Bill Barr Tears the Seamless Garment

Attorney General William Barr in the East Room of the White House in Washington, April 1, 2019 (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Executing child murderers does not make Bill Barr any less pro-life.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C atholics, says Attorney General William Barr, “understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world beyond ourselves.”

Saccharine? Perhaps. But this remark from Barr’s now-infamous Notre Dame speech summarizes the faith of a man whose public Catholicism has for decades emphasized both sexual morality and personal charity. Discipline and virtue — words that read like dog whistles to modernists and other subversives in the Catholic hierarchy — are central to Barr’s faith. To Barr, Christ’s “yoke is easy” precisely because “taking up your cross” is not — it is the rigor of virtue that unlocks the simplicity of Christian life. Don’t sleep around, and you won’t have bastard children. Avoid anger, and you won’t be prone to violence. Love your neighbor as yourself, and you won’t be consumed with hatred.

Virtue is hard work, but the alternatives are harder.

Barr has long spoken of the importance of charity, but of a very personal sort — not the outsourced kind popular among some left-wing Catholics, for whom voting for a politician who promises to raise marginal taxes on strangers to subsidize social programs administered by other strangers still counts as an attenuated form of generosity. In a 1995 edition of Catholic Lawyer, Barr called this proposition “macro-morality,” a framework that “encourages individuals to ignore strictures on personal conduct and suggests, in effect, that one can find salvation on the picket line, by being involved in the environmental movement, by promoting condom distribution or a host of other causes.” A Church whose public ministry ignores virtue and instead plays the role of interfaith social worker, pleading for government funds and championing “systemic reforms” and “institutional changes,” is failing in its responsibility to emphasize the obligation of charity that binds all Catholics.

Christ’s words in the Last Judgment parable were not, “I was hungry, and you conscripted your neighbor into giving me food with the implied threat of state force”; indicting opiate-addled whites in Appalachia for their “privilege” is not charity, and bleating on about the patriarchy and women’s liberation is not a corporal work of mercy. No — if you want to be charitable, grab a ladle and go to the soup kitchen, attend to the elderly and infirm, visit the prisoner, and pray for the dead. Some problems may require collective solutions, but that hardly absolves Catholics of their duty to get off of their asses and serve the poor. Their souls depend on it.

Bill Barr represents the antithesis of the sort of public Catholicism that animates many of his left-wing critics, who long for a Church that deemphasizes sexual issues and becomes instead like an NGO: lobbying governments for subsidies, supporting Medicaid expansion, and unmooring the Church from those mythical beliefs that keep the working class from rousing from its slumber and joining the Revolution.

Paul Baumann of the Catholic magazine Commonweal, for instance, said the attorney general’s “understanding of Christianity is essentially Pelagian.” Catholic theologian C. Colt Anderson called Barr and his worldview a “threat to American democracy.” One anonymous Trump administration official who described himself as a “devout Catholic” told the Guardian that he worried that “Trump is Barr’s imperfect vessel in serving a much higher cause: the Gospel.” (A strange thing for a “devout Catholic” to worry about.)

But on Monday, after Barr set execution dates for four federal prisoners — each of whom was convicted of killing, and in two cases, raping, a child — his faith again came under attack from Catholic critics.

John Gehring, a Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, immediately called on American bishops to denounce Barr for pursuing the death penalty, referring to Barr when he tweeted: “Perhaps the most powerful Catholic in the Trump administration. Will Catholic bishops challenge him as many have challenged pro-choice Catholics?”

Father James Martin, S.J., author of Building a Bridge and something of an emissary for Catholic dissidents, went further, claiming that Barr’s decision gave the lie to “the Trump administration’s frequent claim to being ‘pro life.’ Because every life is sacred: from the unborn child in the womb, to the refugee on the border, to the prisoner on death row. You cannot be pro life and pro death penalty.”

That would come as a surprise to the God of the Old Testament who prescribed capital punishment to Moses, or to Christ who affirmed Pilate’s power in the praetorium, or to any of history’s great saints who believed what the Catholic Church taught about the death penalty until the cosmic equivalent of yesterday.

Even if one were opposed to the death penalty — which, if one relies on papal statements alone, the Catholic Church was not for more than 1,970 years — the notion that there is some sort of equivalence between killing an unborn child and the state’s recourse to execute a condemned killer is a strange one, and is of very recent vintage. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin planted the seeds of this equivocation in 1983 with his “seamless garment” speech, a reference to the cloth worn by Christ in John’s Gospel, in which he suggested that a broad array of issues be tied to the pro-life cause in a “consistent life ethic.” Yes, Cardinal Bernardin said, Catholics are obliged to oppose killing the unborn — but in order to be “consistent,” they must also support housing subsidies, universal medicine, and the abolition of capital punishment. The idea gained traction among prelates eager to equivocate between long-standing progressive priorities and the moral urgency of abortion, and it was, in effect, used as a cudgel to accuse pro-life activists of hypocrisy, while diluting the unique evil of killing unborn children.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, writing in 2004 as Cardinal Ratzinger, rejected this sort of false equivalence:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Bill Barr, despite the protestations of his critics, is no less a Catholic for pursuing the death penalty. The four child murderers might, if Dr. Johnson is to be believed, be hastened to conversion by the gallows. The opposition here to Barr from the Catholic Left remains the same as ever: Barr rejects the notion that reducing federal housing subsidies, whatever the merits or demerits of that idea, is an act of depravity similar to that of procuring an abortion. He opposes that “macro-morality” that substitutes welfare programs for the charitable imperative. Perhaps Barr has rent the seamless garment in two. That, come to think of it, would not be the worst thing in the world.

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