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The World Serious

,,,as Michael the Little called it.
No, not a baseball post.
A brief broadside, offered before two longer posts later today, about the continued lack of seriousness marking Catholic political “discourse” this season.
When I say “serious,” I mean a willingness to go beyond slogans, fears and emotions, beyond party loyalty and to really engage issues, acknowledging their complexity, admitting our inability to grasp the whole picture, no matter how much we may know, and understanding that proposed solutions are incomplete, both because they cannot, because of human limitations, take in all aspects of an issue and also because they cannot provide for all contingencies and unintended consequences.
The one exception is the abortion issue. The conversations about this are, for the most part, serious, although I will say that the pro-Obama Catholics fade in seriousness with each passing day as hardly any of them actually engage the totality of the issue and the reality of their candidates’ position, preferring instead to put their hands over their ears and sing “La-la-la!” in melodious, highly degreed voices when Obama’s own record and promises on the issue are raised.  Those who are arguing against the Obama candidacy in part because of his abortion promises are, for the most part, taking the other side’s claims seriously, exploring the issue of social and economic conditions that are said to lead to choosing abortion and so on. But from the proponents, not much except vagueness, assurances that Obama will not, in fact, follow through on his own rhetoric on the score, and disengenous characerizations of the pro-life movement, the Catholc bishops and Catholic teaching itself.
I don’t care how many degrees you have or where you teach, if you cannot engage with the other party’s argument in a way that thoughtfully explores the claims of the other are not serious.
And what about the economy? Granted, it is a massive issue, complex, daunting and frankly, sort of depressing, so who wants to talk about it – but where are the discussions of the matter in our Catholic circles that (once again) get beyond vague assertions about “what Catholic social teaching requires.”
Health care. Education. Constitutional issues that have been raised in the last couple of days. Freedom of speech and religion. Honesty within the political process itself, for heaven’s sake. The forthrightness of our candidates.
It has been said several times over the past few years that this is a Catholic moment of sorts – as American Christians seek to deepen their philosophical chops, to debate and discuss matters of ethics and policy, the Catholic tradition provides a grounding for serious discourse that is helpful to all believers, a grounding that might have been absent from Protestantism, especially those forms rooted in sola Scriptura.
But is it? Really? Where is that happening right now in 2008 apart from the abortion issue?
This is why the Scriptures tell us to not put our trust in princes. This is why it is not a bad thing to feel homeless in the American political climate.
Because when you feel too much at home in a stranger’s house, you just might forget who your real Father is and lose the capacity to remember, period.

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posted October 28, 2008 at 3:46 pm

True that!

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Kevin J Jones

posted October 28, 2008 at 5:25 pm

‘but where are the discussions of the matter in our Catholic circles that (once again) get beyond vague assertions about “what Catholic social teaching requires.”?’
This is where the frequently made distinction between “prudential matters” and “inherent evils” can hamper real debate. People are so busy arguing about principles that they don’t argue about what is prudent.
If Catholics quickly dismiss objections to, say, a very hawkish candidate on the grounds that war is sometimes justified, they’re stopping the prudential debate.
Perhaps this is equivocation to say so, but acting imprudently is also an inherent evil.
Principled discussion is easy and blog-friendly. Describing the policy details and evaluating the pros and cons takes much effort and skill to write and attracts few readers *as Catholics*.
While this kind of detailed debate is best handled in the major non-sectarian papers and magazines, it is a pity we don’t see more of it under Catholic auspices.

