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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Friday, May 12, 2017

#465: Time Is Running Out for Roe v. Wade

  Roe v. Wade was always a ticking time bomb, and although it’s had a very long fuse, it’s about to go off.


No, I’m not talking about the prospect of a conservative SCOTUS majority overturning the case. I’m talking about the natural outcome of the case itself.

Two major features characterized the legal argument of the majority in Roe v. Wade.  First was the idea that privacy was an implied right under the US Constitution which protected women from the intrusion of government.  Second, it determined that the “viability” of the fetus was the dividing line between the woman’s private interest before viability, and the state’s interest after.

Of course, there were two risky implications in using the idea of “viability.” First, determining when was “before” and when was “after” might prove to be difficult.  And in fact the court chose an arbitrary method: it divided pregnancy into trimesters, and determined that the first was “before,” the third trimester was “after,” and the second trimester was someplace in between.

The second risk is that the very idea of “viability” was, in reality, a sliding scale, a moving target.  The court decided Roe v Wade in 1973, when fetuses rarely survived outside a mother until the third trimester--that is, after 24 weeks.  A fetus born prematurely at six months almost surely died.

As time passed, however, and medical technology and prenatal care evolved, early births received better and better treatment, and premature babies survived at younger and younger ages.  By the 21st century, it was common for babies born at 24 weeks and even younger--that is, in the second trimester--to survive.  Babies born at 24 weeks now have a 40% chance of survival, and babies born at 23 weeks still have a 17% chance of survival.  This represents a remarkable shift in “viability” in the 44 years since Roe v. Wade.
 But now comes a much more dramatic development, with the recent report of the invention of an artificial womb. (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/04/preemies-floating-in-fluid-filled-bags/524181/) Until now, the device has been used only with baby lambs, but the inventors reported it would soon be available to assist “premature babies.”

To be this seems to be a case of under-reporting.  For if we’re really going to have an artificial womb, the implications go far beyond what we now think of as premature babies.  Such a device potentially offers the prospect of bringing fetuses to term in pregnancies much shorter than the current “viability” limit:

Within a decade or so, babies born between 23 and 25 weeks might not be thrust into the harsh outside world at all. Instead, they may be immediately plunged into a special bag filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, designed to help them gestate for another month inside an artificial womb.

--the Atlantic April 25, 2017


The current device is quite primitive, but will surely evolve. Dear reader, imagine the practical impact of a device that could, for example, offer survivability to a fetus in mid-or even early second trimester.

This impact was explored long ago in a hypothetical discussion that was part of a popular Boston TV show called “Miller’s Court.”

Arthur Miller, a Harvard law professor (now at NYU law school), used the program from 1979-1988 to discuss legal issues in a quasi-courtroom forum, usually cross examining several panelists at once.

On the occasion I have in mind, the issue under discussion was abortion.  The panel included then- Congressman Barney Frank and feminist writer Gloria Steinem.

Miller posed this hypothetical question: suppose that an artificial womb could be used to bring a fetus to term AFTER the pregnancy was terminated by abortion. Would that mean that the mother would lose her legal standing, and the state would gain a legal interest in preserving the child’s life? Both Barney Frank and Gloria Steinem agreed that to be the case. They said yes: at that point the state could act to save the child, and the mother’s right to decide would be gone (presumably because her privacy right had ended).

Two noteworthy points here: first, Frank and Steinem were answering a really hypothetical question, which at the time (the mid-1980s) had no practical importance.  Second, it was nonetheless stunning to hear two such prominent pro-choice advocates take the position they took. In effect, they were limiting the women’s control over the effects of her choice, once the fetus was outside her body.

You see, this discussion revealed a generally overlooked element about abortion itself.  It demonstrated that an abortion is really two events at once: it is the termination of a pregnancy, and it is the death of a fetus.  Generally, these two events are inevitably connected; one cannot choose one without the other.  And so most discussions about abortion jumble the two together, with pro-lifers opposing the killing, and pro-choicers defending the woman’s right to end her pregnancy.  In such discussions, the two sides inevitably talk past each other--which is exactly what has been happening for more than 40 years.

