Are You Callin' a Good Catholic?
By Glenn M. Edwards
Alabama Attorney General William Pryor has been nominated
for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th
District. Senator Orrin Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary
Committee, has complained that opposition to this judicial
nominee is based on the fact that Mr. Pryor is "a good Catholic,"
and a group called The Committee for Justice has run a newspaper
ad showing a courtroom door with a sign reading "Catholics
Need Not Apply."
Just how good a Catholic is Mr. Pryor?
We know that he supports the papal position on abortion.
Leaving aside the fact that some Catholic theologians make
some good arguments against this position, I want to know
if the nominee supports the Pope on matters that do not coincide
with the positions of the Republican Party.
Does he support the papal position on the death penalty,
that it should be used only in those extreme cases when it
is absolutely necessary to preserve the existence of the state?
Does he support the papal position on the distribution of
wealth? The Catholic Church, after all, on economic matters
is far to the left of even Jesse Jackson. In his encyclical
letter "Laborem exercens" John Paul II used the analogy of
a common workbench, where all contribute to the wealth of
the society and have a right to as much of the society's wealth
as they need to live a decent life. That same encyclical claims
that though there is an absolute right to private property,
there is no absolute right to productive property, or in other
words, to capital. Does Mr. Pryor agree with the Pope in this
Does he support the papal position on unions and opposition
to union busting? The Catholic Church clearly teaches that
workers have a God-given right to form unions and have a say
in the conditions under which they work. To hamper that right
in any way is to deny the human worth and dignity of workers
and consequently is a grave sin.
Does he support the pope's condemnation of George W. Bush's
recent (and ongoing) war in Iraq?
Does he support papal opposition to nuclear weapons and
Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s?
This list of questions obviously could go on and on and
It should be clear to all sentient observers that the natural
home of U. S. Catholics is in the Democratic Party, since
that party supports the Catholic position on so many issues.
Only on the issue of abortion is there any great disconnect
between the Church and the Democrats, and therefore it is
an issued that needs to be addressed.
At this point I should point out that I have been a Catholic
all my life, and in spite of attempts to join other faiths
I have been unable to do so. I can no more cease my Catholicism
than I can flap my arms and fly away. And as a Catholic I
have reservations about the papal teaching on abortion, hearkening
back to the great theologian of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas,
who held that human life did not begin at conception but rather
when the fetus was infused with a soul. This could not happen,
according to Aquinas, until the fetus was developed enough
to support cognition. Since Aquinas is the closest the Catholic
Church has to an official theologian, his words should carry
tremendous weight with all members of our church.
Nonetheless, I am willing to accept the papal teaching on
abortion, at least provisionally, if only as a matter of discipline,
but I believe that Catholic politicians in the United States
are correct to follow a pro-choice position because in the
matter of abortion there is the conflict of two goods: the
fetus's right to life and the woman's right to control over
her own body. Furthermore, I provisionally accept the papal
teaching only for religious reasons, and I would not impose
my religious beliefs on others, in large part because I fear
the ongoing attempt of some religious partisans to impose
their beliefs on me or my family. For these reasons, prudence
(one of the four cardinal virtues, after all) dictates that
in this matter Catholic politicians put their oaths of office
ahead of action based on the teachings of the pope.
Pope John Paul II preaches strenuously and often against
the "culture of death" that he sees as encroaching on the
western world. But what is George W. Bush if not the poster
boy for the culture of death? From his record as Texas governor,
where he executed a record number of people, usually spending
only one half hour on their petitions for clemency, to his
push for war in Iraq against all reason and all evidence,
to his mocking of the condemned, born-again Christian Karla
Faye Tucker, George W. Bush has shown himself more than "half
in love with easeful death." Will Farrell on Saturday Night
Live parodied Mr. Bush as happily coming to the realization
that "War: it's just like an execution! Only supersized!"
Was ever a parody more truthful?
