Catholic Social Ethics

Perhaps I am treating the philosophy blog too loosely in this post, but I don’t think so.  If Strauss is right, philosophy is by nature political (it concerns the discernment of the good, and the vexed relationship between high-minded principle and dirty human affairs).  Besides, this post is not religious per se (since the Catholic Church teaches that her moral principles are knowable by natural reason).

Here is an article from the NY Times today on the role of Catholic voters in the coming election.  

You can link here for a 2007 statement from the US Conference of Bishops on voting, though this provides a more manageable summary (it does lack the nuance of the original though).  For students in my Social Ethics class and for others, it is a nice outline of moral principles Catholics see as binding and a look at how these principles relate to various political and social issues. Even if you are not Catholic or if you reject the moral principles that are outlined, it still provides a nice model of what thoughtful and principled application of moral principles looks like (and that is far too rare).

The ‘guide’ does not attempt to tell Catholics exactly how to vote, and it is not a partisan document (one will find that Catholics do not fit neatly on one side of the conservative/liberal divide). Political decisions are prudential judgments, and each person must make prudential judgments for themselves. (A prudential judgment is a judgment where a general principle is applied to a particular situation).

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About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

3 thoughts on “Catholic Social Ethics

  1. Doug Beazer

    Wow, to be a Catholic voter in this era of politics must be confusing! On one hand as a Catholic you are charged with protecting life, most especially the life of the unborn. As well as keeping marriage between a man and a woman.

    However, you are also charged with making sure that, “Every human being has a
    right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right
    to access to those things required for human decency—food and shelter, education
    and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life.” It is also worth noting that as a Catholic voter (according to the USCCB), you must also protect against other, “direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war”.

    Obvioulsy, (for those that know me) I have a bias in this discussion, but I do believe that in this election people of faith must realize that abortion and gay rights should not and cannot be the only basis to vote. It is also important to realize that there are pro-rights and pro life advocates in both parties, as well as pro-civil union and anti-marriage advocates.

    I have worked in politics for over ten years now (3 Congressional campaigns, two state Senate campaigns, US Senate Internship, and many other politically related fields) and I have NEVER met a candidate, politician, or lobbyist that was PRO-ABORTION. I have met men and woman that believe it is not the government’s right to tell women what to do with their bodies. There are also men and women (like me) that want abortions to be limited and naturally disappear (this means more emphasis in adoption-making it easier, sex education, contraception, etc) I believe that most politicians that are pro-choice believe abortions should be limited, but safe if they must be performend.

    Also, for Catholics (I was raised somewhat as such) the pro-life stance must be realized as more than protecting the rights of the unborn, but protecting all life. To support a candidate that is for the death penalty, would also be a violation of what I will call the Catholic pro-life stance.

    As for gay marriage (much to my dismay) most politicians that support gay rights do not support gay marriage. Most of the candidates support what is known as “civil unions” which would give gay couples the right to make life threatening decisions when needed in a hospital for their partner, provide healthcare, answer probate questions, and apply for loans. These, I would argue, are the basic rights afforded to all individuals by the Catholic Church (in an indirct way), regardless of sexual orientation.

    My point through all of this is that whether you support the Democratic Party or the Republican Party you should not merely hang on these two issues. The issues of both parties should be taken as a whole. Which party is most likely to oppose the death penalty, provide universal healthcare, reach out to the poor and disstressed, and provide the serious educational tools needed to LIMIT abortions? I leave that up to you!

    For those that believe that voting Democrat would violate their Catholic views, I would also point you to some very famous Catholic Democrats: Joe Biden, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Arlen Spector (a pro-choice Republican), and the list goes on.

    Also, for those that are LDS, and believe that voting Democrat would violate your faith, it is important to realize that the entire group of President Hinkleys First Presidency were registered Democrats.


  2. Jon Adams

    “Also, for those that are LDS, and believe that voting Democrat would violate your faith, it is important to realize that the entire group of President Hinkleys First Presidency were registered Democrats.”

    Conservative Democrats, yes. James E. Faust was once the chair of the Utah Democratic Party. But this was before the Civil Rights Era, mind you. In the 60’s and 70’s, when the Democratic went to the left on social issues and civil rights, a lot of conservative Democrats abandoned the party.

    There was a time when the LDS Church leadership was politically diverse. Back in the 60’s, for example, the Quorum of the Twelve had a liberal apostle (Hugh Brown) and a far right apostle (Ezra T. Benson). These two were often at each others’ throats and it was a public relations embarrassment for the church. So to minimize these political disagreements, the First Presidency in recent decades has appointed center-right to conservative apostles.

    As for the Democratic Catholics: I don’t mean to impugn these politicians’ sincere faith, but I frankly don’t see how one can reconcile a pro-choice stance with Catholicism.


  3. Kleiner Post author

    I might add that there was a time when the Democratic Party was not nearly so beholden to the pro-choice lobby.

    I agree with some of what Doug has said. A really thorough commitment to human dignity in public policy is tough to pull off, and neither party has a monopoly on the concerns a Catholic should have (or, for that matter, the concerns that anyone should have). A committed Catholic would sound very liberal on some issues and very conservative on others.

    These are prudential judgments, one has to weigh competing claims and interests. In that regard, Doug is right that one should look at the ‘whole package’. That said, it is not unreasonable to rank these issues. Some issues will be more foundational than others. The conference of bishops stresses this point with regard to abortion, that the right to life is foundational, all of the other rights and human dignities are meaningless without it.
    To add to that point, one cannot simply play a ‘trade-off’ game. Sure, most pro-life Repubs are pro-death penalty, so one might call it a ‘wash’. But it is far from a wash. There are about 1 million abortions a year in the United States, while there are fewer than 50 or so executions a year. The moral imperative is not equal. Aside from this sort of quantitative analysis, she teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil while the death penalty is not (there are cases where you could justify a death sentence).

    That being said, there is absolutely no question that pro-life advocates (say, Focus on the Family) have been guilty of glossing over other serious issues – poverty, the social justice aspect of environmental pillage, etc. And there has been another error in the pro-life advocacy. John Paul II called it a ‘culture of death’ for a reason. It is not as simple as overturning Roe. Instead, on JPII’s view, the whole culture has become sick, the culture as a whole (govt, doctors, families, insurance, individuals) has become a culture that makes death choices easy and life choices difficult. To consider the matter from a legal perspective is important, of course, but it is hardly the only battle line.

    I also am pretty leery of the list of Dem Catholics Doug provides. It is not for me to judge the hearts of men, but their pro-choice position simply cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Biden, for instance, at best simply misunderstands his own tradition’s teaching on the matter (even the conference of bishops, which I think is far too often silent on these matters, felt compelled to offer a public correction). The Catholic Church does not think that the impermissibility of abortion is a matter of faith, period. It is not a sectarian issue, as Biden suggested. As Jon says, his position just cannot be reconciled with real Catholicism.
    One more thing – I presume that the ‘educational tools’ that Doug thinks one party (Dems) will provide to limit abortions would violate a Catholic teaching on contraception. The real solution is a ‘culture of life’ that respects sexuality (see JPII’s Theology of the Body, some of which we will read in my Cont Euro Phil class next semester). (Some argue that raising people out of poverty will help, and that Dems plans for this are better. There is something to be said for that, but the pro-choice party platform would seem to override these considerations).



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