In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, the aging Cardinal Wolsey admonishes Sir Thomas More: “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.” Wolsey’s heirs are quick to upbraid our latter-day Mores for their sentimental “moral squint” at public policy. Yet even statesmen of Wolsey’s stripe seldom see the “facts” flat on. Invariably, our perceptions betray our moral squints and prejudices.
Beginning with Leo XIII’s magisterial encyclical on the rights of workers to a living wage (Rerum novarum, 1891), the Roman Catholic Church looks at public policy through the moral squint of its social teaching. In the words of Benedict XVI’s “Message for the 92nd World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” “the Church sees” the suffering of our sisters and brothers “through the eyes of Jesus, who was moved with pity at the sight of the crowds wandering as sheep without a shepherd. (Cf. Mt 9:36).” How then, as citizens of faith, do we fulfill the Gospel’s prophetic mandate, in our present day?
Inspired by the great biblical injunctions of justice or righteousness (sedaqah), right judgment (misphat), and love of neighbor (agape) marking the reign of God, modern Roman Catholic social teaching turns to the distinctively modern idiom of human dignity and the rights that follow from it. The bishops elaborated on these rights in their 1986 pastoral letter:
Catholic social teaching spells out the basic demands of justice...in the human rights of every person. These fundamental rights are prerequisites for a dignified life in community. The Bible vigorously affirms the sacredness of every person as a creature formed in the image and likeness of God. The biblical emphasis on covenant and community also shows that human dignity can only be realized and protected in solidarity with others.
The appeal to human dignity “in solidarity with others” serves as a proximate foundation of human rights, permitting us to speak prophetically to the world. Yet in specifying the “minimum conditions” for the realization of such dignity, the bishops not only ratify, but enrich our notion of rights. For in the church’s social teaching, basic human rights encompass not merely the “negative” civil-political liberties enshrined in our American tradition—e.g., the freedoms from interference or coercion, such as our rights to freedom of worship, assembly and speech—but the “positive” socio-economic rights of security and subsistence, including employment, minimal health care and education: rights necessary for “a dignified life in community.” The theme is echoed in Faithful Citizenship (2007):
The basic right to life implies and is linked to other human rights to the goods that every person needs to live and thrive–including food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work. The use of the death penalty, hunger, lack of health care or housing, human trafficking, the human and moral costs of war, and unjust immigration policies are some of the serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act.
Free to Serve
Christian freedom, then, is not merely the freedom from interference by others, but our freedom for service to the community in love: the “end” of freedom is thus not merely private satisfaction, but the “common good” of every person. Solidarity, writes John Paul II, is the characteristic virtue of the common good. In modern Catholic teaching, the common good is conceived distributively, not en masse, as “the sum total of those conditions of social living” that protect and promote the dignity and rights of every person. The common good thus comprises the institutional protection of basic human rights including, a fortiori, the rights of effective participation of those historically denied place and voice.
While recognizing legitimate plurality in a democracy like our own, the common good sets a threshold for dignified life in community. In Faithful Citizenship, our bishops write, “While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst” (2007: no. 50).
In other words, our moral entitlement to equal respect or consideration, in concert with the ethical ideal of the common good, justifies preferential treatment for those whose basic rights are most imperiled—in Camus’s phrase, our taking “the victim’s side.” Aquinas’s observation that a servant who is ill merits greater attention than a son who is not, is pertinent here: the fulfillment of equal basic rights, in materially dissimilar conditions, justifies a discriminate response. Precisely our concern for equal dignity and equal rights requires that we ask, Whose dignity and rights are unequally threatened? The church’s moral squint, her “option for the poor,” bids us ask: “Who is missing from the table of policy, whose voice suppressed?”
Finally, as our bishops observe, our solidarity, ordered to the common good, bids us to “be careful stewards of “God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for vulnerable human beings now and in the future.” How, then, does our “moral squint” guide our thinking on public policy? What lessons for voting might we draw?
Lessons for voting
A. Worthy persuasion: The norms that govern personal choice, such as my opposition to abortion or racism, likewise govern social choice, but differently. For personal choice, I must ask what moral rules, attitudes and beliefs form my conscience. And these rules, attitudes and beliefs may be distinctively religious. If I believe certain actions are wrong, especially if they are always wrong (intrinsically evil), I can never perform them—or intentionally (formally) cooperate in their performance—whatever the consequences might be. I am categorically obliged by the dictates of my conscience.
