Liberating Theology from Politics

A friend recently sent me a remark by one Msgr. Alfred Gilbey, a onetime chaplain at Cambridge’s Fisher House who was often called “eccentric” (but that mostly meant that he was a believing and practicing Catholic priest in a chaotic time). I’m sure his words will come as news to many. In an article in the Modern Age by Roger Scruton, Monsignor Gilbey is cited as saying, “We are not led to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of the Christian is not to leave the world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.”
This passage is not unmindful of Plato, and the way Socrates did leave this world. It presupposes that we have some idea what a better man might be. It also presupposes that we have a choice in the matter, no matter what the form of civil society in which we chance to live out our days.
Likewise, Monsignor Gilbey’s remark recalls the famous passage of Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago. In the direst circumstances known in the modern world, the Russian novelist wrote:
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human heats.
Ultimately, it is not the state, or the class, or the political party that matters. As the human substances that bear and transcend their reality, what counts is what we do in the state, class, or party in which we live, be it the best or the worst, or something in-between.
Scripture itself, if it tells us anything about end times, informs us that they will not be overly pleasant. The modern age has done everything in its power to tell us that we will all be better people — but only if we just redo the work of creation, or overcome the Fall, or reform our political structures, families, property, classes, or our political parties. We will, no doubt, be called “individualists” if we think that the task of saving our souls is rather what we should be about.
The implication of most modern ideology is that we can do nothing for ourselves until these magic reforms first take place. For many, this proposition comes as a relief as it dispenses us from doing much until things outside of us are better. These reforms, however, always end up with much blood on their hands, because they forget what passes through the human heart. The system, we say, was responsible, not the individual.
Along with Plato and Aristotle, the classical Christian view suspected rather that social reforms would be consequent on the inner reform of our souls. The problem that Christians had with the classical understanding of virtue was not that it was unknown. Rather, the question was: Why was it so difficult to practice this known virtue? This latter difficulty could, in the Christian view, only be confronted with some understanding of the Fall and grace.
We have developed a system in which such ideas as virtue and grace are never so much as whispered among us. No guarantee, moreover, can be given that, if we choose to live a good life and persist in this life until our death, we will be praised by the world. Just the opposite is implied. We are warned that, like Christ Himself, we will be both misunderstood and persecuted, not only if we are bad (which we too often are) but if we are good. If I cannot strive to be virtuous until the public order is reformed according to some philosophically designed formality or other, there seems not much sense in trying. The Christian view of man rejects the premises on which this latter view is built, a view that pretty well dominates our modern culture.
In his book on Eschatology, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
The rejection of chiliasm (Joachim of Flora, the idea that history will produce a Kingdom of God on earth) means that the Church repudiated the idea of a definitive intra-historical fulfillment, an inner, intrinsic perfectibility of history. The Christian hope knows no idea of an inner fulfillment of history. On the contrary, it affirms the impossibility of an inner fulfillment of the world.
Does this mean that Christians, therefore, have nothing to do but sit around and wait? Quite the opposite: They, like everyone else, are to be judged by what they believe and do to themselves and to others with whom they live. In this same book, then-Cardinal Ratzinger mentions the Gulag Archipelago as an example of what happens when a this-worldly perfectibility is proposed by an ideological movement.
Cardinal Ratzinger then adds a significant reflection that is more than pertinent to our current politics:
The Kingdom of God is not a political norm of political activity, but it is a moral norm of that activity. Political activity stands under moral norms, even if morality as such is not political nor politics as such morality. In other words, the message of the Kingdom of God is significant for political life not by way of eschatology but by way of political ethics.
Politics is not an agent to bring about the solution of our personal relation to death, hell, heaven, and purgatory, the four last things. Rather, politics constitutes a finite, temporal arena in which the drama of each human life is played out in terms of how each of us lived in his actions, no matter where it is he lived and acted. This was the point of Monsignor Gilbey and Solzhenitsyn.
Some regimes will be better than others, as Aristotle already said. It is an aspect of general justice that we pay attention to this difference. But we can lose our souls in the best regime known to man and save it in the worst, and do one or the other in all the others known to history. When politics, even if democratic, claims to define what is good and what is evil by its customs and legislation, as much modern politics does, we have before us not “normal” politics but eschatological politics — the worst kind.
“It is healthy for politics to learn,” Cardinal Ratzinger continues, “that its own content is not eschatological. The setting asunder of eschatology and politics is one of the fundamental tasks of Christian theology.” This is the true nature of the “liberation” of theology. Aristotle had already implied that politics is not metaphysics. The restoration of politics to be politics, as the arena in which the transcendent destiny of each is manifested, is the great work of political philosophy in our time.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest 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 most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • R.C.

    I suspect it was reflections similar to these which caused C.S.Lewis to (this is a paraphrase from memory, sorry) be somewhat “suspicious” or find “dubious” those who wish via politics to implement some great scheme which, they tell us, will induce a vast improvement in the way of things.

    He said he trusted, more, and thought more good was done by, those quiet folk who toiled away trying to fix one particular problem by incremental steps in one part of the world which he knew and understood.

    He was right, of course. Christians are not allowed to go around “immanentizing the eschaton.”

    Among Communism’s flaws was that it was eschatological in this way (even holding a “prophetic” element of predicting the turning points of class struggle). Not that Communism is alone: Various Fascisms take this view, and the Salafist or “Twelver” Shia sects in Islam are sadly prone to it.

    It is dangerous in the extreme when human beings get the notion that the liberation of the world hinges on their intervention; that the evils of the human heart may be finally conquered by some great theory or deed which it is within our human power to implement.

