“Social Justice” and the New Politics

The ground shifts beneath the Catholic left.

The phrase “social justice,” when invoked by members of the Catholic left, is a euphemism for the agenda of the Democratic Party. “Social justice” refers not to objective principles of justice but to specific policies of Democrats on health care, labor, welfare, and other matters.

This is why the historic November defeat of Democrats was treated as such troubling news in many chanceries and Catholic university faculty lounges. Worried headlines, of the kind that were nowhere to be found in the Catholic left’s publications after the election of Barack Obama, suddenly appeared, such as Catholic San Francisco’s headline, “Social Justice Agenda in Jeopardy in US.”

America magazine also sounded an alarm. Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, wrote in a piece on its website that the Church’s “years of efforts in America to support public policies that reflect its moral vision were dealt a blow Tuesday evening.”

The panic was understandable. After all, the Catholic left had invested a great deal in the success of the Democrats and in particular Barack Obama. Many nuns and priests voted for him, with some even openly serving on his “Catholic” campaign advisory committee; Catholic college presidents and faculties generously donated to his campaign (Georgetown, out of all college faculties, ranked second in donations); and Catholic public figures such as Doug Kmiec portrayed him as the very embodiment of the Church’s vision of “change.”

After he won the election, the Catholic left’s excitement grew still more. Notre Dame conferred upon him an honorary degree, and bishops such as Archbishop Michael Sheehan of New Mexico, afraid that criticism of Obama’s policies might make Catholics look like the “Amish,” made rationalizations for him. Kmiec, before departing for his ambassadorship to Malta, burbled victoriously that “President Obama has far more in common with our great faith tradition than any political administration in recent memory.”

Always late to an awareness that its trendy enthusiasms are no longer trendy, the Catholic left simply hadn’t anticipated the wave of anti-Obama feeling that swept over the country in 2010. Particularly galling to members of the Catholic left is that the Catholic vote contributed to the backlash and appears to be slipping away from the Democrats. In 2008, 55 percent of Catholics voted for the Democratic ticket. In 2010, 54 percent of Catholics voted for Republicans.

Steven Schneck suggested to the US bishops that they discuss at their next meeting the “worrisome implications of excessive partisanship and ideological polarization from a Catholic vantage point.” But all this pouting means is that Democratic partisans can no longer count on the Catholic vote.

A truly Catholic view of “social justice” focuses on the non-negotiable issues of the natural law, without which a justly ordered society is impossible, and from that “vantage point,” the election results contain some hope (though the Republicans should certainly be held accountable in light of it). The US House of Representatives has passed from a proabortion Catholic speaker in Nancy Pelosi to a pro-life Catholic speaker in John Boehner. The House added many new pro-lifers and supporters of traditional marriage to its ranks while dropping numerous supporters of abortion rights and the “gay” agenda.

“Pro-choice” Catholic Democrats suffered heavy losses, as did many of the self-styled “pro-life” Democrats who compromised on Obama’s morally dubious health care bill.

The so-called Stupak Democrats didn’t even gain a single election, let alone the world, from their compromise. By choosing party power over principle, they put themselves into a position to lose both.

“Pro-choice” Democrats tried hard to retain the Catholic vote through the usual claim that the Democratic Party, despite its support for abortion rights and other violations of the natural law, is “better” on the Church’s “social justice concerns” than the Republicans. But this year that “seamless garment” unraveled. Voters were in no mood to hear about “social justice” from Catholic Democrats whose party during its time in power has presided over increasing poverty and unemployment. (Economic woes also made it difficult for Democrats to use the sophistical argument, which Kmiec dusted off in 2008, that Democratic policies reduce the number of abortions by reducing poverty.)

Archbishop Sheehan feared that his fellow bishops could “isolate” the Church by loudly objecting to Obama’s libertine agenda. But it is the Catholic left that looks increasingly isolated in the new politics. The Catholic left’s monopolistic claims about the “common good” and “social justice” now meet with appropriate skepticism, and its equation of “Catholic concerns” with amnesty, carbon taxes, government-run health care, and so on, is seen as insultingly specious.

True, most of the issues that the new Tea Party-driven politics has raised are prudential matters on which Catholics can disagree. But those are the very issues that the Catholic left seeks to dogmatize even as it relativizes the Church’s teachings on the natural law. The irony of this inversion of priorities is that it has made the Catholic left more irrelevant in American politics than ever. Normally so worried about the “voice of the people,” the Catholic left stands exposed by this election year as woefully out of touch with it.


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