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posted October 28, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Apologies in advance for the long post…
I’m a McCain guy because of the abortion issue. Supreme Court nominees in particular. If he loses I’ll be disappointed. But by far my greater disappointment in this election season, whether McCain wins or loses, is the quality of discourse. It is profoundly not serious, as Amy points out.
Why is that the case, and how can discourse be fixed, if it can be fixed at all? I wish pundits and bloggers and scholars would take up this question. It’s decidedly not just a Catholic question.
My broad diagnosis of the problem is that we have a problem in the culture regarding how to debate. There are no rules, and as a consequence the participants in the debate (the candidates, their staff, the media, the new-media, etc.) are at liberty to say anything, whether or not what they are saying is relevant, reliable or based in fact. Irrelevant, unreliable and baseless arguments produce irrelevant, unreliable and baseless responses, and pretty soon (around the second day of the campaign cycle), the noise of the debate becomes a cacophony. The average voter looking for information, who is not willing to spend time educating him or herself, doesn’t know what or whom to believe, and tunes out. The debate participants themselves spin themselves, and are spun, far off the path of legitimate issues, and their premises and conclusions.
The merits of the issues are rarely, if ever, reached.
We live in a “free speech” society. We obviously can’t regulate what people say in political campaigns. Still, I’m not willing to surrender the idea that there is a far better way for the issues to be debated.
I’m a lawyer, and I often think of how the merits are reached in the courtroom context. We have “rules of evidence” which are, in effect, limits on the kind of speech which are permitted. Irrelevant evidence is inadmissible. Hearsay is generally inadmissible. “Character” evidence is inadmissible. Evidence is required to have a proper “foundation.” All of these rules are intended to limit the “noise” which would otherwise affect the decision making process and obscure the merits.
I have a sense that at one time in our country, similar “rules” prevailed in discourse. Participants in debate generally avoided employing logical fallacies, like “ad hominem” arguments and the dreaded “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” This wasn’t just gentlemanly conduct. It was a recognition that fallacious arguments interfere with the process of reaching logical conclusions.
We don’t have that anymore. And I for one don’t have a clue about how that lost knowledge can be recovered.
At the beginning of the campaign season I wrote a letter to the McCain campaign asking them to consider a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates. It would make sense, I argued, since 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the original L-D debates. Newt Gingrich made a similar proposal, calling on the candidates to agree to 9 90-minute L-D style debates on the 9 Sundays between Labor Day and Election Day (he called his proposal “9 Nineties in Nine”). I also wrote a letter to Mayor Daley asking that he considering hosting one or more such debates in Chicago. Mayor Daley assured me in his response that he was interested in the idea. But in the end, nothing.
There are 2 reasons why serious debate is eschewed in the political process: power and money.
The corruption of money manifests itself most clearly, in my view, in the ceaseless activities of campaign staffs, which now comprise an entire profession. One hears more from the campaign staff than one does the candidates themselves.
The pursuit of power causes candidates to “play it safe,” and to play to the lowest common denominator. Catch phrases, like “change,” and “Joe the Plummer,” replace honest to goodness debate.
The state of political debate is sad indeed.
Lincoln once said:
“One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms.”
In the current culture, there are no definitions, and no axioms.

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M.Z. Forrest

posted October 28, 2008 at 7:48 pm

Debate is for the persuadable. At this point in the election season, it is a waste of time to attempt to persuade those that think what McCain offers on the abortion issue far surpasses (or even excludes) the discussion of what Obama offers on other issues. Those not considering either candidate are not considered. You asked the question. There is your answer. I should mention that on your question about a week ago that I had drafted a reply, but unfortunately when I posted the connection I used started acting like I was writing from Waziristan. Not your fault obviously.

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posted October 28, 2008 at 7:55 pm

I have found many of the “discussions” offensive and unserious. Some, like Cathleen Kaveny’s in America, couch their support of Obama (because that’s what she’s really doing) in terms of saying that using the phrase “intrinsic evil” (which abortion and many other things are) doesn’t really advance the discussion and that “intrinsically evil acts do not necessarily make for the worst form of homicide.” This is sophistry and legalese. And it doesn’t really speak to the issue, even in terms of morality, which Kaveny professes to teach. And it’s based on American jurisprudence, which is hardly the same thing as Catholic teaching.
The other end of the discussion, which is equally offensive, puts the intrinsic evil of abortion/euthanasia on a par with war/torture. Again, we see sophistry again. All four are intrinsic evils. But to regard war and torture (and torture IS proscribed in CCC 9277) on the same level as abortion and euthanasia is dishonest. Comparing various “intrinsic evils” means nothing. It’s apples and oranges. Wars may be evaluated as just or unjust. Torture has been variously defined and has an additional element of circumstance and intent. Abortion and euthanasia are objectively evil and have no redeeming circumstances. This is another version of the “seamless garment,” which I thought had finally run out its 15 minutes, but here it is, back again.
Ultimately, as Catholics, the first thing we have to do is be honest about our own teaching tradition. Until we reach that minimal level, we cannot criticize the political process or any other group.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 6:13 am

