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Catholic social teaching is Catholic moral teaching; Catholic moral teaching includes Catholic social teaching. It is a mistake—a common one, yet a profound error—to speak and think of “social” and “moral” teaching as separate and distinct categories. We need to begin treating this way of speaking (and thinking) as unacceptable. There is one unified, integrated teaching about how we as Catholics should conduct our lives in this world and what we should promote to our fellow citizens as the just, love-affirming, liberating, life-giving way.
The polarization of our politics and culture is much remarked on. And today we find the same polarization, or something uncomfortably like it, in the Church. It is sometimes said to pit “liberal” social-justice Catholics against “conservative” pro-life and pro-family Catholics. We experience this polarization so intensely that it’s an understandable temptation to think, “Gosh, we’ve got to do something about it now! Let’s look to see if we can find a principle (or set of principles) that can then be the thing(s) around which we unite.”
Desiring unity is not a bad thing; but let’s not get the cart before the horse. We should first be focused on the question, “What is true?” Then we can unite around true principles, precisely because they are true. The truth is what we’re after. And as Catholics we believe that we know something about the truth. Not the whole truth, of course; it is not given to mortals to know the whole truth. But we know some deep and powerful truths, and they’re truths that are taught to us by the Church—including truths about how we should conduct our lives and how we should order our lives together. If, for the sake of unity or anything else, we unite around a principle (or set of principles) that isn’t true, our unity will be pretty worthless, and it won’t last. Uniting around falsehoods is of no use.
So we need to get at the truth, and here we’re blessed to know that the Church is a teacher of truth. There are truths to which we reliably repair because they are taught definitively by the Church. That doesn’t mean that there is no room within the Church for conversation and debate—but there are some important things that are settled. And let me begin with what I believe is the most important, most foundational principle of Catholic teaching about how we should conduct our lives and order our lives together: the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. That is the “anchoring truth” (to borrow a phrase from my friend Hadley Arkes). All Catholic social teaching, all Catholic teaching about how we should conduct our lives, is founded on it.
Now there are debatable questions about how this principle should be applied, but there are some questions that are scarcely debatable for those who truly affirm the principle, who understand what each of these words means: “profound,” “inherent,” and “equal.” The principle means, for example, that we must respect and protect the life of every human being, from the tiniest embryo all the way to the frail, elderly person who is at the point of death. It means that we must respect and protect the life of the physically disabled or cognitively impaired person, and treat that person’s life as equal in value and dignity to the life of the greatest athlete, the most brilliant scientist, the most successful investment manager, the most gifted musician, the most beautiful fashion model or actress. It is hard for us to do this, and follow through on it consistently, because we naturally rank people, and for some purposes that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do. It’s not wrong to choose the best basketball player for the team. It’s not wrong to feature the prettiest fashion model on the magazine cover. It’s not wrong to award tenure based on the quality of a scholar’s research and teaching. But when it comes to fundamental questions of human dignity and the protection of the laws, there can be no legitimate ranking, no distinctions, no discrimination. All are “created equal.”
That means that we as Catholics must be fervent pro-lifers—tireless defenders of life, beginning with the precious life of the vulnerable child in the womb. This is non-negotiable. It also means that we must be fervent anti-racists, because to distinguish invidiously among people, to discriminate on the basis of some irrelevant feature like race, is to violate the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. As Catholics we must understand that all of us are brothers and sisters. Nothing can change that.
It also means that we must stand up for the institution of marriage, understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and for the principles of sexual morality that protect the institution of marriage. Sexual immorality always in the end undermines the culture of marriage—a culture on which every other valuable institution of society vitally depends. And by “always” I mean always. As Catholics, if we believe what the Church teaches, then we believe that her teaching about sex, no matter how controversial, no matter how derided it may be in elite sectors of the culture or even in the culture as a whole, is love-affirming and life-giving. When we urge people, and challenge ourselves, to live up to the requirements of chastity, yes, in one way we’re asking for sacrifice from ourselves and others, but much more deeply, we’re inviting them on a path to fulfillment and freedom. That is because we believe that what the Church teaches—in this area and all others—is proposed not as a punishment or a burden meant to test our obedience, but because it is life-giving and love-affirming.
