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Political principles rooted in Christ? This is not easy.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 12, 2013 | In Reviews

It is a rare treat amid all the December fundraising to sit back and reflect on deeper issues. Surely one of the most vexing of these is the strange relationship between Catholics and the left-right dialectic in American politics. When it comes down to individuals, this relationship is confused and occasionally even unpredictable. But in the large view, certain clear patterns emerge. The most important pattern is that insofar as deeply committed Catholics find a place in American politics at all, they typically find it on the right. Let me outline both why this is so and why this alliance is at once uneasy and inadequate.

It is by now well-known that the more frequently Catholics attend Mass, the more they tend to vote “conservative”. The reason is not hard to see. Liberals as a class are in the forefront of tearing down the natural and Christian view of marriage and the family, Christian sexual morality, and respect for the sanctity of human life. Insofar as this trend is resisted politically, it is resisted by conservatives as a class. Insofar as the moral precepts of the natural law and of Christian Revelation have become points of contention in American society (and in the West generally), it is because of rebellion against the Judaeo-Christian understanding of virtue (and indeed of all reality) on the left or liberal side of the political divide.

Looking deeper, political liberalism is rooted in the formal philosophical liberalism inherited from the Enlightenment. Liberalism in this sense holds that man in general and human societies in particular are perfectible purely through reason, without benefit of God, religion or grace, which are actually viewed as impediments to the inevitable secular achievement of human Progress. Historically this viewpoint is in part a reaction against the excessive involvement of the Church (or churches) in politics, but it is still based on a fundamentally false conception of human nature. So once again, those who take God, religion and grace seriously either have to check these commitments at the door to participate in the liberal mainstream, or they find their natural socio-political home on the right where, in the main, religious commitment is cherished as an important key to the formation of character, and therefore to proper human development.

This does not mean that there are no deeply committed Catholics on the left. Our political loyalties are often driven by both particular histories and particular issues dear to our own hearts. In American culture, the unfortunate association of conservatism with racism and/or lack of concern for the poor causes some Catholics to shy away from the right (as does the unfortunate association of conservatism with the worldly power of the Church and the ancien régime in Europe). Perhaps most important, a culture dominated by philosophical liberalism (as Western culture generally is) conveniently portrays every liberal cause in the most positive light while ascribing selfishness and other evil motivations to those with alternative priorities, who thus “stand in the way of progress” (and, on that basis, are often found unworthy even of equal treatment under the law). This is a source of serious confusion to many in forming their political alliances.

Despite these confusions, it ought to be clear why I am not choosing to write an essay on the uneasy and inadequate Catholic alliance with the left. Not to put too fine a point upon it, and despite individual associations to the contrary, such an alliance exists primarily among Catholics who, when push comes to shove, simply do not place a high priority on religious identity in general or on Catholic faith and morals in particular. Even the American ecclesiastical establishment, which became surprisingly pro-State in the heady days of Modernist influence (either through the desire for worldly influence or through what now appears to be a misplaced hope of helping the poor and marginalized), is rapidly moving rightward out of necessity to protect both the rights and the teachings of the Church.

An Uneasy and Inadequate Alliance

But the left-right dialectic which dominates American politics creates not only a strong but an uneasy alliance between serious Catholics and the right. As a general rule, both the writers and the readers of tend to lean to the right politically, even if they are frequently concerned about the apparent inability of the American right to round out its values with a fully Catholic understanding of society. Unfortunately, as with all political movements, the right or conservative side of American politics fails in key areas to recognize its own shortcomings and inconsistencies—which, we imagine, ought to be fairly easily remedied by a grasp of Catholic social teaching. These shortcomings and inconsistencies typically revolve around the following three points:

