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Toward a Viable Catholic Political Strategy for our Times

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 30, 2011

Yesterday’s Catholic World News story about the brutality of China’s one-child policy is heart-wrenching. You’ll find the testimony from the recent US Congressional hearing compelling. But it raises a question which, in America at least, we too often fail to ask.

I’m not referring to the obvious parallels between China’s policies and the creeping totalitarianism of the West, by which the natural law is repeatedly subverted by government in the name of “rights” and everybody is “encouraged” to go along. Nor am I referring to the Western insistence on making abortion as accessible as possible, to the point that its very accessibility becomes a threat that has been perceived by some minority groups as genocidal in intent. I’m not even referring to the relationship between the social complicity in abortion in China, as women hasten to report each other to the authorities when they are pregnant, and the softer complicity so common in the United States, discussed by Phil Lawler in Why do Catholics have big families?, in which just about anybody thinks it is their duty to comment on the astonishing size of your family if you have more than two children.

No, I’m referring to a simpler and more basic question: “What do we really think our government can do about it?” The failure to answer that question realistically seems very frequently to lead to major expensive government initiatives, initiatives which typically wrench authority away from this or that group of people, and initiatives which are doomed not only to fail but to make things worse.

A Pervasive Problem

This seems to happen all across the board. In terms of foreign policy, do we really think our government can end terrorism by fighting wars in whatever far-flung places suggest themselves as likely locations for our brilliant intervention? For that matter, do we really believe that ending terrorism is the reason for every conflict? Do we really think the government can improve life substantially in other countries and other cultures simply through military action and preaching American values? Or by exporting contraceptives? Here at home, do we honestly suppose that government, which by its nature cannot produce wealth, can end poverty? Do we think government can guarantee every person a job? Does it strike us as sound that, as a general rule, government can arrange human affairs better than the people whose affairs are being arranged? And do we think government is a better arbiter of the moral law than either nature or Jesus Christ Himself?

We Americans tend to look at National Socialism (Nazism), Communism, and other blatantly totalitarian experiments as the height of folly, recognizing that central planning and control of the social order as a whole creates far more problems than it solves, both domestically and internationally. And yet when it comes to the tendencies of our own “democratic” regime to take charge of Just About Everything, a great many of us become enthusiastic cheerleaders, some in foreign policy, some in domestic policy, but cheerleaders for a State-mandated solution nonetheless.

The mind boggles. It boggles even more when we realize how often government efforts are made worse because both the governors and many of the governed have a faulty understanding of man, or because the governors and certain portions of the governed are really hiding ulterior motives under noble rhetoric. All in all, there are a great many reasons to think carefully about what government can and cannot do, and to distrust even our own government in the doing.

A Catholic Political Strategy

As the Presidential primary season in the United States gets into full swing, we inevitably focus more closely on the question of political strategy. Here, in keeping with the initial question I have just raised, I am going to draw heavily on the authority of just one section of one social encyclical. I will make use of Centesimus Annus, which Pope John Paul II wrote in 1991 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s brilliant inauguration of modern Catholic social doctrine in Rerum Novarum. It is necessary to be frank at the outset that I am emphasizing one portion of one encyclical: It would be dishonest to give the impression that what I am about to say is the only thing the Catholic Church has to say about government.

But in thinking strategically, we must necessarily examine our particular situation in an effort to discern those principles of right political order which are most neglected at the moment, and to devise an approach to this most serious deficiency which appears to provide the greatest likelihood of success. So when I select passages from Centesimus Annus which support and explain the fundamental doubt about government which I have articulated above, I do not mean to claim that the Church teaches that government is evil and has no positive role to play in fostering the common good. I simply mean to suggest that the biggest problem we face today in the United States (and even more, I think, in most other Western nations) is thrown into sharp relief by this emphasis, and that we have the most to gain from making this emphasis our first priority, and finally that many surrounding factors suggest that the chances for success are better than usual at the present time.

