Long ago, in the age of the Internet, I grew weary of trying to define “liberal” and “conservative” when discussing Catholic life.
The truth is that the teachings of ancient Christianity (I am Eastern Orthodox) do not fit neatly into the patterns of American politics. If you believe, for example, that human life begins at conception and continues until natural death, you are going to be frustrated reading the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties.
At some point I started using that term — pro-catechism Catholics. I quickly heard from readers who were upset that I was linking Catholic identity with the idea that Catholics were meant to believe and even attempt to practice the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
This brings me to a new Associated Press story with a very familiar theme from the past few years. The headline: “Anti-Roe Judges Part of Conservative Wing of Catholicism.” Here’s the opening, which includes – #SHOCKING – a reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade at a time when she has an unprecedented Catholic supermajority.
It is not a coincidence. That’s not the whole story either.
The justices who voted to overthrow Roe were shaped by a church whose catechism affirms ‘the moral evil of all induced abortion’ and whose U.S. bishops have declared opposition to abortion their ‘preeminent priority’ in public policy .
But that alone doesn’t explain the judges’ votes.
American Catholics as a whole are far more ambivalent about abortion than their religious leaders, with more than half believing it should be legal in all or most circumstances, according to the Pew Research Center.
The problem, you see, is that there are judges who seem to embrace the Catechism, on issues related to the Sexual Revolution, of course. They clash with the generic “American Catholics”, who are not defined, as usual, in terms of mass attendance or other references to belief and practice (such as choosing to go to confession).
What we have here is yet another clash between American Catholics and Dangerous Catholics. It seems to have something to do with doctrines which, in effect, have become an “ideology”. Here is a key passage:
Notable Catholics who support abortion rights include President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats. Democratic-appointed Catholic Judge Sonia Sotomayor dissented in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which overruled Roe.
But the Dobbs majority justices are not just birthplace Catholics. Many have ties to intellectual and social currents within Catholicism which, despite all their differences, share doctrinal conservatism and strong opposition to abortion.
There are, you see, “Catholics” and then there are “doctrinal” Catholics, or Catholics who are “doctrinal” on the wrong questions. Later, the reader is informed:
… (r)Religious identity has mattered less lately than ideology, which is why conservative evangelicals have encouraged Republican-appointed Catholics, said Nomi Stolzenberg, a professor at the University’s law school. University of Southern California, majoring in law and religion.
In other words, Evangelical Protestants tend to like Catholics who embrace ancient teachings on topics like abortion, while they are less keen on changing Catholic statements on, say, the death penalty (in the meantime, I am opposed to both).
I think it’s important, when looking at this through a journalism lens, to note that “doctrine” is a term that can include religious beliefs, as well as political beliefs. Typical online definitions include:
Something taught like the tenets or belief of a religion, political party, etc. ; principle or principles; belief; dogma.
Doctrine is defined as a principle or group of principles taught by a religion or political party.
“Ideology”, on the other hand, is almost always defined in political or cultural terms. For instance:
…a system of ideas and ideals, especially that which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. “the ideology of democracy”
Or Britannica states:
…a form of social or political philosophy in which the practical elements are as important as the theoretical elements. It is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it.
The big question, for me, is whether it is useful – accurate, even – to use the word “ideology” in news reports when the aim, as seems to be the case here, is to argue that beliefs in a doctrinal catechism shape the work of some Catholics.
Is the point, then, that the identities of Biden and Pelosi are rooted in an “ideology” that rejects the teachings of the Catholic faith? I can’t imagine any mainstream news outlet saying that.
Back to the report, which appears to be based on interviews with critics of dangerous Catholics, with little or no input from thinkers sympathetic to them.
In Dobbs, five judges voted to overthrow Roe – Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas. A sixth, Chief Justice John Roberts, balked at overthrowing Roe but voted to keep the Mississippi abortion restrictions in question.
All six were raised Catholic.
Most went to some combination of high school, college, or Catholic graduate school. The one exception, the author of Dobbs Alito, fondly described growing up in a home where “church and family” were paramount. Five of the six justices still identify as Catholic, while Gorsuch attended an Episcopal church more recently.
Ah, Gorsuch – the judge who paved the way Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgiaa historic decision protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace.
In some ways, Gorsuch is a mysterious man who, for example, no longer worships in a Catholic pew. However, there is always the possibility that he is the wrong type of Catholic. How? Again, this seems to have something to do with doctrines endorsed by bad political groups.
Gorsuch, who, like several members of the Dobbs majority, appeared at several Federalist Society events, studied at Oxford University with Catholic legal philosopher John Finnis.
Finnis is a supporter of “natural law”, described in the Catholic Catechism as “the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason good and evil”. Gorsuch himself applied this principle in a book opposing assisted suicide.
“Gorsuch may no longer be a practicing Catholic – we don’t know,” Stolzenberg said. “What we do know is that his legal philosophy is shaped by the conservative Catholic philosophy of natural law.”
Now, how did natural law affect Bostock? This would be an interesting question to pose to some doctrinally conservative Catholic thinkers. This question could provide information that makes this story even more complicated, something more complicated than “bad Catholics are ideologues who oppose abortion.
Once again, it is difficult to embed Catholic doctrine in today’s political models.
FIRST IMAGE : Official 2021 portrait of Supreme Court justices, by the photographer Fred Schilling and published in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Online Photo Collection.