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To Emphasize Politics or Not: The Sequel

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 29, 2012

It is time for a follow-up on my controversial In Depth Analysis, The End of Pro-Life Politics. The piece has occasioned a good deal of comment—not only in Sound Off! and via email, but in blogs and social media. Indeed, that may well be the most important thing about it.

I argued that our culture cannot currently sustain a moral politics and therefore it is time to expend less energy and resources on political initiatives and more energy and resources on evangelization and other initiatives calculated to build culture. The thesis was met with affirmation and even relief by some, and by disagreement and even recrimination by others. I am very grateful for all comments. But in the give and take, three significant misunderstandings have emerged—perhaps through my own fault—and it is important to make sure everybody understands that these misunderstandings are not part of my thesis.

The Problem of Despair

Several of those who took exception to my argument dismissed it as born of despair. This concerns me because despair is unthinkable to the Christian. Its presence constitutes a serious spiritual flaw. So of course I hope that I have given no indication of even a temptation to despair in anything I have written on this subject. To clear up this misunderstanding, let me emphasize what despair is not:

  • It is not despair to suggest that confidence in some particular kind of worldly success is not warranted. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; in fact, he reminded his followers repeatedly that, with respect to the affairs of this world, they could expect rather generally to be on the outside looking in: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
  • It is not despair when, in the effort to do good, we evaluate our options and then choose to emphasize one strategy over another, so that we may work in ways that are more likely to produce the highest result-to-effort ratio. We are, after all, speaking of prudential judgment here: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). And “which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it” (Lk 14:28)?

The Need to Do Everything

A number of respondents have argued that it is unconscionable to lessen our political activity. We are called, they say, to work on every front, to press for every advantage. What are we to say to this?

The first thing that must be said is that nothing in any argument about general priorities can possibly deny this truth: Just as we are all given different gifts by God, so are we all called to different forms of service. Even if it does not make sense to devote the Christian community’s primary effort to politics—or, to put the matter more pointedly, even if it will be counter-productive to attempt to “guilt” the Christian community into giving political efforts pride of place—this does not mean that some people are not called to work in the political arena.

The second thing that must be said is that the ability to work with equal intensity on all fronts at all times is a characteristic of Divinity alone. This is not given to men and women, either individually or corporately. Rather, it is the human burden to evaluate and choose and act strategically. Thus the insistence that we must never relax our efforts in any area, coupled with the tendency to question the commitment of those who argue for an emphasis on one approach over another, betrays a misunderstanding of human nature. In fact, it demands something impossible.

And the third thing is this: The assertion that we must never under any circumstances lessen our political efforts in particular might be evidence of infection by a pervasive modern germ, a cast of mind that even good Christians too often fail to recognize; after all, it is something they have imbibed almost with their mother’s milk. I refer to the tendency to live and act as if everything must be reduced to politics. Far too many people think that if something does not translate into politics, it does not rise to the level of significant activity, and this is actually a noxious whiff of the atmosphere of modern Statism. Unfortunately, spiritual progress for a culture is no more possible in this mental atmosphere than is spiritual progress for an individual soul.

The Cultural Importance of Law

A number of my critics wrote as if I had failed to notice the importance of law to the formation of culture—the importance of law as a teacher. But nobody who has over the past century fought the dismantling of human laws which reflect the natural law could fail to recognize this reality. And it is even less likely that anyone with my background could fail to recognize it: trained as a cultural historian, teaching cultural and intellectual history for ten years, founding first a publishing house to examine such issues in the light of the Catholic faith, and finally developing a website called, of all things, catholicculture.org.

But, in fact, everything impacts culture, just as the general culture impacts everything. This tells us nothing about whether a goal is achievable. The culturally formative power of human law is one more important reason, besides the actual punitive/protective effects of human law, for the importance of politics, by which laws are made and, indeed, changed. But this does not alter the basic obligation to expend limited energies and resources in the best possible way. If in fact we judge that there is little or no chance right now to implement good, culturally-formative laws—if, in fact, I am right that our culture is incapable of supporting such laws—then this should trigger a consideration of what must be done to create the spiritual and moral social conditions in which such laws can succeed.

Of course, pursuing such alternative strategies ought not to be done only so we can have good laws. That would be the Statist error all over again. This is the error of those who, for example, gear all educational initiatives toward changing votes. It is not exactly bad, but it can be spiritually and morally hollow. We ought to evangelize and engage in culture-building activities (such as creating and strengthening intermediary institutions) primarily because these are important goods, recognizing that a byproduct will be the development of the kind of culture that, one day, can sustain a moral legal system.

I should add that those who argue for a continued dominant emphasis on politics because of the formative power of law often cite legal successes in their favor, but these are rarely if ever legal successes that produce laws with any formative power. Nearly all pro-life legal victories over the past fifty years have been won through what amounts to legal subterfuge, by which I mean framing a law which putatively addresses some more popular and “acceptable” concern (such as health standards or parental rights), but doing this because it will also result in a reduction of abortions which we could not otherwise achieve. There is little or no teaching value in such laws. They actually provide more evidence for my original thesis.

