Complicating the Simple: Catholic Religion and Democratic Politics

The question of how Catholic religion can and I should influence democratic politics yields an analytically simple answer. But it has become historically complex in the United States. I believe this complicating took place for typical human reasons: certain key distinctions have been blurred, either because of intellectual weakness or because it served someone’s purpose to blur them. The latter kind of blurring need not come from cynical motives, though in some cases it may. It is at least as likely to come from unbridled enthusiasm and romance. To complete the complicating of an innately simple matter, just add to the blurring tendencies a political campaign featuring religion-related issues; a national press corps unable for the most part to recognize a non sequitur if it smacked them in the eye, and thus prone to report the silly with the same gravity as the profound; and then stir lightly.

To restore conditions for rational discussion on religion and politics we need first to distinguish between matters of political substance on the issues of the day, on the one hand, and methodological matters, on the other. For example, the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the bishops’ organization for social commentary, has spoken substantively on elective abortion in calling for the undoing of Roe vs Wade. The methodological questions deal not with that or any other substantive matter but with other, preceding questions, e.g., how and where does the USCC fit in the political life of this country? What warrant authorizes the bishops to speak on political issues? How do they interpret Rome’s repeated statements that bishops’ conferences do not have authority as bishops have in their sees? When they speak, for whom do they speak? And what special competence or authority, if any, do they bring to political discourse? I am here concerned entirely with such methodological questions, and would note concerning them that one’s answers to them give no real clue to one’s answers to questions of political substance. From the same methodological starting point, one may locate anywhere on the general ideological spectrum or anywhere on a given issue. I emphasize this fact because of the tendency of some religious voices, when their methods are criticized, to respond with such eccentric rejoinders as “Pre-Vatican II” or “conservative.” These slogans are moral evaluations—a priori slurs, actually—of those with whom one disagrees, rather than analytic distinctions about comparative ecclesiologies and epistemologies. As such, they truly miss the key points of today’s problem.

A second major area insisting on distinctions which too often are collapsed is seen if one finds that the tenets of a religious faith do indeed have political pertinence. How is that pertinence to be achieved? Is the primary vehicle a formal Church structure? Or is the primary vehicle the believers as citizens, clerical or lay, alone or in such colleagueship as they may forge? And, if formal structure, with what specificity may it be expected to speak on issues, as compared to articulating general religious values? And, if formal structure, what are the special implications, if any, for a Church which claims an authoritative, disciplinary relationship toward its members as compared to the bulk of churches which insist the believer must, naturally, follow the teachings he espouses, but need not follow a teacher in the same way, there being no such authoritative teacher?

In what follows I will indicate that, on these large questions, Rome of John Paul II has been mostly correct and fairly rigorous, while the American hierarchy and staff have been often erroneous and quite spongy in technique and mode of argument. In so noting, I will be saying that Rome’s relative success in political understanding these recent years comes not from Roman infallibility, but simply because, in this instance, the Roman representatives have been able to see political reality more clearly than their American hierarchical colleagues.

Some Realities of Government and Politics                                                                                         

Some political realities are especially important for grasping correctly the role religion may play in a democratic society. The need to be governed, and the politics which accomplishes the need well or badly, reflect some of the most basic facts of human existence, facts which may be called “natural,” facts which precede in time Christ’s coming. These are the facts of disagreement about the human good, divisions among people as to these goods, and the destructive tendencies introduced by such divisions. We govern, and we submit to governance, precisely to set a limit on these destructive tendencies, and to settle in a definitive way the issues giving rise to the divisions. Thus, government has always to do with choosing among alternative answers to the question, “what should be done here, now,” among conflicting options, conflicting values, and conflicting interests. This first, simple fact should alert one to the problems with one of the statements routinely made by some Church spokesmen to justify direct political intrusion by formal Church agencies: “As long as we avoid partnership, we can sponsor particular political actions without violating our relationship to the faithful.” The dividing, potentially alienating reality of politics inheres in the act of governing itself and does not await parties. Parties are only a latter-day method.

