The public challenge of Catholic faith

Catholics have a peculiar way of thinking about politics: ours is a universal way of thinking about “the things of the city”. If this way of thinking is peculiar, it is nevertheless neither unique, nor inaccessible to people who do not share or subscribe to Catholic claims regarding the basic structure of the world (“We believe in one God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible…) and the ultimate reason of things (“For God so loved the world…”). Indeed, its very universality – the universality of the claims Catholicism advances and by which Catholicism professes to live as true – requires Catholics to engage discussion and debate in the public square by way of publicly available arguments, i.e. by way of reason deployed in a manner that does not require even notional assent to the data of faith in order to be comprehensible and even cogent.

This is not an easy task, though it is one that all citizens – of every tradition of faith and religion, and none at all – all share together and in equal measure.

As Benedict XVI put it when he visited the United States in 2008, “[Freedom] also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.” NB it is freedom that requires such courage, not Catholic faith specifically, nor even religious conviction broadly considered – though the measure to which Catholic faith is compatible with ordered liberty in society will always be established in the concrete by the measure to which Catholics actually do display such courage in public life.


Bishop John Carroll, SJ, by Charles Wilson Peale

The difficulty for Catholics – not only for Catholics, though for Catholics especially – is that we very often disagree about which of our convictions ought to guide us in our consideration of a given public question, and about where our faith is guiding us in this or that public matter, great or small.

This ought not be a surprise to anyone, since Catholics are and always have been people who – to say it with Chesterton – agree about everything, and disagree about everything else.

The matter is complicated, however, by an ineluctable, often troubling and even embarrassing fact: the “everything” about which Catholics agree is an intricate weave of truths the Church teaches, which do not come to us all directly from a single source. Some of the things the Church teaches as true are things the Church has learned directly from God, e.g. that He is one nature in three persons (though it took a good deal of thinking to understand that God had taught the Church about His Triune nature, and still more very messy and often quite bloody history had to happen before we had hashed out exactly what that teaching means and does not mean, especially regarding the Second Person of the Trinity – but I digress), and teaches as true because God has revealed them to the world through the Church; there are other things that the Church teaches because they are true and we know them to be true quite apart from a direct and immediate Divine didactic intervention, e.g. that there is a cause of, and an order to all that is, and that we are capable of knowing a good deal about that order and about the principle by which things are ordered (e.g. that good is to be done and evil to be avoided, and therefore that it is wrong deliberately to destroy innocent life, that human life begins at conception – not a matter of religious conviction, as is so often erroneously claimed – for if real assent to the truth of revelation were necessary in order to recognize the intrinsic evil of procured abortion, then advocates of legal abortion would have a much stronger case), that defrauding a worker of his just wage is not only wrong, but one of the worst things one human can do to another, inter alia).

When everything is so complex, everything else is inevitably complicated, and we owe it to ourselves, to our fellows in religion, and to our fellow citizens to be mindful of the complexities as we engage in discussion and debate about matters touching what we used to call, “the public weal”.

Practically speaking, it means that we must resist the temptation to reduce our public advocacy of this or that policy to a mere matter of applying Catholic teaching to a particular social problem. It means, in other words, that as Catholics, the first thing we must resist doing is publicly claiming that it is “as Catholics” that we hold anything in the way of policy: the Church teaches us it is an act of charity to welcome the stranger, but she does not tell us how to conduct that charitable activity – upon which our salvation mysteriously and at once doubtlessly depends – in a manner consistent with our duty as citizens to obey the laws and our duty as participants in the government of our republic to make laws that provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. The danger in taking principles meant to be guides to forming prudential judgment, and erecting them into principles of conduct from which policy directly flows, is clear and present: it leads in short order both to irresponsible citizenship and to ineffective Christian witness.

The second thing we must avoid is closely related to the first, and involves our modes of evaluating the fitness of candidates for the offices they seek, and the manner in which we conduct that evaluation in public discourse.

Neither our system, nor the persons who seek offices within and under that system, are perfect. Every candidate for every office supports some policy or holds some position, which is ultimately indefensible morally. No one may support a candidate because of the candidate’s opinions and/or policy positions, which run counter to the moral law (and “no one” means “no one”). When we support candidates who hold morally repugnant opinions and/or policy positions (and we do so every time we support any candidate) we do so despite that candidate’s opinions and positions – if, that is, we do so in a manner consistent with the moral law.

The foregoing considerations do not foreclose the question whether support for this or that candidate is morally defensible, still less whether support for this or that candidate is really prudent (in the technical sense of the term). For example: a Catholic might have supported then-Senator Obama in his bid for the Presidency, despite his confessedly radical views on legal abortion, on the grounds that his social policy broadly would tend to decrease the number of children actually slain in their mothers’ wombs; it is harder to see how a Catholic could have supported President Obama’s bid for a second term, given the war his administration was waging on the Catholic Church at the time the regulatory framework of the infamous HHS Mandate was being crafted (if the description of the Obama administration’s stance toward the Church as a “war” seems hyperbolic, remember that the editors of America Magazine – a publication known neither for partisanship, nor for hyperbole in analysis –  opined at the time,  “The church cannot function peacefully in the United States under the current regulatory framework.”). Even in this example, however, the issue before each of us as citizens was neither simply nor primarily one of “connecting the dots” between Catholic teaching and public responsibility. The teaching of the Church was, and is, clear: even so, Catholics did reach different conclusions then regarding the most appropriate manner in which to allow Catholic teaching to inform our choices as citizens.

