Complicating the Simple: Catholic Religion and Democratic Politics Part II

It is not analytically difficult to see how Catholic religion I should influence democratic politics, as was shown in part one of this essay (Catholicism in Crisis, June 1985). But the task has become historically complex inasmuch as crucial distinctions have been blurred. To restore some clarity, we need to remind ourselves of certain basic political realities and crucial contextual changes that occur when politics becomes democratic. Next, we need to identify those aspects of Christian revelation which especially speak to politics. With these pieces in place, it is a simple matter to see the natural nexus of religion and politics.

Seeing the analytic ease of this relationship, one may wonder how it has become so complicated. To chart a molehill’s path to becoming a mountain, part two will examine several cases of confusing practice which have befogged good theory.

Analytic Molehill, Historical Mountain

How did something so simple become so complicated over the last few years? So confused, noisy, and eye-catching to the press? In large part, I suspect, it is because many people involved with the issue—politicians, churchmen, press representatives—did not love the truth enough to sacrifice for it. I am not talking about lying, or being consciously dishonest. I am talking about wanting things—political success or notoriety, snappy headlines and lead paragraphs, social acclaim, one’s own view of God’s plan—more than one wanted the truth of religion’s restrained political role, so that crucial distinctions fell victim to euphemisms, straw men, red herrings, and plain loose language. A rather common human story, which I will illustrate.

Abusing “God’s Law”

To say we must follow “God’s Law” is the beginning, not the end, of moral, analysis. It is the paramount, the obvious, and the almost always insufficient.

If I say Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is “higher” than a fifth of Beefeater’s gin and the Beefeater’s must stand aside in favor of the Beethoven, a listener may well respond that that is a very eccentric thing to say, since the two matters are not comparable and do not conflict in any normal sense. If I say, on the other hand, that Milwaukee is a subordinate creature of Wisconsin and, therefore, Wisconsin’s law on traffic speed is higher than Milwaukee’s, and that if they conflict Milwaukee’s law is invalidated, the same listener will agree, noting that my comment is a logically complete thing to say since it refers to truly comparable things — man-made laws; the laws are devoted to the same subject matter and have a real potential for overlap and conflict; and there is a clear superior-subordinate relationship between the two lawgivers, and accepted processes for settling disputes.

But what of this: “They let the Immigration and Naturalization Service know they were defying U.S. Law in recognition of a higher authority — God’s law.” (Documentation on Sanctuary approvingly attached to the Milwaukee Priest Senate Collegium, March, 1983.) If I say God’s law is higher than man’s law, and that in this instance — immigration laws, abortion clinics, nuclear warheads, taxes for defense, mandatory vaccination for my child, or whatever — I must break man’s law in favor of God’s, I am only pretending the same logical completeness as exists in the Wisconsin-Milwaukee example. What I am saying in fact is a kind of nonsense. As with Beethoven and Beefeater’s I have not established the logical framework which would make a comparison meaningful; I have not established the direct conflict that would force one value to stand down in favor of the other; and I have not identified an accepted process for settling tensions.

Yet in our day the press routinely reports assertions by various persons and groups that, seeing “God’s law” as they do; and seeing a conflict between it and man-made law as they do; and knowing God’s priorities take precedence; naturally, they must follow God’s law and set aside man’s, the laws of civil society. And what is most troubling, many of these people think and say that the rest of society should tolerate or even praise them and government should not prosecute. Civil disobedience is a well understood tradition, and easy to respect in its traditional forms. As noted, I am with Abraham: if God speaks, listen; if He commands, do. But if His revelation is private, just heard by me, I have no right to expect others to follow or tolerate the action I take. That is why the tradition of civil disobedience calls for a willingness to accept civil society’s reactions and punishments. Absent that willingness, the claim to be answering a higher law is simply anarchistic from society’s perspective. And that, I judge, characterizes many of today’s religious spokesmen.