The fact of perpetual division over important questions of social choice calls for the settling of such questions. But a first ray of enlightenment among political people brings a second realization: settlement should strive for peace, not just stillness, and peace often calls for only partial victories and incomplete defeats as competing goods are synthesized by the political process. It calls for the losers having something left and also having hope for a better day—a more victorious day—to come. And so politics, politically wise people say, provides definitive settlement of social contention and conflict but seeks to heal even as it selects winners and losers.

The aim of such a political process is not truth (though it should always be sought) and not perfection (though it should always be hoped for). The end, rather, is the common good and social fabric, the generally acceptable, the transitory and proximate fulfillment of many human objectives, and tolerable conditions in which persons can define themselves. And the justification for it all is not any presumed inerrancy among the deciders, though history is replete with deciders who pretended to inerrancy, but is instead in the necessity of deciding itself. These realities produce such statements as “politics is the art of compromise,” which would be a truer statement if it said, “an enlightened politics employs the art of compromise.” That amended version of the old adage has several advantages: it avoids making compromise seem to be an end when it can only be a means; it need not produce so cynical a view of politicians as is often produced; and it makes possible a principled discussion about abstract values to be sought through political actions, but which may have to be adjusted, harmonized, and compromised to the higher, context-setting value of social peace itself.

In this way one sees that politics is a perpetual process, a dynamic process of doing and undoing, always aiming at fashioning responses to alternate visions of the human good. It is with such things in mind that politics has been seen by the perceptive as a species of ethics inevitably impacting on the human condition. This establishes the inadequacy of another traditional justification some Church representatives employ for direct intrusion in the political order. “This issue,” we are often told, “this issue is a moral issue, not a political one.” Such statements are nonsensical, for political issues are by definition moral issues, and the alleged distinction does not exist. Whatever religion’s role in politics should be, it cannot rightly be sporadic or additive. If religion relates to politics when politics is about morality, then religion needs to relate to politics permeatively.

From Politics to Democratic Politics

I have introduced some political realities which need to be grasped if religious political life is to be seen fruitfully. But that form of politics known as democracy has some special features which need special mention. I invite you to think of a basic political progression from the simple fact of the need for rule, for order; to some condition of constitutional predictability, some harnessing of the arbitrary and capricious; to well-rooted and well-defined systems of holding government in some sense responsible and under the law; to democracy as such, with such civil liberties as have been established but most especially with one man, one vote, majoritarian foundations. The need for governing and ruling never got off that train as it progressed. Rather, all the change had to do with the way ruling will occur. It is a way which aims to ensure other values beyond the value of order and safety, values particularly of expanded freedom, greater autonomous capacity for planning and shaping one’s existence.

This evolution invites its own excesses, as does any human path. If especially inclines some to forget the fact that ruling still must be done, to imagine their rights in absolute rather than governed fashion. If that spirit gets lodged strongly in the governing apparatus, chaos can occur and democracy itself be sacrificed on the altar of its own anarchistic caricature. One might display, e.g., the Articles of Confederation or the French Fourth Republic or Weimar Germany as examples of this. Even if democracy is achieved, in other words, it is not out of danger but must be made to work, and the first malady which must be avoided is fracturing government’s ability to govern.

If such is achieved, then it is possible to argue that, without avoiding the need for rule, modern democracy can provide historically unparalleled human values to the society lucky enough to experience it. It does not take a Christ-informed perspective to recognize democracy’s preciousness. Indeed, Christianity as such, while needing conditions in which to evangelize and manifest its creed, was born, grew, and prospered in non-democratic circumstances, and often its proponents were anti-democratic. But to many, Christian revelation, in its identification of personal human value—the notion that mankind is valuable because each person is valuable—seems to provide a powerful transcendent justification for endorsing democracy. I am one of that many.

