Over at America, Michael O’Loughlin has an interesting post on Paul Ryan’s home bishop – Bishop Robert Morlino, of Madison – coming out and saying that bishops should not comment one way or the other on the Ryan budget.

Bishop Morlino’s letter is problematic. There is no other way to say it. He suggests that Catholic teaching involves certain absolutes – such as the right to life and the right to private property – and beyond these, bishops have no competence to make moral pronouncements. He writes:

Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.

Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil — that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever. These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception. The violations would be: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.

In these most fundamental matters, a well-formed Catholic conscience, or the well-formed conscience of a person of good will, simply follows the conclusions demanded by the ecology of human nature and the reasoning process. A Catholic conscience can never take exception to the prohibition of actions which are intrinsically evil. Nor may a conscience well-formed by reason or the Catholic faith ever choose to vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.

However, a conscience well-formed according to reason or the Catholic faith, must also make choices where intrinsic evil is not involved. How best to care for the poor is probably the finest current example of this, though another would be how best to create jobs at a time when so many are suffering from the ravages of unemployment. In matters such as these, where intrinsic evil is not involved, the rational principles of solidarity and subsidiarity come into play.

First, Bishop Morlino misunderstands the teaching about the right to property. Unlike the right to life, which is understood as absolute, the right to property is most definitely not absolute. It is constantly qualified throughout the CST tradition. The government clearly has the right to regulate property, the right of taxation, and the responsibility to form at least minimal conditions for the dignity and flourishing of all. Moreover, the right to private property is – unlike the right to life – even qualified and non-absolute at the most abstract level, because it is subordinated to the universal destination of goods. Here is Pope John Paul II’s classic statement in Centesimus Annus:

In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII strongly affirmed the natural character of the right to private property, using various arguments against the socialism of his time. This right, which is fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person, has always been defended by the Church up to our own day. At the same time, the Church teaches that the possession of material goods is not an absolute right, and that its limits are inscribed in its very nature as a human right. While the Pope proclaimed the right to private ownership, he affirmed with equal clarity that the “use” of goods, while marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destination as created goods, as well as to the will of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Gospel. … The Successors of Leo XIII have repeated this twofold affirmation: the necessity and therefore the legitimacy of private ownership, as well as the limits which are imposed on it.

Secondly, Bishop Morlino draws a radical distinction between issues of “intrinsic evil” (which involve these absolutes) and other matters (which do not). Elsewhere on this blog, we have encountered this sort of hard distinction. Notice, however, that the bishop conflates the “most fundamental” issues with the issues involving “intrinsic evil.” Issues involving intrinsic evil – he has forgotten to mention contraception!! – are said to be “direct pollution” of the moral ecology. It is said that no Catholic can vote for someone who has “persistently” supported such pollution – like Sen. John McCain’s consistent advocacy of embryonic stem cell research?!

It should be repeated again and again: “intrinsic” is not a word that denotes gravity. This is exactly the logic that disables the Church from speaking out on very serious issues like wars in Europe, economic and political oppression in Latin America, and environmental issues worldwide. If this logic is supposed to hold, what are we to make of the statements of Paul VI and John Paul II on peace and on the right to development? What are we to make of Benedict XVI’s categorical insistence in Caritas in Veritate that advanced countries “can and must lower their domestic energy consumption” and must make “a serious review of its lifestyle which…is prone to hedonism and consumerism” (nos. 49 & 51)? Are these statements to be ignored by the citizens of the most militarized, richest, and most consumptive nation in the world?

Can it be shown that somehow I am mistaken about the two points above, by citing other magisterial CST documents? Nowhere can it be shown that the teaching authority of the Church on morals is limited to moral absolutes, or that moral absolutes constitute the most serious or grave threats in any given society.

Perhaps I should be clearer about what a viable defense of Paul Ryan’s approach would look like. Given the above statements, the desire for a balanced budget and for a smaller federal government would have to be accompanied by three other steps:

1. a serious attempt to reduce defense spending,

2. a serious need to reduce energy use (most easily accomplished by a carbon tax, which also helps balance the budget),

and 3. a serious exhortation to the American people that they must spend their extra wealth that is not taxed on social solidarity and not on a “hedonic, consumeristic lifestyle.”

As soon as those things come out of a Republican candidate – along with statements about subsidiarity and fiscal responsibility – I’ll believe that they are versed in CST. And as for bishops, note the excellent, humble, and non-partisan plea by Bishop Pates of Des Moines. What he makes clear is what many of us feel: that Catholics fully adhering to CST should feel “politically homeless.”

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and Catholic convert, says Catholics use their most deeply held values, whether that means defense of the unborn or care for the poor, to choose a party, but sooner or later they join “the side they’re on.” This is the opposite of what the U.S. bishops advocate in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” “As Catholics,” it says, “we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”

The idea is that Catholics should work within their parties to change them, creating a diverse and substantial group motivated not so much by ideology but by challenging cultural issues, large and small.

This is easier said than done. The bishops are asking Catholics to raise uncomfortable issues in sometimes exceedingly hostile environments. Many Democrats have worked strenuously since Roe v. Wade to purge dissenters on legalized abortion from party ranks. They have succeeded to the extent that pro-life Democrats find themselves in a no-man’s land, often reviled for their views and distrusted by pro-lifers because of their party affiliation. More recently, Republicans have sought to purify party ranks of even the slightest variations from party orthodoxy. Republican candidates and legislators espouse increasingly hard-line positions punitive to immigrants and cut disproportionately programs that help the poor.

In this partisan environment, Catholics may feel “politically homeless,” to borrow a phrase from John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The parties’ retreat from the ideological center has left Catholics with the understandable, but unfortunate impression that their only political option is to choose a side and join in to win the culture war. The resulting toxic acrimony has long since seeped into the church. Catholics must reverse this trend.