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Condemning Excommunication as a Political Tool

I'll tell ya, unless Rod Dreher receives constant reader correspondence offering encouragement, it must take a whole lot of resolve for him to persevere. I'm not afraid to enter a hostile room, as it were, and be a lone voice, but it must change things substantially when that hostile room is also the workplace, and when offering opinion is the business. (And where coworkers refer to you as "Brother Dreher" and "Herr Dreher.")

I just took some time reading the Dallas Morning News blog, which has a running conversation going about whether Catholic bishops should react harshly, even unto excommunication, when politicians pull the "personally opposed, but..." trick. The first post was by Jim Frisinger, at Dec 1, 12:09 PM (apparently, there are no direct links), who says, "I shudder at the effort by a few Catholic bishops to enforce their terms of what being a 'good Catholic' is on elected officials who happen to be Catholic but who refuse to vote a consistent Roman Catholic Church platform."

A 2:35 p.m. comment by John Chamless better captures what I see as the common disjunct reasoning:

A very practical matter is being overlooked. If the Catholic Church was viewed as controlling the votes of Catholic politicians, there would be a backlash, with some people automaticaly voting against any Catholic. It was a high hurdle for John Kennedy to convince the public that he wouldn't be controled by the Vatican. Now, most of us don't think at all about the religion of a candidate, but it wasn't always that way.

I don't know how true either the backlash idea or the lack-of-thought idea is. On the latter count, I'd suggest that members of a religion do pay some attention to whether a candidate is a coreligionist. In that sense, it seems that a Church has a positive duty to enforce an understanding of who can rightfully claim to be a member of that religion. Extending beyond the denomination, Chamless is assuming that the public — now, not in the 1960s — would object to religious fidelity, even from a Catholic. I think that's a tide that may have turned.

Moreover, the "controlled by the Vatican" line strikes me as unfair, and it may be that the public has had enough experience with Vatican-dissenting politicians to see it as such. The Church itself doesn't claim to micromanage the professional lives of its members. Rather, it offers guidance for how theological considerations ought to bear on our behavior. In that case, knowing a candidate's religion is useful to voters to gain a general concept of what the politician's moral positions are. Excommunication would simply make explicit where those positions become hard rules. Rod is entirely right to keep pressing the question of whether "personally opposed, but..." ought to have been a valid political position in the case of slavery. Perhaps media types don't get this, but there is a substantial segment of the American public that would consider it a plus that a candidate would be reliably pro-life and against gay marriage (for example).

I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to the extent that people don't consider a candidate's religion. As others of Rod's coworkers have noted, religion lies in the realm of morality. What they didn't subsequently question was whether, if a candidate's religion is immaterial, we ought to be concerned that morality is not important in our elected leaders. That may go too far, but at least we must wonder where the relevant morals will come from if not from religion.

And that's the central problem: these issues — and the government's position on them — always were, are still, and always will be up for grabs. If, as Michael Landauer said at 1:52 p.m., "As a legal right, the right to choose abortion is Caeser's to give," then it is also Caesar's to take away. In a representative democracy, the people (even the religious ones) ultimately decide what Caesar gives and takes. (Obviously, if abortion is murder, which I believe it is, then the right should not be Caesar's to grant.)

This lost distinction appeared — almost incidentally — again at 4:54 p.m., when Michael Landauer wrote:

I'm not sure if ex-communication is lobbying, and I'm not sure the First Amendment doesn't trump tax-free status, but it's an interesting point. Keeping church and state (morals and policy) separate works more FOR the church than against it.

The equation of church and state with "morals and policy," respectively, is one of the most dangerous fallacies of our time, and one that has, coincidentally, had the general result of furthering liberal causes, at least social ones. Policies can't help but relate to morality in some way. Pretending that this is not the case merely assumes one's own morality as objective. When that "objectivity" extends to the point at which a Church and its followers are barred from direct competition with other ideologies for "hearts and minds" (e.g., in public schools), that certainly doesn't work "more FOR the church than against it." And when the "objective" view is that those who influence public policy ought to leave their religion at the church door, as it were, then the Church's mission of battling those ideologies in practice is unjustly obstructed.

At least according to this IRS PDF, it would look to be doubtful that threatening and carrying out the excommunication of an elected representative would risk a Church's tax-exempt status. In the case of lobbying, it's a question of whether an organization's activities are "substantial," which is measured primarily according to the allocation of time and resources; excommunication does not require much of either. In the case of electioneering, while of course kicking a politician out of the Church would be quite a statement, it does not amount to telling members to vote against him or her (the other candidate could be worse, after all).

Posted by Justin Katz @ 11:22 PM EST


Justin, if the pope were truly serious about excommunicating those who blithely ignore Catholic social principles, the first person he should excommunicate is himself.

Think about it.

Joseph D'Hippolito @ 12/02/2003 08:02 PM EST

Joe, I think the difference is "blithely". Sure, in some exercises of his judgment, I did not necessarily agree with the Pope's. But they were judgment calls, and his to make. And I doubt seriously he made them "blithely". Support for abortion is not a "judgment" call for a Catholic, blithely or otherwise.

As for Ex-com pro-abort cath pols ("PACP"), I understood that ex-com was something you do to yourself (ie, put yourself outside the Church). The Church's action is merely a public recognition of the fact of what you did. I see no problem with it. The Church, like The 514 Local Union of Buggy Whip Makers, gets to decide who's in, who's out. If a PACP no longer professes what the Church professes, the Church is 100% within its rights to publicly say so.

c matt @ 12/05/2003 11:26 AM EST