it does not exist anywhere on earth. Instead of railing against money-makers, we ought to focus our outrage on those who distort the market through cronyism (politicians and businessmen making private deals that are good for them but bad for the public), and through “too big to fail” bailouts that enable some (like Trump) to collect on their entrepreneurial successes and pass the failures on to taxpayers. This, however, is not the kind of problem that can be fixed with any form of “socialism.” If we agree that our elite classes are frequently misusing their resources, how can it be sensible to give them even more? Any form of socialism will involve submitting to a higher level of bureaucratic control than what we presently have, and it should be painfully obvious at this point that this cannot be good news for Catholics.

On an academic level, it is interesting to speculate on the extent to which aggressive state control can, in principle, be compatible with our faith. The European labor parties of the nineteenth century sought to address the concerns of working people (poor workplace conditions and economic instability) in a way that was respectful of life and the natural family. It’s understandable that Catholics were attracted to these movements.

What figure in today’s Democratic party is even pretending to be respectful of life, natural family, or the freedom of the Church? Who among ranking Democrats even claims that he would use our resources in ways that are consistent with the natural law? An expansion of state power might be positive in a scenario in which a prudent and well-regulated government sought to check the excesses of a lawless private sector. The world today does not even begin to resemble that scenario. Our government is neither prudent nor well regulated, and its aggression towards the Church has grown more and more overt in recent years.

If the nation were to elect a President Sanders, we can predict with confidence that he would seek to replace Antonin Scalia (and any other Supreme Court vacancies that might open) with staunchly pro-abortion justices who almost certainly would not respect either the Church or the natural family. He would raise taxes on the middle class in hopes of funding massive new programs that harmonize with his progressive agenda.

Even if some of these (for instance, free college education) seem initially agreeable to Catholics, does it seem at all likely that the Sanders Administration would design them in a way that Catholics would approve of? Many Catholics spent years calling for nationalized health care, and realized only too late that secular liberals cannot be trusted to manage our resources in responsible and ethical ways. It’s distressing to see that so many have failed to learn from this experience, even as the Little Sisters of the Poor are bravely fighting the contraception mandate.

Given the turbulent state of our politics, it’s easy to understand why some Catholics are desperately searching for new voting options. They don’t trust the Republican Party to protect their interests, but they cannot stomach the thought of voting for Hillary Clinton. Sanders (somewhat ironically, given his age) seems fresh, simply because he is neither Republican nor Clintonian. This is all very understandable, but Catholics need to realize that authoritarian state solutions cannot be the answer to our problems. The modern state’s hostility to their faith runs deep. Our government simply cannot be trusted to exercise high-level control over daily life in a way that respects our beliefs. Subsidiarity and restraint are our best chance at a better future for American Catholics.

Time to extinguish the flame, Sanders supporters. The options may seem grim, but Bernie is not our man.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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