From First Things:
This just in: It turns out that the problem with America’s Catholic bishops is that they’re not Protestants.
Or so we can reasonably surmise from Amy Sullivan’s recent Time/CNN commentary on the plight of Catholic Democrats, titled “Does [Sen. Joseph] Biden have a Catholic problem?” Raised a Baptist, Sullivan is now a Time magazine senior editor and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why the Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner). She suggested in her September 13 column that, this year, Sen. Biden faces the same rough treatment Catholic Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry allegedly got in 2004 because of his support for abortion rights. The ringleader of the Catholic doctrine posse, in Sullivan’s view, is Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of “a handful of the most extreme bishops” who had “targeted Kerry in 2004 but [had] become marginalized in the bishops’ conference—losing key leadership elections–in part because of his extreme views about denying Communion to politicians.”
Sullivan went on to suggest that Chaput is using a double standard in the 2008 election by criticizing Catholic supporters of Barack Obama, while turning a blind eye to John McCain’s support for embryonic stem cell research.
More on that in a moment. First, some background.
On September 7, in a display of bad logic, bad theology, and bad science rivaled only by Catholic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi two weeks earlier on the same show, Sen. Biden told an NBC Meet the Press audience that the question of when life begins is a personal and private issue. Then he said he accepted “on faith” that life begins at conception. But then he said that he supported a woman’s right to choose to terminate that unborn life anyway.
In other words, yes, the Delaware senator agreed that an unborn baby is alive, but he also said, in effect, that it’s acceptable for someone else to choose to kill it. Then, while ignoring the hard biological evidence that life begins at conception and that religious opinion has nothing to do with it, Sen. Biden incoherently referenced Thomas Aquinas to shore up his argument.
Nobody tricked or forced him into saying these muddled things. They just popped out of his mouth naturally. In fact, this divorce of private belief from public action isn’t new to American Catholic politicians. It’s been going on for decades. John F. Kennedy created the model. Mario Cuomo sanctified it in his famous 1984 remarks at Notre Dame.
What made Biden’s latest version of this same old melody so provocative, though, was this: He was running for national office and speaking to a national audience. As a practicing, self-described Catholic, he was defending an abortion policy gravely incompatible with Catholic faith. And he was talking—inadvertently but directly—to Catholic viewers in every local diocese in the country. That’s called scandal; in other words, the act of leading others into error or sin. And this time, unlike in the past, some local bishops, including representatives of the national bishops’ conference, had had enough. More than a dozen publicly challenged and corrected him.
Back when Americans still knew history, most Catholics had a sense of what the Reformation was about. Most knew that Protestant and Catholic ideas about the nature of the “Church” can differ sharply, and why. For Catholics, faith is not simply an individual experience. It’s also communitarian; the community of faith we call “the Church,” like a family, is organized by a variety of tasks and a hierarchy of responsibility.
Being Catholic demands more than tribal loyalty or nostalgic memories. It’s not a matter of sentiment. It’s a matter of creed and behavior, here and now. The problem that bishops have with a Catholic official like John Kerry or Rudy Giuliani or Joseph Biden or Nancy Pelosi is not his or her personal sincerity or professional skill. These are above question. The problem comes when these public leaders freelance what they claim Catholics can believe and do, while also claiming to be really Catholic.
For Catholics, individual conscience is sacred. But it doesn’t have absolute sovereignty over reality, and it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Conscience must be formed by the truth, which we learn through the counsel and teaching of the Church. If Catholics reject what the Church teaches on a serious matter, they break unity with the community of believers. And if they break that unity and then present themselves for Communion anyway, they act dishonestly. They violate their own integrity and—even more importantly—they abuse the rights and the faith of other Catholics. Bishops have a serious duty to correct that.
Coming from a Baptist tradition with a less robust sense of Church, Sullivan might be forgiven for confusing this. But she does have an obligation to notice that Catholics are something more than Protestants who go to Mass.
Which brings us back to that seeming ringleader of the doctrine posse, Archbishop Charles Chaput. The archbishop stands accused of the “extreme” view that public leaders who claim to be Catholic should actually behave that way on important issues. It’s a bit like the similarly extreme view that people who claim to be married should act accordingly; otherwise, they’re lying.
