Sister Simone Campbell has become a minor celebrity over the last few months. Her 15 minutes began back in April when her social-justice lobbying outfit, NETWORK, earned a rare public rebuke from the Vatican for, ironically, its inadequate understanding of social justice. Capitalizing on the fawning media attention she received, Sister Simone and a few of her fellow progressive friends embarked on a highly publicized bus tour of the Midwest — Nuns on the Bus, they called it — during which they slammed Paul Ryan’s budget for being incompatible with Catholic social teaching.
Sister Simone’s crusade against Paul Ryan has taken her from D.C. to Iowa and from Comedy Central to CNN, the Catholic Left cheering her all the while. Last Wednesday, her crusade led her to the Democratic National Convention, where she made her case against Paul Ryan yet again, denouncing the GOP budget proposals for contradicting the teachings of the Catholic faith: “[Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s] budget goes astray in not acknowledging that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our immediate families. Rather, our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”
But the arguments Sister Simone offered against the Ryan budget (she attacked Romney only by association) echo many of the arguments we heard from liberal Catholics during welfare reform in the 1990s. Then, as now, they claimed that reform would constitute an abandonment of the poor and an abdication of our social responsibilities to the least among us. Then, as now, many Catholics refused to define justice down by equating the need for better government with the need for more government.
Progressive Catholics, of whom Sister Simone is now the most prominent representative, are so convinced that Paul Ryan has betrayed Catholic teaching with his budget proposals that the charge of dissent — long leveled against certain theologically incontinent corners of the Catholic Left — is now being hurled with gusto at Ryan and his Catholic supporters.
While at least one bishop has said he finds Ryan’s proposals lacking — a position Sister Simone wrongly presumes to be common among Catholics — Ryan’s own bishop, Robert C. Morlino of Madison, recently made it clear that he sees nothing at all to prevent good Catholics from supporting Ryan or his proposals. As another prominent cleric, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, put it: “Claims that Paul Ryan’s plan run deeply counter to Catholic social teaching are unfounded and unreasonable.” Cardinal Dolan of New York has expressed similar approbation for the moral legitimacy of the Ryan plan.
These bishops aren’t endorsing Ryan or his budget — Catholic bishops don’t do political endorsements — but the open acknowledgment that Ryan and his policies are worthy of serious consideration by Catholics makes it all but impossible to portray Ryan as a corruptor of Catholic social teaching. More important, they are evidence that American Catholics, including some of the most influential prelates, are increasingly willing to question the old Democratic shibboleths about how best to promote a just society.
In Catholic teaching there are some things that are always wrong — intrinsic evils, we call them — things that no amount of moral gymnastics or creative casuistry can justify. High among such evils is the intentional taking of an innocent human life — including human life in the womb. All Catholics are expected to work to make the civil law reflect, as fully as possible, what the Church teaches with absolutely clarity: Abortion can never be justified.
Many, many other issues require prudent judgment: Medicare growth rates, marginal tax rates, defined-benefit versus defined-contribution entitlements, even the decision whether or not to go to war. These matters have moral implications, but getting the right answer means using one’s best judgment to discern the best response amid complex circumstances. There is no moral principle that tells you categorically what the interest rate should be on a federal student loan or even whether the government should offer student loans. Reasonable people can and do disagree on such things, and in good conscience, too.
Which brings us back to Sister Simone Campbell. Before taking the podium at the DNC to denounce the moral failings of the Republican candidates, she was asked by John McCormack of the Weekly Standard whether she believed that performing abortions should be illegal. Her response? “That’s beyond my pay grade. I don’t know.”
This is astounding. In Sister Simone’s moral universe, there is only one just policy when it comes to government spending on social programs (more of it), but the undeniable implications of an unchanging Catholic principle — namely the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” — are beyond her pay grade.