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Who Are You Callin' a Good Catholic?
August 13, 2003
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 matter?

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 on.

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 of falsifiability.

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.

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