But Miller’s hypothesis opens the possibility of speaking of these two elements separately.  In other words, what if women could terminate a pregnancy without killing the child?  Then what?

What Frank and Steinem were essentially agreeing to was the idea that, if it were possible to terminate pregnancy without causing a death, then the resulting life would become a matter, not of the mother’s privacy, but a matter of public interest.  At that point, the state could take over the attempt to save the child.

But if Miller’s hypothesis highlighted the basic fact that abortion does 2 things (terminates a pregnancy, but also kills the fetus)--now it seems the hypothesis itself may soon become real. For now we DO have an artificial womb, and now it may soon be possible to terminate pregnancy yet save the fetus!

What this means that the artificial womb completely explodes the notion of “viability” built into Roe v. Wade.

It opens the prospect that women can retain the right to choose an abortion, but lose the right to kill their fetus.  Since that latter right depends on the location of the fetus within the woman’s body, the artificial womb opens up the entirely new horizon of allowing the fetus to survive outside woman’s body, where a mother no longer has legal jurisdiction.

Depending on how effective the artificial womb is, and how quickly it evolves, this could mean that many abortion cases which are currently treated as private under Roe v. Wade could become legally controversial under the same case.  For example, what if a woman’s partner (or mother or father or sister or brother) sues to save the child using an artificial womb?  What if a state attorney general sues to enjoin any pregnancy longer than, say 12 weeks, to be subject to state review and intervention? 

None of this would require a reversal of Roe v. Wade.  Theoretically, it could lead to cases where the woman has her abortion but the child survives. 

Not only would this prevent many deaths, but it would also pose a new challenge for both the pro life and pro choice communities.  For pro-lifers, it would mean reconsidering their attitude to abortion itself, recognizing a woman’s right to terminate the pregnancy as long as someone else takes responsibility for saving the child.  For pro-choices, it would pose a difficult challenge: acknowledging that a woman’s right to choose extends only to the termination of pregnancy, not to the fate of the child produced by the pregnancy.  In individual cases, this could mean that a woman might choose to abort with the knowledge that her child survive, and grow, and live in the same world she does, without her consent, and without any legal recourse.  In other words, this could mean that choosing abortion means relinquishing any voice over the future life of one’s own child.

None of this represents a change in abortion itself.  None of this represents a change in Roe v. Wade.  This would simply be a long-term final outcome of a time-bomb decision that has been ticking away for more than 40 years.  And it would finally bring to surface the long overlooked reality that abortion is two things at once, and that each side of this long and anguished debate has been arguing about only one of them, and ignoring the other.

Would this mean the end of the debate?  I suspect not.  Would it make people happier?  I suspect neither side would be fully satisfied, since one side would continue to object to the first trimester abortions, and the other side would feel that somehow a woman’s freedom was being curtailed.

But even if the debate continued and both sides remain unhappy, one thing is sure: Sunday, somewhere, each of us might well meet someone who owes their life to an artificial womb, and who can say to us “I am an abortion survivor.”
 © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, May 4, 2017

#464: Is the Common Good the Enemy of Sovereignty—or Vice-Versa?


