A Little Clarity on Some Big Questions

The Pew Research Center, a reliable source on American attitudes about religion, found in 2019 that 43 percent of American Catholics were “unaware” of Church teaching about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Twenty-two percent said they knew, but didn’t believe it. Only 28 percent both knew and believed the teaching. And this, as we’re often hearing these days, about what Vatican II called the “source and summit” of Christian life. (Lumen Gentium 11) No wonder that on many other matters, Catholics – even educated and publicly visible Catholics – also display a stunning casualness and ignorance about the Faith.

Take abortion. A senator from my own state of Virginia, Tim Kaine, wrote recently:

a decision by U.S. bishops to elevate issues of human sexuality, however important, above all others seems contrary to the Gospel. No reading of the life of Jesus would suggest these issues as his primary, or even secondary, concern. His towering message is about love of neighbor as oneself with a special focus on the poor, sick, hungry, marginalized.

Kaine spent time in Honduras as a young man with a Jesuit mission, so he can’t be entirely faulted (as many other Catholic politicians can be) for thinking that Jesus’ concern for others only means voting for ever-larger government spending on social “programs.” But Kaine can be tasked – again like many others – for not knowing what he’s talking about.

The bishops have for decades been in virtual lockstep with Democrats on immigration, poverty, climate, etc. They are preparing their document on “Eucharistic Coherence” not because of general concern over sexual issues (about which more below) but because figures like President Biden and Speaker Pelosi have shifted from “personally opposed” to outright promotion, funding, and facilitating of abortion. That public scandal cannot go unchecked.

But Jesus never spoke about abortion, you say. Well, that’s because it was unthinkable among Jews of his day. Early Christians did speak explicitly against the practice. Further, the problem with abortion is not that it’s “sexual”; it’s that it’s murderous. In opposing abortion, the Church is affirming Catholic teaching. But it’s also reminding a society that has become coarse about sex that it’s committing violence on an immense scale against the innocent, which even human reason sees is an abomination.

Trying to group abortion with sexual questions is simple misdirection.

I often hear from readers that people like me are engaging in partisan politics, that we hammer away at Democrats about abortion, but don’t criticize Republicans like former Attorney General William Barr for supporting the death penalty.

The cases are simply not equivalent. The Church has long recognized the death penalty as a licit punishment that, after fair legal procedures, may be imposed on offenders. That such systems sometimes make mistakes on capital cases and others does not invalidate the general point. If you need evidence, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette have produced the definitive work: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.

It’s true that recent popes have questioned the wisdom of using the death penalty. Pope Francis has even altered the Catechism to read that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” (CCC 2267)

But this is his personal view. In the Old Testament, God Himself prescribes death for certain crimes. And a long series of the pope’s predecessors would have argued the opposite: holding people responsible for grave acts is, in a way, an affirmation of their human dignity as moral actors.

And there’s also the practical question: Affluent societies may be able to afford, say, life sentences for murderers. Poorer societies, in circumstances of instability and disorder, may not.

Calling the death penalty “inadmissible,” rather than unambiguously immoral, is a tacit sign that even the pope knows he’s on thin moral ice and wants enough ambiguity that he can’t be accused of changing the teaching of past popes.

To indict someone likeWilliam Barr on such flimsy grounds and to equate the few executions that occur in America with the massive offense against human life that is abortion in America today is, for me and many others, quite a stretch.

As to the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the marginalized, which is often the plea of pro-abortion politicians today – implying that their spending on social programs (that often have unintended bad consequences) is what Jesus was focused on in the Gospels – let’s try instead to think like Catholics.

Catholic social teaching begins from the very useful understanding that the family, not the isolated individual, is the basis of society. (Catechism 1605) Many of our social problems stem from the breakdown of the family, which became supercharged with the advent of the sexual revolution.

Brad Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia, has studied how fathers – especially black fathers – make a difference to children and society at large. In a recent article, he presented this:

The numbers are not the only thing of importance in such matters, to be sure. But they show that family structure plays a large role – in several respects much larger than alleged “racism” – in rates of criminality, incarcerations, and economic inequalities. Though intact families help whites as well, of course, some studies even show a greater positive benefit for blacks living in two-parent households than for whites.

It’s no good to claim that the breakdown of the black family is the result of racism. In 1940 (when Jim Crow was riding high), about 18 percent of black children were born out of wedlock; today it’s over 70 percent. Racism has been weakening in American society even as family breakdown has been increasing for all races.

Look at the chart above. Pace Tim Kaine et al., the bishops aren’t putting our political class on the spot over sex, or for ignoring and often excusing self-destructive behavior. But as the bishops try to defend the most vulnerable among us, maybe they should.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.