In a time of intense polarization in both church and society, a new book from Fordham theologian Charles Camosy seeks to outline “a revitalized consistent life ethic” that “could demonstrate how to unify a fractured culture around a vision of the good.” Camosy’s book seeks to overcome the Catholic battles between pro-life and social justice issues, a dichotomy that too often mirrors the incoherence of our political parties.
The author applies a set of consistent principles to issues that cross partisan lines, vigorously opposing the “throwaway culture” manifested equally in widespread pornography and abortion and in disdain for the poor, immigrants and the planet. He opposes the tendency to pit recent popes against one another, instead showing that the “new lenses” Pope Francis brings in rejecting throwaway culture and encouraging a “culture of encounter” are simply vivid exemplifications of the fundamental principle of the dignity of all persons, without exception.
Camosy develops seven grounding principles as a bulwark against temptations to tailor arguments to fit our party and our own desires, or to treat various issues in inconsistent ways.
The first is a refusal to reduce or instrumentalize the dignity of anyone. This principle leads, on the one hand, to resisting the use of violence, claims to autonomy and depersonalizing language, and on the other, to embracing those most vulnerable and most on the peripheries. Camosy’s final principle asserts a mutuality of relationships, even across generations.
In fast-moving, well-informed chapters, he consistently draws our attention to the violence, depersonalization and assertion of autonomy that dominates our culture. The explosion of pornography, for example, and the rampant destruction of the environment rest on the same ideas as the presumed rights to abortion and to physician-assisted suicide.
Even more piercingly,
Camosy shows how such tendencies animate our indifference to such realities as factory farming of animals and mass incarceration to deal with crime, both of which devalue some segment of creation, subjecting it to violence in the name of preserving and enhancing individual autonomy.
The patterns Camosy identifies may be sobering, but his book hopefully points out that everyone, at every point on the political spectrum, wants to resist such patterns when they apply to issues of relevance to them. Thus, the strategy, especially for the church, should be to lead people to see how to be consistent across areas, urging for example those who see the throwaway pattern at work in abortion to see it in the treatment of immigrants, and vice versa.
Camosy argues that this can only happen if we are intellectually honest, seriously following the principles wherever they lead. (Camosy formulates and responds to objections to his positions in every chapter.)
Secondly, we must to “take a long, hot, cleansing political shower” — including influence from in our devices — to engage in face-to-face encounters with others, especially those who are most in need and most under threat of marginalization — those whom we ourselves are most likely to depersonalize and throw away.
Camosy’s book has many virtues, but above all, he combines intellectual rigor, accessibility and huge amounts of information on issues in a way that promises to open up anyone’s perspective to the fullness of Catholic social thought — even to those who are not Catholic, as his principles do not depend on specific religious faith. He succeeds in offering a consistent vision for addressing many social problems, one that is not utopian and not easily co-opted by existing partisan power structures.
While he treats issues in great detail, some may fault his work for treating them all equally. For example, some might argue issues of direct killing — abortion or war — must be addressed first, while others might suggest that systemic problems like racism or environmental destruction are so large and pressing, that they require a priority not granted here. But such argument misses the overall point of Camosy’s project: to see, in the words of Pope Francis, that “everything is connected” and we should not tolerate the marginalization and depersonalization of some for the benefit of others. Thus, arguments that this or that issue is “more important” can, even if unintentionally, send the message that we tolerate the throwing away of other issues.
Camosy insists that our first and most important priority should be a clear and complete recognition of the dignity of all. Once we are unified around that, we will then be more able to devise real solutions to the suffering and death rampant in our divided society.
Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America.