About a decade ago when I was in the seminary, I heard somewhere that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) was giving funds to organizations that did not adhere to Catholic teaching. I encouraged, privately, people I knew not to contribute to the CCHD collections held at their parishes. News surfaced this week that the CCHD continues giving money to anti-Catholic groups and institutions. Now, I think it is clear that the CCHD is in need of real reform.

But how this reform will come about, I do not know. I suppose most of the CCHD’s donation decisions are based on some vague “seamless garment” kind of approach to Catholic Social Teaching. The problem with a garment, however, is that it lays flat. There is no hierarchical arrangement of goods to be pursued. So, eradicating poverty, providing clean drinking water abroad, giving access to education, and protecting the sanctity of life are all put on an equal playing field. But while all of these are goods to be pursued, they do not each carry the same moral weight. And the hierarchical structure should be apparent. If respect for life is not primary, the other goods cannot be pursued. One does not need clean drinking water if one is not alive.

Cardinal Bernardin’s Consistent Ethic of Life purports to distinguish among “levels of the question,” but these are not levels as stairs in your house are levels. Rather, they are aspects of the problem, as if you walk around a cube and explain the figures on each side. You are not moving up, no one aspect is better or higher than another, they are just different points of view. Bernardin says that the first level is “general moral principles,” the second is to “stress[ ] the distinction among cases rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to diverse cases.” So in the span of a sentence, he says that we need broad moral principles and then says those broad principles change depending on the circumstance. He goes on to explain how these principles are applied by trying to relate abortion and capital punishment. The general principle is that the taking of innocent human life is always a grave evil. But that is where the distinction breaks down. Capital punishment is precisely about taking life that is not “innocent.” While I do not want to get into a debate about Capital Punishment here (since others have done it better here and here), I just note that Bernardin’s analogy limps. We can apply the broad principle to both these situations because one act (Capital Punishment) does not fall within the protection of “innocent” life. Bernardin says that any individual situation calls for its own moral analysis. But without a clear hierarchy of goods, this analysis becomes whatever an individual wants it to be.

The third and fourth levels he proposes are how we bring these beliefs into the public square, first through our personal lives and then through politics. I will just say here that the Catholic position on life becomes less credible the more we allow prominent Catholics in politics to hold and advocate contrary positions with impunity.

The USCCB has a great opportunity here, an opportunity to unmoor itself from the manipulable Bernardin-style ethics and to re-establish itself as a moral force in the U.S. and abroad. This will mean that the CCHD will have to do more than fight against poverty, but to fight for a cultural transformation in the way we think about “human development.” The Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the world. We should take that position and this opportunity to promote what truly contributes to society.

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