Some Aspects of Christian Revelation

Those aspects of Christian revelation which incline me to be one of that many may be summarized briefly. Though treated summarily here, let me state simply that if one believes these summary points are real, that they actually occurred, then one also believes they are the most important realities known to man, the explanation and the end of life as we know it. They are summarized for logical completeness, not because of their relative stature.

What seems essential in traditional understandings of Christian revelation is that God Himself intruded in history at a particular time and place; established a sacramental source for sustaining His presence through grace, body, and blood; created a Church perpetually to represent His saving work and teach His reality and His ways; and left behind a scriptural forecast and description of His intrusion and the response we are to make to it. I posit this and will not defend it. Indeed, from one point of view it is indefensible, for there is no clear explanation of why such would occur. It seems so completely gratuitous as to be highly implausible. But if it did occur, the implausibility is seen simply as a sign of the weakness of human imagination.

I note this for one reason important to our topic: to my eyes, the largest disputes in contemporary Christian thinking, though often not articulated clearly and openly, have to do exactly with the reality and plausibility of the simple assertions above. Was Christ’s intervention actually God on earth—was He divine? Are the sacraments real, and, especially, is the eucharistic sacrifice true and does it feature the divine substance? Was a recognizable Church structure established and a teaching authority with it, or only a kind of movement in history, without structure and clear leadership? Is there a deposit of faith understandings, a core of revelatory truth which, however general, is a north star, a guiding light, so that when one is asked by men to follow them in Christ’s name, one can rightly say “from what to what” with reference to that north star? Or is there in fact only motion through history, in which the perhaps appropriate ethic is to try to find and hold on to the tail of some historical dialectic? Much of the smoke surrounding contemporary discussions of religion and politics would be dispersed if discussants would simply articulate their stand on these premise issues. I have posited my premises—they are open for inspection. (For any interested in seeing some very current commentary on this question of belief and authority, I note just a few recent manifestations: John Paul II, “A Call to Ecclesial Unity,” in Origins, Vol. 14, No. 35, February 14, 1985, pp. 575-78; interview with Bishop Gordon Wheeler of Leeds, England, in National Catholic Register, March 17, 1985; Bishop Roger Mahony of Stockton, California, “The Magisterium and Teachers in the Church,” Origins, Vol. 14, No. 37, February 28, 1985, pp. 603, 605-607.)

In that traditional understanding of revelation, the aspect most directly pertinent to the religion-politics question is the aspect of Christian ethics. God instructs not only about a reality to be contemplated, but about forming one’s life through action. God instructs as to our behavior, toward Him and toward others. And in that instruction about behavior toward others we encounter Christian social ethics, or the social Gospel. Christian ethics, then, is simply the name given to what are the action corollaries of calling oneself a Christian. If one believes Jesus was God, and if one believes Jesus prescribed some actions or modes of action, then, as Abraham before us, one must say, “what I know God wants, I will do.” But what do we know, what does He want? Are His instructions few, general, formative, and titantic? Are the implications of His instructions usually less clear than the general rules, moderated by prudence and suffused with normal portions, of human error and contrariness as we move from direct Gospel inference to more problematic choices? If there is a substantial difference between clear general teachings and application in complex circumstances, does this suggest a difference of religious authority as we move from principle to act and an obligation to acknowledge such difference?

Love God. Love neighbor. Love in this classic ethical sense I understand to mean, “be disposed to do their good, the good for them.” Loving, then, is doing for the object of that love, to the point of sacrifice and always seeking results. Loving neighbor is the fount of Christian social ethics, and what else can be seen clearly as mandated by that fount? If one looks at the few prescriptions to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, be the Good Samaritan, and the like, they yield one climactic prescription: love, i.e., do for or help that person and those persons who need help, whatever the form of their need and the appropriate help may be. The much discussed “option for the poor” seems to me to be an inadequate, condescending, woefully materialistic substitute for “option for those in need.” Add to this the concept of Christian integrity—by their deeds ye shall know them, the original and true Christian seamlessness between values and acts—and you have the essence of the Christian social gospel: there are people with needs and if I can assist them, I should do so. Then add two primary facts of the dynamic history since Christ’s time: because of various basic changes in communication, transportation, and other technologies, the numbers I can assist or touch in some way have greatly compounded; and because some of us live in polities where we can exercise some control, we are able to assist or touch in political as well as personal ways. Now we have the essence of the major contextual conditions for the Christian social gospel in our day.

