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Converting Conservatives: The Importance of Moral Consistency

February 20, 2024

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Recently, my wife Deborah sent me a YouTube video of Michael Knowles’ speech at a Young America’s Foundation event held at Clemson University. Therein, Knowles addressed the question of who is to blame for the evils of surrogacy.

The background to the discussion is recent growth in the practice of same-sex couples “purchasing children”—as he puts it—via surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. He states that political liberals enthusiastically support this development, while many political conservatives find it “abhorrent.” Yet, he contends, “even some self-styled conservatives celebrate it.”

Some may find it surprising that this conservative Republican political commentator places the chief blame not on the homosexual couples themselves but rather on “capitalism unconstrained by morality” and what he calls “the commodification of children.” For those who know that Michael Knowles is a practicing Catholic, that fact may be less surprising. He is simply following the principles of Catholic social teaching, which—while explicitly rejecting communism and socialism—also opposes “unbridled capitalism.”

Essentially, Knowles’ charge is that political conservatives, who often style themselves as the morally superior party, are inconsistent with respect to certain political and moral stances and practices. While many of them are against IVF or surrogacy for same-sex couples, they support it for themselves or for other heterosexual couples. In response, Knowles offers arguments against IVF and surrogacy in general, showing why they are immoral in-and-of-themselves and not merely depending upon who is requesting them.

Perhaps if they are made aware of their unseen inconsistencies, the seeds of conversion will be nourished.

Before I watched the video myself, Deborah insightfully expanded upon Knowles’ arguments by applying the same principles to two other analogous situations: so-called “gender affirming care” (especially for minors), on the one hand, and various forms of contraception, on the other hand. Her comments could be summarized as follows: (1) Many conservatives are rightly opposed to hormonal “treatments” and surgical procedures that attempt to alter minors’ (or anyone’s, if they are more consistent) sexual phenotype; (2) These same conservatives are often okay with mutilating their own bodies via hormone treatments (e.g., “the pill”) or elective surgeries (vasectomies and hysterectomies) that intentionally cause healthy organ systems to stop functioning properly; (3) This is morally inconsistent. The premise that “such procedures are not healthcare” applies to both sets of practices, not just the former.

After hearing this incisive perception, it dawned on me that it could be used to help evangelize political and religious conservatives. On multiple occasions, I have heard conservatives openly speak about their use of contraception, chemical or surgical, without batting an eye. If we can prudently and articulately point out the inconsistency in the application of moral principles within the conservative camp, we can highlight for many conservatives that—yet again—it is the Catholic Church that has remained consistent in her moral teachings.

For some, seeing the wisdom and truth of Catholic moral doctrine is the beginning of their conversion process. Deborah herself converted to the Catholic Church in large part because of her exposure to Catholic moral teaching regarding pro-life issues and sexual ethics.

Many Christian conservatives do not even think about the fact that the birth-control pill (used as a contraceptive), as well as vasectomies and elective hysterectomies, are forms of bodily mutilation and are thus intrinsically contrary to God’s design. If we can show them this truth, then it could help them begin to wonder: “What else is the Catholic Church right about?”

Sometimes, in combating those much further from us ideologically, we forget that there are potential converts closer to home, so to speak. It seems to me that this issue of moral consistency could be an effective tool for evangelizing conservatives who are not yet aware of certain fundamental moral principles. Perhaps if they are made aware of their unseen inconsistencies, the seeds of conversion will be nourished.

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Of course, this same procedure could apply to Catholics who—unknowingly or not—are selective in their adherence to Catholic social teaching. In my experience, Catholics from opposed political parties are equally susceptible to segregating their political stances from their Catholic faith if and when it suits them. When word came out that Pope Benedict XVI was going to issue a social encyclical, I heard Catholic conservatives complain, insisting that the pope should stay out of economics. This was before they even knew what the document would say, since it had not yet been promulgated. They were against it in principle, it seems to me, because they wanted their socioeconomic and political thinking to be free from the guidance of the Church, despite the fact that they openly castigate liberals for doing so when it comes to pro-life issues.

This dichotomy seems to arise from the misperception that political and economic issues are not under the Church’s purview. It is true that there may be more latitude in those areas than in others, due to their close ties to prudential decisions that are not directly addressed by divine revelation. However, the truth is that the Church’s Magisterium has the authority to teach on faith and morals, and there are important moral issues involved in both the political and economic realm, and the Church has often spoken about such issues.

We Catholics would do well to learn the Church’s teaching on these matters and not fall into the temptation of becoming “cafeteria Catholics” of a different stripe. Consistency on moral teaching is important for potential converts as well as for ourselves.