In a short series of articles on government in August (beginning with Budgetary Reform: Opportunity Knocks), I raised a variety of concerns about government, and about whether our contemporary economic crisis might provide an opportunity for scaling back its size and scope. On other occasions (especially in Get Ready to Pay Twice if You Want Change), I have argued that Catholics need to make sacrifices in addition to the taxes they pay to rebuild a society which has a rich set of subsidiary institutions to serve genuine human needs, instead of relying on wasteful and ineffective bureaucratic solutions. The charge that my strategy ignores those in need, therefore, will be justly ignored.

A strong case can be made that, in an economy which makes it impossible to sustain the modern State “in the style to which it has become accustomed”, the most effective political strategy for fostering Catholic social principles in governance is to concentrate on making government substantially smaller and less intrusive than it is now. The immediate benefit would be to lessen the severe pressures currently being generated by government to make citizens abandon the natural law and learn to live according to manufactured State principles and manufactured State rights. The longer term benefit would be to create the conditions for an explosion of intermediary institutions to serve various needs and advance various goods, based on a renewed sense of freedom and responsibility among citizens.

A corollary is that those citizens and those intermediary institutions which prove themselves most helpful would gain more influence. All would not be overshadowed or emasculated by the State. But now it is time to take a look at Centesimus Annus to authoritatively underscore the Catholic thinking upon which such a strategy is based.

Dangers Endemic to Our Time

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul notices the tremendous change in the power and scope of the State which has characterized the modern era, and he clearly teaches that this expansion is frequently based on an incorrect understanding of government:

In recent years the range of [state] intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called “Welfare State”…dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects of the Social Assistance State are the result of inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected. (48)

In the same section, the Pope points out what I call the bureaucratic fallacy, the idea that it is an effective solution to all human problems to turn them over to government. This error leads to programs that are almost invariably far more expensive and far less effective than should be the case, programs that are made even worse by the fact that their motive force comes from the payroll rather than from solidarity, and that they are undertaken as a form of “management” rather than a form of charity:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. (48)

The Pope concludes his discussion of this point by emphasizing the right way of doing things, and the superior results which can be achieved if subsidiarity is truly respected:

In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. (48)

To the objection that unless government forces a particular solution, not enough manpower and resources will be assigned to it, the Pope would obviously answer that this argument is self-defeating. First, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more government opts in, the more citizens become dispirited and opt out. Second, once again it rests on the fallacy of believing government can actually solve problems which can only be addressed effectively on a personal level. Indeed, an effective solution also frequently involves a transformation of values and commitments on that part of those served, which can only come through a personal concern and care for the whole person in his or her particular situation. Government solutions, by contrast, tend to perpetuate a dependent class.

The Abuse of Power

Moreover, in the previous section, John Paul had already called attention to the likelihood that political or governmental solutions will be distorted from the first by the private interests which go into the crafting of policy. We have seen this again and again, on all sides, in health care, environmental action, programs for the poor and abandoned, and even foreign policy, including the decision to go to war. Government power is very frequently abused, and policies are twisted by the hidden goals of the politicians, the base desires of pressure groups, or even the back-room deals necessary to gain passage:

Certain demands which arise within society are sometimes not examined in accordance with criteria of justice and morality, but rather on the basis of the electoral or financial power of the groups promoting them. With time, such distortions of political conduct create distrust and apathy, with a subsequent decline in the political participation and civic spirit of the general population, which feels abused and disillusioned. (47)

When government attempts to manage more than it should, all these shortcomings are inevitably writ large by sheer enforcement, so that the overall impact on society is commonly negative, often very negative.

Still worse, the Pope warned even earlier of the dangers which follow when governments, whether representing the values of their citizens or otherwise, base their operations on a false view of reality, including the denial of truth itself. Catholics ought to be experienced enough by now with modern Western states to know that this is very much the case with our own governments. As a result, those who adhere to the truth must increasingly be either marginalized or directly persecuted:

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. (46)

The results, said Pope John Paul in this same section, are truly horrific: “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.” The end is or ought to be clear to all of us by now: “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” This danger is real, and it is more present now than twenty years ago when John Paul II addressed these warnings to the entire Church.