The Nexus of Religion and Politics

To borrow a marvelous imagery from Karl Barth as modified by Paul Ramsey, what has now been asserted is that God protruded into human history, creating a convex shape to which we must give a concave response. The particular protrusion calls for human action, and some of that action is to seek the good for others. And from that simple fact comes the connection between Christian religion and any politics. As we saw above, politics inescapably deals with the human good, which same human good Christians are bound to promote. Any humanitarian religion will have persistent concerns for political outcomes and will bring to political deliberations whatever human values are identifiably in its core teachings—if the polity is open enough to permit it. All that, I think, is evident from the logic of religion and politics.

Another thing which is clear is that the religious intrusion into politics will be subordinate to the political process itself. Whether formal Church or believers as citizens are the vehicle for religion’s political presence, they will be harnessed by the state, and, should the Church elements somehow assume control over the state, they will act more as a political entity than a religious one, because, as argued at the outset, the work of the state must always be done by someone. To see religion and Church as subordinate parts from a political perspective says nothing about their relative. importance. Rather, it helps one see how religion must work if it is to have a political impact. Religion is a fount of human values which can be brought to bear on political choices, can provide direction and specification to the perpetual task of policy-making. For political purposes, it is not essentially different from other sources of values. Christianity provides an ethical direction for its adherents, a direction of benevolence. Politics, always engaged in ethical choosing, is open to receive and be specified by the Christian impulse, which creates the political opportunity and obligation for Christians. But we note that the general Christian principles are precisely general and do not provide specific answers to the concrete and convoluted issues before a polity. As the Christian representatives approach discrete action, therefore, they should approach modestly and humanely, knowing that in the arena of action they have mixed clear religious motivation and first principles with fallible prudence, judgment, and observation.

The Christian imperative to grant the equal value of all others is yet another reason for entering the political arena modestly. Any Christian vision of the social good sought in political action will be just one of many visions, Christian and not, about what right action should be at any time. At that point, seen from the perspective of politics itself, all these views are not distinguished by their source—they are not Catholic Christian or Protestant or Jewish or atheistic humanistic. Rather, they are simply alternate and often competing politics. They are recommendations, made with more eloquence and power or less, more support or less, but simply recommendations about prudent political action here, now.

Anyone may have such politically pertinent views, moved by any reason. When the views claim to have religious roots, who is to present them? In many communions there is no recognizable religious leadership structure, so that the answer is obvious: the believers themselves must do it, with whatever competence they may have. But in a structured communion such as the Catholic, there is a tradition of magisterial teaching and leading on religious matters, matters of faith and morals. In the age of princes, when the political structure was not responsive to the citizens and power was relatively concentrated, it might have seemed natural for Church structure to try to provide direct Church guidance to the political order, to protect conditions for religious observance and, to some extent, to suggest lines of policy. By the same token, one need not be too surprised, I suppose, to see the current Pope, at one and the same time, preach a very reserved political role for the formal Church and its clerics while often seeming to intrude the formal Church directly into Polish politics, for example. If the prevailing regime is truly closed, and if there are no normal avenues for expression, and if the capacity of religion to exist is endangered, then; one imagines, existential circumstances may invite abnormal practice. But even then the fact is that there is nothing notably sacred about the action. It is simply a church as political actor reflecting oppressive political conditions, and from such behavior one learns, in my view, nothing about religion in politics when the political order is an open one.