Sullivan suggests that Archbishop Chaput has played hardball with Catholics for Barack Obama while giving Catholics for McCain a free pass. McCain, as mentioned earlier, has backed embryonic stem cell research in the past. But the actual transcript of the Chaput remarks in the Religious News Service interview she references in her column does not support her view that the archbishop switched gears and avoided holding McCain accountable on the stem cell issue. In fact, the archbishop has voiced his criticism of embryonic stem cell research directly to Sen. McCain. He’s had no similar invitation or opportunity to meet with Sen. Obama. Moreover, the Republican Party platform rejects embryonic stem cell research. In fact, anyone interested in the contrasts between the two party platforms on this and related life issues simply needs to compare them.
My comments here should not be misrepresented as supporting one political party over the other. As the U.S. bishops, including the archbishop of Denver, have said many times, both major political parties have many good Catholics as members, both have important strengths, and neither fully represents a Catholic approach to public policy. Catholics need to decide for themselves how to vote this November. Articulate Catholic arguments have been made for both Barack Obama and John McCain. But the challenges facing Catholics for Obama and Catholics for McCain are very different in content when selling their candidates to a Catholic public.
One final note. Every Catholic bishop has the task to pastor and encourage the faithful entrusted to him, to advance the Gospel and to correct error. In that light, Sen. Joseph Biden and like-minded Catholic politicians have nobody to blame but themselves for any problem they face during this campaign with local bishops. And for the record, the archbishop of Denver has never threatened any public official with the denial of Communion—including Sen. John Kerry.
In the future, Ms. Sullivan should get her facts straight. If she wants to know what Denver’s archbishop really thinks, and not what she thinks he thinks, she can start by reading Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday). She might learn something. That’s why he wrote it.
Francis X. Maier, the father of four, is chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput.
For the last 150 years, most American war presidents — most notably Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt — have entered (or re-entered) office knowing war was looming. Not so George Bush. Not so the war on terror. The 9/11 attacks literally came out of the blue.
Indeed, the three presidential campaigns between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 were the most devoid of foreign policy debate of any in the 20th century. The commander-in-chief question that dominates our campaigns today was almost nowhere in evidence during our ’90s holiday from history.
When I asked President Bush during an interview Monday to reflect on this oddity, he cast himself back to early 2001, recalling what he expected his presidency would be about: education reform, tax cuts and military transformation from a Cold War structure to a more mobile force adapted to smaller-scale 21st-century conflict.
But a wartime president he became. And that is how history will both remember and judge him.
Getting a jump on history, many books have already judged him. The latest by Bob Woodward describes the commander in chief as unusually aloof and detached. A more favorably inclined biographer might have called it equanimity.
In the hour I spent with the president (devoted mostly to foreign policy), that equanimity was everywhere in evidence — not the resignation of a man in the twilight of his presidency but a sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication.
It is precisely that quality that allowed him to order the surge in Iraq in the face of intense opposition from the political establishment (of both parties), the foreign policy establishment (led by the feckless Iraq Study Group), the military establishment (as chronicled by Woodward) and public opinion itself. The surge then effected the most dramatic change in the fortunes of an American war since the summer of 1864.
That kind of resolve requires internal fortitude. Some have argued that too much reliance on this internal compass is what got us into Iraq in the first place. But Bush was hardly alone in that decision. He had a majority of public opinion, the commentariat and Congress with him. In addition, history has not yet rendered its verdict on the Iraq War. We can say that it turned out to be longer and more costly than expected, surely.
But the question remains as to whether the now-likely outcome — transforming a virulently aggressive enemy state in the heart of the Middle East into a strategic ally in the war on terror — was worth it. I suspect the ultimate answer will be far more favorable than it is today.
When I asked the president about his one unambiguous achievement, keeping us safe for seven years — about 6 1/2 years longer than anybody thought possible at the time of 9/11 — he was quick to credit both the soldiers keeping the enemy at bay abroad and the posse of law enforcement and intelligence officials hardening our defenses at home.
But he alluded also to some of the measures he had undertaken, including “listening in on the enemy” and “asking hardened killers about their plans.” The CIA has already told us that interrogation of high-value terrorists like Khalid Sheik Mohammed yielded more valuable intelligence than any other source. In talking about these measures, the president mentioned neither this testimony as to their efficacy nor the campaign of vilification against him that these measures occasioned. More equanimity still.