Thus, e.g., the Wisconsin Dean of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, criticizing the government for arresting various law-breaking sanctuary workers, said “We counter the charge . . . that we consider ourselves above the law. To the contrary we hold the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service by its current implementation of the law is the party that is acting above the law of the land.” (Milwaukee Journal, January 25, 1985.) One of the nuns indicted in Arizona on the same issue opined, “If the government can tell us as religious people what we can and can’t do, then we have lost our consciences….” (Milwaukee Journal, January 17, 1985.) What is government to do? Why does one’s religious motives set one apart? Of course, one might expect such self-interested justification from one of the accused, but what about the General Secretary of the USCC, an official Church representative? Commenting on the government’s efforts to stop illegal sanctuary activities, he “…said the workers’ actions were based on ‘humanitarian concerns’ and deplored U.S. policies that ‘entangle people of good will in criminal prosecutions.’ ” (Milwaukee Sentinel, January 26, 1985, and National Catholic Register, February 10, 1985.) In other words, humanitarian concerns and good will should, for some reason, hold the criminal law-breaker harmless from civil response.

Balderdash and hokum—and obvious balderdash and hokum, at that, too little exposed for the pious utopianism it is, perhaps out of some vestigial respect for the cloth often worn by perpetrators. Or perhaps too little exposed because the press which reports such stuff can, receive vicarious anti-establishment thrills or, more likely, because it sells newspapers. Whatever the reasons, exposed it needs to be. At root, the use of “God’s law” as a direct invalidating instrument against the duly constructed laws of civil society is simply an effort to achieve political ends by religious manipulation and logical legerdemain.

Those blessed few on this planet who have the chance to live in democracies, while still expected to obey the law for all the usual reasons, have the advantage of peaceful, visible, regular methods for changing the laws if they do not like them. Any prudent witness acknowledges that the capacity for peaceful change heightens one’s obligation to obey the law and tend the social fabric. He recognizes it is fair and just to follow the law until changed. Those who violate it are called cheats and criminals. “God’s law” does nothing to change this moral condition. It truly refers only to that part of His intent for man which can be known by believers. We know what we know basically through scriptural texts, and long-standing and, one therefore hopes, authoritative teaching out of Christian tradition. What we know in this way is general, not specific. It sets norms and principles. It tells us not many things but titanic ones, and asks that we adopt them, reflect on them, and live them out in all our ineptness. Least of the things it asks or authorizes is any triumphalist proclamation of self as God’s agent. Least of all does it relieve any of us of the need to argue, convince, persuade, and change voluntarily, through normal political dialectic, opposed views of equally valuable and equally free people; to bow if unsuccessful; and to accept the consequences peacefully if bowing is impossible. That is a reasonable political application of the second most titanic of the instructions God gave us.

Yet, around the country, Church representatives today are inviting believers to imagine that the Gospel is a direct political source which, read correctly, invalidates nuclear warheads, trains that carry them, immigration laws, tax policies, and a host of other particulars. The Gospel, thus used, is a device for confusion about politics and religion.

Campaign as Complication

Last year’s electoral campaign reflected and contributed to the religion-politics confusion. There is a massive irony in this illustration, wherein various Catholic politicians exploited remnant Church pretensions to political authority to get themselves out of what they took to be a predicament, namely: how to avoid direct repudiation of Church teaching and at the same time sustain their elective abortion constituencies and, I do not doubt, their elective abortion principles.

Religious values are as free to enter the political arena as any others, as already seen. Residing in the citizen’s breast, they have full political legitimacy, and to the extent they can be efficaciously argued they will have efficacy, too. But if you substitute the word “church” for “religious value,” suddenly sparks are flying in all directions. If the formal Church attempts to be directly a political actor, church-state alarm bells will go off all over the place—and spurious arguments will flourish.

Clearly, in 1960, John F. Kennedy judged that dispelling fears over such direct Church intervention was his primary problem. Such fears were real, even though the reasons for them were illusory. He chose to meet the problem essentially by disintegrating his value structure. While showing he was no slave to the Roman Church, he basically divorced himself from overtly Catholic values and in so doing he set the stage for the various logical travesties of the 1984 campaign. I will focus on Mrs. Ferraro and Mr. Cuomo’s treatment of abortion as public policy. Their approaches differed ‘in various ways, but in one crucial respect converged: they both uttered repeated non sequiturs at the very heart of their statements. A non sequitur may be a true statement, of course, and even a virtuous one. It simply does not follow from what preceded it, and unless identified and corrected, results in an unannounced shift in a discussion, a kind of tangent, though their tangents were glaring, the press for the most part neither identified nor corrected them.