    For with so much hanging in the balance, is there any expedient that is not justified? If it is within one’s own hands to achieve a paradise for all mankind (be it a worker’s paradise, liebensraum, environmental salvation, the bringing of all peoples under sharia, whatever!) would one not burn books, publish lies, “disappear” political enemies, and commit genocide?

    The whole 20th century answers in the affirmative, because human beings are born with a longing for an awaited liberation (“all creation groans”) and wherever Christianity wanes, this longing is filled instead by a hundred new religions, philosophies, and predicted catastrophes to tickle our ears. Before it was global warming it was global cooling; before the population crash it was the population bomb; before the jihadists (however dangerous they may be) it was the Communists (also quite dangerous).

    How glorious and wise, then, of Our Lord to assure us: He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. It’s on His timetable, by His power, that evils will be rectified, not a moment sooner, and not by anyone else’s initiative: Not only lest any man should boast, but also lest any man should think it his place to break all the rules in order to “help” God make it happen.

  • R.C.

    A fun Petra song (yes, yes, Christian rock band, Protestants all, with the attendant concern about Petra/Petros/Cepha and so on…but still, with good orthodox Christian lyrics a Catholic can get behind 99% of the time) from the 80’s put it this way:

    Humanistic lies lament
    A holocaust is imminent
    Doomsday prophets in the news
    Predicting who will light the fuse

    The fate of His creation
    Is not subject to a man
    The final consummation
    Is according to His plan

    And He’s still got the whole world
    In his hands tonight
    And only He knows where
    the sparrow lands tonight
    And nothing in this world
    Will stop His plans tonight
    ‘Cause He’s still got the whole world
    In His hands….

  • JC

    As much as I am concerned about the application of certain moral principles in society, this is what troubles me about the Catholic blogosphere in general, as well as with most parishes: a lot of focus on the social and the political; very little focus on the (authentically) spiritual.

    Growing up, most of the Catholics I knew who were overly focused on politics were liberal. Most of the Catholics I knew whose primary concern was whether they were gonna make it to Heaven were strongly pro-life and politically conservative. I also saw that conservatism focused on the individual, and, since I was concerned about salvation of individuals and protecting individuals from their own concupiscence, I adopted conservatism as my philosophy.

    But, in my adulthood, as Chesterton observes at the beginning of chapter 4 of Orthodoxy, I lost my childlike faith in practical politicians. I found that many “conservative” Catholics were just as overly focused on worldly affairs and just as willing to compromise as the liberals I’d grown up listening to.

    Bl. Teresa of Calcutta wrote that, “in the final analysis, it’s between you and God.” I have always viewed my political activism as a manifestation of love for God, and make my political decisions (like I try to base all decisions) on what I think God wants me to do, rather than necessarily on what may or may not be “successful.”

  • Ben

    Frankly, this particular post, despite quoting CS Lewis, smacks of the worst kind of traditional catholic monasticism. That kind that says ‘Nothing outside me matters; all I do in life is to purify myself/let myself be purified.’ (that last part, reminding us that Luther came up with nothing terribly new).

    This is patently false. The poor will always be with us, charity is still good. There will always be injustice, justice must still be sought. You cannot be a good person, or even a better person, without engaging directly in the political via an effort to assist other people in being better people as well. The disciples were not told to sit in their upper room and meditate until they were called for at last, but to go out preaching and teaching and baptizing, proclaiming the ‘evangel’ – a word used to describe the news of Caesar’s imminent claim to a region.

    The Anglicans have given us little to be proud of over the centuries, but NT Wright teaches powerfully, and in orthodox fashion, of the political content of the New Testament. It spoke in terms that had political meaning of a new Kingdom that was coming. We turn our back completely on the New Testament if we strip out the political from the Gospel.

    Because even the word ‘Gospel’ is and was political.

  • R.C.


    I guess that it is I you suspect of being self-centered, since I’m the one who quoted C.S.Lewis?

    All I can say in reply is:
    (a.) I have been, and if allowed another five minutes of terrestrial existence I probably will again be, a sinner, so in that sense I’m guilty as charged;
    (b.) My post does not, however, advocate a sort of disconnection from each individual’s obligation to assist others (which I believe is your concern). On the contrary, it makes a point of lauding those who try to solve such problems in a quiet and unheralded way;
    (c.) I’ve looked at my post again to see if it could be construed so as to support selfishness, and find that only by a pretty tendentious reading could yield such an interpretation;
    (d.) In any event, I myself don’t hold such views, so if anyone does get that impression from my post, let me firmly state that that was not the intent of the author;
    (e.) I’m not sure it’s fair to traditional Catholic monasticism (even qualified by “the worst sort”) to associate such a lack of concern for fellow-man with them, either;
    (f.) C.S.Lewis, from whom I drew my quote, was certainly active in his community, and apparently in many years gave away over half his annual income to various persons in need. He was also very active in his community and the world, and thereby was undoubtedly a positive influence. Since he acted in this fashion, and since I cited him favorably, not unfavorably, I think it should be obvious to the reader that my objection (and his) was not to those who…

    quiet folk who toiled away trying to fix one particular problem [e.g., poverty, injustice] by incremental steps

    …but rather to those who try to “immanentize the eschaton,” claiming that anything other that the Second Coming can produce a paradise for all men, a final conquest of the evil in the hearts of men, an end to all want and injustice.


  • Kathy

    Amen, R.C.

  • stosh

    Probably what is missing is an understanding of the “best man”. The best man is not a monk. He needs to socialize, have friends, to participate in public affairs, to practice and receive justice (which defines his relation to his peers), etc.

  • JC

    “Probably what is missing is an understanding of the “best man”.”
    I thought the best man was Jesus.

    Funny how so many of those evil monks who focused on their own spirituality (and praying for the salvation of the world) have been canonized, while so few Catholics who’ve focused on political life have been canonized.