Catholic political influence: The elected…and the elect
As a resident of New York State for the first nineteen years of my life, I remember hearing my mother and father discuss whether they ought to vote again for Nelson Rockefeller as Governor of the Empire State, considering that after a period of extra-marital affairs he had divorced his first wife only to marry again almost immediately. How “quaint” of my parents, in the early 1960s, to be concerned about the personal, social and political repercussions of infidelity and divorce!
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The life-long commitment of marriage was still highly valued for much of the World War II generation. But the parental culture as a whole was focused on prosperity and making a “better” life for their children after the privations of depression and war, and in the long run, even among Catholics, this cultural taste for “making good” replaced concerns about “being good”. The result was a major erosion of religious commitment in the last forty years of the century.
Still, it is interesting and perhaps even instructive to recall that a breach of marital commitment troubled my own parents politically. Nor were they alone: Many believed that Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage had cost him the Republican Presidential nomination. After having failed to achieve it in 1960, he had been expected to be the front-runner in 1964. On the other hand, Rockefeller had already cemented his position as the leader of the “liberal” wing of the party and, after all, it was Barry Goldwater who won the nomination in 1964. It seems that the culture wars had begun.
The reader may not have noticed that I am leading up to a discussion of ecclesiastical discipline.
Ecclesiastical discipline matters not only to the heath of the Church but also to the Catholic impact on the secular order, including the outcome of political elections. All “progressive” Catholics understand this instinctively, which is one of several reasons they are horrified by discipline.
Of course, electoral change through a more disciplined Church would not occur immediately. Those who are most likely to remain Catholic are already overwhelmingly pro-life, far more focused on absolute moral issues, and far less concerned about the 10,000 ways in which we could tinker with our more prudential policies. Such Catholics are already spiritually disciplined. They already vote in a moral way, despite the efforts of large sectors of the Catholic ecclesiastical establishment to convince them that a slightly different policy on social services or immigration is more important than outlawing abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide while derailing the ever-increasing abuses of human sexuality, including gender ideology.
But after the inevitable pruning process and some time for new growth, the impact of a well-disciplined Catholic Church would—as it has sometimes in the past—actually make a calculable difference at the polls. Moreover, in the larger socio-political scheme, voting blocks are enormously important. These days, after all, conflicting forces vie with each other to turn out a “Catholic” vote. Being able to mobilize a predictable and growing counter-culturally moral Catholic voting block would very likely have a significant impact on politics in North and South America, Europe, and Down Under.
Of course, if you know my writing, you already know that I have little interest in politics, which I regard as largely unsalvageable in our time (as it so often has been historically throughout the world). But that does not negate the observation that if the Church wishes to be influential politically, she must do so by forming good Catholics and attracting converts, and so building virtuous lives and virtuous communities. This cannot be done without spiritual commitment and spiritual discipline. It cannot be done by tossing up prudential political judgments like confetti while ignoring (or remaining utterly divided on) the broad outlines of the Church’s fundamentally spiritual mission.
This world and the next
“My kingdom,” said Our Lord, “is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). And again:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. [Mt 6:31-33]
It is Our Lord who gives us these priorities, and they apply as much to our own personal desires as to the manner in which we seek good for others. This means that they inform not only our private lives but the votes that we cast. The calculus is simple: No material benefits are worth any spiritual destruction. The only good material benefits are those appropriate to a properly disciplined spiritual life. A disciplined Church forms disciplined disciples who refuse to put material benefits ahead of moral and spiritual truth.
For this reason, the disciplined Christian chooses hunger or thirst or sickness or imprisonment, or even death, rather than sin. He does not choose some worldly benefit for himself or others at the expense of obedience to God. What this means has also been spelled out by Our Lord and Savior, and both the disciplined Church and the disciplined Christian trust completely in His words. If this, then that: If we are faithful to Christ’s call, then whatever is good for us will be ours as well—including persecutions, surely, but also “in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:30).
It is precisely this focus on Christ which makes a disciplined Church more likely to foster even positive political results here and now, though this is not guaranteed and it is not her mission to do so. If disciplined, she will accept worldly privation in her head and in her members so that she herself does not become a hindrance. For when Our Lord announced that even He would be murdered, Peter cried out: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus replied: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:22-23).
Immediately after this, our Lord stated in absolute and unanswerable terms that a faithful Church would not cling to worldly benefits. Rather, a faithful Church would take up the cross (Mt 16:24-28). This takes discipline, both personal and ecclesiastical. And just as personal discipline requires separation from those who lead us into sin even when it reduces our material prospects, so too does ecclesiastical discipline require the separation from the Church of those public sinners who claim her name without acknowledging her authority. For every conceivable reason, genuine Christian discipline, both institutional and personal, remains the correct course for the Church and for each Catholic now—in politics as in all of life.
Call it a paradox if you like, but Catholic electoral influence, when it is possible at all, depends heavily on effective ecclesiastical discipline. But I hope it goes without saying that, for such influence to be truly Catholic, we must remember the difference between the “elected” and the “elect”.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Oct. 11, 2021 10:29 AM ET USA
The Catholic Church today has at best no relevance in modern culture; at worst the Church is hated because it is considered a sick joke: double minded, sexually deviant in its professed (but often shunned by its own clergy) sexual disciplinary norms, and more concerned with temporal "issues" than with moral absolutes, which are now referred to by some clerics as "rigidities". Working against a positive political influence we have governments here and abroad, "Catholic" politicians, and clerics.
Posted by: TheJournalist64 -
Oct. 09, 2021 6:53 AM ET USA
Whoa! I didn't like reading this but I sent it to all of our family. If the Cardinal Archbishop of New York had in 1943 called Pres. Roosevelt, he would have dropped everything to answer the call. Now I am not even certain that anybody in the administration would even recognize the name of the Abp of New York, let alone assign him any political power.