Prudence and Principle for Catholics in the GOP
Former Bush White House speech writer, Michael Gerson, opined on the GOP and Catholic social teaching in last week’s Washington Post. Though not a Catholic, he is well versed in intersections of JPII-style Catholicism and public policy. Gerson begins by underscoring the infusion of Republican Catholics into the 112th Congress.
“Before the November election, there were 97 Catholic Democrats in the House and 36 Catholic Republicans. Now, there are 68 Catholic Democrats in the House and 64 Republicans. The overall number in the House Catholic caucus remained steady, but its composition is decidedly more conservative.”
The fact that Democratic Catholics and Republican Catholics in the House are almost even in number is more significant than a tilt toward conservatism. Both, in the Senate and the House, the number of Catholics who are Democrat has been more than double that of Republicans for decades.
That Catholics on both sides of the House aisle have drawn close to even has huge symbolic value for those who track the history of the party affiliation of Catholics. Add to that, the fact that all but one or two of the House Catholics will consistently vote pro-life and oppose gay marriage. The step from the 111th to the 112th Congress was a giant one, indeed. This step was also symbolized, rather dramatically, by the passing of the Speaker’s gavel from pro-abortion Catholic, Nancy Pelosi, to pro-lifer, John Boehner.
Gerson then raises the interesting question of how Catholic social teaching will challenge the GOP now that it’s playing host to more Catholics. Presumably, the Protestant-Evangelical tenor of the party will be diminished.
Gerson nicely characterizes the foundation of Catholic social teaching:
“[T]here is certainly a distinctive Catholic teaching on politics – a highly developed and coherent tradition that has influenced many non-Catholics, myself included. Human life and dignity, in this view, are primary. The common good takes precedence over selfish interests. Local institutions – families, churches, unions, religious schools – should be respected, not undermined, by government. The justice of a society is measured by its treatment of the poor and vulnerable.”
However, out of his last line Gerson teases a surprising admonition to the GOP on issues like immigration, health care, and AIDS funding. This would have been less surprising if I had noted on first reading how Gerson places the common good in tension with “selfish interests” rather than simply that of an individual person.
While noting the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and its preference for limited government, Gerson explains that Catholic social teaching requires “government intervention” to remedy the “gaps in the justice and compassion of a society.” Without government action, Gerson argues, “the poor, the immigrant, the sick, the disabled, the unborn” will be excluded from the common good.
Gerson asks aloud how the GOP, and, ostensibly, the now larger number of Catholic members, will respond to governmental initiatives to help these “excluded” groups. Gerson writes:
“But there will probably come a point when red lines get crossed and Catholic and other religious leaders declare: Contempt for immigrants, even illegal immigrants, is not a moral option. Or, cutting AIDS and malaria funding violates pro-life principles. Or, health-care repeal without a serious alternative is not responsible.”
This passage surprised me — for the simple reason that Gerson seems to be implying some sort of “contempt for immigrants” is inherent among Republicans and, also, that there is only one position a serious Catholic can take on issues like AIDS and malaria funding. A difference of opinion with Gerson on how to handle illegal immigration should certainly not earn the charge of contempt. Enough said.
But, the funding of government programs targeting AIDS and malaria should not be exempt from the scrutiny of what Catholics call “prudential judgment.” Federal programs have to be judged case by case on the basis of their effectiveness. Tax dollars proposed for those with AIDS should not require our blind support. Compassion does not demand we toss away prudential scrutiny regarding its effectiveness.
The U.S. bishops discuss this in their latest version of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007):
“Prudential judgment is… needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices… We urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations… The Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.”
Catholic political thinking begins with basic concepts and principals, as Gerson knows explains, which include the common good, the person, human rights, and justice. But, among contemporary issues, it’s only in the case of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and experimentation on fetal stem cells that Catholics are obliged to come to the same conclusion.
For some reason Gerson failed to make clear the role of personal, prudential judgment that our Catholic representatives must apply when deciding upon the best way the government can truly serve the common good.
By Deal W. Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate