Friday, May 27, 2011

Of a Letter and a Report

I am trying to retire from my position at the University of Hawaii and move to Ave Maria, FL. Easier said than done, given the state of the housing market and other complications.

It all makes it hard to give other matters that are normally up my alley the attention they deserve. Fortunately, there are many critiques of the rude and patronizing open letter addressed to Speaker John Boehner, in which liberal Catholic academics recommend that Boehner consult Catholic social teaching and change his views and votes on social policy to bring them into line with it. (And see today's Washington Post op-ed by Ed Gillespie at

As others have pointed out, the Church proposes general principles, like solidarity, subsidiarity, and the "preference for the poor," but does not take positions on matters of prudential judgment as to how best to translate those principles into policy. That is the laity's responsibility. But many liberal Catholics cannot conceive of a preference for the poor meaning anything other, in practice, than support for the social program of the Democratic Party.

In the same way, adherence to the Catholic principle of 'social justice' is taken to mean support for the social-democratic welfare state. As Gillespie says, "To some liberal Catholics, social justice is measured almost solely in terms of federal spending. Their formula is simple — those who advocate higher taxes and more spending are for more social justice than those who advocate lower taxes and less spending." Contrast the way Catholic theologian Michael Novak defines social justice as a virtue indispensable for the preservation of liberty, as the virtue by which "citizens join together to do for themselves what in earlier systems they had to turn to the state to do" (The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p.86.)

Or consider the way the U.K.’s Centre for Social Justice exercises its preferential option for the poor. It “highlights the work of profoundly differing and unique small voluntary organisations and charities” and takes the view that “The war on poverty can be won if government gets off the back of the armies of compassion and helps them to succeed” (

In this respect, it is interesting, if unsurprising to note not only how much more coverage the media (including the Washington Post) gave to the letter compared with the standing ovation Boehner received from the 2,000 graduating students at the Commencement ceremony, but also the ignoring of the reasons that catholic University of America invited Boehner to address the students and their families in the first place. As Gillespie explains, "One of the reasons CUA honored Boehner is his tireless commitment to the Consortium of Catholic Academies in Washington, which keeps inner-city Catholic schools in the District operating. Over the past decade, he’s raised millions of dollars to provide children from poor families, regardless of religion, a chance to attend better schools. He also co-authored the bill to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program (enacted as part of the budget continuing resolution) to help meet 'the desperate needs of the poor' for quality education."

The letter was meant, of course, as a counter to the criticisms from bishops and faithful Catholics of those 'Catholic' politicians who support abortion. A kind of equivalence is suggested here between the pro-life position of those who oppose abortion and the 'pro-life' position of those who want to increase or maintain Federal programs intended to help the poor. It is sometimes expressed in the charge that the Church only cares about children until they are born. The charge is of course absurd, since the Catholic Church is second to none in her charitable efforts on behalf of poor women and their children. But the more pernicious suggestion is that policies that maintain the legal right of women to kill their unborn children are morally on a par with policies that opponents claim are antithetical to the needs of the poor.

Abortion is, as the Church and reason teach, a grave evil in all circumstances, violating as it does the exceptionless norm against the intentional killing of the innocent. On the other hand, what helps the poor as opposed to reinforcing dependency, what supports the capacity of families and communities to care for their own members as opposed to disempowering them by substituting state provision, and so forth, are not matters of principle like the norm against killing the innocent. They are matters on which people of good faith, and of the Catholic faith, can and do disagree. In short, abortion is always and as a matter of principle morally wrong. What actually helps the poor as opposed to claiming to is a matter of judgment. The two are not equivalent.

The other issue on which I would have commented more fully is the report to the bishops from John Jay College about clerical sexual abuse. Here I disagree with those who say that the report cost a lot of money but came up with nothing of interest. It did help to refute widespread misconceptions on the issue, especially those of the people who want to use it to push the Church in the direction of reforms that they favor for other reasons (and not to prevent future abuse). The report stresses the need to explain why abuse, always a behavior of a tiny minority of priests, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s and then declined equally dramatically from the mid-1980s to a very low level today. Clearly the standard liberal explanations have nothing to offer in this regard. Celibacy has been around for a millennium and an all-male priesthood from before the beginnings of the Christian tradition - neither can explain this Sixties phenomenon.

For that matter, it seems especially absurd to blame the spike in abuse on the power differential between the exalted position of priests and the disempowered laity - such clericalist tendencies were anything but hallmarks of the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, precisely a time when when they came in for intense criticism. Also, though the report does not spell this out, sexual abuse occurs in every area of social life where children and adolescents are under the authority of other people than their parents, and at much higher rates than in the Catholic Church - like public schools, Protestant communions, Jewish congregations, Boy Scouts, and step-families. The focus on the Catholic Church seems to be driven by those with another agenda than real concern for victims - like accessing the Church's perceived deep pockets (as compared with the thousands of different Protestant denominations), or desire to bring the Church down by any means necessary. Indeed children and adolescents are probably safer from sexual abuse in the organizations of the Catholic Church than anywhere else in society, including their own families.

The other issue is the one of homosexuality. Here the report is problematic in the way it accepts a radical separation of homosexual activity from homosexual self-identity or orientation. Even though the vast majority of sexual abuse was of a homosexual kind, the report claims, it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Some 80% of clerical abuse in these years was of a homosexual nature, but those who committed it, we are to believe, were not for the most part homosexuals. The analogy with prisons, where sexual activity is of necessity (and opportunity) homosexual in nature is used here to make the point that engaging in homosexual activity does not make you a homosexual in the way that committing adultery or murder makes you an adulterer or a murderer, even if you only do it once.

One thing that makes this perspective problematic is that sexual 'orientation' or habitual desires are not sinful, in Catholic teaching, but only sexual acts of whatever kind that take place outside marriage and/or are in principle (and not just contingently) inept for generation. Being homosexual, in the sense of having persistent sexual attraction toward those of one's own sex, may or may not be a matter of choice. Human beings are polymorphously perverse in their sexuality, according to Freud. But to make your sexual desires central to your identity and, even more, to act on them is a matter of choice.

In this sense, there seems to be something odd about asking a man who has sex with male adolescents whether he considers himself to be gay. Clearly one can be homosexual and not engage in abuse of pubescent boys and adolescents - most homosexuals, including homosexual priests, fall into this category. But can you engage in homosexual activity of this kind and claim not to be homosexual because you do not identify yourself this way? Can one engage in sexual activities with children and claim not to be a pedophile on the grounds that you do not consider yourself one, but simply take sex where you find it?

It seems that the report is correct to point to the convergence of factors in the Sixties that loosened the constraints on sexual behavior throughout society. In this case, the 'sexual revolution' combined with the abandonment of pious practices and disciplines in seminaries and among priests, with the sense that everything was up for grabs in matters of faith and morals in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. (Here it is necessary to say that the catastrophes that struck the Church in this period - the liturgical abuses, the musical and architectural horrors, the collapse of older religious orders, especially of women, into permanent opposition to the Church and ever diminishing numbers, the development of academic theologians into a self-proclaimed alternative magisterium - were not inevitable outcomes of Vatican II itself and none finds warrant in the actual documents of the Council.)

It is a persisting irony that the very dissident liberals who most warmly embraced these tendencies that were part of the cultural and social context of the sex abuse scandal are the same people who make most noise about the abuse they (albeit indirectly and unintentionally) helped facilitate. They are the ones who seek to use the scandal to further their own destructive agenda. (See any issue of Catholic National Reporter.)

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