Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
Last month the Catholic newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, which was a regular visitor to my home as a youngster, headlined an article about election 2012 with the words “Pro Life and Social Justice Catholics Increasingly at Odds.” The election is now past, but the division apparently lingers. It is an unnatural dichotomy, one that any teacher of the faith deeply regrets. It certainly has made the life of a pastor more challenging as he tries to articulate Catholic social teaching for his people.
The article went on to point out how there now seems to be a serious division between Catholics who style themselves “pro-life” and others who prefer to be identified as “social justice” Catholics. The former group is considered conservative and the other liberal. The “pro-life” Catholics, we are told, are concerned about legalized abortion, same-sex marriages and the requirement for church institutions to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in employee health plans. Social justice Catholics, on the other hand, are primarily very concerned about some approaches to fiscal reform which they believe are in conflict with Catholic values by hurting the poor.
A third group, not so readily acknowledged, seems to approach its political decisions on the basis of party loyalty, personal and group interests, and the likeability of the candidates as presented by the media. This is a group which politicians eagerly pursue since they tend to move from one side to the other, depending upon the way the wind is blowing and the personal attractiveness of a particular candidate, irrespective of his or her party.
In our nation for many years now we have had two major parties, Democrats and Republicans. My father was a small business man. He owned his own corner drugstore. He and my mother were registered Republicans. That was rather typical for folks like my dad whose survival depended upon the success and profitability of their businesses. I, on the other hand, well- schooled through my seminary years in Catholic social teaching, eventually found a home that I found more comfortable at the time in the Democratic Party. As a citizen of Chicago, on voting day, I pulled the Democratic lever and didn’t worry about the individual candidates. That was the party which seemed to serve best the interests of all people. That was my judgment back then.
For me it all changed when my party, the Democrats suddenly lost interest in advocating and protecting the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of every human life. The openness to abortion as a solution to individual and societal problems was a development that frankly shocked me. The party’s refusal to allow one of its own prominent pro-life governors to speak at its 1992 convention ended our relationship. The thought that the most vulnerable of all human beings were indispensable and that their elimination was viewed as a positive step forward in advancing the well-being of the human family simply did not strike me as a just solution to problems resulting from poverty, a growing population and unbridled sexual behavior. Abortion, after all, is a violent act at the expense of nascent human life.
Certainly the sexual revolution must bear the brunt of the blame. The rapid secularism of past decades has done everything it can to promote casual sex without the obviously natural corresponding responsibility of openness to human life. The openness to life has to be closed so that people can go about their own personal agendas without dealing with the consequences of their sexual behavior. Because the unborn child has no voice and seemingly no rights, the justification of abortion, even on demand, comes across as a slam dunk, even for those who supposedly advocate justice.
A big problem for Catholics is the fact that neither major political party advocates the full complement of Catholic social teaching. The dignity of every human person is not a tenet Catholics embrace simply by faith. As people of both faith and reason, we necessarily bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square. Jesus encouraged us all to “love one another.” Hence we do our best to promote the well-being of all, even the weakest among us, to share our blessings with those most in need, to defend marriage and to protect the lives and dignity of all, particularly the weak, the vulnerable and the voiceless.
As a teacher of faith, endowed with reason, I challenge all Catholics who find themselves in either the “pro-life” camp or the “social justice” camp if there is not a total embrace of all Catholic social teaching. Frankly, as I read positions from both sides, I find it more compelling to be Catholic in the “pro-life” camp, not in the “social justice” camp. Why is that? I find pro-life people more open to the full gamut of Catholic social teaching, but with inadequate solutions to many of the problems that go beyond the life issues. The so-called “social justice” Catholics, on the other hand, seem much too comfortable with a total disregard for the protection of all human life from conception to natural death. All facets of Catholic social teaching are important, but there is a priority. The taking of human life can never be tolerated. But assistance to the poor and the sick can be approached in a variety of ways, some of which, admittedly, can be ineffective.
Throughout the election season, Catholics hounded me to give our people clear instructions about how and for whom to vote. I did try my best to tell people at least how to vote, taking into consideration all dimensions of Catholic social teaching, respecting the legitimacy of prioritizing issues, and then voting for the candidate who best will serve the honest concerns of the human experience.
Yes, there was a time when one could simply be Democrat or Republican, or so it seems. But I can no longer find a comfortable home in either group. For that reason I too must pick and choose, not the teachings I prefer, but the candidates whom I believe will best serve the well-being of the entire human family. For now we must pray for all our elected leaders. May they responsibly serve the demands of respect for human life, true justice and an ever-elusive peace among God’s people.