A Plague of Catholic cafeteria consequentialism

By Jason Blakely, 31 January 2021
Image: Erik Mclean/Unsplash


Viewed from the outside, Catholicism’s social teachings appear to be a perplexing gamut of unreasonably extreme positions lacking in any overall coherence. Sharp criticisms of laissez-faire capitalism and militarism sit side-by-side with denouncements of pornography and divorce. A preference for the material poor is joined to a veneration of spiritual hierarchy. Condemnations of prison conditions and ecological devastation are paired with opposition to abortion and moral relativism. Particularly when seen through the eyes of the contemporary American culture war, the Catholic Church appears erratic, even raving in its moral passions.

One small way to begin discerning some philosophical coherence in Catholic political theology is to recognise that the Church is radically demanding on what she sees as the infinite worth and dignity of the human person. Catholic Social Teaching is a thoroughgoing humanism, which holds that every human life embodies an immeasurable moral weight that cannot be instrumentalised as a means to achieving some other social good. This refusal to treat human persons as tools to social, political, and economic utility holds no matter how disproportionate and overwhelming the consequences might be.

This is one way to arrive at the Catholic Church’s hostility to all forms of moral and political consequentialism (from Machiavellianism to utilitarianism) which hold that an action is good or bad based on its effects. An infamous example is the Church’s intransigent repudiation of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a decision justified by the American government in terms of a supposed calculus of lives saved in comparison to the fatality rates of other courses of action.

A clear sign that Catholics in the United States have strayed from the Magisterium is that such uncompromising humanism is viewed by many as naïve—the sentimentalism of idiots and theologians. This has made for an American Church peopled with what might be termed “cafeteria consequentialists” or moral selves selectively and opportunistically vacillating between the infinitely demanding humanism of the Gospels and the cost-benefit analyses of ethical utilitarianism and political Machiavellianism. To make matters worse this incoherence fits a pattern of party identification and not simply the eclecticism of low-level moral mediocrity and confusion. Political party (and in one case a fanatical cult of personality) has become for many Americans the operative magisterium.

Cafeteria consequentialism is particularly ironic on the Catholic Right, which spent decades mobilising around a legal movement prohibiting abortion on the assumption that the termination of innocent life could not be justified no matter what the consequences. This legal—and not merely ethical—absolutism is often defended in all possible cases (from rape, incest and those endangering the health of the mother to more common occurrences like the birth of a child into extreme poverty or with a disability). In such advocacy, the Catholic Right often accuses Church liberals of slipping into an unspoken moral consequentialism—reasoning in a way that is anathema to the Church’s theology.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that cafeteria consequentialism is not a propensity of a single side: too many Catholics on the American Right have drifted into market forms of instrumentalising humans in the name of the long-term material consequences. As Pope Francis recently wrote the “COVID-19 lockdown” is not so much uncovering something new as it is “a crisis that reveals” what was already “in our hearts.” What it has revealed in many American Catholic hearts is how deeply acclimated they have become to an economy that sacrifices the wellbeing and even lives of the poorest by advancing consequentialist justifications and promises of future riches.

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Jason Blakely is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is the author of Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism and We Built Reality.

With thanks to Church Life Journal, A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Randall S. Rosenberg, where this article originally appeared.


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