But suppose, as in politics, the question is not merely my obligation to form my conscience, but my obligation, as a citizen of faith, to influence yours. I must, as Dignitatas Humanae (nos. 7, 4) reminds us, engage in “worthy persuasion.” I must find the very best arguments that will persuade you. For those who share my Christian or Catholic beliefs, I will look to Scripture and Tradition, including magisterial pronouncements. In a religiously pluralist society, however, worthy persuasion will typically entail public reasons: reasons that we share, or should share, as citizens. And here we appeal to the modern lingua franca of dignity and human rights. On questions of immigration, abortion, or health care, for instance, we appeal to the basic human rights of the most vulnerable in our midst. As citizens of faith, then, we seek not to impose or legislate our particular morality, but rather to legislate morally, in accordance with the basic human rights that underlie the legitimacy of law and public policy.
B. Precepts are not policy. Like moral rules generally, such rights oblige us to behave in certain ways. But precepts, typically, do not immediately determine policy. For social policy, I must ask the further question of how we best fulfill such rights through the imperfect instrument of law. And here our reasoning is, in Amartya Sen’s words, “consequentially sensitive.” Indeed, as we saw, in the Catholic tradition is ordered to the common good—to the institutions and laws that best preserve, protect and promote basic human rights.
Voting, then, is not simply a referendum on values. Rather voting constitutes an exercise of prudential deliberation which enables us, in the words of the Catechism, “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (no. 1806; Faithful Citizenship, no. 19). In a democratic society, as we seek to discern our true good, we vote not so much for values or precepts as from them. Clearly we vote for candidates who, to a greater or lesser degree, embody values we cherish. But chief among these values that mark character is wisdom, and wisdom looks to consequences. Which program, policy, or candidate, we must ask, will best preserve, protect, and promote the common good?
As Aquinas reminds us, not all precepts of natural law are fittingly legislated as civil law, nor are violations of natural law necessarily proscribed by criminal sanction. Coercive law remains an imperfect instrument. We have generally agreed, for instance, that not all “intrinsically evil” actions (e.g., artificial contraception) are fit subjects for criminal prosecution. Neither is the wisdom of a particular law exhausted by what it says; wise leaders will look at what it does: once implemented, is the law likely to protect or harm the most vulnerable?
C. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Can a Catholic, then, vote for a candidate who in turn votes for a policy permitting abortion? Or to put the question more precisely, is it morally permissible for a legislator to vote for a policy permitting what is morally impermissible? And could I vote for such a candidate?
The question we face is how best to “limit the evil aspects” of prevailing policies, laws or practices. We must ask which feasible proposal will best promote and least violate the rights of all affected, especially the most vulnerable. In the words of our bishops:
Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act…As Catholics seek to advance the common good, we must carefully discern which public policies are morally sound. (Faithful Citizenship, no. 20).
Such prudential reasoning, legitimately and properly, pertains to abortion policy. In voting for a candidate, I must ask, not only what candidate X explicitly professes, but whether electing her or him will likely contribute to a decrease in abortions. David Hollenbach, S.J., writes, “Whether the number of abortions can be reduced more effectively by taking economic and other preventative measures that reduce pressures on women to consider abortion or by passing legislation that simply bans abortion outright is clearly a matter of practical wisdom. Reaching a judgment on such a matter calls for the exercise of the classic virtue of prudence” (Journal of Religion and Society).
With the virtue of practical wisdom, we recover our “moral squint.” And it is a squint that looks to all morally relevant issues, precisely because “the basic right to life implies and is linked to other human rights and goods that every person needs to live and thrive—including food, shelter, health care, education and meaningful work” (Faithful Citizenship).
Let me conclude, then, by touching upon the temptations that beset faithful citizens today:
A. Hiding our light under a bushel basket (Mt. 5:14). As we argued earlier, the wisdom of our Roman Catholic heritage is also “catholic” or universal in the lower case sense of the word. Catholic Social Teaching rests upon revelation and reason; there is no “double truth.” Thus to those who share our biblical texts, we speak in the cadences of Scripture. But faithful citizens engage in “worthy persuasion.” We must translate the great biblical injunctions and deposit of tradition into the persuasive rhetoric of human rights if the Gospel is to be heard in our present today.
