Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller doesn't really like the Catholic Church or its teachings, which she has called "prehistoric."
But she really dislikes Rick Santorum more (see "smug fecundity"), and so she takes a column today to roll out the tired argument liberal Catholics have been making forever, that Santorum's GOP-aligned political positions make him a "cafeteria Catholic."
Her thesis: "Santorum is not, in fact, all that Catholic."
But her arguments boil down to one of two forms: (1) if you don't pursue the Church's objectives through the public policy Lisa X. Miller favors, then you're not all that Catholic; and slightly less absurd, (2) if you disagree on public policy with Catholic Bishops, then you're not all that Catholic.
This latter point is a deep, but common misunderstanding of the way authority works in the Catholic Church. Ultimately, her column reveals that she sees Catholics the way anti-Catholic pre-JFK Southerners saw us -- blindly taking orders from Rome.
The principle she ignores is that Catholics are obligated to exercise their own prudential judgment in applying the principles taught by the Church. The Church often makes practical policy recommendations, but they are different in kind than moral and theological teachings.
This was articulated well in a 1986 letter in which Bishops wrote "we do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle."
With that in mind, let me address Miller's points one at a time.
1) The Death Penalty
Miller's argument boils down to this: Santorum doesn't want to abolish the death penalty while U.S. Bishops and the the Pope do.
But contrary to centuries-old stereotypes about Catholics, we are not obligated to believe everything our Pope or Bishops believe. The Church is the arbiter on issues of faith and morals, not legislation. Here's the Catechism of the Church on capital punishment (my emphasis added):
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
"Very rare if not non-existent" is a fair way of describing the federal use of capital punishment -- we have executed three people since 1963.
Miller points out that the Church says torture is always wrong, and then says that Santorum supports things that Lisa Miller thinks are torture. When Santorum expressed support for what he called "enhanced interrogation techniques," he explicitly said he did not "believe they amounted to torture."
I don't agree with Santorum, but the Catechism doesn't have a clear definition of torture. Maybe his definition is conveniently crafted to match his national-security wishes, but I can't say Santorum's position violates Catholic teaching -- neither can Miller.
Basically, one Bishop disagrees with Santorum about what we should do regarding Iran. Again, Catholics are not bound to take foreign policy advice from Rome -- I thought JFK had made that clear.
I think it's very unwise for Santorum to talk about military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, but that's a prudential judgment.
Miller doesn't point to one thing in Santorum's rhetoric or policies that violate the relevant Catholic teaching here -- our obligation to love our neighbors and to value the diginity of every human life. She does find Santorum, again, disagreeing on policy with Bishops, regarding matters of law-and-order and the consequences of certain policies.
The fact that Santorum makes different prudential judgments than the Bishops makes him "not all that Catholic" in Miller's mind.
So it turns out, Miller thinks a good Catholic politician would, literally, take orders from Rome on how to govern. She holds the very same views that JFK had to fight against.
You might call her views "prehistoric."