No One Expects Doug’s Inquisition!

Staff writer Bruce Nolan of the Times-Picayune has produced a report in today’s edition of the paper, on what appears to have been a day-long conference on how to vote, held at Loyola University yesterday. “Catholics urged to remove partisanship from politics: Issues should dictate vote, speakers say,” according to the headline writer. Behold ye how short the news cycle hath become; I’m up before dawn, have donned my pointy hat of the Not-So-Holy Office of the Fisk, and if you will but print this, my web-epistle, you can read it over breakfast along with your newspaper.

Granted, Bruce Nolan had the difficult task of squeezing a day-long conference into just a few column-inches of print. The theological elite had a lot more to say than he had room to report. We’re going to fisk what we’ve got; if the real message of the conferees was “Bush/Kerry 2004!”, then I’m just sorry I wasn’t there to hear it. Here’s Nolan’s summary of the conference:

In deciding how to vote next month, Catholics should set aside pure self-interest and evaluate candidates by the light of the Gospel, which calls for protection of the weak, the poor and the unborn, several speakers said Saturday at a daylong conference on faith and politics at Loyola University.

Now there’s a straw man right there. Surely not very many of those decent Catholic folk needed to be told to “set aside pure self-interest.” I’m figuring that most of them will vote based on their thoughts about self, spouse, kids, employer, city, state, party, country, world, and whatever they think is political good sense. That’s where I come in; I don’t have to make a show of limiting what I say to what the Gospel says. I feel free to say that there’s more at stake than the weak, the poor, and the unborn; there’s also the good of the unathletic but average, the strong, the middle class, the rich, and the already-born.

The names of Sen. John Kerry and President Bush almost never came from the speakers’ lips.

Behold the power of the tax code to suffocate freedom of speech!

“Our faith calls us to be political but not partisan,” said the Rev. Fred Kammer, the head of the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus, principal sponsors of the conference with the Sisters of Mount Carmel.

But I say unto you that there is no escaping partisanship; yea, verily, for most any stand on most any issue will hurt one group of people and help another. And as for the formal political parties and their candidates, if the speakers didn’t feel free to talk about them openly and directly, then I say again, behold the power of the tax code.

Instead, Kammer and John Carr, director of the social justice office for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, surveyed Catholic social justice teaching on a range of issues and left choosing the appropriate candidates to the voters.

If the emphasis was on what is allegedly socially just rather than on individual liberty, national security, and strengthening good constitutional order, then the message of the conference fell just short of “Vote Democrat.”

The point was “not to dictate votes or make Catholics into a voting bloc,” Kammer said. “But we do want to act in a consistent moral framework in all that we do in the public square.”

All we like sheep have fallen into line; each of us has turned into the Society’s way.

The church’s views, expressed in terms of values not candidates, are distilled in “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” summarizing Catholic social justice teaching at the Web site of the bishops’ conference at www.usccb.org.

Okay, but I’m here to talk about happenings in New Orleans, so you’ll have to decide about the Bishops’ Conference yourself.

At the core of those concerns is a consistent regard for the sanctity of life and the dignity of each person, Carr said.

John Locke said we have rights of life, liberty, and estate; his specificity is reassuring. Jefferson asserted rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; the third one is redundant, so taking estate off the list is a big net loss. But Carr chucks both liberty and estate and substitutes some vague stuff about dignity; I think if we could just hold onto our liberty and estate, we could probably drastically increase our dignity.

Catholic voters should be engaged on many issues, including abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, welfare policy, health care, foreign aid and peacemaking abroad, Carr and Kammer said.

What about crime control, national security, and preservation of strong, meaningful state and local governments in a federal system? Will Carr and Kammer give the voters permission to think about those issues? Do they need permission?

For example, “We believe it morally wrong to have 45 million people in this country without access to health care,” Carr said.

I was hoping for better from the divinely inspired. Actually, some large number of people were without health insurance for at least some part of the year. Even those, variously, had access to Medicaid, emergency rooms, first aid materials, cold remedies, pain remedies, antihistamines, antifungals, anti-inflammatories, anti-emetics, anti-diarrheals, public clinics, charity hospitals, physicians and nurses working pro bono, dirt-cheap generics, cheap flu vaccines, and the miraculous healing power of the same God who gave Carr and Kammer their authority. Doesn’t some of that count as “access to health care”?

