The Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. have disappointed Catholics in the past, and they are doing so again, this time on the matter of President Trump’s executive orders on immigration. I recently examined six widely reported hierarchical statements and found only two that met or surpassed minimal standards of reasoned discourse—separating fact from fiction, acknowledging complexity, making careful distinctions, demonstrating fairness, and avoiding rash and fallacious judgment.
Archbishop Charles Chaput surpassed that minimal standard. He criticized the executive orders, as all the others did, but in a more measured and balanced way. For example, in a column written a week before his comments on the executive orders, he called attention to the unfairness of the treatment President Trump often receives, noting the “very special brand of ‘progressive’ intolerance for Trump’s approach” and the “visceral media and leadership-class contempt” for views they do not share.
In that column Chaput noted “promising signs” in Trump’s administration such as “the appointment of Supreme Court justices” and “the defunding of Planned Parenthood.” He also suggested that the President be invited to a major Catholic university to “explain his personal evolution on the abortion issue, and to share, listen and learn with a cross-section of students and faculty in a respectful dialogue on the meaning of human dignity.” This is a brilliant, constructive idea that would help to overcome the divisiveness that besets America.
In his column on the executive orders, Chaput made the important distinction that “individuals have obligations to the common good” but “governments have a particular duty to provide for public security,” a formulation reminiscent of the writings of Pope Leo XIII, and a timely reminder to all, including the Catholic hierarchy, that not every individual responsibility is a collective responsibility.
Archbishop José Gomez also offered genuine reasoned discourse. He strongly criticized the executive orders, but he did so with precision and balance rather than issuing a broadside attack. For example, he acknowledged that “the refugee orders are not a ‘Muslim ban,’ as some protesters and media are claiming,” as well as that “our nation needs true and lasting reform of our immigration system.” Moreover, he stated that the President’s goal of securing our borders is a goal we all should share:
We all agree that our nation has the obligation to secure its borders and establish criteria for who is permitted to enter and how long they are permitted to stay. In a post-9/11 world, we all agree there are people both inside and outside our borders who want to hurt us. We share a common concern for our nation’s security and the safety of our loved ones.
In contrast to Archbishops Chaput and Gomez, the other four prelates’ contributions to the discussion of the executive orders were disappointing. Their rhetoric was overheated, many of their characterizations were extreme, and their tone was often smug and imperious. Overall, they showed little concern for fairness and balance. I have already discussed one of the four, the bishop of my own diocese, Gregory Parkes, in a separate essay. The others are evaluated below.
Cardinal Blase Cupich called the issuing of the executive orders “a dark moment in human history” and labeled the orders themselves “contrary to both Catholic and American values.” (This raises the question, what would Catholic or American values be? Open borders and a lax immigration system?) The Cardinal also characterized the orders as “clos[ing] our nation to those, particularly Muslims, fleeing violence, oppression and persecution,” when in fact it is a delay and not a closure and the orders do not mention Muslims. The orders, he added, “give aid and comfort to those who would destroy our way of life,” a serious charge which he neither explained nor attempted to substantiate. He concluded by clearly suggesting (though not saying explicitly) that President Trump wants to make America “a nation that targets religious populations and then shuts its doors on them.” This uncharitable charge he also failed to substantiate.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin wrote that the executive orders are “the opposite of what it means to be an American,” a gross oversimplification. He added that “closing borders and building walls are not rational acts [and] mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.” Even if the acts the Cardinal speaks of are unwise, that does not make them irrational—nor does his disagreement with them. Moreover, the terms “mass detentions” and “wholesale deportation” are inaccurate and inflammatory.
The Cardinal then stated, “This nation has a long and rich history of welcoming those who have sought refuge because of oppression or fear of death,” and went on to give a number of examples. What he did not do is what fairness required him to do: acknowledge that there was no danger that those groups included people who wished to cause America harm, as is the case with the groups covered by the executive orders.
More disappointing than the responses of Cardinals Cupich and Tobin was the response of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. His entire column was built on the rhetorical device of juxtaposing two actions—in this case, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval of late term abortion and Trump’s temporary halting of immigrants—in an obvious attempt to make readers feel the same disgust for the latter as they do for the former.
One of the key processes in thinking analytically is making appropriate and careful distinctions, and there is an obvious and significant distinction to be made between ending the life of a child in utero and halting immigration for 90 days so that the vetting system can be raised to a safe and effective level. Cardinal Dolan not only ignored the distinction—he conflated the two actions.
As if that were not bad enough, Cardinal Dolan framed his entire argument as an appeal to consistency and he made this remark in support of that appeal:
Strange: Last week, Trump showed admirable solicitude for the innocent baby in the womb with a series of benevolent executive orders. Then he displayed callousness to another group who are also fragile and vulnerable, the immigrants and refugees.
In fact, there is nothing strange or inconsistent about President Trump’s treating the two matters differently because they are very different. The unborn child has a right to life, but the immigrant has no right to enter another country without permission, which the country has a right to give or withhold. A consistency like this, that is forced where it does not fit, is a foolish consistency, a fact that recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s memorable line, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York have a right to expect more from Cardinal Dolan than clever non-sequiturs and plays on their emotions. Similarly, Catholics under the leadership of Cardinals Cupich and Tobin, and Bishop Parkes deserve more responsible assessments of serious issues.
Why have those four Catholic prelates, and more than likely many others, been so disappointing? An obvious reason is that, being human, they are subject to lapses in judgment and even to poor thinking habits. Less obvious, but even more important, is that with the exception of Chaput and Gomez, they were, in all probability, significantly affected by Humanistic Psychology, which rode the wave of mass culture, became embedded in mass culture in the 1960s, and has affected the outlook of every generation since.
The oldest prelate, Chaput, was almost an adult (16) when the decade of the 1960s began and, guessing from the quality of his response to the executive orders, his intellectual habits were probably already favorably formed. Cupich, however was 11, Dolan 10, Tobin 8, and Parkes wasn’t even born. (Gomez, though only 9, was educated in Mexico and Europe and did not come to the United States until he was in his mid-thirties, so he likely escaped the full impact of Humanistic Psychology.)
To be more specific, the four prelates whose responses to the executive order were intellectually deficient grew up in a culture that:
- Considered emotion superior to reason
- Judged opinions not by their soundness but by the intensity of one’s feelings about them
- Valued subjectivity over objectivity
- Believed that self-esteem must be maintained at the highest level
- Regarded all criticism, including self-criticism, as psychologically harmful
Of course, sound education and family training could have overcome the negative influences of mass culture and fostered intellectual discipline in their place. But the four prelates’ responses to the executive orders suggest that, for them, this process has been, to be charitable, incomplete.
It should be noted that of the 448 bishops, archbishops, and cardinals in the United States, 38% are the same age as, or younger than the four prelates I criticized and therefore as likely to be influenced by the errors of mass culture. Given this reality, the laity should expect, with sadness, that many in the hierarchy will continue to fall short of the intellectual leadership once common in the Church.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.