It’s often said that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice, especially on the left. I’ve always thought that the statement needs considerable qualification. The nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court of Judge Amy Coney Barrett — a woman who, by all accounts, fully holds to what the Catholic Church believes to be true and tries to live consistently with that faith — illustrates the point.
There are in fact several types of Catholics who are acceptable to the left. One are those Catholics who decides they don’t believe in Catholicism anymore. With such individuals, the left has no quarrel whatsoever.
Other Catholics broadly embraced by the left are those with left-leaning economic views and who insist their faith informs why they think this way, but who also argue that on issues like abortion, they can’t possibly impose their religious views on others. This line was articulated by Mario Cuomo and other Catholic politicians from both parties in the 1980s, and is held today by figures like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
The paradox is that Catholicism allows for a broad spectrum of views on economic issues. Commitment to the poor is certainly non-negotiable for Catholics. But there is enormous room for debate among Catholics about how to best give effect to that commitment. Why? Because choice on many economic issues is between not only good and evil options but also a range of reasonable options, some of which might be incompatible with each other but compatible with the church’s teaching. I favor free markets, but there’s nothing in Catholicism which says you can’t be a Keynesian or mild social democrat.
By contrast, Catholic teaching about, say, euthanasia does translate into a very specific position. Catholic faith teaches that 1) intentionally killing a human being is always wrong; 2) euthanasia involves the intentional choice to kill; and 3) no sound justice system can condone intentional killing.
At this point, it’s not unusual for someone to interject, “How dare you use the law to impose your church’s teaching about euthanasia upon everyone else?” For the left, the right type of Catholic will say, “Maybe I personally oppose euthanasia because I’m a Catholic but it would be wrong to impose my Catholic beliefs on the rest of society; ergo, I can’t vote against legalizing euthanasia.”
Among the many problems with such logic is that you don’t need to be Catholic to oppose euthanasia. Nor do you need to appeal to Catholic faith to explain why euthanasia should be prohibited. Sound arguments against legalizing euthanasia based solely upon reason and experience have been made by numerous Protestants, Jews, Muslims and non-believers.
On those occasions when I’ve been asked a question about topics like euthanasia, I never invoke my Catholic faith. Instead, I appeal to the philosophical tradition called natural law — a tradition that goes as far back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (who were not Catholics) — and its argument concerning the injustice of all forms of intentional killing. I also point out how voluntary euthanasia invariably acquires involuntary characteristics and expands beyond the terminally-ill to embrace the disabled and the vulnerable.
In one such case, I recall that the questioner’s response to my argument was this: “You Catholics are all the same. You want to subject the rest of us to your irrational faith and your silly God.” But, I protested, I was doing no such thing. I hadn’t even mentioned God. I’d only appealed to reason and experience. “Sure,” was the response, “but we all know what you’re really up to.”
It was then I realized how anti-Catholicism functions on the left. It’s a way of marginalizing perfectly rational arguments against their most sacred cows by saying that such positions must reflect the supposedly absurd beliefs of an inherently oppressive religion.
That is the position into which the left will try to box Judge Barrett. I don’t know what she thinks of Roe v. Wade. But I do know many legal minds — including people who consider themselves pro-choice — regard Roe as bad law because they see it as based on a mistaken reading of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The dogma does not live loudly in all these individuals. Nevertheless they, too, view Roe as constitutionally erroneous.
In short, the left’s references to Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism are all about delegitimizing any constitutional argument she might make against Roe by portraying her position as ultimately grounded in her religious beliefs. Does anyone believe that the left would make similar allegations if the person expressing the very same view about Roe’s constitutionality was a devout Muslim or an Orthodox Jew? It’s in this sense that anti-Catholicism is alive and well on the American left today.
• Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.
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