On most of the questions of public policy we debate today¯even many important ones¯there is no Catholic position. Rather, faithful Catholics may reasonably reach different judgments and vigorously promote them over the alternatives. No particular view can be said to be uniquely in line with the settled teaching of the Catholic Church. And yet we regularly hear people (including, unfortunately, Catholic laity and even clergy) talk about electoral politics and public policy as if there were "Catholic" answers: "The Republicans are with us on the life questions, but the Democrats are with us on the social justice questions." Or: "From a Catholic perspective, President Bush’s veto of embryo-destructive stem-cell research was good, but his veto of S-chip expansion was bad."
Now it is certainly true that the mainstream Republican position on such issues as abortion, embryo-destructive research, cloning, and marriage and sexual morality are superior to the mainstream Democratic positions on these issues. But it is not true that the mainstream Democratic positions on taxation, welfare, health care, and education are superior to the mainstream Republican view. Why this asymmetry?
The answer is simple. Catholic teaching on issues in the latter category leaves a far wider scope for differences of prudential and technical judgment than Catholic teaching does on issues in the former category.
For most Americans¯the efforts of those building Jefferson’s wall of separation notwithstanding¯religion and politics go hand in hand. Religion informs values, and values inform politics. Which is just as it should be. But we need to be clear about the relation between moral commitments and specific policies. Far too often the necessary distinctions are glossed over.
Catholic social and political thinking is fundamentally oriented toward human flourishing¯for individuals, for mediating institutions of civil society (such as the family and religious communities), and for societies as a whole. This reflection seeks to identify the various conditions and activities that contribute toward a good life (health, knowledge, friendship, marriage, etc.) and the moral principles that should direct our pursuit of these ends and guide our interactions with others (the Golden Rule: "Do unto others . . . ," the Pauline Principle: "Do not do evil so that good may come about," etc.). Because man is (as Aristotle noted even prior to the emergence of Christianity) both a conjugal and a social animal, special emphasis is placed on thinking through the role that various communities (families, voluntary associations, states) should play in our pursuit of human flourishing.
As a result, when thinking about social and political questions, we ask: What contributes to human flourishing? And who should do what in order to secure the conditions of human flourishing? We might note, for example, that education (and the knowledge it provides), good health (and the opportunities it makes available), artistic and athletic skill (and the fulfilling pastimes they facilitate), and knowledge of God (and the friendship and salvation it provides) all contribute to a flourishing life. We might then try to identify who best can meet these needs. Normally, adults should exercise self-direction and act for themselves, but they sometimes need assistance from others. Likewise, parents should be the primary providers for their children, but they too will need assistance from others from time to time. When assistance is needed, extended families, local churches, civic institutions, and government should assist as necessary¯but always with an eye toward empowering individuals and families to do for themselves, not as permanent replacements. And, obviously, discussion abounds about the appropriate extent and mode of governmental aid.
But not everything people do contributes to human flourishing. Some acts, in fact, can never contribute to human flourishing and actually constitute direct attacks on flourishing¯and not only on flourishing but on its very subjects, real people. Consider killing, or rape, or torture. You cannot kill or rape or torture someone in a way that contributes to his or her (or, as it happens, your own) flourishing. And so any decent society takes measures to prevent these things from occurring. Of course, primary responsibility for preventing murder, rape, and torture falls to individuals practicing self-control.
Yet, at an institutional level, it is clear that individuals, families, voluntary associations, churches, and other civic groups cannot provide sufficient protection against such crimes. To protect against these injustices, societies need a system of justice. And for a system of justice, societies need a state. So a state’s role in fostering the common good by providing means for education, health, artistry, etc., is only its secondary task, in which its acts are subsidiary to those of families, voluntary associations, and other pre-political institutions. But protecting citizens against unjust aggressors (both abroad and at home) and providing a system of justice are a state’s primary tasks¯tasks which it alone can sufficiently accomplish.
What does all this mean for Catholic politics? One should first note that this general reflection is not uniquely Catholic or Christian (like the Nicene Creed). Rather, this way of thinking about political life is accessible to human reason apart from divine revelation; the Church refers to it as a natural law philosophy. And because it is applicable to all people simply by virtue of their humanity, and is in principle knowable by all people simply by virtue of their rationality, the Church does not believe she "imposes" any distinctive religious values on the populace when she teaches about political life. (No one advocates laws requiring belief in the Trinity or attendance at Sunday Mass, for example.) Nor does the Church favor the establishment of theocratic regimes. Regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack of it), all people, the Church insists, should be eligible for political office and able to participate in the polis on equal terms.
In fact, Catholics recognize that the political realm enjoys a proper independence and autonomy from the Church. This is true both at an institutional level and at a conceptual level: Clerics do not by virtue of their religious office hold political power, and Catholic theology simply cannot be translated into state law. But this does not mean that one’s Catholic faith is irrelevant in the political realm, for among the many commitments of the Catholic faith is a commitment to abiding by the natural law. So Catholics¯just like all citizens¯have an obligation to build a just community. But the precepts of the natural law translate into positive law (law enacted and ratified by political bodies) in different ways. And, because of this, we must be careful when we talk about "Catholic" positions on law, public policy, and electoral politics.
Take, for example, one aspect of Catholic (and all sound) thought: the commitment to human rights and solidarity that is the pro-life movement. At heart, the pro-life movement is a moral one, not a political one. It is a moral movement committed to the intrinsic dignity and profound worth of every human being¯a moral commitment that every human being’s life should be protected and nurtured. Pro-life political consensus is realizable, however, when the moral principles of the natural law translate into positive law in a more or less direct fashion¯as in bills that refuse to fund embryo-destructive research and laws that protect unborn babies and the elderly from death at the hands of "doctors." In fact, some people argue that these laws are requirements of any just society, for a truly just society could never fail to provide legal protections for the most vulnerable of all people (much less publicly fund their destruction).
