Monday, February 8, 2010

Reflections on the Church and Politics

"I've always thought liberal and conservative were terms used not to think but to avoid thinking.  You can classify anything as liberal or conservative, then simply declare yourself one or the other, and all your thought for the rest of your life can be a knee jerk."

— Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell (page 17)

(Character of "CS Lewis" in a Socratic dialogue)

One of the tendencies I have noticed in the modern world is to place things into political categories.  Topic [A] is deemed conservative and is thus rejected by liberals.  Topic [B] is deemed liberal, and thus is rejected by conservatives.  I suppose it is natural in terms of partisan politics, but the problem is that often such categorical thinking is not limited to politics, but instead applies these categories to apolitical subjects or institutions.

Unfortunately this also is applied to the teachings of the Church, and the Church is deemed "liberal" by the conservatives, and "conservative" by the liberals.

The Falsity in an Either-Or Dilemma

…the parties have a great interest in winning the election, not so much in order to make their doctrines triumph by the President-elect's help, as to show, by his election, that their doctrines have gained a majority.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The logical form I have seen employed by conservatives and liberals in attacking the Church (or seeking to use the Church terminology as a mark of credibility for their ideologies) is a false dilemma, which runs as follows:

  1. The Church either supports [A] or [B].
  2. The Church doesn't support [A].
  3. Therefore the Church supports [B].

So if the Pope doesn't support Israel or Marxists in Central America (these can be [A]) on an issue, he is promptly accused of supporting the PLO or despotic governments (these can be [B]).

The problem is with the major premise: "Either [A] or [B]."  If I partially support one of the options, if I reject both options or if I prefer a solution outside of [A] or [B], the major premise is false and the conclusion is not proven true.

Yet it is this error which liberals and conservatives use to either denounce the Church (when it condemns what they support) or make it appear their entire platform has legitimacy (when on an issue there are similarities between Church teaching and party platform).

Is Social Justice Liberal?

In light of the Church making certain statements on "Social Justice," I've noticed both liberals and conservatives seeking to hijack the term.  Many liberals interpret "Social Justice" as "Expanded government control of private enterprise," and seek to label anything which is not expanded government involvement as being "against Church teaching."

On the other hand, many conservatives also believe "Social Justice" is "Expanded government control of private enterprise," and conclude the Church is run by liberals.  The syllogism above becomes:

  1. The Church either supports [Expanded government control] or it favors [laissez faire]
  2. The Church has spoken against [laissez faire]
  3. Therefore it favors [Expanded government control].

Of course, reading Caritas in veritate, we see that the Church favors neither model.  It recognizes that the individual role has a part to play, it recognizes the need of the state to protect the rights of the person… and it insists that without a Christian approach, a system will end up dehumanizing people, regardless of intent.

When the Church speaks of social justice, it is wrong to apply the political meaning of the term to the Church, which speaks of the morality which is binding on all societies.  The error of the false dilemma comes in assuming there is only one (partisan) solution and anyone who criticizes elements of the solution or praises certain elements of that solution must endorse the political platform which the term is associated with.

The Church teaches that the person has certain rights and dignities as a person which cannot be taken away by law.  Practices in a nation which deny these rights and dignities are to be condemned, regardless of the ideology which commits the injustice.  When an economic system or a political structure, or the customs of a nation allow this sort of injustice, the Church must speak on what is right and wrong, regardless of the political parties which believe in one choice or another.

So to invoke certain phrases from the Church is meaningless unless one understands the context of what the Church means.  "Social Justice" is assumed to be a "liberal" issue, and therefore it is assumed any solution must be "liberal" in nature… what the Church actually says and intends on the topic is immaterial to both factions.

Is Abortion Conservative?

The Church views the issue of abortion along these lines:

  1. It is never licit to directly cause or will the death of an innocent person
  2. the unborn child is an innocent person
  3. Therefore it is never licit to directly cause or will the death of an unborn child.

Because of this, the Church has no choice but to condemn murder in keeping with the teaching of God. In the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew word translated as Kill in Exodus 20:13 is רָצַח (ratsach), which means "murder" or "slay." 

If the unborn child is living, the direct killing (slaying) of the unborn child is as unjust as infanticide.  This also shows why capital punishment or wars are not the same case as abortion, so those who oppose abortion yet believe capital punishment can be licit are not inconsistent (as John Grisham once argued in his rather poor novel The Appeal).

Yet the key issue of whether or not the unborn is a person never gets addressed by those who favor abortion rights.  For them, the sole issue is whether or not the woman has the right to engage in sexual activity without repercussions.  However, even if one rejects Christian morality the issue of a 'woman's right to control her fertility" becomes moot if the unborn is a person, because no person can decide to arbitrarily end another person's life out of expedience.

During the 2008 election the argument tended to run:

  1. [Republicans] [oppose abortion] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [The Bishops] [oppose abortion] (All [B] is [C])
  3. Therefore [the Bishops] are [Republicans.]  (Therefore all [C] is [A])

The problem is that the argument claims that abortion is a Republican issue and therefore anyone who agrees with the issue is a Republican.  However anyone who opposes abortion who is not a Republican makes the conclusion false… the conclusion is not supported by the premises, and is a non sequitur.

Another logical problem is the Genetic fallacy.  Because opposition to abortion is equated with "conservative," it is rejected on account of the source.  However, the fact that conservatives agree with the Church on the issue does not mean the condemnation of abortion is not true.

The Underlying Problem

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.278 He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;279

- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.280

Both the conservative and the liberal who reject the Church position and label it as "proof" of favoring the other side assume their own view is correct, and their submission to Church teaching only goes so far as it mirrors what they believe.  When the Church teaching goes against a party platform, it is accused of being "partisan."

However, the Church's self-confessed interest is dealing with the salvation of souls and telling people to turn from sinful acts towards the truth.

Speaking of "what is just," for example, is different than saying "only party [X] is just."  The former is a statement of what is.  The second is ideology.

Before accusing the Church of "being liberal" or "being conservative" one has to understand what in fact the Church teaches and means in its statements.  If one recognizes the Church as the body Christ established on Earth to carry out His work of salvation, then it does have authority to bind and to loose.

Under such a view, worldly partisan views need to be compared to, and judged by, the teaching of the Church, and not the Church view be compared to and judged by the partisan world view.

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