Friday, October 3, 2008

Should the Church Get Involved in Morality?

It seems to me that the flip side of the Church staying out of politics is the Church concentrating on its evangelical mission of preaching the gospel, converting sinners and building up God's flock. Integral to this mission is maintaining a clear witness to right and wrong, distinguishing between good and evil and calling the faithful (and all people of good will) to do the right and avoid evil.

Jim Wallis wants us to "vote out poverty." If only it were that easy. What he actually proposes is that the Church get involved in what could be termed "outcome-based politics." He holds up the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and equality as the outcomes we seek and then suggests that we work for those outcomes through all partisan political means possible. Morality must take a back seat to the more important goal of eradicating poverty. So we are told to support the Democratic Party even though it advocates clear moral evil in the form of legalized private killing. We must become morally complicit in moral evil for the sake of a greater good. This is utilitarianism and it contradicts Christian morality at the most fundamental level. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae: "the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." (#57) As Brend Wannenwetsch, points out, it is the teaching of another of the pope's encyclicals, Veritas Splendour, that provides the background for this teaching. (See B. Wannenwetsch, "'Intrinsically Evil Acts'; or, Why Abortion and Ethanasia Cannot Be Justified" in Ecumenical Ventures in Ethics: Protestants Engage Pope John Paul II's Moral Encyclicals, ed. R. Hutter and T. Dieter, Eerdmans, 1998). In Veritas Splendour, Pope John Paul II made it clear that there is such a thing as an "intrinsically evil act."

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tries to get Alyosha to answer the question of whether he would agree that it is acceptable to torture one little five-year old girl and inure yourself to her tears if that were the only way to "build the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last." Would you agree, demands Ivan? "No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly. (Book II, Chapter 4 "Rebellion") Alyosha says that he would rather leave millions of people in misery than torture one innocent little girl. He is right, but not by any kind of utilitarian calculation. From a utilitarian point of view he is selfish and moralistic. But from a Christian perspective he is correct to fear God, refuse to commit an evil act that will imperil his soul and leave the results to God.

Now I know that Jim Wallis proclaims that Obama would reduce abortions and probably he really believes this in his heart of hearts. But Obama steadfastly declares that mothers have the "right" to kill their children and that he will defend this right legislatively. (I hear that a pro-life, pro-Obama website is about to be launched. As one wit said: Can the McCain for Pacifism website be far behind?) How can we take seriously those who say they want to reduce abortions when they vote for politicans whose policies ensure that abortion on demand will remain legal?

We who argue that Evangelicals and Catholics cannot support Obama are accused of being single issue fanatics who don't look at the big picture. But what bigger picture is there than the fundamental right to life? It seems to me that we are being invited to enter into the murky world of partisan politics and engage in compromises and trade-offs in order to achieve our ideological goals. This is exactly what the Church must not do. We don't have an opinion on every issue because not every issue is a moral issue and even when it is a moral issue it is not always clear cut. The Church has a right to say to its members and to society as a whole that to vote for abortion is to imperil one's soul. This is the subject that the Church is the expert on and this is the kind of issue on which the Church must speak. Morality, unlike partisan politics, is the Church's business.


Michael DeFazio said...

To be fair, I think Wallis and Co. would respond by demanding that poverty itself be acknowledge as a moral issue. They would say that you have missed their point by continuing to speak of moral issues on the one hand, and poverty on the other, only in terms of ideology without the language of morality. What would you say to the argument that poverty is very much a moral issue, and that therefore the choice is not between moral issues and poverty, but between two parties that support some moral issues and denigrate others?

Craig Carter said...

You are right that they would say this. But I think their thinking is too fuzzy at this point. Consider the sentence: "Poverty is a moral issue." What precisely does this mean? I submit that this is a very unclear statement. Does it mean that those with a surplus of this world's goods should help those in need? Does it mean that there should be economic equality so that no one is poor no matter what choices they make? Does it mean that the government should implement socialist policies to make ensure relative economic equality? Does it mean to imply that all poverty is the result of oppression (as Marxism would say)? Or does it mean that we should help anyone who wishes to escape poverty by hard work and self-discipline do so?

Until these questions are answered, I simply don't know what "poverty is a moral issue" means so I don't know whether I agree or disagree with it. Here is what I do know.

1. Christians should share their material goods with the poor. (This is a moral issue.)

2. Not all poverty is the result of oppression (i.e. Marxist analysis is false).

3. There are two kinds of activity Christians (i.e. NGO's) should be involved in: 1) relief (of immediate pressing needs for food, health care, shelter, clothing etc.) and 2) development (micro enterprise, agriculture, education etc. designed to foster self-reliance not dependence)

4. The exact nature of the role of government in trying to eradicate poverty is debatable. (This is a political issue.)

If the only way to eliminate poverty is to make the government so big and so powerful that it becomes a "soft totalitarian" power, then I do not favor doing so. Should governments aid the poor directly or fund private organizations that are doing so? (I tend to favor the latter.)So Christians are bound to disagree on issues like a guaranteed annual income or permanent welfare payments etc.

5. Given that Christians are bound to disagree on the role of government versus the role of the Church, NGO's and individuals, this disagreement will involve debates on political ideologies (capitalism, Marxism, socialism, etc.) My problem with Wallis and co. is that they have taken a particular side in these debates and claim that it is a moral issue to support their particualar government-centric approach. The moral issue is that Christians are commanded to be charitable. The political issue is whether a high tax, welfare state moving slowley toward socialism is the right way to be charitable.

Sometimes I think Sojourners' philosophy comes down to this: they want the government to take money from people who are richer than they are and give it to people who are poorer than they are and the role of Sojourners is just to engage in political lobbying and nothing more. That seems not be constitute an adequate Christian witness to me. I actually give my money and time to help the poor and that seems to me to be a necessary part of obeying God's command to share with the poor.

In sum, we need to disentangle the moral issue and the political issue. When the Church spends its moral capital on political issues, it fails in its witness.

Sam Adams said...

Craig, I'd like to hear you comment on the possibility of not voting as a means of Christian witness. If voting for Obama is problematic as you rightly say because of his extreme position on abortion, then McCain would be the other option. Yet I find McCain distasteful for many reasons, not the least of which is his militaristic passion. Should one vote for McCain simply because he is against abortion (a position which might be simple political expediency anyway...) and let abortion be the issue that continues to supply the right wing with evangelical votes, regardless of their other positions? If abortion is less vague than other issues (war, diplomacy, etc.) does that mean we vote for the clear issues and let the muddy issues be? Is it possible that not voting could be a witness to the state that

a) the Christian community is called to faithfulness and patience--we will wait for a candidate we can fully embrace.


b) God is in control of history, not the Republicans or Democrats, and things aren't as urgent as you might think.

What do you think?


Craig Carter said...

Good question. I've been hearing it a lot. See my next post for my answer. One quick point here: the only urgent thing is obedience.