|Christ Separating the Sheep and the Goats|
The other day, a Catholic Senator from my state was quoted in the paper as saying, "I believe that life begins at conception." Then, he said he wouldn't impose his views on women and that is why he supports abortion. I happen to believe that people have a right to do what they want with their own property. But, if a man were burning down his house and mentioned that his family were tied up inside, I'd like to think I'd rush in and try to save them. Know why? Because his right to dispose of his property doesn't give him the right to dispose of another human life. Once the Senator admits that life begins at conception, he has a moral obligation to protect that life. That's what a reasonable person does.
Recently we had a talk at my parish by Professor J. Brian Benestad and afterwards I was given a copy of his book, "Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine." I've only just begun the book, but I am enjoying it immensely. His book might prove a beneficial text for parishes to use in attempting to educate and form Catholics in Catholic Social Doctrine. The more I read of his book and the more current events expose the weakness of Catholics in bearing witness to the Faith, the more I see the need for the wholesale re-evangelization (first evangelization?) of Catholics in our parishes.
With ever greater frequency, the Church hierarchy calls upon Catholics to rally behind some particular public policy issue. Same-Sex Marriage, Physician Prescribed Suicide, Religious Liberty, the Death Penalty, Support for Immigrants etc. It is not simply a matter of motivating people to become politically active (which is often challenging enough). It also becomes necessary--usually with great urgency and suddenness--to provide Catholics with a crash course in some particular aspect of the moral life. The problem isn't just getting people to act according to their beliefs. The first challenge is getting people to hurry up and believe.
We've done a bad job educating Catholics in Catholic Social Doctrine. For instance, if you went to a Catholic High School and said, "poor people should just help themselves and not be a drain on the rest of us," I would suspect that some person in that high school would explain that poor people are our "neighbor" and the Christian is called to love his neighbor. Certainly, there can be legitimate arguments about the best way to help the poor, but there is no place in Catholic life to hate the poor or to ignore them. But, when it comes to the matters of abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide etc all of a sudden young people in that very same school are simply left to their opinion on these matters. This is a great betrayal of the Christian Faith and the Gospel.
Why should we care about the unborn child, the unwed mother, the addicted, the prisoner, the immigrant, the abused, the infirm, the poor, the uneducated, or the institution of marriage? For many Catholics, they care about these persons only insofar as they choose to care about them. In other words, it is a personal choice or a personal cause for them. They can be against abortion, but disparage immigrants. They can work at a soup kitchen every week but think that the infirm ought to be "put out of their suffering" by killing them. It is all a matter of personal choice.
What this approach reveals is that Catholics are adrift in a sea of opinion. They lack the prerequisite faith to have a consistently Catholic vision of what society ought to be about. Catholics, like all people, will always debate what is the best way to do something. Is it better to have jails or rehabilitation programs, amnesty for immigrants or not, private insurance or government health insurance? These all are legitimate points of debate. But, every Catholic ought to approach these questions formed by the life of Faith and the life of grace. Disagreeing on the best immigration policy, for instance, is not problematic. Hating immigrants, treating them unjustly or cruelly, and failing to love them is a problem.
I'm often impressed by the extraordinary generosity Catholic parishioners show towards the poor. Whenever I've asked for something to support the poor, people are amazingly generous in their response. But, we want to make certain that people just don't see that as "doing something nice." Because, some people think giving lethal drugs to their sick mother is "doing something nice." We have to see that what we do as Catholics arises from what we believe and also from what we can come to know through natural reason. And what we believe isn't simply some vague notion that it is nice to be nice. What we believe is revealed to us from God. We care for the poor, visit the sick, and protect the vulnerable because we are called to love our neighbor. This commandment of loving our neighbor is revealed to us by God. When we love our neighbor--the poor, the infirm, the unborn, the immigrant, the prisoner etc--we are participating in the new creation of grace. We love them because we ourselves have been transformed by our encounter with Christ. We don't do these things because we agree with the "immigration issue," the "abortion issue," or the "feed the poor issue." We do all of these things because the Gospel commands us to do so. We do them because we are believers.
I think the Bishops could help Catholics come to a better sense of Catholic Social Doctrine by not articulating positions on every matter that comes up for public policy debate. When the bishops speak on particular matters, they speak with the voice of binding authority. So, for instance, no Catholic can claim to have a legitimate difference with the bishops when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, or physician prescribed suicide. When the bishops teach on these matters, they are teaching authoritatively on matters of Catholic doctrine. Similarly, no one can legitmately disagree with the bishops when they speak on matters of first principles such as the sanctity of human life, the option for the poor, or the love that is due our neighbor. But, when it comes to matters of public policy that are open to legitimate debate, the bishops--I think--ought to limit themselves to articulating the principles involved in arriving at a good and just resolution. By continuously issuing statements on all sorts of matters that pertain to the level of legitimate discussion, the bishops weaken their own voice. How so?
Most people who read a headline that says, "US Bishops Support Legislation Mandating Use of Seat Belts," (I'm making this up) think that this carries the same weight then as "Bishops Oppose Abortion." While wearing a seat belt might be a good and noble thing, we can all think of instances where a seat belt might legitimately not be worn. We might even know some bishops who don't wear their seat belts. In large part, people do not make the necessary distinctions when it comes to the level of authority that is given to various pronouncements by the bishops. They presume that they are all of equal weight. Thus, if I can disagree with the bishops on whether to wear a seat belt, I can disagree on abortion too.
In any event, life as a pastor is continually coming up with ides for which I either don't have time or money to accomplish. But, as I think about my responsibility as a pastor, I realize that I have a lot of work to do in this area of parish life. I need to do a far better job teaching Catholic Social Doctrine and explaining how what we do is because of what we believe. This is a desperately needed project. We cannot participate in the transformation of the culture around us if we ourselves are not continually transformed and renewed by the Faith of the Church. We need to do this because society urgently needs our witness, but firstly we need to do this because our eternal salvation depends upon it.