  A recent Harvard discovery suggests why this Sunday's French Presidential Elections French should interest Americans, and especially American Catholics.
"France for the French" vs. France, member of Europe
The French Election
Some observers have said the 2017 election for president of France is all about sovereignty, since Marine Le Pen wants to pull France out of the European Union and Emmanuel Macron wants to stay in the EU but reform it.
Le Pen’s supporters believe the EU Impinges on France's sovereignty as a nation; they want their country back, their money back, their borders closed, their industries protected, their immigrants expelled. They want “France for the French.”
Macron's supporters often do not actually support his politics or agenda, but they support France's continued membership in the EU. They know this means sacrificing some of the nation’s sovereignty: the Euro replaced the Franc, trade is subject to EU "free trade" regulations, the borders are open to anyone from the EU, even the traditional French license plates have been replaced by euro-style plates. But those prepared to vote for Macron believe that giving up some national sovereignty serves the common good of both the French people and Europe as a whole, especially in bringing peace to a chronically war-torn continent (see CrossCurrents # 463).
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) acknowledges the dilemma here. On the one hand, CST makes promoting the common good a top priority, which leaves little room for a self-serving agenda that ignores the effects on others. Pope Francis in particular has decried the “Exclusion” of others that occurs when policy is set to benefit some narrow part of any population.
On the other hand, CST also values “subsidiarity”—the principle of keeping decisions at the most local level possible, and solving problems by the participation of those closest to the problem.
The EU clearly aims to serve the common good of Europeans, but that means decisions get made, not at the local or regional or even national level, but at the international level which sometimes is far removed from the people affected. So common good and subsidiarity sometimes clash. How can this clash be addressed?
Some, like Julius Krein, editor of American Affairs, take a hard line view of sovereignty. He argues that internationalism of any kind cannot really achieve the common good: for him, the real common good comes only with national sovereignty:
“The only democratic institutions that we have are national institutions.  So if you get rid of the nation-state, what you’re really doing is getting rid of democracy.”
In other words, Krein considers that, to serve common good, all sovereignty must be national.  This is exactly what Le Pen is proposing in her campaign, and it is exactly what Macron is opposing.
Wednesday Night's Debate
But it strikes me that such a hard line is completely arbitrary and also completely contrary to our experience as Americans.  That’s why last week’s Harvard discovery is so interesting.
The Harvard Find
Two Harvard researchers, Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff, have recently reported the discovery of an early handwritten parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence--only the second such copy in existence.  They call it the “Sussex declaration” after the location of its discovery in England. 
The significance of the discovery is that this version is slightly different from the one in the national archives.  That original in 1775 reflected the practice of the Continental Congress of having state delegations sign official documents as a group, with state labels for each group.
But the Sussex declaration dates from the 1780s.  By then the War is over, and war debts have led to conflicts among the states, especially farming states vs. the coastal mercantile states.  Eventually these conflicts would lead to a constitutional convention, but already the clash was between federalists (who saw the new nation as a single united people) and anti-federalists (who saw it as a collection of states).  The issue here was whether sovereignty would belong to the nation as a whole, or whether each state would retain its own sovereignty. 
The Sussex Declaration
This newer version shows the balance shifting to the federalists. Allen points out the key difference:
“The Sussex Declaration scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state. It is the only version of the Declaration that does that…This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people.”
Of course, during the time between these two versions, the US was governed by the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781.  The guiding principle here was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of each state.  It legalized the Continental Congress, but gave that Congress very little power. There was no president, no judiciary, no executive agencies, no tax base--which meant no way to pay off the war debts.  Even the Congress had only one body, comprised of state delegations.
Shifting Sovereignty
The Articles of Confederation failed, because the national government lacked enough power to perform its essential duties.  This provoked a Constitutional Convention and eventually led to the U.S. Constitution which governs us today.  The essential difference is that the U.S. Constitution shifted much of our sovereignty from individual states to the nation as a whole.  But the shift involve major compromises, including a Congress split into two houses; Senate representing the states, and the House of Representatives representing the people by proportional vote.
