Newt Gingrich and Catholic Virtue Ethics

Essays

As the Iowa Caucus approaches, increased attention is being paid to the religious affiliations of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Much of this discussion has centered upon Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, but the media has also paid a significant amount of attention to Newt Gingrich’s Catholicism. The latest round of controversy in the mainstream media began with Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece, in which she speculated about whether Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Catholicism fits into a broader shift towards the right for Catholic participation in American politics in the post-Kennedy era. Likewise, Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s NPR piece narrated the details of his conversion process, highlighting the pivotal role of his current wife, Callista, as well as his attraction to the intellectual tradition of the Church.

As the Iowa Caucus approaches, increased attention is being paid to the religious affiliations of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Much of this discussion has centered upon Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, but the media has also paid a significant amount of attention to Newt Gingrich’s Catholicism. The latest round of controversy in the mainstream media began with Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece, in which she speculated about whether Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Catholicism fits into a broader shift towards the right for Catholic participation in American politics in the post-Kennedy era. Likewise, Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s NPR piece narrated the details of his conversion process, highlighting the pivotal role of his current wife, Callista, as well as his attraction to the intellectual tradition of the Church.

The debate has been more contentious among theological commentators. After recalling that the Catholic moral tradition necessarily excludes libertarian ideology by investing government with positive functions that promote the common good, Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America issued Gingrich a conformity-with-Catholic-social-thought scorecard, including plus points for his positions on abortion and marriage as well as minus points for his positions on capital punishment and the rights of immigrants. Meghan Clark of St. John’s University has sought to demonstrate the discontinuity between Gingrich’s economic policies and the teaching of the U.S. Catholic bishops on economic justice, whereas Matthew Shadle of Loras College has attempted to establish some continuity between Gingrich’s ideology and the social teaching of Pope John Paul II on subsidiarity.

Although most of the analysis and commentary concerning Gingrich’s implied political theology has proceeded from the perspective of Catholic social ethics, it is worth asking what, if any, insights might be gleaned from the standpoint of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is attentive to the fact that every culture privileges certain values as more central to its moral self-understanding. Providing a “thick” description of the virtues is one way of indicating which values are to be considered normative within that culture. Therefore, we should inquire which culturally embedded virtues are most central to Gingrich’s understanding of the moral life, even if he leaves a “thick” description of these virtues implicit in the tenor of his political rhetoric.

One way to approach this question is to reason inductively, focusing on a high-profile case. Among Gingrich’s more controversial statements is his recent proposal to repeal child labor laws, based on the premise that low-income children “have no habits of working.” Clark has argued that this statement amounts to a misuse of virtue ethics discourse, defending her claim by appeal to empirical data and episcopal statements on the social structures that render poverty systemic. I am in agreement with Clark that Gingrich does indeed abuse virtue ethics in a way that is intellectually dishonest and slanderous toward low-income Americans. However, we must also consider whether there are reasons internal to virtue ethics discourse which would help substantiate Clark’s claim that Gingrich misuses virtue ethics.

At first glance, it would appear that Gingrich in fact uses the language of virtue in a straightforward, traditional manner. Presumably, he favors the repeal of child labor laws because they prevent children from acquiring the virtue of industry, or “hard work” as it is usually called, a situation which is made all the worse if such children do not have moral exemplars in their homes who can model the virtue for them in practice. Now, if we place to one side for the moment the false premises of Gingrich’s argument, namely, his suppositions that (1) most low-income adults of working age do not work and that (2) child labor laws serve no purpose, what we are left with is a very traditional use of virtue language and concepts. Many contemporary virtue ethicists continue to insist upon the indispensability of moral exemplars for acquiring virtues (especially practical wisdom). Moreover, Catholic virtue ethicists generally agree that the proper function of law in relation to virtue is pedagogical. One of its purposes is to aid the development of virtuous character in persons, as well as to make provision for the common good, to protect human rights, and to promote comprehensive human flourishing. If current civil laws fail to inculcate virtue in those persons who live by them, there is sufficient reason to consider changing them. Therefore, it would appear that the internal logic of Gingrich’s virtue argument is both sound and consistent with Catholic moral traditions, aside from the falsity of the external premises upon which the argument is based.

However, a closer look reveals that Gingrich’s argument fails because it does not observe a central tenet of Catholic moral thought, which is that God has designed the basic moral capacities of human beings so that they might achieve the purpose for which they were created. We were created to flourish in relation to God, each other, and ourselves; to develop our distinctively human capacities to the highest level possible. In social ethics, this same reality is usually called integral human development. The take-home value of this moral reality is: In order for virtues to be authentically human character traits, one must be able to verify, perhaps even empirically, that acquiring them actually serves the purpose for which human beings exist.

What Gingrich’s inflammatory comments regarding child labor laws suggest is that he understands human flourishing in a rather truncated way. For him, the virtue of industry serves the purpose of making us productive parts within a global economic structure, one which is fundamentally unjust because it functions to create and sustain systemic forms of poverty in an increasing number of its members. For him, laws are to be considered just if they serve this purpose, not necessarily if they serve the greater and more fully human purpose of becoming integrally developed human creatures in relationship with one another. In other words, Gingrich’s virtue ethics does not support an authentically human (which is to say, divinely intended) purpose, nor does it serve even a classically utilitarian purpose (the greatest good for the greatest number). Rather, Gingrich’s virtue of industry serves the purpose of creating wealth for the few while keeping poor children down, consigned to cleaning the bathrooms of their elementary school instead of studying.

Gingrich is not actually interested in helping poor children flourish, however genuine his overtures might sound to us. Rather, he is much more interested in appealing to people’s most vicious traits—their prejudices about one another, particularly those about persons living in poverty—in order to win a presidential nomination. Let us make sure, for the sake of the poor, and for all our sakes, that he fails.

 

Michael P. Jaycox is a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. He is currently writing a dissertation on righteous anger as a constructive source for sociopolitical change.

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