As I said earlier, this is not the sum total of what the Church has to say about politics and about government. My point in emphasizing this portion of Catholic social teaching is to suggest that we may have reached a tipping point on this issue, in three respects.

First, we are beginning to understand, I hope, that there are innumerable important things that the State simply cannot do, or at least cannot do even reasonably well. Some problems will always be with us, and cannot be eradicated through any utopian scheme. Other problems would cost so much to solve that any society supporting such a State effort would implode. Again, other problems are actually perpetuated or made worse by State solutions. And still others are amenable only to the kind of personal attention and genuine solidarity that the personal commitment and attention of friends and neighbors can provide, whether individually or through effective local organizations.

Second, we are beginning to recognize the deficiency of our current attitudes toward the power of the State. We are still dealing, in essence, with what is called the “modern state”, which developed in the 19th century and went on to embody, in sequence, territorial control, intense nationalism, rampant imperialism, and finally totalitarianism. I would argue that Western states have gone through these stages at different paces and in “harder” or “softer” ways, but the pattern is clear. Moreover, the pattern is continuing toward totalitarianism in those states which have not yet experienced it fully, and the pattern is recurring in those that have. Sometimes the names and ultimate entities have changed, as in the European Union, but the same pattern is at work. Were we to head toward one-world government with our current conceptions of the State, the pattern would doubtless be the same. In all cases, there is a sense that the State is all pervasive—that there is nothing outside the State or superior to it, by which the State must be guided, or to which the State must ultimately bow.

Third, we are gradually realizing that the current economic decline of the traditionally prosperous and powerful Western nations offers a unique political opportunity for Catholics, all Christians, and indeed any who rightly understand the relationship between man and God. We live in a secularized world (a secularization occasioned for many reasons, including the influence of the State), in which an awareness of the transcendence of the human person and his relationship with God has largely been lost, and in which the modern citizen, to take an historical example, increasingly resembles a proponent of the Roman imperium, in which the divinity of the State was embodied in the Emperor. In such a world, we cannot expect a substantial majority of citizens to realize what is wrong and what must be done if the dignity of the human person is to be truly preserved and enhanced. But we can expect a substantial majority of citizens to recognize that the economy is broken, and that therefore the tremendous reach and force of the modern State can no longer be maintained, at least not without a period of rapidly increasing political rapaciousness.

If we realize these things, then I think it becomes not only a viable political strategy, but perhaps the best political strategy, to look for every opportunity to diminish the scope of the State, to cut it back as much as possible in every area, treasuring the hope of finally cutting it down to size. We cannot, self-evidently, pursue every good at once. But whittling away at government intervention and control ought to produce many goods. Through this process, over time, other voices may be heard and other institutions may come into their own by free association: organizations arising from families, trades, charities and churches—and none of them eating at the Federal trough. These, once again, will take their rightful place in contributing to the common good. In so doing they will regain a voice which utters an independent message, a message which gives the lie to our very own idolotrous myth—the myth that we must think, seek and do everything in the name of the executive, the legislator and the judge, Amen.

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: mary_conces3421 - May. 27, 2018 7:39 PM ET USA

    Surely truths conveyed online, or in illuminating books, serve as stars which, however distant, can guide groping, scattered, beleaguered Catholics—enabling them to carry their individual crosses & minister to whatever immediate neighbors the Holy Spirit sends them. He transmutes “virtual” light into the actual, searing fire of charity. Or can if we submit to Him.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 26, 2011 10:01 AM ET USA

    Great piece. More emphasis on SUBSIDIARITY, the mystery word to most Catholics, could be helpful.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 03, 2011 6:53 PM ET USA

    Excellent article! It is unfortunate that so many Catholics--including those on the payroll of the Church--seem to think that nothing good can happen apart from the state. Time to wake up!