Deal W Hudson
“Social conservatism” has long been the Good Housekeeping brand in pro-life politics. Its usefulness, however, has come to an end, not because the moral commitments it signifies are any less important, but because politics is about attracting voters. A new language that in no way compromises the principles of life, marriage, and authentic freedom needs to be cultivated, one that encompasses more than a handful of issues, no matter how important, and one that connects to the larger culture.
“Cultural Conservatism” has been suggested, as I have discussed in previous columns, and I applaud the direction that would take those of us who want to unite the pro-life convictions with a concern for “social justice.” I understand the skepticism readers might feel at this suggestion, so I promise to sort through just what social justice really means in Catholic teaching in a future column. The point, however, is a simple one; social conservatism is not seen as generous, compassionate, or interested in the wide range of issues that impact our well-being, and that has become a political liability.
Some critics refer to social conservatives as “single issue” voters. It’s not a fair characterization but is a troublesome one. Those of us who believe that some issues are more important than others and should be given top priority in considering a candidate’s qualifications, should be viewed not as single issue voters but as “dominant issue” voters. These are voters who take into account the urgency of addressing issues of social injustice in the culture but see those issues arranged vertically not horizontally.
The life issues—including abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning—are at the top of that hierarchy. These issues should be considered dominant in determining how to vote for two simple reasons: First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. And it’s one of the three foundational rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no right to liberty or happiness unless there were a living person in the first place.
Second, the injunction of natural law and the Church to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required, or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching. In his 2002 Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
“In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.”
Opposition to abortion, therefore, admits of no exceptions. There is no question, then, that as the dominant issue, a politician’s position on abortion qualifies him or her for the Catholic vote. From the perspective of the Church, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance. Catholic voters, by understanding themselves as dominant-issue voters, can preserve the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching while not ignoring the legitimate spectrum of issues important to political consideration.
Furthermore, by understanding the dominance of life issues, Catholic voters will overcome their confusion about the difference between moral principle and prudential judgment. Unlike the admonition against abortion, most of the general principles proposed in Church teaching can be implemented in a variety of ways; it’s simply a mistake to assume—as the Left often does—that one kind of implementation is more “Catholic” than another.
As has been noted many times, the USCCB’s habit of issuing dozens of policy recommendations during every congressional session, on issues ranging from broadband legislation and immigration to minimum wage and partial-birth abortion, results in confusion at the grassroots. Unfortunately, the average Catholic doesn’t discriminate between simple policy recommendations made by the Conference and doctrinal statements, and often wrongly assumes that they have equal authority.
Using dominant-issue language can help to close the unnecessary divide between pro-life and social justice Catholics. There’s a clear continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his life when it’s threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of “authority” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928). A cultural conservatism, if it is to emerge, must reconnect what never should have been disconnected — because to care about life is to care about everything.
The demands of social justice, then, begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The source of moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry is one and the same—the inherent dignity of the human person.