The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued on Jan. 16 a document, dated Nov. 24, 2002, entitled “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The note addresses some of the most urgent “issues beneath the issues” in American public life today.
Perhaps the most important thing the doctrinal note does is to remind all of us, irrespective of party or political philosophy, that democracy is not a machine that can run by itself. Democracy is not a matter of simply getting the procedure of government—legislative, executive, judicial—right. Democracy is more than a matter of procedures, and democracy requires more of us than procedural imagination and finesse.
Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, the note asks some hard questions about the cultural foundations of democracy. Can democracy survive in a radically skeptical culture in which students in our most prestigious schools are regularly taught that no one can know the truth of anything (including, presumably, the moral superiority of democracy)? Can democracy thrive in a radically relativistic culture in which “tolerance” means ignoring differences rather than engaging differences and thrashing them out? Can democracy “long endure” (as Abraham Lincoln put it at Gettysburg) in a thoroughly utilitarian culture in which human life is considered just another commodity, something to be assessed and valued according to whether it “works” or is “burdensome”? The doctrinal note suggests that democracy is imperiled—that democratic procedures cannot really “promote the general welfare,” as our Constitution puts it—under these cultural conditions. I think Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the congregation, is right. So would the American founders and framers. So would Lincoln. And so would Martin Luther King Jr.
A culture is the product of many ideas. The doctrinal note reminds us that the idea of the human person in a given culture is crucial to that culture’s capacity to sustain democracy. A culture that cherishes human life from conception until natural death is a culture that has recognized the innate dignity and inestimable value of every human life—and that is the kind of culture that can sustain democratic commitments to civility, decency and true tolerance, even as it provides robust legal protection for the inalienable right to life. On the other hand, a culture that devalues lives it finds awkward or distressing, unplanned or unwanted, is a culture that cannot sustain democracy over the long haul.
Why? Because, as the doctrinal note reminds us, that kind of culture is morally incoherent. And a morally incoherent culture is going to do morally reprehensible things—like declare that some human beings are beyond the boundaries of the community of common care and concern, to be disposed of at another’s will. How? Through abortion and euthanasia, in which the strong and fit (and wealthy) “solve” the “problem” posed by the weak and defenseless (and costly) we deem burdensome. That kind of “problem-solving” is just as incompatible with democracy as the institution of slavery was, and for the same reason—a desperately defective idea of the dignity of human life.
I am also grateful that the doctrinal note takes on one of the canards that has confused the debate over the life issues for 30 years—the falsehood that Catholics who work for legal protection for the right to life of the unborn are sectarians who are somehow “imposing their views” on a pluralistic society. As the doctrinal note bluntly states, the Catholic commitment to the right to life is “not a question of ‘confessional values,’” because the moral logic that underwrites the Catholic position is a matter of the “natural moral law”—which is another way of saying that the right-to-life position can be engaged by anyone willing to work their way through a rational moral argument.
And that, parenthetically, is why pro-lifers represent the great civil rights cause of the 21st century. The pro-life movement makes genuinely public arguments, based on publicly accessible moral reasoning, about public goods—the legal protection of indisputably human beings. The pro-life movement argues that everyone who is a member of the political community called the United States of America deserves the equal protection of the laws of the United States of America. And an America that denies that equal protection is not an America being true to itself.
Citing John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995), the doctrinal note reminds those of us in national and state legislatures that the legal defense of the inalienable right to life is a “duty” and that lawmakers have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” laws that compromise the right to life. Put that clear moral teaching into a distinctively American context, and the stakes are abundantly clear. Let me describe them bluntly: Catholic legislators who vote to maintain the current regime of abortion-on-demand in the United States, or who vote to legalize euthanasia, or who vote to authorize medical research on human embryos, are in a position morally identical to that of Catholic legislators who resisted desegregation in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Period. The political shelter of “I am personally opposed, but I cannot impose my views on a pluralistic society” has collapsed of its own moral incoherence—and of its own incompatibility with core American values.
The doctrinal note is also a helpful reminder that the ordained leadership of the church has a different role in the public square than lay Catholics. I welcome the note’s statement that “it is not the church’s task to set forth specific political solutions—and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one—to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person.” The church’s ordained leaders are to teach the principles of Catholic social doctrine. Lay Catholics, especially those who have taken on the responsibility of legislation and executive leadership, are to apply those principles according to their “free and responsible judgment.”
Thus something is awry when the voice of the church is most often identified with specific policies that are matters of contingent judgment (such as questions of welfare reform or foreign policy), and not with the articulation of principles. When the bishops are widely perceived in Washington and in state capitols as yet another religious lobby, rather than as compelling teachers, something is awry. The argument that Catholic principles can be heard only if the bishops “illustrate” the principles through specific policy prescriptions cannot be sustained any longer. Precisely the opposite has happened: the principles have not been clearly heard, and the bishops are often regarded as another political pressure group. That may be to the satisfaction of some. But it is not compatible with the vision of Catholic political participation developed by this note, and by the magisterium of John Paul II.
In this regard, I would also like to say something about the current debate over Iraq. I think it is a sign of civic health that Americans have instinctively reached for just war categories in trying to sort our this grave problem: Is ours a “just cause”? What is the “legitimate authority” that can authorize the use of armed force? Is the use of force a “last resort,” and have other means of resolving this lethal situation been exhausted? Yet, reviewing these just war criteria as they are summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), I note that, just after that summary, the catechism states: “The evaluation of these criteria for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (No. 2309). That means statesmen, not clergymen or scholars, have the final responsibility for assessing whether the criteria of a just war have been and can be met. Let us all keep that sentence from the catechism in mind in the weeks and months ahead.
The great divide in American public life today is not so much between left and right or between political parties. It is between those who think of democracy merely as an ensemble of procedures and those who think of democracy as a matter of substance—an ongoing experiment in a people’s capacity to be self-governing. By demonstrating how the substantive understanding of democracy arises, not from sectarian or confessional presuppositions, but from the moral law written on the human heart, the doctrinal note makes a genuine contribution to the reflections of all thoughtful Americans.
For too long in our national history, the question—sometimes cruelly overt, sometimes subtle—was, “Is Catholicism compatible with democracy?” As the doctrinal note makes clear, the real question is, “Can democracy long endure if it ignores the truth about the human person?” That is a publicly accessible truth, and Catholics in America should be grateful and proud that their church proposes that truth, in and out of season, in American public life.