Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Fisking Father Garvey, part 2

I promised to finish fisking Father John Garvey's Commonweal piece.

The initial point was that people nowadays tend to talk about moral or ethical issues as being between them and their private, isolated god. I agree with Father Garvey that this is a common tendency and that it's unhealthy. I disagree with many of his applications and his moral equivalency between morally different things (e.g., abortion and capital punishment).

Here's where we left off:
But religion can work badly in another direction. When Catholic bishops say that they will deny Communion to those politicians who support what is euphemistically called “a woman’s right to choose” (the Lexus or the Buick? To kill or not to kill?) they enter a fraught area.
I don't see what this has to do with the "point" of his essay. It was about "me and my god." Now, he says, Catholic bishops are evidence of religion working badly and entering a fraught area. But that's a matter of technique, not point, and I'll go on.
But here there is a weird selectivity. Until prochoice and pro-capital-punishment Republican politicians like Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are mentioned by the bishops in the same breath as the offending Democrats, the Wasps who always wait in the wings to emerge as neonativists will be able to say that the Vatican will forever try to control American politics.
There is a difference between John Kerry, who presents himself as "a steady, churchgoing Catholic literally since the day he was born" in his Beliefnet spiritual biography. By contrast, I didn't know that Guiliani (should have guessed), Pataki and Schwarzenegger (should have guessed) were even Catholic. None of them has made the kind of statement about the primacy of "conscience" over Catholic doctrine ("I believe in the church and I care about it enormously," he said. "But I think that it's important to not have the church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in America.") that Kerry has in his attempt to curry favor with Catholics.

Should "the Church instruct politicians"? It's an interesting question, and it depends on what Father Garvey means by "instruct." Should the Church have a paid lobbyist wandering around the Legislature or Congress buttonholing politicians? No. Because in most legislation, God-fearing people can disagree, and any paid lobbyist doing his full-time job will end up causing more mischief than help. Should politicians, like all people, be formed by the Church, and will that affect their political, economic, moral and social views? Yes.

Still, if the issue is abortion, then it is inconsistent to pick on one politician and not another. I can say, as a voter, that this politician is an idealogue on the subject--voting for partial-birth abortion, against parental-notification laws, against giving health information about abortion to aborting mothers--and this one, although favoring legal abortion, is willing to countenance limitations and regulations on the practice. From a moral point of view, I suppose, it's all or nothing; from a political point of view, it's a matter of making progress where you can.

Still, I read a letter in a Catholic newspaper recently that said, Republicans haven't stopped abortion, so I'm voting for Kerry, because he will fund schools. It was a frustrating argument, because the barriers to stopping abortion have been ideologues like Kerry and like the ones he would nominate to the courts: legislators who refused to pass legislation; executives who vetoed it; judges who declared it unconstitutional once it was passed over the veto. The fact that the letter-writer will vote for one of the top obstructionists tells me that abortion was never very important to her in the first place.
as neonativists will be able to say that the Vatican will forever try to control American politics
I'm not a neonativist, and I don't think "the Vatican" is trying to control American politics, but it think it's worth looking at the ecclesial structure that makes hard-edged moral stands on taxes, budgets, trade and a lot of other issues that "the bishops" are ill qualified to analyze. Two people who care about the poor can disagree over the minimum wage, and bishops with no training in economics don't really add much to the argument by weighing in on either side with a lot of empty rhetoric about the "preferential option for the poor." More appropriate would be a reminder to both sides about the importance of caring for the poor and then working to ameliorate unintended consequences of any legislation that's passed.

But I speak as an outsider, and the Catholic bishops have no reason to care about my opinion. I only hope the Orthodox bishops don't walk that road if they ever gain more influence.
As an Orthodox Christian who does not believe in using Communion as a common means of discipline--though no one has a right to Communion, rights being a stupid category where the sacraments are concerned, and priests really should refuse Communion in some cases--I am not in a position to inform Catholic bishops or laypeople about how they should approach Roman Catholic discipline. But people who say they believe that the life of a conceived child is human and matters, and this is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, should not support political platforms that are callous or indifferent about this; and they really should think twice about receiving the body and blood of one who died for all human beings, including killed fetuses and executed criminals. The bishops are surely not wrong to affirm this.
I agree with most of this paragraph, and I also agree that Christ died for killed fetuses and executed criminals. But the equivalence between a killed fetus and an executed murderer hasn't been established to my satisfaction. Father Garvey goes on to presume that all his readers are on the same page on that--and considering the magazine, he's probably right--but the Orthodox Church is not universally opposed to the death penalty the same way it is universally opposed to abortion, and I'd like to know when the idea came into fashion that no crime is sufficiently heinous to require the criminal's life as a penalty. Father Garvey is trying to be even-handed, I think, but an even hand between an innocent unborn child and Saddam Hussein is a travesty.

He goes on to relate that some members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship wrote to "Senators Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), both Orthodox who cast consistently prochoice votes, challenging their record in this regard, and asking for some explanation of their position. The letters remain unanswered." No surprise there.
Catholics, Orthodox, and others who are troubled by this issue should not leave it to the bishops to challenge prochoice Democrats or pro-capital-punishment members of either party. Like the largely lay membership of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, they should challenge the politicians themselves. Isn’t that part of what the priesthood of the laity is all about?
Writing a letter to a senator--Republican or Democrat--who has already made up his mind about abortion is not "challenging" anything. The letter writer may feel better, more righteous, more "challenging," but it does nothing.

What would challenge politicians like Sarbanes and Snow--and Kerry--is to get involved in the process. Get them un-elected. That will not only "challenge" them (and politicians have been known to change their position if it seems to be in their political interest); it might actually get someone in the office who can make changes.

Father Garvey may be too holy, righteous and sophisticated to participate in the political process. I don't know if that's "what the priesthood of the laity is all about"; I thought it had something to do with making all of life and the cosmos an offering to God--so maybe it's part of it. More to the point, though, it's part of what being a citizen is all about. In the Roman Empire, the Emperor was responsible for these decisions, which removed their responsibility from the regular citizenry. In the United States, citizens have a lot of that responsibility, and we should take it as seriously as we would expect God to ask of the Emperor.

It takes s clear head and an interest in actual outcomes (as opposed to rhetorical flourishes), a willingness to argue, rather than just presume that people either agree with you or are barbarians, and trust that the people in high office are still human beings and not automatons run by vast paranoid conspiracies. I don't think the "pox on both their houses" cynicism is helpful.

And I still don't know where he left the "my little god and me."

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