Thursday, March 13, 2014

Quacking the non-negotiables problem

If it quacks like a duck ....

You know MoveOn.org? The non-partisan PAC whose non-partisan agenda is pretty much the same as the Democrats'? The Catholic Church in America has a similar organization: Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. 

The folks who run CAGC are very, very good in talking the talk ... until they get to the very end, where they step left when a well-formed Catholic conscience should either step right or stay in the middle. It's like putting a duck in a chicken suit: sooner or later he opens his fowl mouth and the illusion is revealed. 

For instance, take a look at their mission statement:

... We envision a society shaped by the values of justice, human dignity and the common good, where faithful American Catholics can embrace the fullness of the Church's social justice teachings when participating in democratic society.
As Catholics, we inherit a rich tradition whose inspiration reaches well beyond our own faith community. The papal encyclicals and letters that make up this tradition are based on Jesus' call to love one's neighbor and serve the least among us, and the Hebrew Scriptures' prophetic commitment to justice and righteousness.
Our Catholic tradition calls us to participate actively in public life in the service of human dignity, social justice and the common good. These teachings — to put community before self, principle before profit, and the public interest before political expediency — are central to our Catholic tradition. Catholics in Alliance is committed to creating the necessary conditions for a culture of life that reverences the life and dignity of the human person at all stages over greed, materialism and the politics of division.

But let's contrast this with their "pro-life" values:

... We at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good understand that many of our fellow Americans do not recognize the dignity of unborn life. Consequently, they believe that legal efforts to protect the unborn represent an illegitimate form of coercion, limiting the rights of women who find themselves in very difficult circumstances. We believe that our political culture must address the needs of both mother and child, and we support programs that provide economic and other forms of assistance to women facing an unwanted pregnancy [pro-life Catholics almost never say "unwanted pregnancy"] as well as the right of each and every child to be born. Creating a “culture of life” as Blessed Pope John Paul II called us to do, will require Christian witness and we embrace that call [bold font mine.—ASL].
In other words, "We believe the right to life of the unborn is very, very important ... just not important enough to require any legal protection. Coercion by the father, by parents, family, friends and employers into having an abortion isn't so bad as coercion by the state into bringing the child to term." Listening here for the ring of authenticity — or even sincerity — is like listening for the sound of one hand clapping.

This shows up again in a post by Robert Christian in Millennial. In Pope Francis' most recent controversial interview with Corriere della Sera, the pope says, "I have never understood the expression 'non-negotiable values'. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values." Gloats Christian:

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernandez recently explained the problem with this false division: "Fanatics end up turning certain principles into a never-ending battle and deliberately only ever focus on these issues." This artificial construct is used not simply to deflect criticism that conservatives are breaking with Church teaching on numerous issues, but also to defend an approach to politics that frequently ignores the plight of the poor, a central issue in regard to the Church’s commitment to the common good. Even worse is when culture warriors define these "non-negotiable" issues as the central teachings of the faith, subordinating the actual core dogmas of the faith that are found in the Creed. This entails a complete politicization of the faith.

Let me give Christian's argument as much credit as I can: While it's possible to disagree in good conscience over which policies embody Catholic moral and social values better, the values themselves are not up for debate. I myself have written on the tendency of fiscal conservatives to become "cafeteria Catholics" when free-market capitalism comes under Church criticism. So Christian's criticism of the right isn't completely amiss.

However, in the context of orthodox (or at least conservative) Catholic political talk, I have yet to hear the expression "non-negotiable values". No one, as far as I know, has ever so much as implied that certain values are negotiable. It's vaguely possible someone has claimed that "all Church teachings depend and are based on non negotiable [ethical] principles", as Abp. Fernàndez claims in the Vatican Insider interview Christian cites; such a position begs for a horse-and-cart cliché. It's more likely, however, that both Pope Francis and Abp. Fernàndez have misunderstood the expression, and that Christian is attacking a straw man.

CAGC's position on pro-life issues recognizes that many Americans don't share the pro-life position; at best, they would never have an abortion themselves but would never tell a woman blahblahblah. As a pragmatic political position, the best then that we can hope for is an incremental approach, limiting its legality to the extent SCOTUS makes possible, while educating the public on the pro-life position. And CAGC makes a valid assertion that we need policies and programs which make the choice to carry to term easier; as I've said elsewhere, most women don't abort on a whim or as a political exercise, but rather because they believe they don't have another viable choice (a tragic irony).

But CAGC's position also puts the incrementalist approach out of bounds as an "illegitimate form of coercion". As Abp. Fernàndez also says, "the Pope stands firm in his opposition to abortion because if he does not defend the innocence of human life, we aren’t left with many other arguments with which to defend human rights." The right to life is foundational to all other individual rights; by contrast, there can be no absolute, irreformable "freedom from coercion" that doesn't deny the just use of a government's police power to support any right. Moreover, even a reasonable "freedom from coercion" without a logically prior right to life is empty of substance. Legality confers legitimacy; there is no such thing as a "pro-life culture" that simultaneously concedes a legitimate right to abortion upon request (see CDF Instruction Donum Vitae III, Catechism of the Catholic Church 2270-2274).

The final goal, then, is the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the return of abortion to illegality. We may take baby steps forward; we may mark time; we may get pushed back. But we don't back down from the contention that the unborn are humans, and as humans are persons entitled to the equal protection of the laws and the Constitution, which provides in Amendments V and XIV, "... nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law". That is the standard to which we hold politicians; what makes it "non-negotiable" is that we don't want a legal system that will give us everything else if only we leave the so-called "right to choose" alone.

And that's where CAGC quacks. They have the "JP2 Catholic" lingo and approach down to a set of formulas. They've found quotations from the popes and various other sources that gives them the "look and feel" of the New Evangelization. But eventually they give themselves away: having found that the language of the Age of Aquarius no longer works, they've adapted the language of the "reform of the reform".

But it's the same old duck.