  1. Lack of Concern for the Poor and Marginalized: Conservatives may take too much blame for this since as a group they give 40% more to charity than do liberals, but it remains true that conservatives are often influenced by an erroneous libertarianism, which emphasizes individual rights and liberty to the exclusion of a “thick” appreciation of the social nature of man and the need for community. Thus conservatives are often lacking (or at least appear to be lacking) in solidarity. By emphasizing that solidarity is a primary principle of the social order, but also that it must be lived through subsidiarity (another primary principle), Catholic social teaching can help.
  2. Excessive Trust in an Ambivalent Self-Interest: Many conservatives undermine their own conviction that freedom can flourish only where virtue is strong by viewing economics as something that automatically works best when unrestricted selfishness is given free reign. Is this a caricature? Perhaps, but it conveys a truth. The idea of self-interest as a key dynamic of effective economic growth through free markets is not properly understood as a defense of moral selfishness; moreover, the conservative emphasis on capitalism frequently ignores the dangers of both cronyism and the manipulation of politics and law by the wealthy. With its insistence that any economy ultimately stands or falls based on moral choices that build or erode trust among all affected parties, Catholic social teaching can help.
  3. The Paradoxical Deification of the State: Yes, it’s true. Conservatives, who abominate the secular State when it comes to domestic interference in the rights and liberties of citizens, are far too quick to deify the State when it comes to matters of foreign policy and immigration, elevating sovereignty to an almost Godlike status which overrides both the needs and rights of others in the human community. It boggles the mind that conservatives frequently regard the State as nearly always ill-motivated domestically and nearly always well-motivated in its foreign relations, when the same people are making the decisions. Credit Christianity, however, with eliminating the pagan deification of the State (which liberalism tends to restore). With its insistence that government is subject to higher tutelage regarding its legitimate ends and means, and that government exists solely to serve the common good, Catholic social teaching once again offers much-needed assistance.

The Cart before the Horse

It is a peculiar feature of the way Americans are introduced to politics that we tend to become part of political movements, as well as adopting political positions and passions, when we are fairly young. This typically happens before we have an adequately formed Catholic understanding of the nature of the human person and of the social order. For those who grow to take their faith seriously, one of the more unfortunate consequences of this process is that, when we begin to notice official Church statements which tend to speak against positions we have adopted, we instinctively use our understanding of the Faith only to prove that our preferred positions are not, strictly speaking, in conflict with Catholic teaching. We might call this a “thin” use of Catholic social teaching.

In exactly the same spirit, both conservatives and liberals tend to make something of a parlor game of reading episcopal and papal statements with a view to denouncing the inessential Catholic stupidity of whatever conflicts with their positions, while mining the same statements for sound bites which demonstrate the Church’s essential and unequivocal support for whatever it is they themselves prefer. Politicians seeking Catholic votes play the same game, including in our own time President Barack Obama, who has recently cited Pope Francis to his own advantage on several occasions.

This tendency to hold a position and then prove from Catholic teaching that the position is acceptable has resulted in a whole raft of literature, perhaps especially on economic issues. To stay within the bounds of this essay, I note that conservative commentators are constantly attempting to demonstrate that free market economics does not really contradict Catholic social teaching, and in fact is in some ways supported by it. One of the distinctively better examples of this genre is Thomas E. Woods’ The Church and the Market, which I favorably reviewed in 2012 (see The Church and the Market). Woods takes Catholic social teaching very seriously; I do not mean to suggest otherwise. But he is still writing primarily in the mode of justifying the economic theory to which he is attached, against those who argue that the Church opposes it (which, I grant, it does not).

The Horse before the Cart

As much as can be said for such efforts, there is more to be said for looking at Catholic social teaching and attempting to determine what general social, economic and political tendencies it engenders without any presuppositions. But this task is extraordinarily difficult, because the Church’s authoritative teaching consists of governing principles which tend to rule out certain extremes of political and social behavior without in any way determining a particular set of prudential policies which must be implemented. It is very difficult to write up a political diagnosis in a vacuum, unless one is content to speak only in generalities.