A Needed Debate

Let me allude again to the point I made above, the point that even when a particular kind of activity may be judged unpromising for the community as a whole, this does not mean that some people are not called by God to devote themselves to this activity, or at least to the general field in which such activities have their scope and purpose. Surely we can deemphasize politics without arguing that nobody is called to work in politics. In fact, if we do deemphasize politics, we must deemphasize it in exactly this way, just as we would for any other legitimate field of human endeavor.

This necessity serves to highlight an even more important point. I remind everyone that what we are discussing here is a prudential question, which means it is a question about which good men and women can disagree—equally committed Catholic men and women, even brothers and sisters or husbands and wives. Those who believe there is far more scope for political success just now than I have allowed should not feel tempted to note deficiencies in my virtue any more than I should impugn theirs. In this realm, it remains fair only to ask whether any of us might be influenced in our assessments by some unrecognized error which, did we recognize it, we would repudiate. Such fears may turn out to be relevant.

But no authority, no doctrine, no revelation can settle this question. It is not a question of approving what we must in conscience approve or condemning what we must in conscience condemn. It is a question of how best to expend limited energies and resources in order to make the maximum contribution to the common good in a particular circumstance and at a particular time. There is room for debate, and discussion, and difference on this matter, just as there is room for different people working toward the same goal by different means.

And yet we must not forget that such a debate, discussion and difference must be developed by argument. Mere assertion will not do. Impassioned feelings are not enough. To begin with a different letter of the alphabet, we must explore, examine and evaluate in the service of our debates, discussions and differences. That is why, despite my desire to dispel the major misunderstandings of my thesis as they have been expressed by others, I believe that the thesis has been highly successful. It has begun—or if that is too bold, it has furthered—a discussion which has been too long postponed.

It is a discussion, in fact, that our own internal pro-life pressures have made very difficult to raise. Opening the discussion seems, by its very nature, to step on toes, to cast aspersions. That is not my intention. But in view of the continuing rapid dissolution of Western culture, it is a discussion we very badly need to have.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 02, 2012 7:54 PM ET USA

    Don't fall into the trap of telling the starving man that you will pray for him. We need to convince influential people by sound arguments that follow the moral high road. Don't just say that abortion is evil but give the argument that the DNA of the "tissue" is that of a (living) human being, different from mother and father -- that abortion kills a human being. Every moral issue can easily be put in natural-law terms. The Church does a fair job of declaring but a poor job of teaching.

  • Posted by: eereichert1403 - Dec. 01, 2012 9:43 AM ET USA

    Thank you for your two Commentaries on Life. We are attending a Christmas Party hosted by "BirthLine". This organization helps women during pregnancies and helps convince mommies to be mommies. I am taking your two discussions to this event in hopes of expanding your message and your following. BirthLine is one type of organization you are encouraging. BirthLine gives people a voice without political gnashing of teeth and meets the test of faith and love: Action.

  • Posted by: Moreman - Nov. 30, 2012 6:32 PM ET USA

    Your suggestion that we can deemphasize politics and leave it to a rump corps of "called" activists seems to conflict with sections 87 and 90 of Evangelium Vitae, where JPII emphasizes that "political commitment" is "a particularly pressing need at the present time," and that this is a "responsibility" of "individuals, families, groups and associations." He makes it clear that this is an integral part of the New Evangelization to which he devotes the final 25% of the encyclical.

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - Nov. 30, 2012 5:07 PM ET USA

    This is an issue of prudential judgment. But Mr. Obama sent a signal he will go after intermediary institutions that retain a clarity that contraception is opposed to the Natural Law. It is imprudent to politically retreat in the face of onslaught. If Catholics had taken this attitude, there would have been no Crusade or Reconquista. Christendom would have been subjected to Islam. Evangelization would have become illegal under sharia. We must politically protect our intermediary institutions.

  • Posted by: littleone - Nov. 30, 2012 4:30 PM ET USA

    I very much thank you for your thoughtful analysis.I have met countless women who do not understand the basics re how seemingly complex are their reproductive and endocrine systems.When the majority of even Catholic women are not aware that they can carefully monitor their basal body temperature, the position of their cervix, and their cervical mucus to gain some awareness with when they will have a period and when they are fertile, then we have a long way to go to help facilitate change!!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 30, 2012 1:53 PM ET USA

    The Church is charged to teach, to govern and to sanctify. In response to the well-known difficulties in these areas over recent generations there is an untoward obdurate attachment among many Catholics to "prudential" ideas and strategies that are certainly open to discussion and differences. This being said, these issues cannot be definitively resolved, as mentioned above. Nonetheless there is this vehemence in us that despite being quite understandable all things considered, ought not be.

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