It means that we must not close our hearts or our borders to asylum-seekers and refugees in need. We are a wealthy and powerful nation. And as the Bible teaches, as the Church teaches, and as both Washington and Lincoln taught, nations as well as persons are under judgment. Nations as well as persons have obligations. And of those to whom much has been given, much is expected. A nation blessed as ours is blessed has an obligation to do its share, and work in harmony with other nations, to assist those who are persecuted or suffering. We cannot do everything, but we must not suppose it is acceptable to do nothing.
It can be difficult, politically, to be a Catholic today. It’s something of an understatement to say that neither party these days is an entirely comfortable home for Catholics. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to belong to one of the two major political parties. Of course, some good Catholics have decided they’re opting out of the two-party system; they’re going to join the Solidarity Party, they’re becoming political independents, or whatever. That’s fine, too. But if you’re in a party, it seems to me that as a Catholic you’ve got to work within your party as well as in the larger political and cultural environment for those principles for which we stand. And that can be very, very, very tough. You may take some heat. Check that: You will take some heat. You may be subjected to some abuse—perhaps a lot of abuse. You may be vilified for standing up for what we as Catholics believe are the fundamental, core implications of the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. But we’ve got to stand up for it anyway. We have no choice. It is our duty as followers of Christ. If it is a cross, then we must bear it.
Of course, each of us has a distinct vocation. Some of us are called to refugee work; some are called to work on behalf of the child in the womb; some are called to work in support of marriage and the family. And some of us, having none of those as a particular vocation, are busy fulfilling our obligations in other domains. Still, all of us can and must be witnesses for what is true and good and right and just. All of us can contribute, even within the small communities to which we belong. That’s where what our tradition calls “subsidiarity” comes into play. Even within our small communities we can be what Rabbi Meir Soloveichik calls “candles,” holding the flame aloft, even if only in our book group, or in the faculty lounge, or in our parish or town. We can model for all whose lives we touch what it means, in the domain of morality, to be a truly faithful Catholic—someone who is pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-poor, pro-refugee, pro-asylum-seeker, pro–racial justice.
What we must not do is embrace any ideology that is incompatible with the unified Catholic vision. For example, we must never permit ourselves to fall in line with expressive individualism or me-generation liberalism—the ideology that gave us “sexual liberation,” “no fault” unilateral divorce, promiscuity and widespread father-absence, the drug culture, the idea of deliberate feticide as a “right,” same-sex marriage, and the like. That is just plain out of bounds for faithful Catholics. By the same token, we must never allow ourselves to embrace ethno-nationalism (or ethno-populism, or whatever they are calling it these days). If it’s got “ethno-” in it, we’re against it. It too is out of bounds.
Our philosophy differs radically from these competing moral-social-political visions. It might or might not prevail in the culture or in politics, but we must hold on to it, defend it, and act on it, win, lose, or draw. As my late beloved friend, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, would often remind me, it is not up to us to get the victory. That is God’s job, and we should not put ourselves in God’s place. Victory will come, if indeed it does come, in His time and on His terms. “Our job,” Fr. Neuhaus would say, “is to be faithful—always faithful.”
When we stand up for the child in the womb, for the refugee, for the victim of racism or other forms of oppression, for chastity and marriage and the family, when we do these things, we’re being faithful. And we need to ally ourselves with, and embrace as brothers and sisters, anyone of any faith or shade of belief who, as a matter of faith or as a matter of natural law, is prepared to join us in standing up for these principles. As Catholics, we are—by definition—not sectarians. We need to be open to working with Evangelical and other Protestants, black and white, with Jews, with Muslims, with our Latter-Day Saints friends, even with unbelievers.
The great Nat Hentoff, one of the heroes of the pro-life movement and a dear friend of mine—a classic progressive pro-lifer, back when there was such a thing—was an unbeliever. On his deathbed, with so many of us praying for him, he was listening to Billie Holiday. He had his own priorities, and God was not, at least explicitly, one of them. I can’t help but think, though, that at some level what Nat heard in the jazz music he loved was God’s message. However that may be, he was a great ally of Catholics and others in the cause of defending the child in the womb, and a dear brother.
No Catholic should suppose that people like Nat—or others who are not of our faith—cannot be powerful witnesses for the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. We must always be ready to join them, and have them join us, in bearing witness. And for those who claim to be faithful Catholics, but who have abandoned that foundational moral principle or refuse to speak up for it, let the courageous and often selfless witness of many who are not of our faith be a rebuke to them and put them to shame.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he teaches constitutional interpretation and philosophy of law.