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.
The significance of issues involving intrinsic evils is not that they are necessarily grave but that only one position is valid and therefore no specific expertise is required in order to know where one must stand on them. We may legitimately disagree about whether an increase in the minimum wage violates the right to private property but no disagreement is valid about whether the government may enact permissive abortion laws.
Nor is this distinction something that “disables the Church from speaking out on very serious issues”. What it means is that, except in rare circumstances, they (not the Church but the clergy) cannot claim that certain specific proposals are either forbidden or required. In areas requiring prudential judgment there are, except at the margins, no moral distinctions between competing proposals. The clergy may very properly identify problems that need to be solved; the impropriety comes in specifying what actions they believe the solutions should include.
Your claim that a viable attempt to reduce the size of government and balance the budget must include your three items is a prudential judgment, not a moral one. I may freely disagree with it precisely because this is a prudential problem that does not involve intrinsic evil. My understanding here is not as simplistic as to claim carte blanche whenever intrinsic evils are not involved, rather it is to claim that prudential issues require topical rather than moral expertise, that my expertise grants me as much right to follow my own council as anyone else, and that the personal opinions of the clergy on these matters carry only the weight of their arguments, not the weight of their office.
Fantastic article. What is the basis of a statement such as this, “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.”? While faithful Catholics must always oppose intrinsic evils, why must we strive to give no political office to people who promote intrinsic evils? Must we also strive to give no money to them through market transactions? Must we strive not to enable them through public services – no roads access for abortionists? Should we refuse to serve them – I will not repair the computer of a socialist? In this particular presidential election I honestly don’t think voting for the anti-abortion major party candidate will actually reduce the prevalence of abortion. I expect if anything that it would be increased as would, I expect, other grave evils. So why should I vote for the candidate who nominally opposes, in most cases, those few evils that are labeled intrinsic if I honestly believe that grave evil would be increased by his election?
David Cloutier: “First, Bishop Morlino misunderstands the teaching about the right to property.”
It depends on what the “right to private property” is taken to mean, as referred to in various Catholic teachings.
An understanding such as: “Whatever private property I own can never be taken by anyone, even the state” is obviously wrong, since (e.g.) the state can legitimately tax people, as a way of providing for a common good. In the Catholic model, private property is property controlled by individuals, but which is to be used for the common good. (So there is no contradiction between private property and taxation — the purpose of both is the benefit of the common good.)
On the other hand, the state may not arbitrarily decide to regard the resources within its geographical limits as belonging to the state, such that it can choose how to assign and reassign these resources to different people, just as the state decides. (The Soviet Union was run much along these lines. And other countries presently.) That would eliminate or fragment the right to private property, and is thus not a morally permissible action of government. In that sense there really is an intrinsic right to private property.
I think it’s likely that Bishop Morlino had something more like the second of these in mind, rather than the first, because his example of a violation of the right to private property was “socialism”.
David Cloutier: “Notice, however, that the bishop conflates the “most fundamental” issues with the issues involving “intrinsic evil.””
I see no reason why we should conclude that based on what Bishop Morlino wrote.
The motivation for the Bishop’s letter was that some people were claiming that “Ryan’s budget is morally wrong”. The aim of the letter is thus first to show that Ryan’s budget does not contain any intrinsic evil (since many of today’s most important issues happen to involve intrinsic evils), and then secondly to point out that though the Church does firmly teach many principles that must guide politics (and does not allow many of these to be contradicted), it does not claim to teach the best way of fulfilling all those principles. The Bishop does not consider Ryan’s budget contradicts those principles. Hence his conclusion that the budget is not morally wrong, and hence his letter.
(Catholics are free to claim that the budget is not the best way to achieve the teachings of Catholic social theory, and then point out, as vigorously as necessary, why they think this. But that is quite different than claiming that Ryan’s budget proposal is morally wrong.)
I think you are right on the first point, but wrong on the second. Although a natural reading of the Bishop’s letter might lead one to David’s conclusion–that he is vastly overstating the right to property–one reaches a different conclusion when applying the principle of charity to his letter. In fact, giving the Bishop the benefit of the doubt or not, it is hard to imagine that he meant to imply that the right to property which is fundamental extends so far as to undermine the state’s right of taxation. As you state, he does not say the violation of this right would be “taxation” but “socialism”.
