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“As a Practicing Politician”

Bill Ritter, the former governor of Colorado, is not happy about attempts to reform the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Its critics point to its schizophrenic tendency to fund or partner with groups that promote things (i.e. abortion, contraception, gay activism, Alinsky-inspired Marxism, etc.), which by definition undermine human development.

Channeling his inner Nancy Pelosi, Ritter sought to take CCHD’s critics to task in the Denver Post [1] by resorting to that familiar touch of politically calculated obfuscation, if not legerdemain: “As a practicing Catholic…”                 

By that, he does not mean what in plain language it ordinarily would: a Catholic who believes what the Church teaches, and despite personal failings, keeps making efforts to understand, abide by, and love those teachings. Precisely because we are convinced the Holy Faith in its entirety is such a sublime treasure, we keep at it despite the challenges, failures, and even humiliation we may encounter in our ongoing conversion.

But Ritter meant that a Catholic who accepts aspects of the faith no one really questions – such as the command to care for the needy (though precisely how to do that is not neatly prescribed) – may for that reason feel at liberty to reject what the faith clearly requires regarding what are often dismissed as the “social issues.”

A truly practicing Catholic would not adopt the terminology (“equality for the gay community”) characteristic of attempts to legitimize “same-sex marriage,” which he does several times in the space of his short commentary. Such a Catholic might struggle to accept that teaching, or might not fully understand how “same-sex marriage” advocacy undermines the common good. 

But he would not disregard such teachings and then turn around and say it is “conservative activists who put politics and narrow ideology before the common good.” He goes on to describe the recent budget proposal prepared by practicing Catholic Paul Ryan, who dodges no essential Catholic doctrine, as “morally indefensible.” That Ryan shares with Benedict XVI a deep wariness about the State, which would seek to “absorb everything into itself,” to provide everything except “the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern” (Deus Caritas Est), is a possibility Ritter does not entertain.

Ritter speaks forcefully about the need to put faith into action, pointing to own his formative years of service in Zambia. I certainly respect that and, like him, have been continually impressed by the committed Catholics I observed performing works of mercy in several African countries. But my guess is that if he tried to convince practicing Catholics in Zambia what he meant by “marriage equality”, they would look at him mutedly with a blank, faraway look in their eyes.

It’s a look I’ve seen many times as pushy westerners spout progressive platitudes as if they were Gospel Truth. The Africans would be too polite to look at him as if he were mad, or to embarrass him about accommodating such an obvious contortion of reality.

       Former Gov. Ritter gestures

A practicing Catholic would not strain to argue that preserving Catholic identity within the Church’s charitable institutions (which includes shunning what must be shunned) somehow threatens the common good. Doing so seems even more incongruent now, when practicing Catholics are exercised by the fact that his political allies are waging a war on religious liberty, driving Catholic charities to shut down adoption service programming, and may well end up compelling Catholic hospitals to close their doors. 

Please, tell me again how the sick and the vulnerable are helped by these grossly political moves of a hostile Leviathan? In such a context, Ritter’s depiction of CCHD’s critics as “determined to play politics with the lives of the poor” is truly Obama-esque in that it inverts, not just bends, the truth.

It can be dangerous to define too rigidly just what it means to be a practicing Catholic. We should never denigrate anyone’s struggles to meet the various demands of the faith, just as St. Francis de Sales counseled, wisely, that we should also be patient with ourselves.

I recently stumbled upon a brief sketch of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang [2], a Chinese layman martyred in 1900. He had been hooked on opiates for three decades, which at that time and place meant he went without the Eucharist. He prayed to break free from his addiction though he never really managed to do so. At his trial he was given the option to renounce his faith. He refused and paid with his life.

His clarity about the content of the faith, not to mention his courage in publicly defending rather than misrepresenting it, despite his own anguished imperfection, is edifying in a way that Ritter’s pervasive brand of intellectual dishonesty is not.

Practicing Catholics should certainly debate how best to serve those in need. But let’s actually care enough, as Benedict XVI reminded U. S. bishops on a recent ad limina visit [3], “to proclaim a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering.”

Do we really believe that truth, or find ourselves practically ashamed by it? That is the question of the day. The pity is that while Ritter didn’t seem to be ashamed of his faith in Zambia, he does seem so here and now.

Here and now, as Benedict went on to highlight, we need “an engaged, articulate and well formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture” – with the courage to counter its aggressive secularism. Honestly striving to do that seems like one fitting component of what being a practicing Catholic now entails, particularly in Ritter’s line of work. 

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.