“This is a Catholic moment of sorts..”
I agree completely. I faciliated a discussion in my parishes bewteen masses on Sunday about faithful citizenship and voting. It gave people an opportunity to talk about the struggles they are having and about the teachings of the Church as they relate to forming conscience.
But at some point the discussion veered to a discussion of what we do after the election – what Catholics can do to promote change, to promote a political agenda that more fully is in accord with Catholic teachings. It is not just about voting.
I agree the first thing we need to do is “be honest about our own teaching tradition.” But then we need to discern how we can act on it. Our obligation in the public sphere as Catholics is not limited to voting.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 8:34 am

Catholics must roar against the Freedom of Choice Act and let the more than 100 legislators already signed on and any future Congressman who support FOCA know that they will be severely punished if they vote for it. Ask your present or future Congressman how he will vote NOW. To his credit, the democratic challenger in my district, after multiple phone calls and emails, has said he would not support FOCA. Let your fellow Catholics know how radical this act is and how our likely president so enthusiastically supports it. The current democratically enacted and S.Ct. approved waiting periods, parental consent, partial birth bans, prohibition of federal funding, respect for the consciences of medical personnel – poof, gone with FOCA. A Catholic who votes for Obama will bear a heavy responsibility for this, and it will be time to demonstrate that there are limits to democratic tolerance of abortion.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the link to the Allen piece. I have expressed that feeling for the past few election cycles. The parties have yoked to themselves to some unfortunate positions, and it’s been impossible for me to enthusiastically support a candidate for most of my adult life.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 9:41 am

A correction. The last line should read:- A Catholic who votes for Obama will bear a heavy responsibility, and it is well past the time to demonstrate that there are limits to Democratic tolerance of abortion.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 11:08 am

From John Allen’s column:
What would happen if a serious candidate came along who’s pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life?
It’s very helpful that Allen fleshed out what he considers the Catholic issues and at the (high) risk of greatly oversimplifying things and missing other things I’ll take a stab:
Pro-life, pro-family: The Republican party still seems operative here. From a resistance to gay marriage to tax breaks for families to the pro-life judges Bush apppointed, I’m not sure how much more you could reasonably expect, though McCain’s support of embryonic stem cell research is a significant blemish.
anti-war: Allen quotes a young theologian: “I can’t help thinking that both parties are addicted to preemptive strikes,” he told me, “whether it’s in the womb or on the battlefield.” The Iraq War wasn’t a preemptive strike since future historians will see it as nothing more than a continuation of the Gulf War, but the general talk and tenor of the Republican party is discomfiting. Torture is a preemptive strike and while it’s not going on now, waterboarding has gone on in the past. Fortunately it’s not a party platform plank and McCain has repudiated it.
pro-immigrant: Sigh. Does this mean pro-open border? Does it mean being against erecting a fence along the southern border? Both parties seem pro-immigrant to me— in fact both parties have been pro-illegal immigrant at least until recently. So does Allen mean pro-illegal immigrant? Or does he mean greatly increased legal immigration quotas? If so, I wish he’d said the latter because that would make sense to me.
anti-death penalty: True enough. I’m not sure this issue deserves to be in the same group as the other issues listed given the magnitude of the other issues and given that the death penalty is not an intrinsic evil. There were 42 executions in the U.S. in 2007.
pro-sustainable development: the defintion is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A big umbrella involving a lot of issues economic and environmental and I think it’s a structural problem, perhaps inherent in a democracy, since our representatives will think short-term in order to keep their job. In an instant gratification culture this is going to be a tough sell. Deficit spending occurs because people want it. The motivation for alternative energy is, unfortunately, $5 a gallon or more for gas.
multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom: The clause “concerned with religious freedom” is a big one, and it does seem that the current incarnations of the Democrat & Republican parties are not acting with other countries in a concerted effort to combat religious persecution.
a robust role for believers in public life: Republican party still fits…George W. Bush is seen as a fervent Christian who obviously has a robust role in public life.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 12:41 pm

What we are seeing on TV are not debates. They are quizzes, like Jeopardy, except for Rick Warren’s political event.
A real debate poses a question about one subject and each side gets into it in depth. I’d like to see a series like that.
Instead of gotcha, let the candidates know what will be addressed and limit the number of subjects – one subject could be the Freedom of Choice Act.
There were specific issues of the day that Lincoln and Douglas addressed in turn; they were not getting quizzed on what papers they read and where they get their clothes.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 3:58 pm

You’re quite right about this. But the question is HOW we get politicians to engage in this sort of debate? This type of format is certainly available. Newt Gingrich’s proposal could not have been clearer, and yet it go no traction whatsoever. I’m truly interested in what the public can do to demand a better debate format. My fear is that the answer is “nothing.” But I can’t accept that answer.

