A Catholic Agenda for 1992: Message to Both Parties

The Catholic Church teaches that we, as citizens, share responsibility for the political order. As the parties gear up for the 1992 local and national campaigns, they are calculating how to win by building majorities. Catholic citizens will find no better occasion to assert their political principles and to insist that the parties respect their positions. On many of the great political issues, Catholics will divide as the population in general divides. On some issues, however, one might expect Catholics to stand preponderantly together—not because they are coerced by a hidden force, but because to do so is a logical expression of basic convictions and common interests.

Looking to the campaigns of 1992, for example, simple logic would suggest that Catholics should be saying to both parties and all candidates, at national, state, and local levels: we expect restrictions on abortion on demand, and we expect expansion of parental freedom in education. These are both “Catholic issues” in the sense that they should be of special interest to most reasonable Catholics, just as policy toward Israel concerns most Jews, or civil rights concern most blacks. If Catholics stood together on these two vital topics and enlisted their many natural allies, the parties’ own self-interests would produce policy far more enlightened, and far more compatible to Catholics, than we have seen up to now.

Politics and religion naturally intersect because politics involves choices that shape the human condition, and religions have views about what that human condition should be. The law exists to establish a framework within which society’s members conduct their affairs. But what the framework will be, and what policies will guide it, are the business of political decision-making. How to protect society internally and externally, how to enable reasonable satisfaction of economic needs, how to provide for education for the person and for society’s sake—all such issues involve choosing among competing proposals.

The Catholic faith is not a legislative manual nor a partisan prescription, but its Gospel, and its consistent teaching of that Good News, have much to say to the faithful about the questions politics must answer. That teaching makes clear, for example, that we have responsibility for the welfare of others, to be Good Samaritans. In biblical times, one may have fulfilled one’s social obligations without ever a political thought, for the effect of most persons’ actions was limited to those nearby. But today our actions can affect our brothers throughout our nation and, indeed, all around the globe, and our responsibilities have expanded accordingly. The transition from authoritarian politics to democratic politics means that we—not some remote and non-responsible despot, but a self-governing people—have the final authority to decide state action.

Taking the Faith Seriously

When we acknowledge our responsibilities as citizens, we must next ask what principles we want to have reflected in political action. If we take our Catholic faith seriously, it will be a primary source of those principles. And in the democratic age, that is how religion rightly enters into politics: in the heart and mind of the believer-as-citizen, translating religious principle into political priority. In this he is like any citizen acting on any principle drawn from any source.

Despite the obvious truth that Catholics are full-fledged citizens and need apologize to no one, the political landscape is strewn with Catholic politicians who disavow the pertinence of their faith to their politics. Instead of saying simply, “I privatize my faith and will not manifest it in any public action” (which would deny the integrity of faith but at least be straightforward) or saying flatly, “I reject my Church’s teaching,” today’s disavowers prefer smoke screens. “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my views on others” is the most notorious such dodge.

It is a dodge because, though logically absurd, it is superficially appealing. It is appealing, especially to the mass media, because it seems so tolerant, so decent. But that it is also irrational is obvious. First, politics are always someone’s “views,” someone’s picture of right action. If I am a politician, presumably my “views” are precisely what I hope to see enacted into policy. Second, when policies are enacted through democratic deliberation and adopted by legitimate authority, they are not “imposed” in some arbitrary sense. “Personally opposed but will not impose,” then, is an illogical response to democratic reality, a voluntary abandonment of principle.

Moreover, such a claim totally misrepresents the legitimate expectations of democratic politics. It wrongly pretends that social pluralism demands personal relativism, and tolerance demands self-destruction. It is as nonsensical as its companion smoke screen: “You can’t legislate morality.” What else is there to legislate? All policy choosing is moral choosing and reflects alternate views of human welfare.