The public policy issue posed by abortion in the United States is relatively clear cut: should abortion on demand be recognized as a right and, as a recognized right, be supported by governmental agencies? Prior to the Supreme court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, the question was much the same, but the states were accepted as the appropriate arena for answering the question, and the nearly uniform answer was: no, abortion on demand is not a right. Abortion typically was not authorized unless the mother’s life was threatened by the pregnancy. (Abortion was still rampant, of course, though less so than today. Too often, it seems to me, anti-abortion spokesmen sound as if abortion began with Roe vs. Wade, and sound as if the basic problem is the law’s change. That was a monstrous change, in my view, but it is not the basic problem. That distinction is reserved, as it has always been reserved, for the willingness of the pregnant to so disvalue the unborn as to see her own convenience as sufficient cause to kill that unborn.)

The Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade claimed to find a right to elective abortion in a constitution which had hidden it for nearly two centuries. Having “found” this right—i.e., having decided it was good public policy—the non-responsible, non-majoritarian Supreme Court understandably said no state could rule against it. Suddenly, by the arbitrary stroke of a judicial pen, the whole public policy environment was changed.

But the political question has not changed: should abortion on demand be public policy? And, if you think it should not, are you prepared to take appropriate political action to remove elective abortion as public policy? Please note: that is an entirely ordinary way to cast a political topic. One would cast any political topic the same way: should there be a food stamp program? Are you prepared to work politically for (or against) such a program? MX missile deployment? Interstate highways? And so on, infinitely.

To the question, “should there be abortion on demand and are you prepared for political action if you oppose it?” Mrs. Ferraro answered with a non sequitur: in fidelity with her religious beliefs, she was “personally” opposed to abortion, but she would not impose those personal religious views on others. Why must this be called a profound irrelevancy? If Mrs. Ferraro opposed a public policy which permits abortion on demand, her opposition was neither personal nor religious. As a citizen and as an elected official (at the time), she was hip deep in the political arena, and her views once submitted for scrutiny were as legitimate politically as those of any other person. The source of such views is not politically pertinent. Citizens are free, as elected officials are free and obliged, to bring forth their views and values, to insert them in the public debate, to seek support for them and, if support comes forth, to implement them as public policy. All policy originates as someone’s “personal” want, but if the democratic mechanism is operating correctly there is no chance for “imposition of personal views,” for the value will not be implemented as personal but as the chosen action, the political will, of the political process.

To act as if religiously-derived values are politically inferior to values derived from cultural tradition, or philosophy, or historical accident, is to destroy any notion of religious integrity and make oneself a slave to the surrounding cultural dictates. In a free society, we are precisely free to put forth our convictions, whatever their roots, and invite political support for those convictions. At that moment, I am not threatening to “impose my religious views” on others, as both Mr. Cuomo and Mrs. Ferraro suggest. Rather, I am acknowledging the integrity of those others by inviting them freely to coalesce with me in pursuit of a political objective.

If Mrs. Ferraro opposed elective abortion as public policy, why did she not simply say so? And, if she opposed it, why did she not simply say “I will work to stop elective abortion as public policy?” “I will not impose . . .” is just an irrelevancy when one understands what the public policy question is. And Mr. Cuomo added to the irrelevance when he said he was personally against abortion, but “I am sworn to carry out the law.” A true statement, even a virtuous one—but not pertinent if the question is “Are you opposed to elective abortion as public policy, and will you work politically to overcome it?” Obviously, he could at one and the same time uphold the law and seek to change it.

