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In his latest Washington Post column , E.J. Dionne considers the newly surging candidacy of Rick Santorum.  It is not a particularly memorable or insightful column—in other words, par for the course—but there is one paragraph that makes one’s hair stand on end:

Santorum is a Catholic of a certain kind, and it’s the most important thing about him. He’s on one side of a long-standing debate in the church about how to build a decent society. Social-justice Catholics (and I’m one of those) represent an older American tradition. We agree with more conservative Catholics on the family as an essential social building block but see capitalism as in need of regulation and correction if it is to serve the common good and protect the family itself. Many of us — and here we depart from the church’s official teaching — see gay marriage not as undermining fidelity and commitment but as encouraging them.

Dionne tells us here that he is a “social-justice Catholic” whose “American tradition” is “older” than the wing of the church in which he would peg Santorum (who, in the next paragraph, he calls a “social renewal” Catholic).  He declares his agreement with “more conservative Catholics” (again, this presumably included Santorum) about the importance of the family.  So far so good.

But then Dionne says that “we” (in the “older” social-justice tradition) “see capitalism as in need of regulation and correction if it is to serve the common good and protect the family itself.”  Now, is there anything in that statement with which Rick Santorum would disagree for a split second?  If Santorum and Dionne would like to get together and debate the best way to interpret Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus , I am sure they would have differing conclusions about how exactly to apply those great encyclicals’ principles to our current situation.  But Dionne can have no legitimate claim to be more devoted to the principles than is Santorum.

It’s the final sentence of this paragraph, though, that explains why so many of us in the church find ourselves out of sorts with Catholics of the Dionne type, and why the expression “cafeteria Catholic” is such a just appellation for them.  “Many of us,” he writes—that would be many of the “social-justice” Catholics who belong to that “older American tradition”—“see gay marriage” in a positive light.  I don’t know whether to praise Dionne’s honesty, or blame his blithe arrogance, for the parenthetical in that sentence: “and here we depart from the church’s official teaching.”

You bet your bippy you do, E.J.  Others have said this so much better than I, but here goes one more time.  The Catholic Church has developed a social teaching that is supposed to guide voters and statesmen alike, with respect to principles of public or distributive justice and the maintenance of various social goods.  But the church is not in possession of a tax code, a budget plan, or a one-size-fits-all solution to modern woes like the cost and availability of health care.  Catholics can legitimately reach different conclusions about such things.

The church does, however, have categorical moral standards with respect to questions such as the sanctity of life (when was the last time Dionne wrote a resolutely anti-abortion column—ever?), and the preservation of marriage as the conjugal union of a man and a woman.  Dionne’s honest observation that “here” he “depart[s] from the church’s official teaching” is a damning admission that he is in an adversarial relationship with the church to which he claims to belong.  The magisterium has an unequivocal moral teaching that he unequivocally rejects.  To this extent, he is a bad Catholic—or no Catholic at all.

How does this not vitiate absolutely everything he wishes to say on behalf of the “older American tradition” of the “social-justice Catholics”?  How does he feel entitled to make any claim to be a better Catholic than Santorum (for that is what he’s implicitly claiming) on questions that the church rightly leaves to the prudential judgment of voters and public officials, within broad boundaries, when in the next breath he confesses his complete failure to be any kind of Catholic at all on a question on which the church speaks with categorical moral authority?


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