In that open society, all citizens have a voice and an action capacity, as persons and as groups. And really no one else does have such voice. The formal Church is not a citizen apart from the citizens, clerical and lay, who make it up. Indeed, for excellent historical reasons, there is a true wariness about the formal Church in politics. It has sponsored humanly destructive regimes—as have countless other agencies and spirits. One need only recall the loud expressions of apprehension when Archbishop O’Connor said he did not see how any Catholic could vote for a candidate espousing Mario Cuomo’s position on abortion to realize how close to the surface that apprehension is. O’Connor’s statement about what he took to be a logical imperative was immediately and widely treated as a threatening political directive. The national press urgently invited us to see poor Mario Cuomo and Catholic citizens as latter-day Galileos.

It was all very silly, of course, because O’Connor, by his own assertion, was talking about logical and moral relationships, not about his political capacity to direct citizens in the voting booth. But it was most preposterous because, even if O’Connor had been imagining such a capacity, anyone who chooses to think about it for even a moment realizes there is no such capacity. This is a free land, of free citizens. If one of those citizens elects to be taught by O’Connor, to say, “yes, I agree, I cannot vote for a Mario Cuomo,” that citizen is no less free, and no less politically legitimate, than another one who says Cuomo is right and I will vote for him. What moves either to his position is neither here nor there, if the movement is free and not made under some criminal duress.

And so we come to the essential political reality confronting religion in democratic politics. Though it may huff and puff in a variety of ways, claim to speak to all citizens and sometimes for all of its own faith even when it has no capacity to do so, the formal Church really has no such ability on matters of political particulars and major policy choosing. It has the freedom to express itself, and thus the freedom to help shape the social ethos. Moreover, it has the freedom and responsibility to charge its communicants to live out fully the ethical implications of faith itself. And those believers as citizens can do whatever they want to do to shape the very particular choices before the nation at any time as they try to find appropriate expression for fundamental values, some of which will have come from the religious fount.

There is nothing more for the Church. If the Church is thought of as a formal hierarchical structure, it can have a unitary voice, but it has as such no legitimate role and no authoritative competence on the many practical affairs of state. If the Church is thought of as the People of God, those people will have full access to and competence in the political order, but they will not have a unitary voice. They will be as varied and distributed as citizens generally. If Church teaching of principles is clear and effective, and if the obligation to be active citizens is one of those principles, then one can expect to discern some effects of those religious citizens in both the ethos and the particularities of public life, but they will be citizens’ effects. It seems to me that only a very paternalistic formal Church would ask for anything more, and only if it did not, in fact, accept fully and value the political freedom of its communicants. If the religion is divinely instituted and sustained, all it needs politically is the condition for its own existence. But it will want one thing more: conditions for its believers’ own religious exercise toward integrity.

Analytically Simple

As promised, the answer to how Christian religion can and should influence democratic politics is intellectually simple. The Catholic Church of the last century, from 1891, has known this and, for the most part, acted and spoken accordingly. Its social teachings, from Rerum Novarum, to Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World, up to and including John Paul H’s many statements, have seen the simplicity and the restrained but pivotal role of religion in politics. In an essay entitled, “A Question of Competence” (Thought, September, 1982), I summarized that mainstream Church understanding as follows:

(1) It means relative modesty or caution in terms of any capacity to know right political action on the basis simply of religious perception.

(2) It means relative care in the terminology employed when one is exhorting and prescribing.

(3) It means relative rigor in respecting the essential difference between Church and state as human institutions.

Particularly in Vatican II and the writings of John Paul II, that mainstream tradition has also made sharply clear that the substantive social values sought in a Christian perspective will have to be achieved in all essential respects not by the formal Church but by believers as citizens able to bring Christian inspiration directly to bear on the innumerable problems and opportunities of secular existence. These believers as citizens, cleric or lay, are engaged as Christians in helping answer society’s perpetual question: what is the human good here, now? Anyone who wants to speak a Christian speech to the political order should acknowledge the temptation to invoke Christ as a political ally; should announce and describe clearly for whom he claims to speak; announce clearly how he comes to know that which he claims to know; and then let the intellectual/political marketplace evaluate and perfect whatever he has to say. The religious intent which moves that speaker provides no special credibility to his voice.


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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