In other words, US history is rooted in a compromise which recognized that sovereignty needed to be shared between the nation and its member states.  When Krein says that our only democratic institutions are national institutions, he is simply ignoring our own history.
What is happening in Europe follows a direct analogy to U.S. history.  If we think of France as a member state of the European Union, we can see that the issue of sovereignty, and the conflict over how much sovereignty France should sacrifice to the common good of Europe, is precisely the same issue as the argument over States’ rights vs. Federal power in the US.
From the point of Catholic Social Teaching, this means that American history can help show us how the tension between the common good and the principle of subsidiarity can be resolved.
We don’t need to look into the distant past to observe this history.  Recent events provided ample examples.  These show that debates over shifts in sovereignty reflect a tension that still exists in American Life.
Current Examples
1. Death Penalty. When Dhzokar Tsarnaev was tried for his role in the Boston marathon bombings, his trial took place in Massachusetts, which rejects the death penalty—and yet he received a death sentence, because his crime was determined to be a violation of Federal law.  Thus Massachusetts could not control the judicial process because the authority of the Federal government prevailed. The state does not enjoy absolute sovereignty
2. Sanctuary Cities. When Donald Trump attacks the notion of sanctuary cities, he is pitting the rule of local law enforcement in preserving public safety against the interests of the immigration authorities to locate and detain illegal immigrants.  Most states that have sanctuary cities are claiming that their law enforcement officials cannot be forced by the Federal government.
3. Healthcare. The current struggle to repeal Obamacare involves the question of whether the U.S. government will continue to mandate coverage, or the states will have the option to seek alternative plans.  Obamacare relied on the sovereignty of the Federal government; the repeals are pushing for state sovereignty.
4. Border Wall. Donald Trump’s border wall involves the Federal government imposing construction in many border states that oppose a wall.  Here again, the common good becomes the rationale for overruling local decision-making.
5. Tribal Sovereignty. When the Wampanoag Tribe tries to establish a casino on Martha’s Vineyard, this pits the tribe as a sovereign nation vs. the power of the local community, and invokes both state and Federal power to resolve the issue.  In this case, the dispute is about sovereignty on four different levels.
6. Gay Marriage. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage, exercising its own authority to regulate marriage on the state level.  But when the US Supreme Court imposed its Federal authority over state laws and regulations, gay marriage became legal across the US. 
7. “Romneycare.” Obamacare’s rules for health care were remarkably similar to the rules that already existed in Massachusetts under the program supported by a Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Romneycare reflected the state’s sovereignty, Obamacare reflected the federal government’s sovereignty
The Moral of the Story
In all of these cases, the question of sovereignty has been resolved on a case-by-case basis.  It is true that some people would prefer the Federal government to always impose its will over states, while others would prefer that states always get to decide all matters for themselves without any Federal interference.  But the vast majority of Americans accept a constant balancing act between two (or more) levels of legitimate authority.
Thus life in “these United States” involves a chronic but healthy tension between the sovereignty of the nation and the sovereignty of the states.  Neither sovereignty is absolute, so a Federal System like ours requires repeated negotiation to redefine the shifting limits of each sovereignty.
And that is exactly what Europe is going through today, especially if we think of each country as something like our states. 70 years after the Treaty of Rome established the idea of a united Europe, its federal system is still being formed.
The European Union has reached a moment much like the crisis caused by the Articles of Confederation.  In other words, its governing treaties are failing to provide the right mix of sovereignty between the European Union itself and the member states. 
It seems that, if Europe is to serve both the common good and honor the principle of subsidiarity, it will need to find ways to democratize its operations and reflect comment local and national interests and preferences rather than make all decisions by some remote process that does not reflect public will.
But the failure of the Articles of Confederation did not lead to the failure of the United States; it required instead a reformed federal system. Europe faces the same challenge, and France’s commitment to meeting that challenge (rather than quitting to protect its own sovereignty) will say much about Europe’s future prospects.
 © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#463: Will France’s Future Be in a Peaceful Europe?