“I am sworn to carry out the law” and “I will not impose my personal religious views on others” answer different questions. The first answers the question “As Governor of New York, are you sworn…?” The second answers the question “As an elected official, would you arbitrarily and outside democratic procedures impose your religious views on unsuspecting citizens?” When the Ferraro-Cuomo answers are used in response to “Do you oppose elective abortion as public policy and will you work politically to overcome it?” they are only non sequiturs. and smokescreens. Because they were not quickly and clearly identified and corrected, they did in fact give rise to much confusion over religion’s role in democratic politics, and the smoke has not yet cleared.

The Nuclear Maze

The largest recent source of misunderstanding about religion and democratic politics, in my view, is also the last illustration I will offer. It is that series of events swirling around the American bishops’ nuclear pastoral. For those who may want to examine the key documents, I would point especially to three: first, the second draft of the pastoral, reprinted in Origins, October 28, 1982; second, the April 7, 1983, Origins, which contains three documents devoted to a January 18-19, 1983, Roman meeting between an American delegation representing the bishops (Roach, Bernardin, Hoye, Hehir) and a group of European bishops and Vatican officials, including Cardinals Ratzinger and Casaroli; third, the final draft of the nuclear pastoral, published in Origins. May 19, 1983. Though the Americans do not acknowledge having been taken to the woodshed, and the Europeans do not acknowledge taking them, I think of the Roman meeting as the Roman Woodshed, and the final version of the nuclear pastoral as Son of the Roman Woodshed, for reasons I will make clear.

The second draft of the nuclear pastoral exhibited many crucial misunderstandings about religion’s capacity to speak intelligibly to democratic politics. (See, e.g., my “Magisterium as Temptation,” Catholicism in Crisis, February, 1983.) I believe it greatly complicated subsequent national discussion, by introducing categories which invite truly romantic and excessive speculations and by inducing a clear repudiation which, because it was not acknowledged as such but still had to be accommodated, produced an outpouring of euphemistic commentary and unannounced change, both of which inevitably feed misunderstandings.

The second draft dealt with very particular and substantive issues of nuclear strategy and tactics. Repeatedly, it went beyond discussion of Catholic principles about warfare to the very practical choices involved in policy-making, the kinds of choices where people of equally good will divide. Whether its authors and signers had any special competence in this regard is not the issue here. The issue is that whatever competence they might have brought to bear on the details of this subject did not flow from their religious authority, did not inhere in the sacred responsibilities which were theirs. Accordingly, their movement from principle to practice, if it was not to offend the trust relationship between themselves and their flocks, called for distinctions of authority, and distinctions on the question of for whom they were speaking: themselves, as just another pressure group with a point to make? The Catholic community? These distinctions were blurred, studiously. Indeed, the obligation to distinguish was directly rejected by many supporters of the draft, who wanted it adopted exactly as it stood, and who preferred to ignore the methodological questions and caveats, prophecy-inhibiting as they were.

The second draft exhibited other traits which have helped make rational discourse difficult. For example, it made no real effort to state the degree of value placed on the preservation of democracy; yet nuclear deterrence—indeed, any form of deterrence—cannot be assessed in any proportionate way if one does not begin with an evaluation of the thing to be protected. In that connection, the premise of much of the second draft’s attitude toward deterrence policy seemed to be that life itself, life in an essentially biological sense, rather than life with virtue, was the thing essentially at stake.

This practical ignoring of the implications of democracy had its clearest witness in a prevailing tone of the document: the aspiring prophetic voice railing against a remote, non-responsible regime—”rulers” as the document at one point inaptly quotes John Paul II—when in fact there is no such regime. Unless one has succumbed to some economic determinism whereby the government is only a misleading representation, one sees that there is no abstract and removed “ruler” against which to rail, but only a very concrete, very proximate, and very human government, itself representing the actual authority of the democratic masses. The straw man of the remote regime produces two substantial effects: first, the prophetic critic can avoid direct criticism of the people, and pretend to be in some sense their spokesman even while repudiating their values; second, the prophet can also avoid the crimping reality that in democracy there are routinely both governments and oppositions and that the political process itself provides ample opportunity to speak one’s piece within the regular dialogue, trying to convince and win over the minds and votes within earshot.