Much hinges on this. For if we fail to engage in public reasoning, we play into the very rhetoric we so adamantly oppose. For many who accept abortion, after all, the issue is settled by choice; there is no public, common good to be adjudicated in public policy. And in the absence of such a common good, negative liberty—the rights of choice—typically prevail. Indeed, if we oppose abortion merely because we are Catholic, we effectively concede the primacy of choice in a religiously pluralist polity like our own.
But we are not imposing our morality, as if it were merely a form of Catholic etiquette. No, we appeal to a common good that should shape our common life as citizens—this is the wisdom of our Catholic heritage. We are not biblical or magisterial positivists. We have a rich heritage of worthy persuasion; let us not hide it under a bushel basket.
B. Doing the wrong deed for the right reason. T. S. Eliot memorably wrote in Murder in the Cathedral that “the last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” But the converse is also true. Our good intentions do not absolve us from making wise, prudential decisions. Citizens of faith must look at all policies and the consequences of implementing them from the perspective of the most vulnerable. And here we may differ, not on whether, but on how what Pope Benedict calls “social charity” (Deus caritas est, no. 29) is best practiced “in the present today.
Our bishops remind us, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support,” even if a candidate’s support for “an issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” Our bishops follow Benedict when they write that
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. (Faithful Citizenship, no. 35).
The virtue of prudence summons us to vote reflectively, never ignoring grave reasons that bear on the common good. What might such grave reasons be? A faithful citizen who opposes Roe vs. Wade may doubt whether electing a given candidate will be effective: since 1973, the majority of Supreme Court justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, and the decision remains. So too, citizens may doubt whether overturning Roe will resolve the question: reversing Roe would merely remand the issue to the states, the majority of which would likely preserve abortion. Concern for other issues such as poverty, where one’s vote could make a greater difference, may then prevail.
And finally, as we observed above, a faithful citizen may believe that social and economic policies that support pre- and post-natal care would more likely reduce the incidence of abortion. Others, to be sure, may believe that the possibility of reversing Roe vs. Wade outweighs such considerations. What is in dispute for faithful citizens, then, is not so much the relative gravity of the issues but the wisdom of our reasons in adjudicating them. Indeed, precisely because I am so opposed to the intrinsic evils of abortion and racism, I must prudentially deliberate about which policy or candidate will best protect the rights of the most vulnerable, including the unborn. By the same token, neglecting such grave reasons—disregarding Roe vs. Wade or merely voting for a candidate because of his or her stated position on Roe without weighing the consequences—is imprudent: Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons is not noble; it is simply wrong. Just as a failure to engage in “worthy persuasion,” belies our Catholic wisdom, so a failure to develop the virtue of prudence betrays both faith and citizenship.
C. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves—and not the other way around (Mt. 10:16). We have a rich tradition of public reasoning. We must, like the scribe whom Jesus commends in Matthew’s Gospel (13:52), be adept at drawing out what is old in Scripture and Tradition, when we speak to co-religionists, and drawing out what is new when we speak to citizens. Faithful citizenship requires no less.
So too, our public reasoning looks to the common good. The virtue of prudence, as the Catechism states, bids us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” Such good is specified by the principal themes of Catholic social teaching—the dignity and rights of all, the common good and a preferential concern for the most vulnerable. These “binding universal principles” in the bishops’ words, comprise our moral squint. These are the values we must seek to preserve and promote in the public realm.
Prudence guides us in their fitting application. About these values we cannot as faithful citizens differ. Indeed, only with such prior consensus, can faithful citizens make sense of their differences on how best to apply them. For precept is not policy: Thus citizen A may express her opposition to abortion by favoring a candidate who seeks to overturn Roe vs. Wade; while citizen B may favor a candidate who seeks to reduce the incidence of abortion by promoting pre- and post-natal health care, income support for poor, expectant mothers, and adoption programs.
Which is right? There is no simple answer. Wisdom must finally prevail and wisdom is something we share in common. We, who believe in reason and natural law, above all should not fear public debate. And we show our wisdom, not by hiding it under a bushel basket, but by civil argument. For faithful citizens, the choice is not between lacking all conviction and passionate intensity! Our passion, after all, is principled. Intemperance, derision of those with whom we differ, even hatred: these poison the well of worthy persuasion. But let us drink deeply here: we have something to say as faithful citizens, in the present today. Let us say it well.