The outcome of this month’s French Presidential Elections may depend on how much voters link peace on their continent with the "Idea of Europe.”
The 11 candidates for French President. Only the top 2 will survive to Round 2.
 Signs of our troubled times were present everywhere during my recent trip through France.  In Nice, we visited the Promenade des Anglais, where so many died in a terror truck attack during Bastille Day celebrations last July.  Returning to Paris, riding the RER train between Port Royal and Luxembourg, I could not forget that this was the very train which Algerian terrorists had lethally bombed, between these very two stations, in both 1995 and 1996.  Two days later, walking through the Montparnasse Cemetery, we came upon the grave of one victim of the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. Next day we walked the Champs Elysees just one week before the latest attack killed a policeman.

It’s no surprise that the terrorism of recent years will be a major factor in this weekend’s French elections.  French citizens have reacted not only to the violence itself, but to the questions it raises about many pressing public issues: immigration, open borders, unemployment, free trade, religious integration, national identity, equality, globalization, and even the very idea of Europe.

Of course the French are not alone.  Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both represented responses to the same questions.  I decided it would be timely to ask French people about the situation as they see it.

I interviewed more than a dozen people in six different locations: retired couples, former small business people, a pharmacist, a notary, artists, young professionals.  I heard many differing ideas, but on one question--the idea of Europe--there was near consensus.  And this consensus should be of interest to Americans in general, and especially to American Catholics.

I began describing my own perspective.  As a student in Paris in the late 1960s, I was tutored by several people instrumental in promoting the young “Common Market,” which eventually became the European Union.  The consistent message to me was that the movement underway in the 1960s to create an economic union did not have, as its primary goal, the advancement of prosperity or the enhanced wealth of any particular class.  Rather, the notion was that economic union, using free trade to promote greater prosperity, was but the preamble to a second movement toward political confederation.  And the goal of political confederation was peace in Europe.

It may be difficult for Americans to appreciate what this goal meant to post-War Europeans. They had just endured the second of two major continental conflicts that caused tens of millions of deaths, decimated whole generations, and left entire national economies in ruins.

But that was not all.

These wars were seen by Europeans as merely the latest episode in a centuries-long history of repeated and recurring warfare among the nations of Western Europe.  No European could remember an extended period peace--in fact, no European going back a dozen generations had any such memory.

So the “idea of Europe” was nothing less than a massive project to eliminate war on the European continent.  This at a time when the continent itself was still divided by an “Iron Curtain” symbolic of both the war just concluded and the Cold War currently underway.  Realists would have said the project was impossible.  Only visionaries would believe in it.

I asked my interviewees if, in fact, this had been the popular understanding of what was going, on beginning with the treaty of Rome in 1957, whose anniversary was just celebrated last month.  Most of my interviewees are either old enough to remember this history, or had read about it in school.

All of them, except for one retired businessman, emphatically agreed with the key notions that (1) the Common Market’s trade union was simply an economic preparation for political federation and (2) the ultimate goal of federation was peace itself.

One person cited Winston Churchill’s opinion that the future would bring a “United States of Europe.” (This reminded me of my own seminar-related field trip to Common Market headquarters in Brussels in 1969, where I expressed the hope of returning in 20 years to find just such a United States of Europe). 

Another person responded by saying, “But of course it was always about ‘Jamais Plus’…” (”Never More”). She was citing the slogan of the post-WWI French pacifist anti-militarist movement. Pope Pius VI made the slogan famous in his 1965 address to the UN General Assembly, when he cried out, in French, “Never more--war never again!”

All this implied that, for supporters of this idea of Europe, many economic and political concerns became secondary.  They knew, for example, that free trade would lead to labor dislocations as the old protectionist systems fell away and businesses and their workers were forced to compete directly across borders.  They knew as well that a political confederation could not be accomplished without some sacrifice of national sovereignty.  Those who studied US history, for example, knew that the question of states’ rights has been controversial since the adoption of the US Constitution created the Federal government. 

The same challenge would be true for Europe--except that Europe is not a continent of English speaking citizens from similar backgrounds and cultures, like the US at its founding.  Few places on earth cram as many different languages, cultures, peoples, and histories into the small space of Europe. 

But if this makes European unity especially challenging, it is precisely why building peace in Europe required deliberate institutions: so many people crammed so close together cannot coexist peaceably by accident.