Thus, the nuclear second draft, carried to unprecedented publicity heights by a press which found its explicit and implicit critique of Reagan policies fascinating and very good copy, really violated the central understandings of religious competence in politics, both as to matters of substance and matters of authority and line-drawing. Many of us began immediately to point out such problems, and to entreat the bishops to expunge the excesses before moving to the final draft, and especially, to introduce clear and powerful distinctions between levels of religious authority as the pastoral moved from general Christian admonitions to very specific policy advisements—if, indeed, they wanted to engage in such specifics at all. But it was clear in November and December, 1982, that such entreaties were falling on deaf ears. The Chairman of the Committee which produced the pastoral expected and wanted no substantial changes, and others among its supporters were very content with it.

Cautions and criticisms as to formal Church competence and ability to speak for Catholics were met by a variety of straw man responses, such as:

1. “We are not stupid”—which refers only to personal intelligence competence, presumably no worse than others, but does not touch in any way the questions raised about religious authority, transfer thereof, and for whom they are speaking.

2. “We have the same rights as anyone else”—which establishes any citizen’s capacity but does not answer the question of religious and Church competence or the prudence of the acts in question.

3. “The Church must intervene because preaching principles has not led Catholics to appropriate action”—which fails because there has been precious little powerful, sustained exegesis and principled preaching of social values in the American Church, and even had there been its inefficacy would not authorize Church as Church to cross the lines noted in this paper.

The Roman Woodshed

But if the bishops would not be moved by their fellow citizens and flock, they would be moved by the folks in Rome at the January meeting. What did they hear? They heard that “the pastoral must be read with the understanding that there are different levels of moral teaching in the letter, something that will have to be stated more explicitly in the next draft.” Also, “It was the consensus of the meeting… that the pastoral letter in its present draft makes it nearly impossible for the reader to make the necessary distinctions between the different levels of authority that are intertwined.” They heard that “When differing choices are equally justifiable, bishops should not take sides. Rather, they should offer several options or express themselves hypothetically.” Also, that the draft pastoral was ambiguous when it referred to “…pluralism of opinions on the matters touched upon in the pastoral and at the same time urge[s] substantial consensus. Substantial consensus must be based on doctrine and does not flow from debate.” Bishops’ teaching, they were told, “…should not be obscured or reduced to one element among several in a free debate.” (Orgins, April 7, 1983, pp. 692-4.) The last points affirm the “north star” notion, that hierarchical teaching should concentrate on reaffirming central and general principles close to the core of faith.

The message was very clear, it was spoken authoritatively, and it was heard. Those who received it told their fellow bishops they had received “…very helpful perspectives which we would not have had otherwise.” (Ibid., pp. 690-1, emphasis added.) The meeting “…provided a frame of reference and useful guidelines,” and “Perhaps the crucial point of the exchanges we have described has been to focus attention on the need to distinguish clearly between moral principles and their application to concrete realities…. This is necessary to avoid attaching or seeming to attach an unwarranted level of authority to prudential, contingent judgments….” (Ibid., p. 691.)

The final version of the nuclear pastoral, accordingly, is essentially different from draft two on matters of moral method and Church authority, in speaking to politics. The Son of the Roman Woodshed is not a useful document as I see the world, but its largest sins were erased. The Roman lessons were learned, and they carried over as one can see from reading the first draft of the economic pastoral (Origins, November 15, 1984). It is a kind of swollen, left-of-center compilation of basically political recommendations, and suffers drastically by comparison with the brief and powerful statement of economic principles in Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World, 463-72. But it has been spared the over-extension of authority in the second draft of the nuclear pastoral. This is especially significant in view of the fact that the Chairman of the drafting committee had wanted no toning down of the nuclear piece, for fear that it might lose some of its “fire.” Now we read “In addition, we recognize that disagreements will continue about what economic policies and institutional arrangements will be most conducive to the protection of the economic rights of all. Serious dialogue on which policies to pursue is of great importance, and there is certainly room for pluralism within the Church on these matters” (#87). The Director of the Office of Social Development at the USCC “…pointed out that the bishops want to give people an example of applying principles and hope that others will do the same….” (Our Sunday Visitor, March 10, 1985, p. 4, emphasis added.)

