Sense and Nonsense: Apocalyptic Election II

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The October, 1992, Crisis carried a handsome photo of president bush— “Should Catholics vote for this Man?” My column for that issue was entitled “An Apocalyptic Election? Is This Election about Jobs, or Souls?” I thought it was about souls. I still think it was.

Two days after the 1993 Inauguration, while five Roman Catholic cardinals were in the Ellipse at the Pro-Life March, the new president, a block away, signed into law documents permitting fetal experimentation and abortion in the military. At that symbolic moment, our system of Republican rule changed. President Clinton, in the ensuing four years, proved to be a man who could change both policy and principle in a flash, with, however, a consistent, unchangeable anti-life ideology. Four years later, few are surprised that he vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban.

This election is not about the president’s character or his policies. From experience, no one can or should believe what the president says or expect him to keep any word, except that related to abortion. Paul Greenberg, the Little Rock journalist, quoted George Stephanopoulos on July 8 as saying, as if it were a compliment, that “the president has kept the promises he intended to keep.” Indeed.

This election is no longer about President Clinton or even Bob Dole, who thus far appears about as changeable as the president, giving us little choice except the suspicion that Dole is probably a better man. This election is about the American people and their character after they have had a chance to see their souls quite clearly reflected in the man elected four years ago. The president is like no one so much as those Greek politicians, particularly Callicles and Alcibiades, whom Plato described so vividly. Their sole purpose in life, their sole norm of action and morality was what they perceived the people to want, whatever it was.


The present case is made more complicated by the courts and the congress. The Republican victories in 1994 that seemed at the time to inaugurate a regime of moderation and principle look in retrospect like proof that the people, in spite of what they say, do not want to do what is necessary to contain the government and to restore some sense of moral principle to our polity. Most people want the government to take care of them, however much they also say that they want a more limited government.

The courts are ruled by no constitution, if we mean by that a government limited and bound by the principles of our original Constitution. We are in effect a people without a written constitution, certainly not by one that means what it says. The constitution is what the people say they want as interpreted by the court. We are in this sense an oligarchy and, perhaps, a servile state. When the people say what they want, as in California, Colorado, or Virginia, the courts negate the local will, as they did in the original abortion decision in 1973.

Is it right, then, to call this “Apocalyptic Election II”? This “end-time” word, apocalyptic, bears with it intimations of something that overshadows passing politics and the moral choices of a people. John Paul II, with noticeable frequency, has warned us during these past four or five years of what he calls “democratic tyranny” as the real problem that faces democracies. He does not mean that the great democracies are about to be invaded by some foreign totalitarian power. He means rather that free, voting people are choosing leaders and principles, are habituating themselves to ways of life and to deeds that cannot find moral justification. They are choosing these disorders of soul freely, following the examples of their intelligentsia and political leaders, whom the people have accepted and against whom they have little moral energy to oppose.

This election is about the unwillingness of a free and democratic people to liberate itself from leaders and principles that are undermining their souls. History shows that other, more dire ways, exist to confront this unwillingness. We are optimists if we think this history is irrelevant to our current problems.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).