But coexist peaceably is exactly Western Europe HAS done since World War II.  For more than 70 years, no Western European nation has battled another.  Such peace is nearly without precedent in the last 1000 years.

Almost all of my interviewees agree that such peace was the product of the idea of Europe, and the one who disagreed could not explain peace any other way.

But interestingly, my interviewees all pointed out that the younger generation--those under 35, the strongest supporters of the far right’s Marine Le Pen--is not even conscious of this accomplishment.  My interviewees were unanimous: young people simply cannot imagine Germans fighting French or Dutch fighting Spanish or Italians fighting anybody. 

When I ask why, the response was unanimous: young people simply take peace in Europe for granted.  I was reminded of the John Sebastian singing “Younger Generations”: “All I’ve learned my kid assumes.” The postwar generation of Europeans had to learn how to construct peace; their grandchildren enjoy it as a given, and are ready to scrap the structure that made it possible.

So then I posed the question to my interviewees: doesn’t this mean that the idea of Europe was a success?  The response was unanimous: absolutely.  The idea of Europe is a success. It has brought peace.

As a test, I offered an analogy with the experience of the Christian world since Vatican Council II.  The ecumenical movement, reaching full speed in the 1960s, aimed to end conflict and hostility among the various Christian churches (Which, in Europe and especially in France, included several scandalous “Wars of Religion”).
I noted that in my youth we tended to think of “the Catholic religion” and “the Protestant religion” as if we had inherited two different belief traditions.  And often the isolation and hostility across denominational lines even infected family relations. 

But today, thanks to the ecumenical movement, baptized Christians have a different sense of identity: I belong to the Catholic Church, but my religion is Christianity--and I share that religion with Protestants. Thus I am a Christian  of the Catholic variety.  My identity is changed.

They found my analogy fit their experience—one older gentleman could even remember how in boyhood his Catholic playmates would attack and insult the Protestant kids in the neighborhood.  He could not imagine that sort of conflict happening today.  (I recall two Boston examples: Nat Hentoff describing the Catholic gangs from South Boston attacking his Jewish playmates on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, and a Catholic priest who in boyhood always referred “Jew Hill Avenue.”)

Has something like this happened to the political identity of Europeans, I asked?  Do French people now think of themselves as “Europeans of the French variety,” enjoying common bonds with other Europeans?

“Of course!” my interviewees replied (again with one exception). “Our identity is not what it once was.”

The interesting part of the analogy for me is that both examples confirm the same point: creating a wider identity enhances bonds that promote Peaceable relations, whereas tightly defined identities and boundaries do the opposite.

This is important in France, which tends to have a very tight definition of what it means to be French.  Many French at some level still agree that “France is for the French”--which can mean that France is not for Jews, not for Arabs, not for Muslims, or for gays, not for anyone who does not assimilate smoothly into the mainstream of French Life.  In short, France is not designed to be a fully pluralist culture.  My interviewees were shocked to know, as they approach their own elections this Sunday, that American ballots are often multilingual.

During my stay I also watched the televised presidential debate, which included all 11 candidates. One the section concerned the question of Europe itself.  Three of the candidates, including far right politician Marine Le Pen, want out of Europe (“Frexit”). The other eight all want to stay.  This was not a surprise, nor was it surprising that not a single one of the eight defended the European Union as it currently operates.  All of these eight called for a variety of reforms that would make the European Union more democratic, more accountable to its national members, more committed to economic equality, lest technocratic and bureaucratic, fairer to workers and poor member-states, etc. 

But it was crystal clear that all eight made a critical distinction between the actual functioning of the European Union and the idea of Europe that it embodies.  Much as we Catholics say that we profess loyalty to a sinful Church, all eight of these candidates found flaws in the European Union but remained firmly committed to the idea of Europe. To use a US analogy: they proposed changes akin to constitutional amendments, rather than proposing to scrap the Constitution itself.