While pro-life political consensus may be achievable when the natural law translates into positive law in a more or less direct manner, broad agreement is still generally attainable when the natural law is translated in a slightly less direct manner into positive laws, especially when the policies entail generally acceptable actions for the state. Examples might include funding alternative (non¯embryo-destructive) sources of pluripotent stem cells or providing prenatal and childbirth care to all mothers in need. Of course, Catholic citizens could legitimately object to the government’s spending taxpayer monies on speculative biotech research. "If stem cells have so much medical promise, why don’t private investors fund the research and clinical trials?" the argument goes. On a question like this, there is no uniquely Catholic answer. In fact, there are not even uniquely Catholic resources for attempting to answer the question.
This highlights the fact that many policy questions cannot be settled by appeals to moral values and principles alone. Sometimes the relationship of the natural law to the positive law is very remote¯deep in the realm of what Aquinas called determinatio ¯and requires significant technical knowledge and policy-wonkery (not just the moral virtue of prudentia but also techne , the skill of a craftsman¯in this case, the craft of policy legislation). Determinatio is best understood as the work of taking a general moral principle (the poor should be afforded health care) and seeking the most effective of a variety of legitimate means to meet this goal. While the natural law can tell us that we owe the poor medical attention, the natural law alone cannot tell us how to deliver this care. Nor can prudence, the moral virtue that helps us apply general moral principles to specific situations (that the general principle of care for the poor should be specified as care for this particular group of people and to meet this particular need), tell us how to address this need for these people.
The work of how to meet these needs falls into an entirely different category of being¯the order of techne . And planning effective policies, foreseeing likely side-effects and externalities, and finding ways to fund and execute them require technical¯and not just moral¯knowledge and wisdom. So when it comes to the determinatio and techne of public policy, the Church has no claim to expertise¯or even competence. These questions simply fall outside her purview. And this is exactly what the Church herself teaches.
Not everyone in America shares the moral values of the Catholic Church. This is true not only regarding the Church’s position on abortion or embryo-destructive research but also the Church’s position on our moral obligations to the poor. We are our brother’s keeper, and we do have responsibilities to care "for the least of these." But there are many ways of fulfilling these moral obligations: Some of them involve governmental actions, and some of them do not. And there is room for legitimate disagreement about whether the government should act on any particular issue. Likewise, even when there is agreement that government should do something toward meeting our moral obligations to the poor, there is even more room for disagreement over what is the best course of governmental action.
The Church’s role in these discussions is one primarily of preaching the Gospel in season and out of season, stressing our moral obligations to the poor. The Church and those who claim to speak in her name should not try to craft or endorse specific legislation, for the Church lacks the resources required for this task. Rather, while constantly preaching her moral values, the Church should respect the autonomy and expertise of the laity who craft public policy, as well as the intelligence of citizens to decide which policies best enact the moral values they hold. The Church should shape moral values, which then in turn should help shape public policy. But moral values alone rarely suffice, for in most cases they do not uniquely determine a policy outcome.
To put this into a concrete example, consider the recent debate over whether a Catholic who votes against S-chip expansion can be considered truly pro-life. While the natural law can tell us that we have obligations to the poor, and while prudence may tell us that right now these obligations include assisting them in acquiring adequate health care, our moral commitments cannot tell us which policy is best. For this reason, I’ve argued that the pro-life community should not endorse bills like S-chip expansion as pro-life bills .
Why is this the case? If a legislator votes to fund so-called therapeutic cloning and embryo-destructive research, we can say: "That was a vote against the pro-life position." If a legislator votes for a bill legalizing euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, we can say: "That was a vote against the pro-life position." But if a legislator votes against a particular piece of S-chip legislation, are we willing to say: "That was a vote against the pro-life position"? I hope that we are not. For the truth is that it very well might not be. People who are equally committed to the cause of helping needy children may reasonably disagree as to whether S-chip expansion is the right or best or fairest way to do it.
All of which highlights the asymmetry that I noted at the beginning of this reflection. Catholic teaching demands that all human beings be accorded the protection of the laws. Thus faithful Catholics simply cannot support laws permitting and funding abortion, human embryo-destructive research, and the creation of human embryos by cloning or other methods to be used and destroyed in scientific experimentation. Likewise, Catholic teaching demands the legal recognition of marriage as the conjugal union of one man and one woman. So faithful Catholics cannot support efforts to redefine marriage as something other than a conjugal union or to treat as marriages (whether in name or not) sexual partnerships that are in truth nonmarital.
By contrast, Catholic teaching, while requiring that efforts be made to care for the poor and improve their lot, leaves wide room for judgment (and thus for differences of opinion) as to how best to meet the challenge. It does not exclude the creation of state-run welfare bureaucracies to deliver social services directly to the needy, but it doesn’t require them either. It doesn’t forbid a progressive income tax or other redistributive approaches, but it doesn’t mandate them. Catholic principles do not purport to settle whether the best health-care reform program is the one proposed by Hillary Clinton, or the one proposed by Mitt Romney, or the one proposed by John McCain.
Therefore, in order to be faithful to the entirety of Catholic teaching on political matters, one has to conclude that on many¯perhaps most¯of the burning policy questions of the day there is simply no Catholic position.
Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things . A 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow, he is the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey.