Catholics-as-Citizens Heal Thyselves

I write these words as an individual Catholic citizen representing no other person or thing. They are words about the rights and responsibilities of Catholics-as-citizens in a free society.

In a recent Supplement to the Catholic League Newsletter, Fr. Virgil C. Blum, S.J., League President, characterized Catholic school parents as political pygmies. He used the term because of the failure of those parents to achieve justice in the matter of aid for parents and students who choose independent schools, Catholic or other. I think one cannot dispute the fact Father Blum points to, nor the larger fact of which it is a part: relative to their numbers and potential political importance, American Catholics have little positive impact on major policy matters that presumably should be of special interest to them. Father Blum traces that ineffectiveness to a general Catholic failure to organize strongly and efficaciously around the interests they have. Again, I think that fact cannot successfully be disputed.

But why that failure? Why a reluctance or incapacity to form effective interest groups in pursuit of important values? I do not want to engage in “Dueling Metaphors” with my esteemed mentor of years gone by, but I believe the failure flows not from an innate political stuntedness, but rather from repeated self-inflicted wounds. I have the impression of American Catholics repeatedly shooting themselves in the political foot. But the wounds are self- inflicted, and happily, though serious, they are not terminal. Thus I believe that American Catholics, if they will look hard at the problems in question, can heal themselves. Let me suggest three traits that deter an effective Catholic politics, and for which we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Catholic Self-Emasculation

Newly-elected Governor Anthony Earl of Wisconsin, a Catholic, recently was interviewed by the religion reporter of the Milwaukee Journal. As portrayed in the January 31 issue, the Governor has internalized the constitutional entanglements many try to impose on Catholics, and is so anxious to establish his “good citizenship” that he voluntarily abandons his rights as a Catholic citizen. As portrayed, this self-paralysis almost perfectly pictures the constitutional fiction which must be dispelled if Catholics are to begin effective political action. To show that he believes “very, very strongly in the separation of church and state” he cites his opposition to tuition tax credits for parents of parochial school students. Though “personally” opposed to abortion, he wants to be sure his “personal” beliefs do not get “rammed into public policy.” “I don’t believe my personal beliefs ought to be encompassed in the law,” he is quoted as saying.

Obviously, Catholics need no enemies if Catholics themselves are that enslaved to false categories, false and paralyzing understandings of democratic expectations. Just as a well-trained pet needs no leash, so Catholics would need no supervision if they have internalized the master’s values as completely as the Governor’s alleged words would imply.

There are those in society who want to identify Catholics as suspect citizens — suspect because in some sense not free, perhaps subject to Rome or local bishops. Under that misapprehension, it is perhaps logical to insinuate that some values held by some Catholics should not be permitted to enter the political realm, for they would not be the values of free people but of some foreign source.

In Roman Catholic history there is political abuse, of course. When the Church authorities became incestuously related to a political structure, Church activity could be destructive of human welfare just as the political structure could be destructive of the Church’s mission. But, of course, the dominant fact in those situations is a nonrepresentative, nonresponsible political apparatus open to abuse or to abusing, infected in those instances by religious values. There is no Roman Catholic monopoly in that regard. The key variable is the nonresponsible or authoritarian political structure, not the accident of whatever belief system was attached to it. Any abstract value system wedded to a non- responsible or authoritarian political structure can in fact impose, in humanly destructive fashions, abstract notions on a variegated society, on a humanity which is concrete and multiplistic, rather than abstract and one. It makes no difference where the abstract idea comes from, whether it be from a Roman Catholic source, or from a Protestant source, or from a secular philosophical source. Thomas More can suffer at the hands of Henry VIII, as much as Galileo could the Cardinals of the Inquisition. The elimination of five million kulaks as a class, or six million Jews in the Holocaust, are gruesome examples of the same kind of abstraction run amok when harnessed to totalitarian political structures. The point is this: a utopian belief, unmindful of the patchwork and quilt-like nature of human reality, if harnessed to a potentially destructive political system, produces human destruction. The antidote to such humanly destructive, politically-applied abstractions simply is responsible political organization, democracy operating in the sunlight.

Thus, any vision of Catholics as suspect citizens is a fiction, of course. Catholics have the same freedom as other citizens, and the pattern of their political and personal behavior makes crystal clear that they exercise that freedom. The values they hold dear, whatever the source, are freely held and as politically legitimate as the values held by other citizens. If I as a citizen freely oppose legalized abortion, it is irrelevant where my value comes from. It is mine, I pursue it, and I have exactly the same right to seek political expression of that value as any citizen has to seek political expression of any value. To the traditional but absurd assertion “We cannot legislate morality” there is only one rational response: it is impossible to legislate anything else. All significant political issues have to do with moral choices, human values, and the only question is whose values will be best argued and successfully expressed in the law of the land. But these values, having been tested in the crucible of democratic politics, are the political morals of the community, not the edicts of a church.

Seeing this, one can see also the errors alleged to have been uttered by Governor Earl. As cited, Governor Earl takes upon himself the illusion that the Catholic Church is a politically destructive force and he must, accordingly, establish his political distance from it. In this, he seems not to grasp that the believer-as-citizen, Catholic or other, is not the agent of any church, but simply a value-informed citizen, politically identical to any other citizen informed by whatever values are dear to him. He seems so ensnared in the imaginary constitutional problems of church and state that his only way out of the maze is to privatize his religious values.

To argue against tuition tax credits — which are nothing more than recognition of parental freedom of choice in their children’s education — simply on the grounds that “separation of church and state” rules out such tax credits is to use a gross constitutional abstraction to settle a specific political issue without letting politics work. To say, as alleged, that “I don’t believe my personal beliefs ought to be encompassed in the law” is to betray a radical misunderstanding of where law comes from and how it is made. It inevitably comes from someone’s personal beliefs. The democratic process, to the extent it is truly responsible and majoritarian, guarantees that such beliefs will not be arbitrarily imposed, but will be adopted (if at all) only after winning broad support and being made compatible with other values in society. It is that very democratic process, not the self-imposed paralysis of Governor Earl’s alleged statements, which ensures all of us that we will not be victimized by arbitrary impositions of someone’s “personal beliefs.” By the time such beliefs have been enacted into law in a free society, they are not simply personal beliefs but concrete expressions of political will.

Catholic Fuel on Anti-Catholic Fires

The mainstream Catholic teachings in modern times have routinely made clear that, though the formal Church and its central doctrines highlight the importance of political and social matters and call for those spheres to be informed and shaped by Christ’s light, the essential Christian vehicle for so shaping is the believer-as-citizen. Thus, e.g., Vatican ll’s Pastoral Constitution in the Modern World states “The role and competence of the Church being what it is, she must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system.” (No. 76) At No. 43 we find “Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion.”

This respect for contingency, and for personal responsibility in contingent circumstances, has been repeatedly expressed by Pope John Paul II, but never more movingly than in his Angelus Message of July 19, 1981: “The Christian cannot, certainly, expect to find in the Eucharist ready-made suggestions about the action to be carried out in . . . his personal, family, social or communitarian, economic or political life. Participation in the ‘Lord’s supper’ always concerns closely, however, his awareness of good and evil, and places before him his own responsibilities . . . Therefore, communion in the ‘bread broken’ commits each one to make his own contribution to the building of a ‘new world.'” (L’Osseruatore Romano, July 27, 1981.) This clear sense of personal responsibility and competence, as differentiated from some imagined “we” or unity at the point of specific action in social and political matters is characteristic of central Catholic teaching. Obviously, in such understanding there is no threat of a church to a state. Rather, there are fully-fledged and empowered citizens who, if their lives have integrated religious value into action patterns, will seek those legitimate values through appropriate political processes.

What a debilitating shame, then, that some Catholic leaders, perhaps in overzealous desire for this or that specific political action, continue to talk as if the formal Church had political action capacity, thereby pouring fuel on the anti- Catholic fires.

Some examples of such formal Church presumption may be useful. On February 22, 1982, Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan testified before a Task Force of the House Budget Committee. He presented himself as representing the U. S. Catholic Conference, the “national social action arm of the Roman Catholic bishops.” He proceeded to do a critique of the Reagan administration’s economic program. His critique is quite a routine, even typical one-sided political commentary. He calls the Reagan program a “radical economic experiment,” says the program tends “to solve our economic problems at the expense of the poor,” and that the program threatens “to tear the very fabric of our society.” Nothing very unusual or exciting about such statements, one can agree or disagree with their content, and Bishop Sullivan clearly has a citizen’s right to state them. But he begins his next paragraph with a hugely destructive, violative, and erroneous proclamation: “We in the Catholic Church believe that this trend must be firmly resisted.” (Origins, March 18, 1982, Vol. 11, No. 40, p. 633.)

In so asserting, Bishop Sullivan manages to implicate all Catholics in his preceding and very particular political judgments. There is, in fact, no Church “we” at the level of such specific political judgment. To pretend that there is violates the integrity of Catholic citizens as persons, it fuels the fires of anti-Catholic political concerns, and it introduces division in the body of the faithful who know full well they have not given their votes to the U. S. Catholic Conference. The real Catholic “we,” of course, extends only to doctrinal matters, and even that “we” is threatened by efforts to extend it to political particulars. That this threatening mentality exists in parts of the American hierarchy is made clear once again in the second draft of the American bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. Thus, to say “To fulfill its role as a community of conscience, the church as a community must shape an internal consensus on key issues” is to flirt dangerously with obliterating the real lines between faith doctrine and political practice. The term “community of conscience” can easily be a euphemism for dictating political particulars. Many are working to see that the pastoral on nuclears, in its final condition, will be shorn of such material. But as of November, 1982, it must be said many bishops were entertaining the thought that as bishops they had some potential for directing the practices of Catholics-as-citizens. They do not. Catholics know they do not, and act accordingly. But any who want to introduce suspicion about Catholics-as-citizens are helped to do so by such excessive comments.

At this point a very large irony must be acknowledged. Even as there seems to be a mounting volume of “Church in Politics” activity and noise, there is a deepening ineffectiveness, as represented in the “pygmy” description. Those two fact may seem to be in contradiction, but looked at carefully will be seen as fully harmonious, I believe. For most of the new noise is just some elements of the formal Church structure huffing and puffing at nuclears, or El Salvador, or Campbell’s Soup, or whatever other topic may appear on a USCC agenda. As noted above, the kinds of statements increasingly issued on such general topics, insofar as they are politically specific and divisive in that sense, actually deter effective politics. They fuel anti- Catholic fears. The formal Church spokesmen are correctly seen as speaking only for themselves by the political structure, and thus rightly have little impact. They give the Catholic citizen essentially a “follow and obey” role — which is no role, for he will do neither on matters of political particulars. By presenting political particulars as if they were doctrinally certain, they divide the flock. And, in some respects most unhappily of all, if the hierarchical and pastoral noisemakers believe they have actually done their political duty, they help create the largest difficulty of all by not doing that which they and only they can do.

The Void of Catholic Political Values

Even if Catholic citizens were much more politically alert and integral than they presently are, it is not at all clear what religiously-derived political values they would be seeking through democracy’s processes. Part of Father Blum’s deep chagrin over the ineffectiveness of Catholic parents on the student aid front flows from a conviction that those Catholics should deeply want that which has been held from them: some economic justice so that their cherished schools can have as much chance as any other schools. But do those Catholics want such in an overwhelming sense? Deeply- held values need to be offered, argued, pondered, and finally clasped to the breast. Is the teaching Church — the episcopate and pastorate — doing the arduous, rigorous exegesis and preaching which identifies basic values as explicit or directly implicit in the Gospels and the faith? Is that teaching Church, in other words, helping believers to see, not such end-of-the-line particulars as whether first-use of nuclears is ever tolerable, but, e.g., the structure of human values Christ taught which, if seen, command the believer-as-citizen to seek his brother’s welfare?