But the Bishop quite clearly does make “intrinsic” evils to a litmus test for voting. Bishop Lori recently came out with a similar statement. http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/abp-lori-intrinsic-evil-voting This would seem to equate, say, abortion and contraception, torture, lying, etc. A candidate’s support of access to either one would disqualify him from a Catholic’s vote. But isn’t this is too much? Surely support for a *grave* evil should disqualify you, not merely an intrinsic one. And this, I think, is the thrust of David’s second point.
Thank you, Paccar, for your thoughtful comments. Let me explain each point a bit further.
First point, on the right to private property. Bishop Morlino surely is NOT calling for the abolition of taxation, for example. The question is, what does he mean when he then states that list and follows it by saying: “Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil.” But this seems evidently not true. For example, religious freedom is always understood (e.g. in Dignitatis Humanae) as limited by the requirement of public order. Therefore, the state can and does violate religious freedom (though NOT freedom of conscience) by limiting practices that threaten the public order. Indeed, religious traditions that recognize same-sex unions or polygamous unions are (in some cases) barred by the state from forming these marriages. Similarly, the state does not criminalize all or even the most “direct pollution” of these goods – adultery, the most direct violation of marriage, is not criminalized by the state. Furthermore, the classic example in moral theology, used by both Aquinas and the Catechism, is that the direct taking of property by someone in dire need is not a violation of the right to private property – or rather, it is a clear instance where the right is limited and qualified by the universal destination of goods. So the problem here is not that there is a right to private property or to religious freedom – it is the subsequent statement that violations always constitute intrinsic evil. This is true ONLY if we understand religious freedom and property to be limited rights. Indeed, the Catholic tradition has expended much energy in differentiating the correct understanding of private property from its liberal, libertarian counterpart, which absolutizes the right.
And to address rpritchie’s point about “applying the principle of charity” – I do not suggest that Bishop Morlino’s intent here includes any kind of ill will or malice. But the principle of charity means that if statements confuse standard, accepted principles of Catholic moral theology, the confusion should be pointed out.
Second point, confusing intrinsic evil with grave evil. Rpritchie’s point is well-taken here. I think the text of Bishop Morlino above demonstrates that he switches between “most fundamental” and “intrinsic” as if what he has pointed out as most fundamental is so because it involves intrinsic evil. Adultery is intrinsically evil. Contraception is intrinsically evil. Yet no one is lobbying for criminalization of them. The category of intrinsic evil is evidently being used to try to highlight certain issues and claim there is no room for political prudence on these issues. That is not true. By decriminalizing adultery (or “sodomy” or any of a host of acts which are always wrong), we suggest that political bodies can and do make prudential decisions about what are the most grave evils threatening a given society. They do not do so on the basis of identifying which issues involve intrinsically evil acts and which do not.
rpritchie: “But the Bishop quite clearly does make “intrinsic” evils to a litmus test for voting.”
What I actually opposed was the idea that Bishop Morlino was conflating (“fusing into one entity: merging”) the “most fundamental issues of our day” and “intrinsic evils”. There are intrinsic evils that aren’t issues of our day, and so those two things can’t be regarded as somehow the same thing; and I saw no evidence that Morlino was aiming at such a conflation.
I agree that Morlino is providing a litmus test. He is repeating, in a slightly different way, something that comes straight out of JPII’s Evangelium Vitae: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it’.”
However (as Evangelium Vitae implicitly points out in the succeeding paragraph), voting “for” legislation cannot be taken in a simple literal way. It’s possible (with careful checks and balances) to help pass legislation that permits an intrinsic evil, provided the motivation is to limit evil that would otherwise remain if the legislation were not passed.
For example: suppose in a particular society abortion is permitted at any time after conception. If new legislation were proposed that would permit abortion only up until 24 weeks after conception, it might be permissible to vote for it (with appropriate checks and balances), if the intention was to vote for the limitation in abortion that would result, and not for the abortion that was permitted.
David Cloutier: “[..] the direct taking of property by someone in dire need is not a violation of the right to private property …”
David Cloutier: “[..] or rather, it is a clear instance where the right is limited and qualified by the universal destination of goods.”
I disagree with that. Certainly, the right to private property is subordinate to the universal destination of goods — but not in the sense that they are quite different things, that might clash or contradict. Rather they are subordinate in the sense that:
A violation of the right to private property IS ALWAYS a type of violation of the universal destination of goods.
A correct application of the universal destination of goods IS NEVER a violation of the right to private property.
