The lead author of a letter criticizing House Speaker John Boehner on “matters of faith and morals” says the letter was a bid for dialogue, not a political stunt. But Dr. Stephen Schneck's own critics say he promotes a distorted version of Catholic social teaching.
Professor Schneck, who directs the Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, was the top signer of a letter protesting Boehner's May 14 commencement speech at the institution where Schneck works as a political scientist.
Schneck told CNA on May 23 that he did not intend to cause the “crazy media frenzy” that arose when the letter was made public three days before Boehner's address.
“We were completely caught off guard,” he said. “Faculty sign letters all the time. With this one, I don't quite understand how it became 'viral' so quickly.”
The letter's provocative language drew national attention. Signed by more than 75 academics from various Catholic colleges, it described Republican budget proposals as “anti-life” for their possible effect on the poor and elderly.
The signers charged the House Speaker, himself a Roman Catholic, with ignoring “the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.” They said the speaker's voting record was “at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” regarding the obligations of “those in power” toward the poor and vulnerable.
But this form of faith-based protest has opened up Schneck to criticism over his own approach to the Church's social teaching.
Professor Schneck is a member of the board of directors at Democrats for Life, an organization he describes as “fundamentally and wholly concerned with trying to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
He is also a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. That organization has received funding from George Soros' Open Society Institute, which promotes abortion as a “reproductive right.”
Catholics in Alliance typically backs Democratic policies, presenting abortion as an issue that should be addressed by ending poverty. In 2009, Schneck joined a “Catholics for Sebelius” initiative, supporting an Obama nominee whose bishop told her not to receive Communion over her abortion record.
In his interview with CNA, Schneck said he saw the work of Democrats for Life and Catholics in Alliance as complementary.
“I feel like it's both/and,” he said. “I belong to an organization whose primary focus is advancing Catholic social thought, as well as an organization whose primary focus is to end abortion on demand. I don't see these, somehow, as really separate.”
“They're both going about it in slightly different ways – but I don't see them as working in opposition, but actually as working in tandem to build this culture of life.”
Schneck opposes the Democratic Party's commitment to legal abortion, a principle made explicit in the party platform. “That's not where I am,” he said, “and surprisingly, many other Democrats are with me.”
He would “like to turn the Democratic Party in a direction where it's much more supportive of what we're trying to accomplish.”
Schneck pointed out that Democrats for Life had spoken out “many times” against the party's abortion commitment. But he acknowedged that “Catholics in Alliance hasn't, so much.”
That's because, Schneck said, “it is more concerned with what are generally thought of as Catholic social thought issues – more concerned with issues like poverty and a living wage, and collective bargaining, those sorts of things.”
“I think that it would be nice if all of our groups embraced the whole range of Catholic social teaching, especially as it relates to the dignity of the human person,” he said.
But “for reasons of practicality,” he says it “makes sense for some groups to focus primarily on the issue of ending abortion on demand, and other groups to focus on the environment or anti-poverty programs.”
When asked whether he thought pro-life Democrats had done an adequate job confronting former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on abortion, Schneck said it was a “fair question” and promised to “do my best” in the future.
Pelosi's 2007 commencement address at the Catholic University of San Francisco was not accompanied by a public protest akin to the Boehner letter.
Professor Stephen Krason, a political scientist at Franciscan University of Steubenville and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, disagrees with Schneck's stand against Boehner.
Krason personally identifies himself politically as “neither left, nor right, but Catholic.” He told CNA on May 24 that Schneck's letter to Boehner mistakenly identified Catholic teaching with leftist politics.
“I look at that letter and see them taking political positions, and trying to put them forth as the teaching of the Church – things which are in the realm of prudential judgment,” Krason said. “They seem to identify these policies with Catholic social teaching.”
Krason said Schneck and the other signers were “convoluting certain basic teachings of the Church, especially subsidiarity.”
That principle of Catholic teaching, which the Boehner protesters invoke against budget cuts, favors smaller-scale action through local communities unless a problem demands a central solution.
“They're wanting to continue a kind of policy-from-the-center, policy from the highest level of government,” Krason pointed out. “You only go to the highest level if there's a genuine need to do that. I don't know that they've made that case.”
Krason also questions whether the policies preferred by Schneck and his allies have actually worked to create their intended effects.
“They seem to identify these policies that are out there as policies which are good for the poor and disadvantaged,” he observed. “I'm not sure that is historically and evidentially accurate.”
At a basic level, Krason said that Catholics “have the freedom to choose different approaches and policies to uphold and further the principles of Catholic social teaching.”
He said the authors of the Boehner letter were “making the approaches and policies into the teachings – when they are just certain approaches.”
Krason observed that by appearing to equate budget cuts with abortion, Schneck and the other signers were confusing what are essentially different issues.
“Things like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex 'marriage' – these things can never be permitted,” he explained. “They're in opposition to natural law.”
Krason offered advice to those who treat abortion as one issue among many, not as an assault on the foundation of all human rights. He suggested they consult Blessed John Paul II's social encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.”
“There's a hierarchy of rights that John Paul II talked about,” he said. “Right there at the top of the hierarchy is the right to life.”
He pointed out that activists who equate abortion with other issues of social justice, such as labor rights and the environment, often lose focus and accomplish little.
“If abortion is one issue among many, it can very easily get pushed aside,” he pointed out. “You could argue that that's what has happened with this approach.”