When Catholic politicians assert “Personally opposed” or “Can’t legislate morality,” what they are doing is giving in to anti-Catholicism by making their Catholic beliefs irrelevant or unfit for public advocacy. Imagine the legitimate furor if black politicians, for instance, announced they were personally opposed to segregated state schools but nonetheless refused to work to change any such immoral law.

The Catholic faith, like other religious faiths and philosophical systems, teaches various principles of human behavior. For political purposes these principles encourage a disposition to help those in need and to seek social arrangements which assure fairness in human relations. Determining what such broad principles and dispositions will mean in each particular application is the work of prudence, and in the political order prudence develops through inter-party argument and the legislative process.

It is natural in such processes to accommodate diverse positions as part of the settling of complicated issues. In other words, prudence sometimes dictates that we accept half a loaf when no loaf at all is the only alternative. That is often the price the political system insists on as it strives to provide for the general welfare, a price well worth paying for democracy.

But accepting compromise to achieve half a loaf today does not require compromising one’s own principles, nor imagining that half a loaf is as good as the whole. Those are the temptations constantly dangled before Catholics and other principled citizens. There is nothing in democratic theory nor enlightened practice which makes such self-compromise necessary or advisable. Indeed, people with serious convictions who muzzle themselves can rightly be accused of betraying democracy, for democracy presupposes that committed citizens will strive to win others over by compelling argument, and that the whole of society will benefit from such dialogue.

There is no Christian or democratic warrant to abuse, intimidate, or manipulate others. But there are both Christian and democratic imperatives to argue well and strongly; to invite the widest possible agreement with what you believe to be true; and if accepting a policy compromise today, to assert at the same time that your principles are intact and that tomorrow you will pursue a more perfect policy.

Two Catholic Issues

Catholics naturally differ on many issues. Catholic tradition and teaching, as noted, does not often point to specific prudential solutions for complicated social issues. Still, American Catholics have a long and bountiful tradition of Catholic parents working with the Church to create and sustain schools that reflect the parents’ faith, and then to offer those schools to their children. Nothing could be more natural. Nothing could be more natural in politics, either, than for Catholics to want educational financing policies that permit such schools without penalty. This is a “Catholic issue,” then, not because of Church dictate, and not because it is exclusive to Catholics, but because most Catholics are convinced of the desirability of such a social posture. That is all the warrant we need to ask for educational freedom and justice. Of course, there remain many other groups beside Catholics who also desire greater choice in education: evangelical Protestants and poor black families facing barbaric inner-city schools, to name but two. Their common interest proves that Catholic support for educational choice is anything but parochial.

The desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, restrict abortion on demand, and achieve greater protection for unborn life is also a “Catholic issue”— and again, not because the hierarchy pronounces on it and certainly not because only Catholics want it. It is a “Catholic issue” in the sense that the basic value of unborn life is universally affirmed by Church teaching, and Catholics preponderantly remain convinced that unborn life deserves legal protection. That conviction is a sufficient ground for rejecting the nonsense suggestion that the argument is over “choice” or “control over one’s body.” It ceases to be that unilateral when the new human life begins. This essential Catholic conviction quite naturally produces a companion political conviction: regulation of abortion cannot proceed as if only the mother’s interests are at stake. The case for Roe and unrestricted abortion collapses before such a conviction. Catholics have every right to insist that political aspirants explain how they will help lead us out of the Roe wilderness. Again, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, self-declared atheists like Nat Hentoff also share this non-parochial goal.

There are relatively few truly Catholic political positions, for Catholic principles do not insist on many specific applications. But when a Church teaching is rigorous, evident, and consistent; and when that teaching clearly suggests a specific action is either prohibited or strongly recommended; then it is logical to expect Catholics freely but widely to share a political position. As we approach the campaign season, as the parties strive to build majorities that will enable them to govern, it is the perfect time for Catholic-as-citizens to tell both parties: Free Parents to Educate! Bring Society’s Protection to Unborn Life!


  • Quentin L. Quade

    Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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