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c matt

posted October 30, 2008 at 2:30 pm

It was a recognition that fallacious arguments interfere with the process of reaching logical conclusions
Logical conclusions do not always make the best solutions, particularly where you are debating public policy. Not everything works according to strict logical rules. For example, from a logical perspective, slippery slope arguments are considered false. However, as history and experience show, we have hardly ever found a slippery slope we haven’t slid down with gusto (the slide from contraception to increased abortion, for one).
I have to disagree with the lack of serious discussions, at least on the Catholic Blogosphere. Perhaps lack of seriousness is to be expected in the MSM, whose goal, after all, is not deep thought, but selling air-time.

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posted October 30, 2008 at 6:01 pm

The Catholic blogosphere has certainly engaged in serious discussion. But the culture at large has not. And the campaigns certainly have not.
Perhaps Amy’s post related to the Catholic culture in particular. My point was directed at the national culture, and the quality of debate nationally.
The mission statement of the Commission on Presidential Debates ( is as follows: “The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” Is there anyone who thinks that this mission is achieved? In my view, the televised debates (with the exception of the Saddleback forum) are a national embarrassment.
I don’t disagree with you, Matt, that the rules of logic do not always make for the best solutions. But it sure seems to me that debate without any rules at all make for terrible solutions.
I know it’s terribly naive of me to think that as a nation we can find a way for the “merits” of the issues to be better exposed to voters.
But it’s not a stretch to posit that the current “system” is a complete failure.
The folks who are diligent enough to research the issues, and study them, will be fine. But those folks are not the problem.
I actually disagree about the Catholic blogosphere. The serious areas of discussion have been two: first, as I mention, abortion. That’s been very seriously discussed. Secondly, the whole concept of what a vote is, the meaning of a vote, and so on. That’s been discussed. But the other issues I raise? Health care? The economy? An engagement with foreign policy? The ethics of the campaign itself? Nah.

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posted October 31, 2008 at 12:36 am

Two words. George Bush.
And as one bumper sticker said,
“If you are not appalled you haven’t been paying attention.”
My generation is appalled. If this is what “pro-life” means count us out.
That may, just may, be the reason for “la la la.”

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posted October 31, 2008 at 1:09 am

…and Obama is the answer.
Your heart is good, Radical Catholic Mom, but until you nail Obama to the wall on his stance and his promises, you won’t have credibility. Even if you’re going to vote for him, it would be nice if you would be honest about the real threat he poses to pro-life work, both in law and on the ground.
Until then you’re just being reactive.
See you when things like the Hyde Amendment, parental consent, etc. are history because of Obama. See you when your tax dollars are going to pay for abortions under a government health care plan.
Why *don’t* you address those things, by the way? I mean, saying “George Bush” is not exactly a response to “What is Obama’s position on abortion restrictions that have been proven to lessen the number of abortions.”

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Karen LH

posted October 31, 2008 at 6:50 am

Two words. George Bush.
George Bush isn’t running for President.

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Stephen J. Haessler

posted November 1, 2008 at 9:53 am

Dear Amy,
Your post is excellent. Thank you very much. I would like to respond to the question raised in this paragraph: “And what about the economy? Granted, it is a massive issue, complex, daunting and frankly, sort of depressing, so who wants to talk about it – but where are the discussions of the matter in our Catholic circles that (once again) get beyond vague assertions about “what Catholic social teaching requires.””
I humbly offer my attempt to go beyond slogans with a curriculum called “Apostles and Markets” that combines principles of Catholic social doctrine, the greatest value system on the planet, with the analytic framework of economics. The blog at is intended to be a resource for high school teachers of theology and social studies and their students, but may be of some interest to a broader audience.
Here is a recent sample. An economist from Ave Maria University’s economics department wrote a guest post on October 30th on the economics of abortion that is quite excellent. It shows that the income effect on the demand for abortion is basically zero, which means policies intended to raise incomes of poor women are unlikely to reduce abortion rates. Abortion rates will not decline if people have more money. It is an error to assert that a growing economy will lower the number of abortions.
If you or any of your readers have time I invite you to visit a blog that hopes to highlight Catholic social doctrine and the economic way of thinking. Thanks again for all you do.
Steve Haessler

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