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Catholics and Politics

March 7, 2010

I was originally going to post this as a reply to Joshua’s latest post, but I ended up having more to say than I think is appropriate for a com-box.

Joshua observes that “we see church’s splitting over some of these issues on which conservatives and liberals tend to disagree.” This is a sound observation, and here is one attempt to explain it.

Man is a political animal, we learn from book one of Aristotle’s Politics. This reality might not have been as obvious during the Middle Ages, when the interests of Church and State were often one and the same. But we now live in the age of ideology, an age during which for billions of people around the globe, political ideologies replaced religious beliefs as the spiritual axis their lives revolved around. This was most obvious of course in the countries that fell to Marxism-Leninism and varieties of fascism in the 20th century.

But the West was not and is not immune. As religion becomes less relevant or at least less of a unifying force for more people, politics fills the void. The “end of ideology” proclaimed by certain intellectuals after the collapse of the Soviet Union has turned out to be one of the most bogus claims ever uttered, triumphalism at its worst. But how have political conflicts made their way into the Church, and why do they continue to rend and tear at the body of Christ?

There is a philosophical conflict between those who believe that there are real-world logical implications that follow from objective spiritual, moral, and social truths, and those who would deny, or at least downplay or set to the side, all such truths so as to deny the necessary implications, and it has made its way into the heart of the Church.

I believe, especially having delved into the analysis of Dietrich von Hildebrand, this was at the heart of the struggle between “traditionalists” and “reformers” over the liturgy in the wake of Vatican II, a topic I recently wrote about here. At every turn Hildebrand takes note of some teaching that was previously and universally regarded as true by Catholics that has come under attack by progressive theologians, often for reasons that look purely and opportunistically political. The way he described the philosophical conflict, much of the confusion that allowed it to fester and contaminate the Church, is quite fascinating.

He argues against those who did and would invoke Aristotle’s conception of finding the “middle way between extremes”, or mesotes, within the sphere of theology. He writes in The Devestated Vineyard that while mesotes is “applicable to many spheres, [it] is carelessly extended to spheres where it does not apply at all.” That is to say, the battle between orthodoxy and heresy is not a battle between “extremes” which can be synthesized or harmonized in, perhaps, the way that political theories can be (and indeed the Church has made excellent use of mesotes in politics); rather it is a simple battle between truth and falsehood. There are different methods to be applied to different spheres of thought. What works well in politics and other areas becomes disastrous when applied to theology. And when it becomes evident that Catholic dogmas and progressive dictates cannot be synthesized, the attempt to establish a false union becomes a struggle of mutually exclusive wills.

Thus the problem that Joshua has noted may well be traceable back to the application of a method originally intended for political philosophy to theology itself. Instead of synthesizing heretical, or lets say, heterodox theology with orthodoxy, a project shared in by people with motives good and bad, the radical reformers caused a split that very much looks like the sort of splits one sees in political movements. Of course Vatican II is not to blame for this, as my previously linked article argues; rather, liturgical subversives in direct violation of the council conspired to undermine the liturgy at the local level, relying upon local ignorance of the official chain of command and where the authority to make changes directly lay.

What happens in abstract theory comes down to earth. The methods of political philosophy applied to theology naturally lead to the methods of subversive political parties being applied to the liturgy and parish life. Words that once belonged to debates between Marxists and their opponents – especially the words “reactionary” and “progressive” – became a part of Catholic discourse. The disgraced criminal and ex-Bishop Rembert Weakland was one of America’s first liturgical commissars, railing against “reactionary attitudes in liturgical thinking” in 1969. Weakland and his comrades opened the doors of the American Church to what was happening on the streets in those days, the social and sexual revolution that the baby-boomers were going through. This was the future.

But not long after, the Vietnam War ended, the revolution was over, the boomers flocked to suburbia and discovered cable television, cocaine, and Wall Street. And the liturgical radicals were left with a broken and divided Church. Christianity’s brief interlude with the hippie counter-culture was over, and the Religious Right stormed onto the scene with a vengeance. That many Catholics would join conservative Protestants in their anger is entirely understandable. The left-wing had thrown in its lot with “progress”; why shouldn’t they throw theirs in with “reaction”? It became a matter of preserving teachings and practices that the Church had always held to be true and good, and had not in any official capacity done away with, against the usurpations and arbitrary administration of local subversives in the Church hierarchy.

It isn’t the liturgy that is on the minds, however, of most Catholics today. Many conservatives and liberals both seem to have made their peace with many of the reforms, even the illicit and illegal ones. But the fallout from that tempestuous era remains. If nothing else it established that the dividing line in religious life was between “reactionaries” and “progressives”, or their watered-down counterparts, “conservatives” and “liberals.”

It should therefore surprise no one that traditional Anglicans and traditional Catholics get along with each other better than either group does with the modernist or liberal or progressive wings of their own churches – and vice-versa. As someone who considers himself a religious conservative, I happily signed the Manhattan Declaration. Meanwhile liberal religious groups, including some nominally Christian groups, signed a letter to Congress insisting that abortion be covered in any future healthcare bill.

The necessary if somewhat unfortunate conclusion is this: Fundamental spiritual values must trump mere religious labeling in the end. I can’t decide who my comrades-in-arms are on the basis of what they happen to call themselves, but on the basis of what they believe and what they do. If a man calling himself a Protestant fights for what is true and good while a man calling himself a Catholic fights for what is false and wretched, no label is going to force upon me an alliance with evil.

Now, my colleague Joshua asks,

What might be changed to reverse this trend?”

I wish there were an easy answer to this. Here is what I wrote in a recent article for The American Catholic.

I propose that American Catholics rediscover their fidelity to the ideas of the Declaration – which may well be Catholic ideas, or at the very least inspired by Catholic political theorists – as well as the Constitution in letter and spirit. This would restrain and moderate both sides of an increasingly ugly rift in Catholic America, between the war party and the welfare party, between the “lets send a few thousand more American boys to die in a pointless war with Iran” crowd and the “lets force everyone to buy health insurance and threaten to fine and jail them if they don’t want it” crowd.

Catholics should stand united on the social and political philosophy of the Church, which encourages peace, diplomacy, and fair trade between nations, as well as economic freedom, a reduction in the welfare bureaucracy, increased worker ownership and participation of business, and most importantly a culture of life within them.

Of course I realize that these suggestions will not be popular with the war or welfare parties. The neo-cons will say that brinkmanship and war with Iran, a mad solution rejected by the Papacy, may be necessary to save Israel from annihilation, while some “liberal” statists will imply that the findings of the USCCB’s left-leaning research staff can replace 1000 years of Catholic political teaching.  I can already predict some of the comments that will be left on that sentence alone. But I do believe that fidelity to the spirit of the US Constitution would not only moderate religious conflict, it is also an entirely Catholic thing to do.

This is our country, and our Constitution. Instead of indulging in unhealthy fantasies – which occur in different forms on the right and left – of imposing a quasi-theocratic regime in which the full Catholic “cultural” or economic agenda becomes the law of the land, we ought to be finding ways to implement the social teaching on a local level through our own initiative. Catholicism once thrived in America, united and focused. The universities that called themselves Catholic taught Catholicism. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers went to Latin Mass and didn’t insist that FDR eliminate poverty with the stroke of a pen. The Constitution didn’t hinder any of this. But those forces on the right and left that would hinder us also ride roughshod over the Constitution. This is not a coincidence.

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