Occasionally I hear, as an excuse for direct hierarchical intrusion in political particulars, the suggestion that “we must do that because preaching at the general level has failed.” I have been a student of the social gospel for thirty years, and a Catholic during all that time, and I have yet to encounter or even hear about a diocese where sustained, disciplined exegesis on the social-political implications of Catholic faith has been done. It has not failed, it simply has not been tried. It is, of course, much harder than pronouncing trendy slogans. Moreover, it acknowledges, as Vatican II and John Paul II acknowledges the pivotal responsibility of the believer-as-citizen who is to be the Christian leaven in a fully responsible way. Perhaps these are the facts which make the formal teachers so reluctant to immerse themselves in the crucial but modest task of establishing core values with powerful exegetical argument — and, having found them, offering them to the believing community to be transformed, as those believers see how to transform, from religious insight to political objective.

Recently, for example, a group of parish volunteers was asked to assist their parish in deciding what to do in the face of declining enrollment in and support for the parish school. The first thing they did was ascertain that the central values which make a school rational and desirable — the Christian obligation to reflect on the teachings of Christ and try to shape reality accordingly, applied to the parental responsibility to educate children might incline those parents to create and sustain a school which, at its essence, reflected the parents’ belief in the risen Christ — had not been unfolded and preached in the memories of any of the volunteers working on the project. They had not been unfolded or preached in those memories either within the parish or the surrounding archdiocese. That being true is enrollment decline surprising? Support falloff surprising? Pygmy-like politics on tuition tax credits surprising?

I think there is, in such circumstances, no surprise if the Catholic believers-as-citizens have a pallid impact on the political order. They are not hearing, pondering, and finally taking onto themselves a well-developed articulation of basic credal values for which they are essentially responsible.

Standing Upright, In the Sunlight

I have suggested that the stunted political impact of American Catholics may, in substantial part, result from self- inflicted wounds. I have offered for consideration three modes of action characteristic of some contemporary Church figures which, taken together, may explain a good bit of political ineffectiveness. In the first case, I described a defensive and unconfident Catholicism which thinks one establishes his right to play the political game by making himself unable to play the game effectively. In the second, I suggested that the pseudo-politics of some formal Church representatives may well help sap the real politics Catholics might pursue. In the third case, which relates to the second, I pointed to a void or gap of principled teaching which, if it were well done, would provide the substantive values Catholics might transform into coherent political practices.

What might happen if American Catholics decided to stop such self-torment, stand erect, and enjoy the democratic sunlight? We might then organize for effective political action around the specific issues that are of interest to us. We would do so not under a pharisaical banner reading “We are Jesus Christ.” We would do so not under an “excuse me” banner of Catholic Church as Church. We would do so, rather, as fully-fledged citizens. We would be proud to be “single-issue,” for example, if our desired objective were singular. We would not be intimidated by the insinuation that “single-issue” equals narrow-minded, for we would see that effective interest groups are, almost by definition, single-issue oriented. The political process itself is to do the comprehensive, synthesizing task. It does not have to be done by every interest group. Such groups, of course, have the obligation to act with prudence and moderation, and not attack the social fabric in their intensity. But single-issue we may well and rightly be, just as we may well be simply “anti” if that which we oppose is, in our considered view, abominable. In short, we will be self-assured and confident enough to state our political objectives simply and pursue them energetically. We will be proud to be Catholics-as¬citizens, carrying happily the full burden of belief, and the full burden of freedom.


Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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