On Sunday’s election, it is likely that Marine Le Pen and one of these eight will finish among the top two candidates in the first round.  It is generally expected that whoever goes through to the second round against Le Pen will gather the others’ votes and become president.   If so, the new French presidential election will reaffirm the idea of Europe as something supported by the vast majority of French people.

It’s worth noting that the Roman Catholic Church has been a longtime supporter of the idea of Europe.  All the French clergy I know are champions of the European Union despite its flaws, since they truly see it as the vehicle for peace.

Young French voters may not even realize, when they vote, that their choice either supports or rejects the vision of the postwar generation who believed that a peaceful future could only be built on international cooperation, beginning with economic union and moving to political federation.  As Americans, we should be flattered that their elders took the United States as a model.  If we are skeptical, we might ask ourselves: “Why should Europe not enjoy the benefits of federation that we have enjoyed?”  And as Catholics, we can see that what they have accomplished in the last 60 years is much like what our Church, and our sister churches, have accomplished by pursuing unity amid all our flaws
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

#462: How to Judge Trump? By His Fruits You Will Know Him


Pope Francis on Trump: "Wait and see"

Everyone knows we are divided, and no one thinks that’s good. But we seem at a loss for a solution. Can the Catholic Vision help? How?

 Sometimes teachers learn more than they teach!

Recently I conducted a session for adults preparing to join the Roman Catholic Church.  An important question surfaced: are Catholic Social Teachings just general principles without much practical direction, or do they include specific actions to implement those principles--or are they someplace in between?

The question would be important anytime, since the answer determines how relevant Catholic Social Teaching  (CST) is to our daily experience of the society and the culture we inhabit.  But the question is especially urgent now, when Americans are divided into two equally unhappy camps.

One camp is convinced that America is in grave danger from terrorists, illegal immigrants, refugees, rampant crime, lost jobs, unfair trade deals, the media, and the power of establishment elites.  The other camp is equally convinced that America is endangered by a dishonest, incompetent, paranoid administration that is bent on conning the public and curtailing our rights and protections to achieve its mission of self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.

Observing these two unhappy camps locked in a power struggle, I recall a key theme from Vatican II (1962-1965): that the Catholic Church must position itself as a public source of wisdom, to help steer power away from evil and toward good.

This begs the question: can Catholic Social Teaching do that job? Can it provide the wisdom we need to steer this current power struggle in the US toward good results?

Pope Francis has been speaking to this question quite a lot recently. His comments focus on two notions of great practical value for people of faith.

Notion #1: “Wait and See.” One thing both unhappy camps share is inflated rhetoric.  One side invents its own facts: immigrants are pouring in, refugees import terror, crime is soaring, joblessness stems from free trade and regulation.  The other side spins hypothetical horror scenes of mass deportations, treasonous collusion, police state tactics.  Such rhetoric fuels the conflict but provides little basis for resolving it.

Francis prefers to wait for concrete facts.  In his January 22 interview with the Spanish newspaper  El Pais, when asked about of his own opinion of the new American president, Pope Francis avoided both alarmism and cheerleading.  He suggested, rightly I think, the prudence of basing any response on actual events rather than invented fears or anticipated outrages:

I think that we must wait and see. I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not be either. We will see. We will see what he does and will judge. Christianity always rests on the specific, either a position is specific or it is not Christianity.

…We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We lose sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from the concrete. What did you do, what did you decide, how do you move. That is what I prefer to wait and see.

The public response to Trump’s travel ban is a perfect illustration of “specific” action.  The very day the government began detaining immigrants, green card holders, even those with visas, protesters thronged airports, vast crowds filled city squares, and the courts acted swiftly to halt the ban. This fits rather neatly with Francis’ advice.  Rather than jump to conclusions, we should respond to results. 

But this leaves open the question: on what basis do we judge the results?

