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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 02/15/2012

Media should challenge Santorum and Gingrich’s ‘cafeteria Catholicism’

Last week, the uproar over the Obama administration’s new contraception mandate earned typically strident rebukes from conservatives, especially the president’s potential opponents, which include two Catholics, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. While issues of religious liberty played a large role in their positions on this occasion, both candidates have hardly shied away from pushing an expanded role for religion in public policy. Gingrich has warned that “religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life,”and has said that public schools should be required to teach “the Creator.” On birth control alone, Santorum would repeal federal funding for contraception, and has cited church teachings to explain his position.

Problem is, when it comes to many other Catholic teachings, Santorum, Gingrich and other Catholic conservatives completely ignore the church. Among others, Juan Cole has compiled an excellent list of the “Top Ten Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects While Obsessing about Birth Control.” Conservative Catholics would be quick to point out that not all 10 teachings Cole lists are as central as the one on birth control, because the latter’s authority lies in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But even a cursory survey of papal encyclicals finds numerous holdings that Santorum, Gingrich and other conservative Catholics disagree with.

On the death penalty, from John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” (1995):

[T]he nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

On a living wage, from John XXIII’s “Mater et Magistra” (1961):

We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

On unions, from John Paul II’s “Laborem Exercens” (1981):

All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association [italics original], that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions.

On wealth redistribution, from Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritatae” (2009):

Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution. [Italics original]

And on health care and the “safety net,” from John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” (1963):

But first We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

As Cole’s list shows, American Catholic bishops have long advocated publicly for laws reflecting these values. Yet Santorum and Gingrich haven’t been challenged very often on their version of ‘cafeteria Catholicism,’ picking and choosing which teachings they agree with. When an audience member asked Santorum about why he disagrees with the church on universal health care, Santorum gave a rambling response that bore little resemblance to his assuredness on many other issues.

But audience members at campaign events aren’t enough; national voters should hear these questions as well. In the three debates between now and Super Tuesday, moderators should challenge Santorum and Gingrich on whether they agree with these church doctrines, and if not, why not. Many agreed that one of the better debate questions of the primary season came when CNN’s John King quoted George Romney’s words on transparency and tax returns to Mitt Romney. (Romney fumbled the answer badly and was booed by the audience.) Asking similarly probing questions of Gingrich and Santorum on Catholicism and American Catholics’ many liberal positions would not only go some way to correcting the popular picture of what the Catholic church stands for, but also expose the inconsistency of these two candidates’ moral pronouncements.

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 02/15/2012

 
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