It seems to me that anyone who wants to be considered "a
good Catholic" should be calling for an impeachment inquiry.
Maybe we should just skip the whole questioning of who is
or is not a good Catholic and leave God out of the public
square. We used to have a tradition in this country that you
didn't make public statements unless you could back them up
with argument. This idea touches on the very important matter
In addition to being a Catholic I'm also a historian, and
one of the rules of this discipline is that one is not allowed
to make statements that are not falsifiable. What this means
is that the only way to prove things (albeit provisionally)
is by failing to disprove them, so it follows that any statements
capable of being proven must be statements that are capable
of being shown to be false.
I can say, for example, that Christians believe that Jesus
of Nazareth is the Son of God. That is a falsifiable statement.
Anyone can bring evidence against the truth of that statement
and it would be the job of the person making the statement
to show that the evidence presented is insufficient to disprove
the statement. (It is important to realize that falsifiable
does not mean false. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
I believe many things that aren't falsifiable, but I realize
that belief is different from knowledge. This is a distinction
that is lost on many believers these days.)
Consequently, I as a historian cannot say that Jesus really
is the Son of God since that statement cannot be disproved
under the rules historians use. Consider this example, which
may illustrate why the statement that Jesus is the Son of
God is not falsifiable. Suppose one were to say that Jesus
is the son of Loki, the Norse god of mischief, who came to
earth in order to turn us all away from the worship of Odin,
the true God. Now. Tell me what sort of evidence could show
that statement to be false. Since this is just a thought experiment,
I'm not asking you to produce the evidence, but only to tell
me what sort of evidence would work to disprove that statement.
In other words, if the Evidence Fairy came swooping down and
gave you whatever evidence you wanted, what would it be? How
about an autographed picture of Jesus with the inscription
"Best Wishes! Son of God"?
If you think about it for even a while, you'll necessarily
come to the conclusion that there is no possible evidence
to disprove (and therefore no possible evidence to prove)
the claims of religion. If you want to argue against gay marriage,
for example, you will have to present falsifiable evidence
that gay marriage will harm the society and that we therefore
have a vested interest in preventing it. Don't bother telling
me that God hates fags (as one allegedly Christian group -
thankfully not Catholic - likes to say). Evidence of God's
displeasure with homosexuals, or of God's supposed pleasure
in the shenanigans of Christian fundamentalists, are not falsifiable
and therefore should have no place in public discourse.
The charge is sometimes made that liberals brought religion
into the public square during the days of the Civil Rights
movement and that it is hypocritical for them now to say that
conservatives may not do so, but this is based on a false
understanding of the history of the movement. Though Martin
Luther King, Jr., and others used religious imagery in their
speeches and writings and were motivated in part by their
religious beliefs, they did not attack the religious beliefs
of those who disagreed with them, nor did they say that those
who opposed them were irreligious.
Read Dr. King's famous letter from the Birmingham jail, in
which he wrote of his disappointment with the failure of many
churches to support the struggle. " In deep disappointment
I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured
that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no great
disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the
church. . . . Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.
But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through
social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists."
Compare that with idea that God permitted the terror attacks
of 9/11 because of American toleration of homosexuality. I
trust you can see the difference.
Note also that the leaders of the Civil Rights movement
did not ask for any reforms that grew out of their religious
beliefs. The Civil Rights movement wanted only that the 14th
Amendment to the Constitution be enforced. The pro-life forces
may be on a similar track here when they try to extend 14th
Amendment protections to fetuses. This is certainly a defensible
(and falsifiable) proposition, but those who make that case
have to explain how these protections could be so extended
when the Supreme Court has refused to extend them to women
on the grounds that this manifestly was not the intent of
the Congress that passed the amendment nor of the states that
ratified it. Keep your statements falsifiable, and we can
discuss them. If not, don't even bother to bring them up.
One other thing. I wish Chris Matthews would stop the gratuitous
references to his Catholic religion. All he does is embarrass
the rest of us.