In the ongoing saga of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their efforts to enforce their own, very specific, not to say ideosyncratic, view of Catholicism on the American electorate, we have our latest exhibit, this time in the form of Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL.
In a recent letter to parishoners, he urges them to "think and pray" about the upcoming election. Noting that the Democratic Party supports positions that are viewed within the Catholic heirarchy as "intrinsic evils," such as abortion and same-sex marriage, the good bishop states:
There are many positive and beneficial planks in the Democratic Party Platform, but I am pointing out those that explicitly endorse intrinsic evils. My job is not to tell you for whom you should vote. But I do have a duty to speak out on moral issues. I would be abdicating this duty if I remained silent out of fear of sounding "political" and didn't say anything about the morality of these issues.
Of course, Paprocki goes on to note that there are aspects of the Republican party platform that also run contrary to Catholic social teaching, but those positions are not in support of "intrinsic evils" but rather reflect "prudential judgments" on which people of good will may disagree. He then concludes:
Again, I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.
I pray that God will give you the wisdom and guidance to make the morally right choices.
He then added: "Vote Republican." Well, not really, but he might as well have. After all, the chain of reasoning here is quite transparent and the disingenuousness of claiming that you're not telling anyone who to vote for while threatening them with eternal damnation for the wrong choice is really quite staggering.
There are a number of vectors from which one could analyze this statement. My own low opinion of the moral authority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is well documented, and I continue to stand by my "shut up old man" principle with regard to the Bishops' public statements about moral issues until a full airing of the facts around their complicity in a mass conspiracy to abet child molestation has taken place.
But even leaving that aside, this kind of statement represents a fundamental repudiation of the approach to Catholic public theology that is rooted in the work done by John Courtney Murray and embraced by John F. Kennedy. The detante between pro-choice Catholic politicians and Bishops that existed uneasily during the 1970s and 1980s has been officially abandoned by the Catholic heirarchy, who now feel free to do exactly what John Kennedy insisted should be out of bounds, namely presume to order Catholics to conform their policy decisions to Roman Catholic dictates rather than to questions of the public good or the constitution. And it's worth noting, most Catholics don't seem to be listening anyway.
What's more, as Amy Sullivan points out, the Bishops' hedging on the moral offense of Republican positions on issues of poverty and social welfare simply compounds their fundamental dishonesty:
If someone like Ryan uses his prudential judgment to decide that there are better ways to help the poor than to use the federal budget to fund programs that feed and house and provide other support to the poor, doesn’t he then have a responsibility to lay out what those other ways are? By not doing so, Ryan effectively shrugs his shoulders and says it’s not his job.
Ryan and his defenders rely heavily on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which Morlino defines as: “the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible—that is, the level closest to the people in need.” The federal government is so far removed from people on the ground, they argue, that it cannot possibly be responsible for addressing problems associated with poverty. That’s only true, however, if institutions at lower levels actually have the capacity to meet those needs. And that’s far from the case.
Paul Ryan can believe that subsidiarity precludes the involvement of the federal government in poverty alleviation, but surely he doesn’t just get to kick the problem to the financially struggling charitable sector and say, “Good luck with that.”
Whenever I hear threats of the kind made by Paprocki, which rest on the threat of hellfire to enforce conformity with a moral position that I don't agree with, I find myself recalling Huck Finn, who believed in all sincerity that it was a sin worthy of damnation to help Jim escape slavery. But when faced with the prospect of turning Jim in, could not in good conscience allow himself to do it. "Alright. I'll go to hell," he thought to himself. And that's my answer to Bishop Poprocki: If voting my conscience on matters of social justice and the good of the country means that I risk eternal damnation, then my conscience forces me to say with Huck Finn:
Alright. I'll go to hell.