Catholic teaching on the human person points a way forward in US politics


What do we mean when we say the words “human person” in light of the person of Jesus Christ?  This is Christian anthropology.  (Unsplash/Dominik Leash)

What do we mean when we say the words “human person” in light of the person of Jesus Christ? This is Christian anthropology. (Unsplash/Dominik Leash)

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago formulated a “consistent life ethic” in the 1980s. This consistent ethic has not caught on and has shaped the ongoing debate about abortion and the relationships of this one issue to other life issues.

Bernardin’s second successor, Cardinal Blase Cupich, called for a “consistent ethic of solidarity,” drawing attention not only to the way life issues relate to one another, but also to how our Catholic response to each of these issues can be related and should . That call, too, was not accepted by Catholic voters, at least not enough of them to form a meaningfully large bloc that cannot be ignored.

Unfortunately, the views of Catholic voters in this country have become increasingly indistinguishable from the views of other non-Catholic members of the same political party, with Catholic Democrats supporting abortion rights and Catholic Republicans opposing more liberal immigration policies. Moral consistency plays little or no role in this political calculation.

Catholic voters sometimes invoke their Catholic identity to justify their political allegiance. Catholic Republicans cite their opposition to abortion as a key reason for sticking with the GOP, while Catholic Democrats cite their support for policies that help the poor justify their party affiliation.

“The dynamics of our time are against holistic human development. Against our God-given duty to take care of our common home. Against the sanctity of human life. Against human solidarity.”

– Cardinal Michael Czerny

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However, most are not too bothered by the positions on which their party differs from their church. Just as stains of cigarette smoke gradually gray the curtains of a smoking house, so right now Catholic voters are mingling with the cancerous disregard for human dignity perpetrated by their own political party.

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Last weekend, Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, pointed to a different future. In delivering the Bernardin Center talk at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, he quoted both Bernardin’s and Cupich’s texts, but added a specific element that US Catholic theologians and writers tend to overlook: he raised these ethical issues the Christian anthropology.

What do we mean when we say the words “man” in light of the person of Jesus Christ? This is Christian anthropology. With haunting words, Czerny confronts the zeitgeist with its failure to create an adequate anthropology. He said:

Tragically, unjustly and life-threateningly, the dynamism of our time acts against holistic human development. Against our God-given duty to take care of our common home. Against the sanctity of human life. Against human solidarity. At their core, many of the contradictions our current era throws up for integral human development revolve around a misunderstanding of the human person: flawed anthropology. For 130 years, Catholic social teaching has attempted to correct this erroneous anthropology.

The cardinal looked at the big social encyclicals, out Rerum Novarum 1891 to Quadragesimo Anno 1931 to Populorum progression 1967 to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 1987, Charity in Veritate 2009 and finally Fratelli tutti in 2020.

Cardinal Michael Czerny will address the Catholic Theological Union's Bernardin Center in Chicago on September 17.  (Courtesy of the Catholic Theological Union)

Cardinal Michael Czerny will address the Catholic Theological Union’s Bernardin Center in Chicago on September 17. (Courtesy of the Catholic Theological Union)

For those interested in a hermeneutic of continuity, here it is! In fact, there are elements of continuity and discontinuity within this tradition of papal encyclicals, in short, the very hermeneutics of reform that Pope Benedict XVI launched. actually advocated in his famous speech to the Curia in 2005.

One of the points of continuity was the awareness that the foundation of the liberal order on a political philosophy of rights and human autonomy has misunderstood human nature; that is, it suffered from an inadequate anthropology and produced a competitive society in which relativism would become normative. In one of the more important passages of his lecture, Czerny said:

Regardless of their degree of freedom, however, economic markets shape the decisions and character of those who participate in their operation. In fact, market operations can create conditions of moral relativism. As I noted earlier, Pope Francis raises the specter of the “culture of relativism” when he Laudato Si’he sees it as “the same disorder that impels one person to exploit another, to treat others as mere objects, to inflict hard labor on them, or to enslave them to pay their debts”.

Free-market ideology is itself a source of moral relativism, a constant encouragement to neglect the humanity of others in favor of self-interest.

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This neoliberal worldview becomes indifferent to human suffering. She “conceives of the human person as individualized and competitive in order to maximize material self-interest and to view the world simply as a mere collection of objects to be bought and sold,” Czerny said. “Other people can also be objectified out of self-interest or just seen as competitors to be overcome.

Catholic anthropology and social teaching have embraced a robust notion of human rights, but never in the hyper-individualistic context of neoliberalism.

Czerny notes to his credit that the Church’s charge against individualism is not so crude as to make indifferent the value of individualism under certain circumstances. Commentary on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressionstates the cardinal: “While economic efficiency was raised to the point of dominating all other values, individual autonomy was attractive as a defense against totalitarian tendencies.”

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There are times and circumstances when an otherwise morally challenging quality like individualism is required and should be valued. Just don’t let it run amok.

I hope that the US bishops will read Czerny’s important talk before their November meeting. Soon they will begin the decision-making process on how to approach the 2024 national election. The document they issued for the last four cycles, Faithful Citizenship, must be discarded and a new approach pursued that embraces Benedict XVI’s social magisterium. and including Francis.

Free-market ideology is itself a source of moral relativism, a constant encouragement to neglect the humanity of others in favor of self-interest.

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This document did not stop the conference from moving from a fruitful engagement with the political realm to a sordid complicity with politics, as they did when they ignored their own stated goal of “conscience education” and decided that abortion was the “excellent Concerns” of the Catholic Church in the 2020 election. It was appallingly bad theology and appallingly bad politics.

Czerny – and 130 years of papal teaching – shows a way forward. Bishops must begin with Christian anthropology. They need to talk less about individual issues and more about promoting a Christian worldview capable of withstanding the moral relativism of the surrounding culture.

It is not enough to refine ethical arguments: they must go deeper. Your next document, aimed at educating the conscience of Catholics in preparation for the important act of political participation, must focus on Christian anthropology and the collection of attributes that anthropology entails.

As the cardinal said: “There are several related and even synonymous terms at work here: holy, seamless, Social, solidarity, consistent, included, integral. Let them help us be more observant, open our minds and hearts, broaden our horizons and move to different relevant frontiers.”





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