When he called the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John XXIII hoped that one of the fruits of the Council would be “to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” While he envisioned a gentle, refreshing breeze, what resulted instead was a hurricane. When the dust finally settled, the storm which became known as the “Spirit of Vatican II,” left in its wake the world’s debris obscuring much of the Church’s divine deposit. Catchphrases emerged which acted as substitutes for actual understanding of the sacred treasury and have served as great threats to the unity of the Church. “Ecumenism” became synonymous with religious syncretism, “full, active participation” opened the door to liturgical innovation, and the “primacy of conscience” was invoked to justify a “right to dissent.” One in particular bears specific mention and investigation: what George Weigel calls the “liberal/conservative filter.” There are innumerable ways in which this filter creates division, but one common theme is the divide between the so-called “Social Justice Catholics” and the “Pro-life Catholics.” Rather than creating straw men that demonize one side or the other, it will be shown that both are animated by the same fundamental errors.
The Liberal/Conservative Filter
After 200 years living under western liberalism, we are all liberals. The question only becomes whether one is a liberal liberal or a conservative liberal. Thoroughly swimming in liberal democracy, we tend to view everything through that lens. We all believe that individual freedoms trump the interests of the community. When confronted moral questions, we believe that they cannot be settled objectively but instead are left up to individual choice.
It is perhaps easy to see how a so-called liberal Catholic might believe this, but is this really a fair criticism of a “conservative” Catholic who is faithful to the Magisterium? Those who label themselves as conservative tend to believe that they must surrender their freedom and simply obey. This leads to a moral minimalism which asks “how far can I go until this is considered sinful?” Freedom and genuine authority ought to go hand in hand so that what is proposed by that authority is not done so by external fiat but as a means of man finding those internal values which are true to his nature. This is why the Church views her role not as law-maker but instead as being at “the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit, and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it”(Veritatis Splendor, 64). She does not impose from the outside the truths regarding the proper use of our nature, but instead proposes those truths to man’s reason so that he may make recognize them as true internal values.
The point is that freedom is first and foremost a theological issue and only secondarily a political one. This is the point that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council made when they said that “[A]uthentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man.” (Gaudium et Spes, 17). Therefore the distinction between liberal and conservative Catholics has no place in the Church. If a distinction needs to be made it should be the classical distinction between orthodox and heterodox. One either believes that the Church is truly an “expert in humanity” because of her divine origins and proposes authentically true human goods or she does not.
In the 1980’s Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago used image of the seamless garment of Jesus for which the soldiers drew lots to portray a “consistent ethic of life” that “argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.” This “seamless garment” implied opposition to abortion and to capital punishment; opposition to the threat of using nuclear arms and the support of a vast social welfare state as means to a preferential option for the poor. This approach was to be tempered by the fact that a “consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life.”
This approach to social issues has done profound damage and it is time that we deconstruct the seamless garment. This “consistent ethic of life” equivocates on the term “life.” When a Christian uses the term life he does not refer to life merely as the corporal existence prior to death. But the seamless garment approach does. Instead the Christian means something more, something that Blessed John Paul II captures well at the opening of Evangelium Vitae. The Holy Father emphasizes that when we use the term life we are referring to that
“which far exceeds the dimensions of man’s earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.”
Practically speaking what this means is that when we seek to protect and promote the sacredness of life in opposing something such as abortion, we not only care about the child in the womb, but also the eternal destiny of his mother, the abortionist, and even the annoying “escorts” whose sole job it appears is to mock those praying outside the abortion clinic. It is an acknowledgement that the child is not the only one who “dies” by abortion and in fact might be the one who is in the least danger of dying an eternal death.
On the other hand, the culture of death is often defined by its fruits in society such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and genocide. But even if these things were outlawed tomorrow the culture of death would still go on. That is because at the heart of the culture of death is the fact that it is designed to lead to spiritual death.
Those who are Pro-Life must also avoid defining themselves as being in opposition to abortion, or euthanasia, etc. Following the lead of John Paul II they must define themselves in a positive manner as having “respect for nature and protection of God’s work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end” (Closing Address World Youth Day 1993).
The “seamless garment” does not make the necessary distinction between evils as well. There are certain acts that are intrinsically evil and cannot be ordered to the good no matter what the intention of the person. Our Lord told us that we will always have the poor with us (Mt 26:11), not as justification to avoid helping the poor, but because like St. Paul found in Thessaloniki, some people refuse to work. Poverty will never be completely eradicated and is not always an intrinsic social evil. To aid us in discerning how these evils present themselves in social life, the Church for her part has listed the so-called five non-negotiables. The first four are related to the protection of life at its most vulnerable stages including abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning and the fifth is support for so called “same-sex marriage.” These are non-negotiable not because we are stubborn but because they are aligned so closely to the true human goods that they can never be ordered to the good.
The Preferential Option for the Poor
Both Pro-Life and Social Justice Catholics also show a profound misunderstanding regarding the Church’s social doctrine. Both view it primarily through economic lenses. The social doctrine of the Church is first and foremost concerned with the dignity of the human person and economic issues only insofar as they affect this dignity.
Evidence of this is found when the Church’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor” is invoked in defense of actions against life. This misunderstanding is based once again upon the view of man only in his temporal existence. One can read that the “love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future,” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42) through an economic paradigm and miss the fact that the unborn and those who are dying are crying out the loudest for preferential treatment, especially because they have no voice of their own. It calls for special preference especially in those places where the attacks against their dignity enjoy legal sanction (EV, 11).
If this is true then Pro-Life Catholics cannot treat the preferential option for the poor as a secondary issue as they tend to do. A true consistent ethic of life is one in which the dignity of the human person is protected and promoted. Certainly the defenseless and need special attention, but this does not absolve us from responsibility from advocating for those that live in abject poverty (both physical and spiritual) because there may be some personal culpability on their part.
What exactly is the Magisterium’s role in the misunderstanding? One problem is that Catholic Social Teaching very rarely presents abortion and euthanasia as social justice considerations. Instead they are nearly always presented as bioethical issues. To be clear, what is being said is that abortion and euthanasia do not appear as part of the social Magisterium of the Church, but this does not mean that the Church has been silent on these issues.
In Loss and Gain, Blessed John Henry Newman’s fictional account of the conversion of a man from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church, the protagonist Redding was drawn to the Church by its consistency. He could ask ten Anglican Priests to explain a particular dogma and would get ten different answers. If he posed the same question to ten different Catholic priests he would get the same answer from all of them. Redding would be hard pressed to find this same ecclesial consistency today thanks to the liberal/conservative filter that was carried in by the Spirit of Vatican II. It is time we remove this filter.