In a private conversation with a graduate of Franciscan University, who was dismayed at the school’s decision to honor an advocate of torture, preemptive war, and militarism in general, I stated that Republican Catholics were replicating what Democratic Catholics have long done, selectively rejecting aspects of Church teaching. But when I thought about it, I realized I was wrong. What conservative Catholics are doing is far worse.
No one ever thought that the various dissidents of the Left are faithful on doctrinal matters. Those who hold that abortion is a morally acceptable option or that homosexual marriage is not an ontological impossibility are unlikely to hold orthodox opinions on matters of theological faith. If very religious, they are likely crusaders for women’s ordination and other theological errors and their praxis is unlikely to include much that is traditional. Even their Christology is likely to be suspect.
The most visible dissidents, like Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden, are unlikely to even give such things much thought. It is evident to anyone that they are mere cultural Catholics, ones who are practical secularists.
But Rick Santorum and his legion of conservative Catholic fans, or the Franciscan University of Steubenville? Or Fr Sirico or Congressman Paul Ryan? They do hold to orthodox opinions about theological matters, and are apparently sincere in their devotion. I’m sure I could have a conversation with Mr Santorum or his ilk about the sacraments, or Christology, or abortion and find little to argue about. FUS prides itself on its fidelity to the Church.
And that is why they are so dangerous.
First, they give the impression to those outside the Church that their aberrant opinions on war and torture are acceptable among Catholics. This harms the credibility of the Church, already weakened by years of scandal.
Of course, we should be able to count on our bishops to correct such misunderstandings. Unfortunately, among those bishops who are not themselves Republicans, too many are testically challenged and say nothing. Or they are so flattered that someone is using Catholic terminology, so pleased to have been included in the conversation, that they just grin and wet themselves.
Second, priests and politicians who, however much they may use language from the tradition, dissent on social teaching confirm Catholics in error. When a priest like Fr Sirico portrays his individualistic capitalist ethos as somehow the epitome of “subsidiarity”, or Congressman Ryan promotes his proposed budget, which rewards the rich and punishes the poor and does not touch military spending, as somehow directly flowing from his study of St Thomas, there are too many who are only too happy not to question them. When Franciscan University honors a career militarist, one who vigorously defends torture, too many Catholics are only too willing to use this to justify what their nationalism predisposes them to favor.
Particularly tragic are the number of converts to Catholicism who take in their mentors’ aberrant politics with their sound theology. I know several people who came to faith while studying at any number of small conservative Catholic liberal arts colleges. Converts are in a teachable mode, and when their teachers mouthed right wing ideology they took it in as if by osmosis. It was only later, when they read the social encyclicals for themselves that they realized they had been misled.
I know that dissidents of the Right insist that the things they reject, when they are honest enough to admit that they reject them, are not infallible, not de fide. In this they echo the dissidents of the past. But a Catholicism that held only to strictly defined dogma would hardly be recognized as Catholicism at all. The Church insists that even the ordinary Magisterium be respected.
Those on the Right who defend torture, preemptive war, free market capitalism, and the rest are in fact guilty of grave errors.
They are guilty of consequentialism, the idea that the morality of an act is measured by the good that it attains. This has always been condemned by the Church.
And they are guilty of allowing nationalism, in the name of American Exceptionalism, to trump the obedience they owe to Christ and His Church. And American Exceptionalism is really only Americanism, which was condemned as a heresy in the 19th century.
It remained a heresy in the 20th.
And it remains one today, in the 21st.