Prior to attending the University of St. Thomas in Houston, I knew very little about the Catholic faith. I recall the first time I met someone I knew to be Catholic in elementary school, and wondered “If they’re Roman, how did they get here?” My knowledge of Catholicism didn’t expand much beyond that point through high school.
While attending North Harris College (now Lone Star College – North Harris), I was offered a scholarship to the University of St. Thomas (UST) to compete for their speech and debate team. I knew I wanted to stay close to home, and UST had a fairly competitive speech and debate program at the time (it has since become defunct), so it sounded like a natural fit. For someone who professed very little faith through high school and college (and some could argue I was so rebellious to be nearly agnostic), picking a Catholic university seemed like an odd fit.
Before I arrived on campus at UST, I assumed all Christian traditions more or less thought the world was about 6,000 years old, that the bible was literally true, and that scientific knowledge took a back seat to what the bible said. I suppose I can chalk that up to my first four years of schooling at a conservative Baptist school.
Upon taking my first theology class at UST, I discovered to my delight that Catholicism saw faith and reason as interlinked and not in competition with one another. Not only did they not contest what science had discovered, but emphasized how scientific discoveries can be yet another way for us to better understand God’s creation. It wasn’t about Creationism vs. Evolution. Rather, it was about gaining an appreciation for the divine in all aspects of the world.
Before I graduated from UST, I was baptized, confirmed and received my first communion in the Catholic Church. That’s not to say I was terribly faithful right out of the gate. I had my stumbles, my doubts and even a long period of time where I publicly left the Catholic Church for faith traditions that reinforced my political beliefs of the time. As I grew older, and dare I say a little wiser, I realized that I wasn’t really looking for the truth. I was just looking for my religion to conform to my politics, when instead I should have been seeking guidance from my faith to form my political beliefs. About the time I figured that out, I made the decision to return to the Catholic Church.
So that obviously was going to make me a Republican, right? Not so fast with the labels. I quickly discovered that the Catholic faith fell somewhere down in the middle.
A quick review of some of the obvious issues will reveal how the traditional labels don’t quite fit.
I always believed abortion to be wrong and swore I would never participate in one in any way, shape, form or fashion. I just didn’t believe in pushing such beliefs on others. There was just one problem with that – we’re talking about, at a minimum, two people – a mother and a child. What about the decision being forced on that child – a life and death decision, at that? When it came down to it, how could I sit back and say, “I would never participate in an abortion, but what people do with their own children is their business alone”? After all, we would never protect someone who abuses their children by claiming that it’s “their family and their choice.” For me, this is a paramount issue because of the number of innocent lives at stake. Far too few people appreciate the gravity of the matter and don’t understand why the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church spend so much time making it a point of emphasis. If judged on that issue alone, I would appear to be radically conservative.
So if I’m a conservative, surely I must believe in the free market, right? The Catholic Church addressed the free markets, particularly as they affect labor markets, in Pope Leo XIII’s classic 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in which he wrote:
We now approach a subject of great importance, and one in respect of which, if extremes are to be avoided, right notions are absolutely necessary. Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.
To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. To labor is to exert oneself for the sake of procuring what is necessary for the various purposes of life, and chief of all for self preservation. “In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread.” Hence, a man’s labor necessarily bears two notes or characters. First of all, it is personal, inasmuch as the force which acts is bound up with the personality and is the exclusive property of him who acts, and, further, was given to him for his advantage. Secondly, man’s labor is necessary; for without the result of labor a man cannot live, and self-preservation is a law of nature, which it is wrong to disobey. Now, were we to consider labor merely in so far as it is personal, doubtless it would be within the workman’s right to accept any rate of wages whatsoever; for in the same way as he is free to work or not, so is he free to accept a small wage or even none at all. But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man’s work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice. In these and similar questions, however – such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. – in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.
That is certainly not a conservative position – it is quite liberal, in fact. The concept that a minimum wage and regulation of work place safety are not only good ideas but actually moral imperatives? In the view of some conservatives, that’s downright socialist.
While I have always had a concern for the poor, I once also primarily looked to the government for the solutions to what seemed like too big of a problem for anyone else to solve. At least, that’s what I thought until I read the words of Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in which he stated:
As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
Those words hit me like a sack of potatoes. In the rush to aid the poor, our society may have inadvertently weakened our communities by taking away functions better suited to charities, non-governmental organizations, or even local or state government. While the federal government has its role to play, the Catholic Church long ago warned of the dangers of reassigning social activity to larger organizations. With this I discovered the concept of Subsidiarity.
As much contempt as the poor may receive from society at large, it pales in comparison to the plight of the prisioner. That’s particularly true when that prisoner has been accused and convicted of particularly heinous crimes. At one time, I saw the death penalty as a just punishment for such crimes. After all, why not inflict upon criminals what they have inflicted upon others? As I began to study my own faith more, however, it became clear that the dignity of human life isn’t diminished or removed due to the actions of that person. Their life has value regardless of what they do. As St. John Paul II made clear in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (emphasis added):
This should not cause surprise: to kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life! Yet from the beginning, faced with the many and often tragic cases which occur in the life of individuals and society, Christian reflection has sought a fuller and deeper understanding of what God’s commandment prohibits and prescribes. There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defense, in which the right to protect one’s own life and the duty not to harm someone else’s life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defense. The demanding commandment of love of neighbor, set forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, itself presupposes love of oneself as the basis of comparison: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mk 12:31). Consequently, no one can renounce the right to self-defense out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself.
Moreover, “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State”. Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.
This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.
The above text could be just as applicable to war as it is to capital punishment. In either event, as we become more adept at protecting society without the need to apply the death penalty, the less common it should become. Fortunately, in Texas, we are witnessing fewer executions than we did 10-15 years ago. Still, the question must be asked, “Are we executing criminals in situations where society can be reasonably protected through incarceration?”
As you can see, even with two “big tent” parties like the Democrats and Republicans, I find myself sitting right in between both of those tents. The tendency of fringes within both major parties to insist on doctrinal purity (e.g., referring to someone as a “Republican/Democrat In Name Only”) makes it more difficult for a moderate to exist, much less thrive, in those parties. Therefore, I prefer to sit outside of either tent and advocate for issues and applaud candidates when they also advocate for those issues which matter to me.