Step back and admire the efficiency of John Hirschauer’s apologia pro Bill Barr that appeared online at National Review (“Bill Barr Tears the Seamless Garment”) this week. It is not entirely Hirschauer’s fault. Authors do not write headlines or subheads. Still, we do not need to read past the subhead before Hirschauer’s piece manages to negate itself, which is remarkable.
“Executing child murderers does not make Bill Barr any less pro-life.”
The subhead that leads Hirschauer’s piece pairs neatly with his Scriptural argument later about Pilate’s temporal power. Together they unravel a feeble attack because we need only substitute abortion for capital punishment to land at the same argument he has taken up his pen to oppose.
Imagine how Hirschauer would respond to a 1984 article with a subhead that read, “Enforcing applicable laws protecting abortion rights does not make Mario Cuomo any less pro-life.” Or, in 2004 about John Kerry.
Imagine what Hirschauer would say in reply to an article observing that Nancy Pelosi’s support for abortion rights should be understood in the same light as that in which Jesus “affirmed Pilate’s power in the praetorium.”
When the strength of the argument depends on the reader’s partisan frame, it is usually a signal that you are reading a bad argument. Hirschauer leaves no doubts about the weakness of his argument in other ways, too. His Scriptural argument for the death penalty is questionable (“the God of the Old Testament who prescribed capital punishment to Moses”), as though Jesus did not teach in Matthew 5 about a more stringent law of love than we find in the Mosaic law. Hirschauer’s attempt to make a magisterial argument for capital punishment (“history’s great saints who believed what the Catholic Church taught about the death penalty until the cosmic equivalent of yesterday”) pays little heed to the development of that doctrine under John Paul II or Pope Francis’s Petrine authority to develop it further.
“I never fail to be amazed at how a man now dead nearly a quarter century continues to occupy so much real estate in a certain sort of Catholic mind.”
But Hirschauer really runs into trouble when, at length, he reaches his real target—Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. I never fail to be amazed at how a man now dead nearly a quarter century continues to occupy so much real estate in a certain sort of Catholic mind. That Cardinal Bernardin continues to be so triggering for some people is perhaps the most articulate testimony to Bernardin’s importance and to the durable significance of his ministry. No matter how determined George Weigel was to write the epitaph, certainly the Bernardin era is not over. More than those of us who admire Chicago’s late archbishop, Bernardin’s critics won’t allow it to end.
Hirschauer quotes Pope Benedict XVI against what he calls the “false equivalence” of Bernardin’s “seamless garment.” What Pope Benedict has written about the different moral weight of issues is an absolutely correct and faithful expression of Catholic moral teaching, of course. The trouble is, Hirschauer might have quoted Bernardin saying the same thing, had he bothered to quote Bernardin at all—
The taking of life presents itself as a moral problem all along the spectrum of life, but there are distinguishing characteristics between abortion and war, as well as elements which radically differentiate war from decisions made about care of a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are universally acknowledged; a consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact that differences do not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge (“The Consistent Ethic of Life: Its Theological Foundations, Its Ethical Logic, and its Political Consequences,” Seattle University, March 2, 1986).
In fact, Hirschauer’s telling lack of familiarity with the consistent ethic of life (including how Bernardin almost never called it the “seamless garment”) is the main takeaway in an essay that seeks to show us how “Bill Bar Tears the Seamless Garment.” This feeble attack overlooks John Paul II’s affirmation of Bernardin’s approach in a homily at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, where he observed how those things that threaten “children, the sick, the handicapped, the old, the poor and unemployed, the immigrant and refugee” are part of the culture of death. Did John Paul II promote the “false equivalence” of the consistent ethic, too?
Rebutting Hirschauer in this way could be as much good fun as whacking away at a piñata with the sure and satisfying reward of a cascade of candy. But there is something more important going on here that we cannot afford to ignore.
Slowly, while Americans have watched peaceful protesters cleared away from Lafayette Park by tear gas at the attorney general’s order, it has become clear that the most important issue in our politics is not abortion or religious liberty, not even COVID-19 and the economic collapse it brought about, or even the problem of ongoing racial injustice. Finally, what is really our most urgent problem has been laid bare by the recent actions and statements of those currently wielding power: the health and integrity of our politics, itself.
For as long as military violence can be deployed against peaceful demonstrators or deadly force is used against a nonviolent arrestee, we are not a republic of equal justice under law. For as long as the administration in power stokes our divisions and behaves less like mature adults who care about people and the future than as Twitter trolls who thrive on attacking and belittling their political opponents, the vitality of our government of the people, by the people, for the people is under a rare sort of siege. And, for as long as influential Catholics in our public discourse are making cynical, polarizing, and hollowed-out arguments about the nature of politics, then politics cannot succeed to be a “promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good” (Deus Caritas Est, 28).
This is the ugly argument at work in Hirschauer’s defense of Barr because it is the ugly argument that Barr makes. Hirschauer quotes Barr as writing that, “A Church whose public ministry ignores virtue and instead plays the role of interfaith social worker, pleading for government funds and championing ‘systemic reforms’ and ‘institutional changes,’ is failing in its responsibility to emphasize the obligation of charity that binds all Catholics.”
The context of that argument is important. Hirschauer is writing in that paragraph about Barr’s disdain for “the outsourced kind [of charity] popular among some left-wing Catholics, for whom voting for a politician who promises to raise marginal taxes on strangers to subsidize social programs administered by other strangers.” We see here how Barr’s sense that Catholics have a “duty to get off their asses and serve the poor” gives too little credit to the importance of politics and the important responsibilities we have as citizens and voters in an advanced, constitutional republic. So much do Hirschauer and Barr emphasize personal virtue, they get dangerously close to an either/or argument.
A great theme of Catholic social teaching is both/and. When we conceive of the Church’s “public ministry” we can mean many things. In fact, we must mean many things and we must not think any one way to minister is abstractly more important than another. For example, our ministry to the world does demand that we should “get off [our] asses and serve the poor.” But that cannot be all. Our seeking of sanctity also imposes on us some obligation actually to help the poor in this world, not just improve our own place in the next world. It is a feeble vision of politics that values one more than the other. But that feebleness is endemic in a certain sort of Catholic thinking we see too often.
“We are hopelessly polarized. There is an intractable THEM who will never stop opposing US, and THEY must be defeated so WE will win.”
Hirschauer’s argument needs that false dilemma as badly as it needs to single out “some left-wing Catholics” or to oppose Benedict XVI to Bernardin, as though they believed different things. I daresay Hirschauer’s argument depends on this false dilemma because it appears to be how William Barr sees the world. These are inevitable oppositions. We are hopelessly polarized. There is an intractable THEM who will never stop opposing US, and THEY must be defeated so WE will win.
The Catholic tradition does not see things that way. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Cardinal Bernardin all can be saying the same thing. I can believe reducing federal housing subsidies is an evil attack on the poor and believe that abortion takes a human life. We can believe that honest people have prudential disagreements and still we can serve the common good of the whole community together in politics.
But this must be stated clearly: no Catholic can deny the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church that capital punishment is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” while still calling himself pro-life.
Opposing the death penalty does not negate our opposition to abortion, but affirms it. As does our care for the poor and the sick. Lacking the faith to see that “both/and” at work is the flaw in Hirschauer’s essay and Barr’s worldview. That lack of faith is too prevalent among too many Catholics. It is the root of the opposition to Pope Francis and the source of so much of the division we inflict on the world outside the Church. If Hirschauer’s self-negating essay has one virtue, it is that he has made that problem clear all in one place.
Image: By James McNellis from Washington, DC, United States – At the March for Life, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55816359
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Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical Press, 2018).