Notion #2: The Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching.  Of course, specific responses presume preparation.  They require the ability to mobilize people who are ready to act and who know when the time for action has arrived.  Pope Benedict XVI famously said that the Church cannot stand on the sidelines in the fight for justice--but to arbitrate any contest, one must master the rules. So in many recent statements, Pope Francis has been demonstrating how Catholic Social Teaching (CST) can provide practical rules for the conflicts we face.

Such practical teaching must avoid two extremes.  If CST offers only general principles, arguing about how they apply might lead to endless debate that frustrates rather than promotes action.  But if CST attempts to dictate specific policies or actions, people may argue that the Church is stepping beyond its expertise into technical areas where its competence is suspect.  In short, if the Church wants CST to provide practical wisdom, then it must go beyond theoretical platitudes but avoid technical solutions.

And here Francis guides us, for in comment after comment he makes it clear that CST offers something different.  CST offers neither mere principles nor specific solutions; instead, it offers concrete criteria for judging actions that we or others take to solve problems.

This makes CST highly pragmatic.  Instead of obsessing over hypotheticals, it focuses on actual results.  Instead of claiming to provide concrete solutions, CST provides clear criteria for evaluating concrete solutions.  It’s not enough to take actions that achieve results; those results must fit CST criteria or be rejected. In this sense, the gospel message is radically pragmatic: we need not argue about rhetoric or theories, but ask rather which theories are working or not working. Thus CST cannot dictate solutions, but it can judge them.

And this helps us to prepare to act, because we can formulate the criteria in advance of any particular action.  Francis has demonstrated this over and over.  Examples abound:

Asked by El Pais about populism that carries a message of “xenophobia and hatred toward the foreigner,” the pope replied:

Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After (Paul von) Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character…“Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let’s defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other peoples who may rob us of our identity.” And that is a very serious thing…No country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility of talking with their neighbors.

The use of “savior” here is key, since it implies that for Christians such a politics is idolatry—as clear a criterion as any in our faith!

Asked about the treatment of refugees and other religion, the pope was equally concrete:
You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.

Matthew chapter 25 is Jesus’ injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. The pope went on:

It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help…If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.

So if criterion #1 is idolatry, #2 is hypocrisy.

In mid-February Francis sent a letter to a meeting of popular movements in California to express his view of popular resistance movements:
It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice…because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance…For some time, the crisis of the prevailing paradigm has confronted us. I am speaking of a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.

These are signs of the times that we need to recognise in order to act.…The grave danger is to disown our neighbours. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, dehumanisation.

Criterion # 3: Disowning the neighbor leads to dehumanization.

Within the last two weeks some journals headlined the pope's opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline being constructed through US tribal lands. Actually, the pope never mentioned the pipeline. But he offered a clear criterion for addressing that case, when he told representatives of indigenous peoples at a U.N. agricultural meeting that the key issue facing them is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.
Francis at the Conference on indigenous peoples in Rome
Indigenous people, he said, have a right to their ancestral lands. And this provides a clear rule for action:

In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail…Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.

Finally, when Francis takes on the “Trickle Down Theory” for reducing economic inequality (see CrossCurrents #461), he does not talk about equality of OPPORTUNITY--he talks about the actual results of economic structures that, whatever the theory on paper, in practice LEAVE millions excluded from prosperity. We may argue about why this happens, and who is responsible, and how to solve the problem--but we may NOT deny that it is a problem that plagues most third-world countries as well as our own.

The preferential option for the poor is a matter of principle for Catholic Social Teaching, and no system that results in massive inequality can be justified by any theory. The pope believes the current model has had ample opportunity to prove itself, and has failed. So it is folly to expect suddenly better results if we cling to what Francis calls "the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." He believes it is time to give “equal opportunity” to another model.

Thus, on issue after issue, this pope advises that we “wait and see” but also prepare ourselves with clear standards for judging what actually happens. And for THAT job, Catholic Social Teaching provides a valuable legacy.

"By their fruits you will know them...."—and By His Fruits You Will know Him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017