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Laundry List Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 12, 2007

One scarcely knows where to begin. How do we overcome the laundry list approach to politics which has so paralyzed the Catholic community since abortion became a major political issue? Millions of Catholics and their pastoral leaders justify voting pro-abortion because the pro-abortion party allows them to check more items off their laundry lists. If Catholics are to have any moral credibility at all, this has to stop.

No Letters Please

What also has to stop is the influx of email messages calling us apologists for the Bush Administration every time we attempt to address this issue. Certainly it is possible to be a knee-jerk Republican or a knee-jerk Democrat, but I suspect it is fairly rare among those of us who reached political maturity when both parties were in a state of flux (as they were in the 1970’s). Let’s assume that most of us are capable of making moral arguments without partisan motives.

I’m willing to grant that our political decisions might sometimes be influenced by stereotypes and political expediency. For example, the ideas that Democrats don’t care about national security or that Republicans don’t give a fig for the poor are clearly stereotypical. This becomes obvious as soon as you examine the scores of concrete proposals both parties have advanced to address these complex issues. Indeed, sometimes the different proposals are not very far apart. In such cases, both politicians and voters back the party line to strengthen the party for more important fights. At other times, there are profound differences about the best way to achieve a desired result—stimulating the economy instead of direct support for the poor, for example, or international trade and diplomacy instead of a military buildup. In these cases it is important to understand rather than to demonize.

Dirty Laundry

But it is difficult to understand what I call laundry list politics. This depends on the creation of a list of desired items without assessing the individual importance of each. The list is then used to make a decision at the polls based on which party or candidate enables the voter to check more items off the list. The laundry list thus serves as a justification for politically ignoring critical moral issues such as those at the heart of the culture of life. I cannot presume to judge whether politics by laundry list is a sincere effort to resist the culture of death or a mask to conceal the motives of those with other agendas. But in either case, the laundry list must go.

It took the Catholic hierarchy half a generation to figure this out. Reeling from the shock of abortion in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and convinced that they had lost the war almost before it began, the American bishops first tried the laundry list approach themselves, presumably in the hope of both saving face and building consensus. This took the form of Cardinal Bernardin’s famous “seamless garment”, by which nearly anything good could be given moral equivalence to life itself. The political argument went like this: Nobody should tear the seamless garment, but since everybody does, select the party or candidate which ends up with the biggest piece.

This form of the laundry list served only to leave Catholics leaderless and to dilute the authority of the bishops, who were fond in that period of commenting on every social, political and economic issue, while often making purely prudential recommendations. But by the late 1980’s, the Vatican had gone to considerable effort to bring order out of the chaos and to invalidate laundry list politics.

Foundational Issues

The reason the Vatican had to do this is that the laundry list approach ignores two distinctions fundamental to Catholic moral thought. The first is the distinction between moral and prudential issues. The second is the distinction between primary and secondary issues.

A moral issue involves something that is intrinsically right or wrong. Debate over a moral issue serves the purpose of establishing whether a particular course of action is morally good or morally evil. A prudential issue involves a tactical judgment about how best to reach a moral goal identified in a previous moral discussion. A debate over a prudential issue turns on a question not of morality but of effectiveness. While moral issues are hotly debated, the assumption is that properly formed persons with good motives can ultimately come to agree on moral issues. In contrast, the greatest possible diversity is not only possible but expected—often even desired—on prudential issues.

A primary moral issue is one on which other moral issues depend. For example, while it may be a very good thing to advocate better medical care for slaves, this goal pales in comparison with (and is rendered nearly meaningless by) any position which favors slavery. In exactly the same way, all efforts to improve the lot of those who are allowed to live are morally undermined, and often rendered laughable, by advocating that arbitrary groups may be removed from consideration by being killed. Some moral concepts are logically contingent on others. Whatever they are contingent upon is primary; they themselves are secondary.

The Pope and the Bishops Speak

John Paul II applied these principles to the life issues in no uncertain terms in 1988 in his apostolic exhortation on the laity, Christifideles Laici:

The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

The Vatican was considerably ahead of the U.S. Bishops in articulating this critical moral insight. But eventually episcopal documents began to get better, and now Conference statements are much more likely to address serious moral issues with serious moral teaching. Some would argue that this trend began in the 1998 pastoral letter, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. Here the bishops reminded politicians that faulty positions on the life issues—abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and, we would now add, embryonic stem cell research—cannot be justified no matter how many other items we can check off our laundry lists. While admitting that these other items might not be insignificant, the bishops emphatically warned:

But being “right” in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the “rightness” of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. [emphasis in original]

John Paul the Great made the issue clear in 1988 and the American Bishops adopted his position in no uncertain terms in 1998. It is now fast approaching 2008, and what do we see? Laundry list politics remains the chief moral justification for the support of the culture of death by a huge segment of Catholic politicians and voters who should know better.

Why is this so? How is this even possible? What is the solution? One scarcely knows where to begin.

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