What the president did note with some pride, however, is that beyond preventing a second attack, he is bequeathing to his successor the kinds of powers and institutions the next president will need to prevent further attack and successfully prosecute the long war. And indeed, he does leave behind a Department of Homeland Security, reorganized intelligence services with newly developed capacities to share information, and a revised FISA regime that grants broader and modernized wiretapping authority.
In this respect, Bush is much like Truman, who developed the sinews of war for a new era (the Department of Defense, the CIA, the NSA), expanded the powers of the presidency, established a new doctrine for active intervention abroad, and ultimately engaged in a war (Korea) — also absent an attack on the U.S. — that proved highly unpopular.
So unpopular that Truman left office disparaged and highly out of favor. History has revised that verdict. I have little doubt that Bush will be the subject of a similar reconsideration.
From First Things:
What is the theological significance of wealth and its production? The debate rages over this issue in American public life today. But the debate is not new. It is quite ancient, and it has only grown in complexity and precision in recent times.
A particularly fruitful period of discourse occurred in antebellum America. Here we had what was probably the freest and most productive economy in the history of the world. It was changing life for millions day by day—with new products, new lines of production, new methods of distribution—all of which had an enormous impact on family life and even the ethical outlook of people.Class roles were shifting constantly, and there emerged a new class of what was then perceived to be something new in history: the very rich who became that way through commerce. America’s pastors and ethical thinkers were challenged to come to terms with the meaning of all this material activity.
To put it in the memorable phrase of Dr. Stewart Davenport’s new study, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: “What did Protestants in America think about capitalism when capitalism was first something to think about?”
Associate professor of history at Pepperdine University, Stewart Davenport tackles the paradox of America’s exuberant spirituality and what he sees as its “gross materialism.” That such a paradox should exist in the Christian is easy to understand once one considers that the Christian ethic itself emerged in the first instance within a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist age. Coming to grips with the temptations and opportunities afforded by a free and prosperous economy would call for some thought.
Two additional questions also present themselves: Which ethic made possible the necessary preconditions of the free economy? Which ethic finds itself more suited for deepening the moral dimension and enriching the conversation among a people formed in such an economic system? These will become critical questions as the world economy continues its inevitable globalization and economic integration.
One unfortunate aspect of Davenport’s generally excellent survey is what appears to be his uncritical acceptances of the Weberian premise that “Protestantism’s unique contribution to this process [of the development of capitalism] was through the doctrine of “calling”, which hallowed the worldly and therefore conventional actions of everyday believers” producing a kind of “worldly asceticism.” This is a conventional mistake that fails to take into account the rather “worldly asceticism” of St. Benedict and the monks, with their charism of ora et labora; the Thomistic idea of grace building on nature; the defense of the merchant by St. Bernardino; or the incredibly prescient thought pouring out of Salamanca in the sixteenth century from writers such as Juan de Mariana. And unless one invents a novel theory to say that St. Josemaría Escrivá’s project of sanctifying the world through one’s mundane occupation (the Opus Dei or Work of God) somehow found its inspiration in the Protestant notion of vocation, I think there is a greater Catholic pedigree to worldly asceticism than is commonly supposed in academe.
But this blemish is understandable in that Davenport is looking at America, and in any case it is a mild blemish in what is an otherwise fine study of the period, providing an accessible catalogue of the various schools of thought, which he divides into three categories, each representative of three main ethical traditions of Western Christianity: Clerical Economists (distinguished by their utilitarianism), Contrarians (by deontology) and the Pastoral Moralists (by virtue ethics). The book offers an overview of these contending approaches, providing along the way a representative selection of the thought and writing of each respective school.
Such forgotten or unknown men as John McVicker, Alonzo Potter, Francis Wayland, and Francis Bowen were among the clerical economists, who were concerned “to explain how God was still part of the developing market economy, and . . . how this developing economy was good for America.” They were defenders of private property, the merchant class, and wealth production generally. They were at home with what later came to be called the American system, and they appreciated its genius. They counseled their flock to be at peace with enterprise, to work hard, to keep contracts, to defend their property, and to create wealth.