That, for example, I think citizens who chose to support President Obama in his bid for a second term, despite his administration’s stance and behavior toward the Catholic Church in the United States, made a profoundly wrong-headed choice, is beside the point. Even if they were wrong-headed, that cannot on its own be proof of my fellow citizens’ insufficient formation as Catholics or as citizens. Still less can it be used as proof of bad faith.

The present election cycle presents us with similar difficulties.

Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is known as a lifelong champion of legal abortion. A Catholic could choose to support her despite this (again, not because of it) on the grounds that her social policy program would tend actually to reduce the number of abortions. That assumption could be – indeed ought to be – exposed to the most rigorous critical examination. Assuming a fellow Catholic – or any citizen of whatsoever religious persuasion, or none at all – were interested in supporting Clinton, one might also urge that a candidate so obviously in the pocket of the abortion interest cannot inspire the confidence of a candid mind, even one that happens to share the Senator’s views on the subject broadly.

In other words: while Catholic teaching informs at least one of the hypothetical citizens’ thinking on the issue of abortion, it need not be applied directly and immediately to their thinking together about the question whether to support Sen. Clinton in her bid for the Presidency.

Said shortly: the question is not whether, but how we ought to bring not only Catholic doctrine in its distilled form, but the whole great Catholic tradition of thinking about politics, to bear on our thinking about how to order our lives together.

Clinton’s olim colleague in the Senate and co-contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, describes himself as a Democratic Socialist.

Not a few fellow citizens have questioned whether Catholics can support a Democratic Socialist in a bid for office.

Many of the Catholics who have raised the question whether their faith permits them and their fellows in religion to support Sanders believe that Democratic Socialism is wrong on basic points of anthropology, bedrock realities of politics, and fundamental economics.

This may or may not be the case: the Church, however, does not pronounce herself in a universally binding manner on those matters, nor does she proscribe the specific political creed such fellow Catholics impugn. Indeed, Democratic Socialism is so far from being proscribed by Catholic moral teaching, that it has been (in its explicitly Christian acception) the political position of the past several Bishops of Rome.

The point here is not that Catholics ought therefore to espouse either Democratic Socialism or Sanders: the point is that to decry Democratic Socialism as incompatible with Catholic doctrine sic et simpliciter is both counterfactual and lazy; citizens – Catholics and others – who maintain (as I do) that Democratic Socialism is wrong on basic points of anthropology, bedrock realities of politics, and fundamental economics, owe their fellows who see it differently an argument.

The current front-runner for the Republican nomination is a man of such character, that anyone needing an appeal to the authority of supernatural revelation in order to accept that he is unfit to serve as canine controller of any town or village in the country, let alone to hold the highest office in the land, frankly cannot be trusted to contribute to the national conversation.

We noted earlier that our system is not perfect.

Our system does, however, tend to give us the candidates we deserve, and our unwillingness to argue with each other has produced a frankly disappointing crop of candidates, even when compared to the generally lackluster quality of candidates for political office in the history of our republic.

Another part of what has brought us to this point – to this surreal, bizarro-world place in our national life at which we are arrived – is our willingness to let ourselves be “sold” on candidates who “speak my language” and “represent MY views” etc., coupled with our unwillingness to expose the candidates with whom we tend broadly and generally to agree, to the caustic process of critical examination, at precisely the same time we are willing to believe the absolute worst about the candidates with whom we broadly and generally disagree.

Here, Catholics have a tremendous opportunity once again to prove, contra Paganos, that Catholic religion is not only not inimical to the morals of a republic, but can – if practiced – in fact have a quite salutary effect thereupon: indeed, the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be; that tradition has always inspired those in it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension; indeed,  true religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement; to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it; to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives, i.e. the salvation of souls (the salus animarum, which in the present context also has the added incentive of serving the salus rei publicae).

In the meantime, let us remember that citizens and the candidates they choose are imperfect even in the best of times: the world, after all, is fallen and awaiting – St. Paul says it is groaning in travail – the fullness of its redemption; only Christ has the true and lasting victory over evil.

Meanwhile, we mostly muddle.

Though most of it were muddling, nevertheless, we must be about it. We are citizens of a great republic, and, to borrow a phrase from Edward R. Murrow, “There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.”

The contribution Catholics have a chance to make to the national discourse, is that of their example: let us be those quintessentially Chestertonian people who agree about everything, and disagree about everything else – only let us do so carefully, rigorously, and always charitably.

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