But even though the theoretical issues have been confronted and some semblance of reason restored, the issues have hardly been resolved definitely. There remain very strong urges in many religious breasts to break out of the limits which understanding politics and religion sets. What is at risk? The political order is not the endangered species here, I think. It will discipline religious voices as well or badly as it disciplines others. The real danger is to the faith community, which will not be manipulated, will not avoid division if its Church becomes divisive within itself, and is already making crystal clear its unwillingness to follow when it thinks Church leadership is not credible. Even if the Church leadership has pulled back a good distance after Rome, it did not clearly acknowledge the degree of change mandated by Rome and common sense. As a result, many of the seeds of over-extended authority planted before the Roman meetings continue to bear unhappy fruit.


The authority claimed by the formal Catholic Church and acknowledged by Catholics inclines the Catholic to place trust in Church representatives. That trust also creates duties for those representatives not to exploit the trust in question. For example, parents who send children to Catholic schools have a faith-based reason for doing so, however they may articulate it. Relatedly, they may expect the religious dimension of the education to center around the core of faith understandings, not remote, optional, political interpretations. Such a parent might well feel manipulated and taken advantage of if he were to read the National Catholic Education Association’s Momentum (December, 1984, p. 54), in which a Catholic high school religious studies chairman, describing some model ways to bring “peace and justice” themes indirectly into the classroom, notes that one of the favorite approaches at his school “attempts to make explicit the application of the lessons of history to contemporary issues. American imperialism, slavery and Social Darwinism, for example, can be seen as policies and attitudes which still persist in such forms as economic imperialism, racism, and Reaganomics.” The youngsters may not know exploitation when it befalls them, but moving under a religious banner to that kind of partisan specificity, without marking and announcing each step, seems transparently exploitative to me.

But if youngsters may not be alert to the distinctions, increasing numbers of adults are seeing and objecting to the bad fruit of religious over-extension. I quote, just for example, from a copy of a letter recently sent to a pastor of my acquaintance: “I attended 11:15 Mass. I was shocked and insulted to hear the celebrant discuss partisan politics. Not only did he give his personal political views, but advised those in attendance to write to their congressmen and state legislators, giving his opinions.” That person did not react passively, nor have many others confronted with similar efforts to transform a worshipping group, people come together for what they took to be a sacred purpose, into a partial, divisive, political action body—just another pressure group, without even ties of accountability to its constituents. In a free society, even an authoritative church must act reasonably toward its members.

The risks of manipulation and of rebellion are real. So is the risk that unnecessary divisiveness on peripheral and particular issues will contribute to a general incredibility of Church teaching authority and a general “pick and choose” approach to such teaching. Two other facts compound the unhappy reality. First, whatever actual good can be achieved by social gospel emphasis can be achieved by non-exploitative means. Such can be achieved by the hard work of rigorous exegesis pointing to social responsibility, without confusing that general responsibility with the particular choices which must finally be made. That the logic of social responsibility must finally result in particular choices can itself be shown clearly by such devices as dialectical homilies and forums which do not commit the unifying Church to divisive choice-making. Another fact is that the powerful and humane leaven which could be brought to American politics by an alerted and energized Christian citizenry will not be brought if they are misled by religious leadership, and the political community’s attention to the common good will be the poorer for that.

If the hierarchical Church is to fulfill the responsibilities Christian religion has for social betterment, it can only do it by first being humble enough to recognize that it will, in this facet of its existence, be essentially dependent on the believers as citizens. As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: “Of course the Church ‘should do this, should do the other.’ She ‘should do’ everything and much more than she is ever capable of doing. But should not the words ‘the Church should do this’ mean ‘I should do it?’ ” (“Why I Am a Catholic,” reprinted in Catholic Mind, September, 1972, p. 18.) Rome of the last century has understood this. Pope John Paul II understands and preaches it constantly. Who knows, the truth of it and its implications may one day dawn even on the USCC.


  • 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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