Remember the September scandal? Conservative Christians were "mixing" politics and religion, claiming to find fine points of policy stipulated by the Christian faith. Now comes a November revelation. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has discovered that God subscribes to the liberal agenda. But, then, in the mental world to which the bishops, in their flight from complexity, have immigrated, there are no intellectual difficulties, no insoluble problems. There are only shortages of good will.
With an almost -- but not quite -- comic sense of moral bravery and intellectual originality, they hurl clich,es at problems that have proven intractable in the face of strenuous efforts by persons of intelligence and dedication. The bishops thereby convict themselves of, at best,d-like innocence, or (this is a small step from innocence in adults) vanity.
All the important social policy discussions of the last decade evidently occurred without the bishops' noticing. There have been sobering experiences concerning the complex and often deleterious effects of foreign aid. But the bishops just say: more, and better.
We now know a lot about how little we know about how to break the cycle of welfare dependency, or long-term unemployment. But the bishops, ignoring the principle that "ought" implies "can," simply postulate a duty to cleanse this sad old world of blemishes. Third World debt? The bishops say: Lighten the burden. And so on, and on, and on.
At one point the text says that "some" inequality may be acceptable, even desirable. However, in the introductory outline the bishops say: "There is a strong presumption against inequality of income or wealth as long as there are poor, hungry and homeless people in our midst." So: there is a strong presumption against even the best societies the world has known, as long as they have the defects common to every society the world has known.
Some of the extremism in the proposed pastoral letter may just reflect the sort of sloppy writing that reflects the minds of persons who, marinated in a conventional wisdom, confuse exhortation with argument. The bishops say that the distribution of income in America is so inequitable that "it violates the minimum standard of distributive justice." Note well: the "minimum" standard. This is the bishops' idea of pastoral guidance -- telling the most successful society the world has known that it is beneath even minimal standards.
The bishops have caught the disease that has ruined the "peace movement." It is the disease of moral complacency, born of sloth. The bishops attempt to achieve moral ascendancy by endorsing, with an air of heroism, an unexceptionable goal (for example, full employment or the elimination of poverty) while ignoring the fact that the serious argument is about means.
American capitalism is the most efficient antipoverty machine the world has seen. It is arguable that, at this point, less government action would serve the poor by enhancing the general growth of the economy. That may be mistaken, but is not self-evidently so. The bishops are unconvincing because they have an air of never entertaining a doubt about government programs, the effectiveness of which are now questioned by liberals as well as conservatives.
While offering perfunctory disapproval of statism, the bishops propose an enormous expansion of the power of the state as an allocator of wealth and enforcer of equality of conditions. The Conference of Bishops is located in Washington. Small wonder it has come to sound like just another liberal lobby. A few more such political platforms and the bishops will have reduced themselves to just another reedy voice in the capital's chorus, part of Washington's audible wallpaper: always there, never noticed.
What now will issue from the conference -- the correct Christian position on soybean subsidies? Well, why not, now that the bishops have seen fit to invest more of their finite and wasting moral capital in putting God on the side of a liberal agenda, from jobs programs and increased day-care facilities through "global affirmative action."
As was the case last year when the subject was nuclear strategy, the bishops share the opinions of most liberal institutions, including many in journalism, which faithfully (so to speak) amplify the bishops' political proclamations. Of course, on one subject the bishops and those institutions still, for the moment, disagree: abortion. (Those institutions will not change; I am not so sure about the bishops.) On abortion liberal opinion says: It is sinful (so to speak) to use religious doctrine to dictate public policy.
A few weeks ago many liberals claimed to see a threat to "the American way" -- even the seeds of theocracy -- in the idea that obedience to God requires opposition to abortion. Will those people now deplore the bishops' ideal that Christianity, properly understood, requires comprehensive support for the standard liberal wish-list? No.