This is why I am so impressed by a new book by Samuel Gregg. It is perhaps unfortunate that this book bears the seriously unpromising title of Tea Party Catholic, but this does at least make the context clear. The subtitle is far better, and it marvelously fits my theme here: “The Catholic case for limited government, a free economy, and human flourishing”. For, indeed, it is unquestionable that Catholic social teaching tends toward these three things—always understanding “limited” and “free” and “flourishing” to be relative terms. Gregg’s tactic is to assume that the conservative base (here encompassed by the catchy term “Tea Party”) wants these things and then to say, “OK, forget your preconceptions about them. Let’s see how they end up looking when we’ve drawn out what Catholic social teaching has to say.”

It is telling that Gregg’s historical model for portraying the realization of these ideals in the American context is not Thomas Jefferson or James Madison or John Adams, but the Jesuit-educated Catholic founder, Charles Carroll, who was very much in possession of the Church’s essential social legacy. But Carroll is only a recurrent case in point; the author’s genius consists in explaining how Catholic social teaching shapes proper concepts of morality and freedom; the economy and the common good; solidarity, subsidiarity and the State; religious liberty; and a series of related contemporary topics from self-interest and libertarianism to immigration and consumerism. In each case, a thoroughly Catholic conception is developed from the ground up—generating the kind of fundamental understanding of the social order which every Catholic should have before he puts on a whole series of political passions like an ill-fitting suit of clothes.

And that is the point, is it not? We cannot extract ourselves from our own particular socio-economic-political context, and in fact a non-contextual politics is utterly worthless. But we ought to try very hard to understand, within our own context, what a Catholic solution would look like. What are its telltale signs? What features would it have?

Gregg, an immigrant to the United States from Australia, who is just as much at home with Catholic moralists and natural law thinkers as he is with political theorists and economists, would probably be the first to insist that letting our Catholicism rule our political preferences is the work of a lifetime. But he comes closer than most, and he can be of significant assistance to those “conservative” Catholics who, I hope, are deeply interested in doing exactly the same thing. The question, I think, is not so much how Catholicism justifies our political passions, but how it elevates and transforms them until, with great relief, we can see that they are at long last consistent, because they are all firmly rooted in Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: MikeWetzel - Jul. 02, 2020 11:53 AM ET USA

    Catching up with my Catholic Culture reading. Yes, viewing free markets or capitalism, not economics, as something that automatically works best when unrestricted selfishness is given free reign is a caricature? What free market economists assert is that left alone to pursue their own interests, people acting in a free market will benefit others as they work to benefit themselves. This observation is Adam Smith's insight in both The Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 14, 2013 1:14 PM ET USA

    Personally, I do not find it is a problem of the Christian layman's lack of moral impact on the government that is the primary problem. What has developed as a metastasizing cancer within our society is not the disorder of our federal bureaucracy with its ensuing evils but rather the profound disorder within the Christian Churches both Catholic and protestant due to lack of reasonable discipline. If Bishops and protestant elders were fearless militant moral evil would find no place.

  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 14, 2013 10:02 AM ET USA

    Catholic principles can be injected into politics by injecting the truth, primarily through the analysis of data. Catholic principles are essential, but data is needed to determine if present programs conform to these principles. Most people and, it seems all liberals, are unable to understand data; therefore, they cannot comprehend the truth that data shows. Since retirement, my contribution to politics consists of presenting analyzed data to liberal and conservative advocacy groups.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 13, 2013 7:38 AM ET USA

    There is an American mindset that is outlined in the book The American Myth of Religious Freedom stating that any religious opinion is acceptable as long as it involves the "unencumbered self." It must be totally free, unencumbered by any teaching authority to be legitimate. This is a fundamental problem. The great social encyclicals are largely absent from Church documents over recent decades and some of these solid Christian social principles have become foreign to Catholic hearts and minds.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Dec. 12, 2013 5:51 PM ET USA

    The principle of subsidiarity, if followed properly, eliminates the specious dichotomy between left and right when it comes to economic matters. Let not the family usurp the responsibilities of the government, nor the government the role of the family. Let the state do what it does best, and let communities do what they do best.