I might take issue with the designation “utilitarian,” unless we think of it in the strict sense of favoring the greatest good for the greatest number, which appears to be Davenport’s intention. The term, however, is likely to conjure up images of Jeremy Bentham opposing natural rights and favoring schemes for maximizing consumer welfare. Actually these people integrated orthodox protestant teaching with classically liberal ideas about freedom.
The Contrarians provide a mirror image of the first group. They felt great discomfort with the ever growing, ever changing environment of American economic life. One character among the Contrarians is Stephen Colwell. Energetically anti-free trade, he was also pro-slavery (though not happy about its existence in the U.S.), making the argument that U.S. slaves were better of in their master’s care than were English workers in their factories.
Also counted among the Contrarians, up until 1840, was the more well known and complex personality of Orestes Brownson, who more than any other figure in the book–possibly more than any other personality in the period–argued, at one time or another, virtually every side of the great issues of the day. A convert in the Second Great Awakening, a Presbyterian for nine months, Universalist, radical social reformer, atheistic rationalist, Unitarian, and transcendentalist—Brownson tried it all. Finally, at age thirty-six, he came to rest in the Catholic Church, where he remained until his death. Brownson is the only Catholic considered at any length in Davenport’s work, and the only thinker to be grouped into two categories: the Contrarians, and the Pastoral Moralists.
This latter group Davenport sees as those who “approved of the development of market capitalism but wanted to live as Christians within its confines.” Rather than being boosters of a market economy for what it could do and produce (like the utilitarian clerical economists), this disparate group, which reflects not so much a school of in-depth thought as much as a mode of thinking about the reality of a free economy and the lived Christian faith, focused on the individual’s virtue as an economic actor.
Although never a ferocious champion of market capitalism, Brownson was perhaps attracted to accepting such ideas as the division of labor, free trade, and market institutions because he came to a different understanding of anthropology and how the person relates to any institutional and social arrangement—all of which are flawed aspects of the kingdom of man. With this understanding, Brownson came to repent of his earlier attempt “to translate Christianity into Socialism.”
Joining Brownson in this group would be Orville Dewey, Henry Boardman, Jason Whitman, and Andrew Preston Peabody—none of whom wrote any odes in favor of capitalism, but who together created, through their essays and sermons, a general sense of the acceptability of the free economy, tempered by reflection on the appropriate conduct required of moral actors within the context of economic liberty. From among these personalities there emerged the idea of the pastoral moralist setting boundaries and outlining moral principles, rather than descending into the nuanced and complicated technicalities of economic science as such, in which the Christian tradition does not pretend to possess competence.
This, of course, opens up the whole area of prudence, which is often disregarded in religious policy debates where zealots on all sides forget that once outside the “non-negotiables” of human life and dignity proper, the means of achieving good ends is most often a matter of prudential, rather than doctrinal, discernment.
In reading through Prof. Davenport’s text, I was struck by how similar are the contours of the economic debates in this period of American history are to our own debates. There are those who are comfortable with the idea of a free economy as a necessary institution for providing material well being for the human family. It simply is not possible to support six billion people on a system of central planning or on agrarian or distributivist principles. At the same time, there are the Sojourners who feel grave discomfort at what they perceive to be the materialism of our age and thereby seek system-wide change. Finally, there are the moralists who minimize debates about politics and rather seek to inspire personal moral piety.
What we need to see is the greater compatibility between the three positions than is usually supposed, provided there is freedom in which the three approaches can work. No society under any economic system will be free of greed, but the free economy produces the wealth that also makes charity and philanthropy possible. In addition, for those who seek simpler lives and private piety, the free economic system provides the room and possibility to make that choice. Davenport does not appear to be what I would call a pro-market thinker, which is what I suppose I might be called. Nonetheless, this book has identified the critical issues of the debate in those times and in our own. Christianity has adapted itself to many cultures and settings, but the advent of capitalism did provide its own special challenges.
How can a religion born in a world of poverty, and centered on the eventual glory associated with death on a cross, thrive in a world of fantastic levels of material prosperity? The experience of Americans shows how, and the views of the thinkers highlighted in this volume explain how a reconciliation can occur. It comes down to the critical fact that the most productive economic system ever known also happens to be the one that is most respectful of human rights and dignity, and provides the freedom to worship.
If you are interested at sifting through the political posturing to get at the truth of this crisis, here is some good bedtime reading: The Anatomy of a Train Wreck: The Causes of the Mortgage Meltdown.