In which case the right to possess private property must never be violated, and it is thus correct to regard that right as intrinsic.
Note that Dignitatis Humanae explicitly says that the purpose of that document is “to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”
Inviolable. And thus intrinsic.
David Cloutier: “[..] religious freedom is always understood (e.g. in Dignitatis Humanae) as limited by the requirement of public order. [..] Therefore, the state can and does violate religious freedom (though NOT freedom of conscience) by limiting practices that threaten the public order.”
A violation of the right to religious freedom IS ALWAYS a type of violation of public order.
A correct application of public order IS NEVER a violation of the right to religious freedom.
David Cloutier: “The category of intrinsic evil is evidently being used to try to highlight certain issues and claim there is no room for political prudence on these issues. That is not true.”
All Morlino said in the letter was: “Violations of [various fundamental issues] involve intrinsic evil — that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever.”
And that’s correct.
In politics, some things are known to be morally evil because they are intrinsically evil, and some things are judged to be morally evil because of the circumstances, and some things need fallible human prudence. It’s absolutely necessary to be able to distinguish them in order to judge a political issue properly.
The case of “stealing” in dire need (i.e. not stealing) is not to be understood as an exception to the moral absolute “never steal.” The mistake is to apply the notion of absoluteness here to “rights” rather than to negative norms. Exceptionless moral norms are negative norms, whose object is carefully delineated in the act description. They do not allow for exceptions because any act so described intends a violation of human good. But there is a mix-up here between absolute norms and absolute rights – the tradition on IEA is about the former, not the latter.
I do not see the substantive difference between “subordinate to” and “limited” – Pope John Paul II, in the text from CA, uses the term “limited.” In Dignitatis Humanae (para. 7), the right to religious freedom is said to be “subject to certain regulatory norms.” The language of a right “subject to” something else is substantially the same as “limited” or “subordinated.” In all of these cases, the point is that rights are subordinated to something else, and therefore are not absolute. Again, inviolable rights is not what the Catholic moral tradition talks about, but inviolable norms.
Finally, this discussion does not take place in a vacuum. What the Catholic tradition means by “rights” and what the liberal/libertarian position means by “rights” are not the same. There is a very different philosophical history, and perhaps most importantly, the liberal rights tradition assumes a human anthropology of individualism (Locke, Hobbes) – that is, humans are fundamentally pre-social individuals who contract to enter into society. Their rights are absolute in principle, but limited in practice, but only because they have thought it better to give up some of their absolute rights in exchange for the benefits of the state. The Catholic tradition does not believe in pre-social individuals, and so does not believe in individual rights in this sense. The fact is, many of us believe that American Catholics today are apt to confuse these languages, and thus commit themselves to a theological anthropology that is in fact at odds with Catholic theological anthropology.
David Cloutier: “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.”
Agreed. And here the (hypothetical) absolute right would be something like: “It is never ever justifiable to take private property away, against the will of the owner.” The Church teaches that that is an incorrect understanding of the right to private property.
The correct understanding of the right to private property is less broad than that (i.e. more limited), but still inviolable.
Private property is one form of implementation of the universal destination of goods. (Which, for example, places some part of those goods under the control of individuals, but still with the requirement that they are used for the common good.)
If someone who is starving takes food away from someone who has plenty, against their will, that is another form of the implementation of the universal destination of goods. It is in no way a violation of the right to private property (because private property must always be used for the common good).
At the risk of a tangential example: if a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, this is not any kind of injury to, or killing of, the caterpillar — it is just the same insect in different forms.
With that kind of understanding, the right to private property really is an inviolable, inalienable (and intrinsic) right, and must never be violated.
Paccer– That all seems right to me, but it is a decidedly non-intuitive use of the notion of “inviolable”. Basically you’re saying: if we understand the proper limitations of the right, then within those limitations it is absolute and inviolable. That’s fine. But not what people usually mean by “inviolable” or “inalienable” rights.
David Cloutier: “But not what people usually mean by “inviolable” or “inalienable” rights.”
However, the usual discussion of rights in today’s political contexts far too easily ends up being incoherent. For example, we can read things like: “Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process.” So, they are both inalienable and alienable?
In contrast, for something like the right to private property, its purpose and foundation is explained in places like Laborem Exercens (#19) and the Compendium (#177). And the overall scheme does not end up with clashing or contradictory rights, but fits them into a coherent whole.