Candidates soliciting votes usually ask voters, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

“That’s not our question,” Carr said. “Our question should be, ‘Are we better off? This election is not about our pocketbooks. It’s about life and death, war and peace. Who moves ahead and who gets left behind.

As for “life and death, war and peace,” there’s not a word recorded in the article about Iran, North Korea, al-Qa’eda, or the indignity of having one’s head separated from one’s shoulders or of having one’s flight diverted from Los Angeles to the Manhattan financial district. Is it just because Bruce Nolan, our reporter, couldn’t include everything that was said in the space alotted him? Look, I’ve read the New Testament a couple of times, but I don’t remember voters’ being forbidden to think about concrete cases, especially when the theological experts are giving them express orders to think about “life and death, war and peace.”

“Catholics should be asking, ‘I want to know where you stand in terms of the poor?'”

So the election is about pocketbook issues after all. I knew it.

But, as Kammer and Carr pointed out, Catholic teachings find a complete home in neither major political party.

Democratic positions in support of abortion and same-sex marriage violate traditional Catholic values, even while the church is more sympathetic to some Democratic economic initiatives, Carr said.

Meanwhile, some of Bush’s welfare initiatives offend the church’s sense of economic justice, even as the church favors his faith-based initiatives, Carr said in one of the few times he mentioned a candidate by name.

All right, we’re now fifteen paragraphs into the article, apparently without the Good and the Just having given Nolan anything more than a vague reference to “war and peace” to show that they’re aware that an Islamic mullah and an atheist Dear Leader are about to get their hands on nuclear weapons, or that there’s a whole band of fanatics who are itching to blow up “the Crusaders and Jews” and who would just love to deliver the weapons to their destinations. Does it really never enter Carr and Kammer’s pretty little heads that one of the destinations could be the Vatican? Just asking.

The presidential election pits Kerry, a supporter of abortion rights, against Bush, whose pre-emptive war against Iraq produced deep reservations from the Vatican and most of the nation’s Catholic bishops.

Yeah, we missed one in Iraq. Damn. It makes me mad, too. I hope there’s still time and political will to handle the bigger threats. But in the event that Iran, North Korea, and al-Qa’eda wage pre-emptive nuclear war against the Vatican, I hope the Pope escapes to one of his “deep reservations” underground.

Around the country, bishops have begun to speak out on how Catholics might sort out conflicting values.

It should be apparent by now that I don’t think the bishops are likely to show themselves to be very apt political commentators. But let’s give them a chance.

In New Orleans, Archbishop Alfred Hughes said that though voters should consider a whole constellation of issues, candidates’ positions on “fundamental” issues such as abortion should weigh more heavily than “prudential” issues around which there may be disagreement, such as a candidate’s stance on capital punishment or the pre-emptive war against Iraq.

“In the scheme of things, the destruction of innocent human life is the more fundamental issue and the less debated issue than the new issue, pre-emptive war,” Carr said in an interview Saturday.

“The Holy Father is clear on pre-emptive war. He was probably the most outspoken opponent of it. But that doesn’t have the same moral claim as something the church has held for centuries,” Carr said. “I agree with the Holy Father; that’ll be part of my vote. But I’ll have to weigh all that together. . . .

So we have the Archbishop and, via Carr, the Pope on record as being against our preempting enemy nations in war. I’m sure the Archbishop and the Pope are evenhanded about the matter: They probably oppose Iran and North Korea waging pre-emptive war on us, too. The thing is, North Korea’s Dear Leader doesn’t care what the bishops think and the Iranian mullahs probably hate the Pope so much they’ll listen to him and do the opposite. And is this Pope any more fit to comment on foreign policy and war than the ones in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories? It doesn’t look that way to me.

“Everybody has to search his own soul, his own conscience, and try to make a decision consistent with what they believe about human life and dignity.”

I’d rather that everybody search his own good judgment.

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