The Enemy of the Good

A key principle of Catholic teaching is the idea that there are some moral issues which are more important than all others.[1]  There are definitive and undiluted principles, a hierarchy of evils, under which murder is classified as a more serious sin than theft, and abortion is worse than deceit.  Catholics are to avoid the more serious evils, and they are to do everything possible to promote the good in the process. Certain initiatives are more important, then, than others. Thus, the reasoning goes, to the extent that work on social justice issues such as poverty and racism divert limited energy and resources, the social justice initiatives should necessarily give way to the intrinsically more important ones such as abortion and end of life ethics:

“In offering his own thoughts on Catholic social teaching, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin warned against the misuse of his “seamless garment” imagery to falsely invest different social issues with the same moral gravity.  Many social issues are important. Many require our attention.  But some issues have more weight than others.”[2]

 Taken to its extreme, this reasoning causes hesitance to do good, if the effort involves working alongside interests which contradict Catholic teaching in any way. For example, advocacy for responsible stewardship of the environment may involve working alongside activists who share this value, but who differ with Catholic doctrine on contraception. Similarly, activism on gun regulation frequently brushes up against activism for women’s rights and control over reproductive health. The strict interpretation of the “hierarchy of evils” principle may imply that Catholics should not become too deeply involved in certain issues, for fear that there will be an unwitting alliance with causes and groups which contradict Catholic teaching. The result can be a paralysis of thought and action which contradicts the Gospel imperative to love and to do good, a narrow and fearful adherence to theological perfection over good intention.

As applied to the debate on gun reform, a strict application of the hierarchy of evils thinking implies that Catholic leadership should not wade into the conversation if there is any chance that in doing so, its actions might be interpreted as cooperation with views contrary to Catholic teaching.  Broadly expressed, then, Catholic leadership in favor of gun reform should not be seen standing on the “same stage” with pro-choice advocates.

An example demonstrates this reasoning.  In April 2018, in two separate Good Friday events, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago marched to support, in addition to humane immigration policies, stronger gun laws. Cardinal Cupich, particularly, has been very vocal about the need for stronger gun regulations, and he expressed support for the “March for Our Lives” demonstration which grew out of the Parkland shootings. Cardinal Tobin was also publicly supportive of students participating in the March.  In speaking to students before the March For Our Lives, Cardinal Tobin sent this message:

“I’m proud of you for taking seriously this threat to our well-being, as well as your resolve to be part of a national voice, and finally, I’m really grateful you want to do this in the context of prayer. While we count on our own efforts to make this a better world, really, at the end of it all, without the help of God and his grace, we’re going to be frustrated and even despairing. Your energy and your unselfish concern will be heard in the halls of our government. It’s true that we can ban all of the guns in the world and never finally achieve peace without a commitment of our hearts. But we do need legal protections, and we have to ask questions about the type of firearms and their proliferation in our country today. I’m glad you’re asking questions, and I’m glad you’re united, and I’m glad you’re a people of faith.” [3]

The proponents of the strict “hierarchy of evils” principle, however, were quick to criticize both the efforts of Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Tobin. Emphasizing that both are “Francis-appointed cardinals,” LifeSite News highlighted that the March for Our Lives, supported by Cardinal Cupich, was organized in part by Planned Parenthood. As for Cardinal Tobin, the news site claimed he “organized an LGBT pilgrimage,” and sent a scandalously provocative Tweet. (It is unclear what, if anything, is the relevance of the Tweet to gun reform). [4]  The message of critiques like these is that Catholic leadership should stay silent and inactive if there is any possibility it could be cooperating with interests which, although aligned with Catholic teaching on the issue at hand, are contrary to Catholic teaching on the relatively more important issues of marriage, family and reproduction. Taken to its logical conclusion, this belief results in ambivalence and lukewarm messages at best, and paralysis and inaction at worst.

The 17th century philosopher Voltaire said, “perfect is the enemy of good,” known  in modern conversation as, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Applied here, criticism of Cardinals Cupich and Tobin for speaking out for stricter gun regulation is tantamount to insistence on perfection over the good, requiring one hundred percent certainty that there is no possible conflict with the more important issues of marriage and reproduction, before speaking out on any social issue. This interpretation places a restraint on genuine, timely, heartfelt ministry and spiritual direction.  Meanwhile, in this search for theological perfection, life moves on, people are shot, families are devastated, children are buried, and mothers lose their sons.

In an information saturated, complex world, it is nearly impossible to distill all messages to the point of theological purity, with no possibility of overlap with competing points of view. If that were the case, possibly the only issue which the Church would and could concentrate on would be abortion and marriage.[5] Because society is inundated with information and conversant with debate, most people are fairly sophisticated at discerning intention, telling the difference between actively advocating abortion rights on the one hand,  and merely crossing paths and cooperating with Planned Parenthood on a life issue completely unrelated to abortion on the other. To claim that ordinary people of faith are incapable of discernment, unable to recognize holy intention, is to deny the reality of modernity.  Most good Catholics want to see protection of all human life, including the unborn and those most vulnerable to gun violence – the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill, and those left on the margins.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, the Apostle John came to Jesus complaining about a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  The Apostles wanted Jesus to stop the man, because he was “not of our company.” Jesus replied:

“Do not try to stop him. No man who performs a miracle using my name can at the same time speak ill of me. Anyone who is not against us is with us. Any man who gives you a drink of water because you belong to Christ will not, I assure you, go without his reward.[6]

The work of Cardinal Tobin and the Archdiocese of Newark demonstrates the beauty of working on all cylinders at once. In addition to vocal advocacy for reduction of gun violence, there is real work being done for and with a variety of persons and issues, including immigrants, the homeless, Catholic schools, the environment, first time home buyers, and  the poor and forgotten, and there is meaningful study and reflection upon issues such as the role of women in the Church, the value of ethics in a free market economy and the problems of clericalism and the protection of youth from abuse. All these ministries live alongside work for protection of the unborn, for the protection of marriage and the family, and ministry to those affected by unplanned pregnancy. One set of efforts does not detract from the others, and it is in fact possible that the initiatives have a synergistic effect, enhancing and energizing each other. Work for the poor strengthens the family; charity toward the immigrant enhances peace.

In the Gospel story, Jesus tells the Apostles not to overthink.  He wants us to do good, as much as we can in as many ways as we can. He never said that it had to be perfect. The more we do, the better, more relevant, and more vibrant a Church we become. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

[1] There is No Equivalence,, August 10, 2015, by Charles J. Chaput

[2] Render Unto Caesar, Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Charles J. Chaput, 2008, p.211

[3] Crux, Taking the Catholic Pulse, March 14, 2018, quoting Cardinal Joseph Tobin.

[4] Francis-appointed Cardinals March for Immigration, Gun Control on Good Friday,” LifeSite News, April 3, 2018

[5] Perhaps there are some Catholics who would prefer that.

[6] Mark, 9:38-43