I graduated from college in the spring of 2012, in the middle of President Obama’s second race for the White House. Up to that point I was what one could call a one issue voter. I was raised and homeschooled in a Catholic household with parents and peers who were very active in pro-life work, values that were very obviously passed on to me. After high-school I went to a small Catholic college that, for the most part, must have thought the “liberal” in liberal arts meant “whatever the Democratic Party is supporting.” But instead of challenging my conservative, pro-life views, that hostile environment bolstered them. If the liberals at my school were so wrong about the culture war issues that were always at the forefront of campus controversies, then conservative Catholic thinkers from The Catholic Thing and First Things must be right, right?
After I left college I must have felt less on the defensive and more free to question my once firmly held political beliefs, and my interest in Catholic Social Teaching expanded beyond the culture war issues I had fought about on campus. Then after the 2016 election happened and I really started diving into the breadth and depth Catholic Social Teaching, I began to see the fatal flaws in a Catholicism influenced by conservative politics, the Catholicism I had once so ardently followed. I felt duped to some extent. What I thought was real Catholicism was just as flawed as my previous culture war enemies.
At a talk I went to in college I remember being introduced to The Five Non-Negotiable Issues (abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and same-sex marriage). These issues, I was told, are the most important issues because they are “intrinsically evil,” that is, completely unjustifiable and evil in all circumstances. Thus when choosing to vote for someone I must first look at where they stand on these five issues. I was sold. This argument made sense to me, and I essentially formed all of my political opinions on this sole criteria. The problem with The Five Non-Negotiables is that this prioritization of issues is made up.
The Five Non-Negotiables tell a partial truth. The Catholic Church does indeed teach that those five issues are intrinsically evil and that intrinsically evil issues should take priority over other issues, but here’s the kicker, there are many more than five intrinsic evils. In their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refers to all of the following issues as intrinsically evil:
- human cloning
- destructive research on human embryos
- targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war
- acts of racism
- treating workers as mere means to an end
- deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions
- treating the poor as disposable
- redefining marriage
Further, the Council Fathers at Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 27) say that the following issues are all “opposed to life itself” and “infamies” that “poison human society” and are a “supreme dishonor to the Creator.” Then in 1993 Pope Saint John Paul II (Veritatis Splendor, 80) explicitly taught that these same issues are intrinsically evil:
- any type of murder
- willful self-destruction
- torments inflicted on body or mind
- subhuman living conditions
- arbitrary imprisonment
- the selling of women and children
- disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons
All of these issues are of the same moral weight as abortion and same-sex marriage, but where is the outcry from Republicans about torture, targeting of noncombatants during war, acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, deportation, arbitrary imprisonment, etc, etc? Not only is there little or no outcry, many Republicans, Catholics included, outright support some of these issues.To give an example of this point, last Sunday, August 6th, was the anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. With that anniversary came multiple conservative, pro-life, Catholics defending the use of nuclear weapons on civilians (here’s one example). These Catholics defend Hiroshima and Nagasaki even though targeting non-combatants is intrinsically evil and even though Vatican II explicitly states that “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”
And this is just one example. When’s the last time you heard a Catholic Republican up in arms against torture or deportation or treating workers as mere means to an end? When’s the last time you heard Catholic Republicans saying that they simply cannot vote for a candidate if that person supports torture or targeting non-combatants during war? Here I’m reminded of a quote from G.K. Chesterton, “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
Furthermore, while intrinsic evils must be our priority, that does not give us the leeway to ignore all other issues. In the same document referred to above, the USCCB speaks about two “temptations” that distort the Church’s social teaching. They state (emphasis mine):
The first [temptation] is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity…
The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. The current and projected extent of environmental degradation has become a moral crisis especially because it poses a risk to humanity in the future and threatens the lives of poor and vulnerable human persons here and now. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in this 2002 document, teaches something similar, “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.”
In other words, as I said above, “intrinsically evil” just means that it’s evil in all circumstances. So if something isn’t intrinsically evil, it just means that there are some cases where it can be done morally. The key here is “some cases” not “any case.” Just because a moral issue has room for prudential judgment does not mean there aren’t concrete parameters that divide the acceptable from the unacceptable. The Church gives us guidance, for example, on what a just wage is and what a just immigration policy looks like. These are the parameters that as faithful Catholics we must work within as we are discerning our prudential judgments about these issues. Prudential judgement is the responsibility faithful Catholics have to use the moral parameters given to use by the Church so that we can best apply Church teaching to the real world, it is not the freedom to decide whether or not we can ignore the Church’s guidance on these issues.
The problem I see, on a regular basis, is Catholic Republicans totally dismissing or ignoring an issue, or ignoring the parameters given to us by the Church, just because it isn’t intrinsically evil. But, according to the teachings I quoted above, outright dismissing these non-intrinsically evil issues is to act contrary to the will of the Church.
The more I study Catholic Social Teaching the more politically homeless I have become. I realize that in the past I let my political ideology influence my faith rather than the other way around. There was one passage in the USCCB document that I’ve referenced that struck me the first time I read it. The bishops say:
As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts. We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a civilization of truth and love.
As I continually try and put my faith first and my politics second, as I try and be more consistent, I urge other faithful Catholics, whether you are politically liberal or conservative, to do the same. It is only when we can personally set aside the secular shackles of our Right vs. Left political landscape and strive to put the City of God before the City of Man that we will “build a civilization of truth and love.”
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.