Catholics First, Americans Second?
Archbishop Charles Chaput is often cited as the standard-bearer for American Catholic conservatives. And on many issues, he serves that role. See his fine response to La Civilta Cattolica’s oafish attack on prolifers, Protestants, Trump voters and frankly Americans. He has written and spoken well on the need to distinguish issues of basic principle, such as abortion and religious freedom, from quibbles over optimal funding levels for Medicaid. He has proven fearless in defending deeply unfashionable views.
On immigration, however, Chaput seems to follow the official U.S. bishops’ party line: de facto open borders.
Chaput also says interesting things about the need to set our priorities as citizens and as Christians. A quote of his is being widely shared on social media:
We’re Catholics before we’re Democrats. We’re Catholics before we’re Republicans. We’re even Catholics before Americans
Archbishop Chaput pic.twitter.com/6hrpu1C6oU
— CoCatholicRadio (@CoCatholicRadio) July 29, 2017
This seems like a truism. When there’s a conflict between a true religious belief and an immoral government policy, any good Catholic — in fact any good Christian — should opt for his religious belief. But does that mean faithful Catholics must follow any and every policy of the Bishops Conference? It doesn’t. And it courts trouble to suggest otherwise.
In the 19th century, Catholics stood under suspicion of dual loyalty in Protestant America. Why? In part because of a bunch of nasty stereotypes and outright lies. Those were invented by Enlightenment philosophes. But most Protestants had swallowed them — not realizing that they’d originated with enemies of Christ.
There was a tiny seed of merit in Protestants’ suspicion of a church that rejected religious freedom in principle. American bishops defused that by eagerly embracing America’s First Amendment. The U.S. changed its citizenship oath such that Catholic immigrants had to renounce any political allegiance to foreign princes (i.e., the pope). Catholics shrugged and asked, “Sure, where do I sign?” U.S. bishops led the charge at Vatican II to press the church to clearly embrace religious liberty.
Nature’s God and Natural Law
By accepting that principle, the church made it clear how Catholics should practice politics. If it’s true that the state should not impose its religion or hobble the faith of dissenters, some other things follow:
- We should never try to make coercive laws based purely or primarily on religious authority.
- Nor use the government to favor our church’s institutional interests at the expense of other citizens and their churches.
- We should make arguments over public policy based on what can be known by reason about the laws of “nature and Nature’s God.”
- When it comes to political issues, we should not see the church as a tribal faction which claims our loyalty — and trumps our duty to our neighbors or the common good.
Nor should we pretend that there is somewhere out there an official “Catholic” political platform, which bravely cuts across left and right. That very idea is a pernicious, but sadly persistent, myth.
Our Lady of Good Fortune Casino Night
When I grew up in Queens, New York, the local Diocese of Brooklyn made up its financial deficits the old fashioned way. It ran large-scale illegal gambling. Under the cover of legal “Las Vegas Nights,” parishes all across Queens would allow high-stakes poker games, week after week. I know, because my mother (sadly, a compulsive gambler) lost tens of thousands at them over the years, nearly destroying my family. (My dad, a hardworking letter carrier, couldn’t keep up with the debts she ran up with small-time hoodlums.) Those poker games were clearly against the law. But friendly Irish cops would not enforce that law. In fact, they sometimes volunteered to serve as free security guards outside the doors. No doubt those cops thought that they were acting as “Catholics” before “Americans.”
I think we can agree that they were wrong. So was Bishop Francis Mugavero, who let his pastors rake in (collectively) tens of millions via such shenanigans.
Likewise, bishops are wrong when they promise to use Catholic church facilities to frustrate the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. But 24 U.S. bishops did just that in their recent Message from Modesto, sponsored by the Soros-funded quasi-Marxist organization PICO.
U.S. immigration laws are not unjust. What’s more, such laws are subject to change via democratic vote. Any time that bishops as citizens want to increase U.S. immigration quotas, they’re free to call their congressmen and urge them to vote that way. They are not free to flout those laws, override those quotas, and claim that the church has the right to offer “sanctuary” to lawbreakers.
When it comes to abortion, the issue is different, because that law is clearly and without question completely unjust. Furthermore, judges snatched it out of the reach of realistic democratic change. So if bishops want to back Operation Rescue in peaceful demonstrations at abortion clinics, that seems reasonable, within limits.
But would we back bishops who went a good deal further — as far as some are going on immigration? Would we want bishops helping people to vandalize clinics? To produce phony documents that would close clinics down over trumped-up health violations? To hide pro-lifers who committed such crimes, so they couldn’t be prosecuted? At a certain point, backing a high principle doesn’t excuse aggressive attacks on law and public order. If that’s true on abortion, it certainly is on immigration.
Catholic First, American Second?
So let’s return to the question. Should U.S. Catholics see ourselves as “Catholics first, Americans second”? Yes, whenever:
- The government attacks our religious liberty, as in the Obama administration’s efforts to make the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for abortion pills.
- Our fellow Catholics in other countries are being persecuted, and the U.S. government is ignoring it, as in the ethnic cleansing of Christians from Iraq since 2003.
- A law is unjust because it violates the “law of Nature” and of “Nature’s God,” such as laws permitting abortion or same-sex marriage.
It’s not true that we should act as “Catholics first” in other cases, for instance when:
- The pope or our bishops exceed their authority on issues like climate change or immigration policy.
- Those same authorities go way beyond their expertise to demand specific policies from our government, in the name of Catholic principles — which the church teaches it’s up to the laity, not the clergy, to implement.
- Those leaders act or ask us to act as if Catholicism were some self-interested political tribe, rather than a world religion that claims to speak universal truth.
In other words, I wish more cops in Queens had said to pastors: “Er, no Father. I won’t work security for your illegal poker games. In fact, you’re under arrest.”