Let’s Admit the Worst about Each Other

The prudential arguments Catholics have on subjects such as immigration, welfare programs, and government spending all too often descend into mutual, willed incomprehension — in which each side holds fast to its caricature of the other and insulates itself against learning a scintilla from the “enemy.” While this is counterproductive, it’s also kind of fun. So I’m not suggesting that we stop. Or not precisely. As long as we’re pelting each other with lemons, I’d simply like to step in and make some sorbet.

First, to my favorite art form — public detraction. A tea-party Catholic like me is tempted to begin and end an argument suspecting that “social-justice” Catholics:

 

  • resent not just the rich, but even the middle class;
  • don’t so much love the poor as they fetishize poverty, wrapping what is objectively evil (involuntary suffering and deprivation) in the mantle of St. Francis of Assisi;
  • blindly refuse to understand how wealth is produced, and how big government gums up the works;
  • are either hostile or indifferent to the just claims of the thrifty, the hard-working, and the prudent — hijacking biblical parables like that of Lazarus to serve their agenda of toxic envy;
  • recklessly disregard the solemn duty of citizens to make rational, patriotic decisions about the best interests of their country and their descendants; and
  • apply a degrading double standard to the rich and the poor, the white and non-white — holding the “privileged” to a high, Christian ethic of selflessness and tolerance but winking at greed, sloth, envy, and tribal racialism among the less fortunate, as if the latter were hardly human.

Conversely, social-justice Catholics make it abundantly clear that they believe we tea-party types:

  • smugly take credit for our comparative success and prosperity, when in fact we have inherited many of our advantages over (say) recent refugees arriving at Kennedy Airport from Kenya;
  • indulge without compunction in sinful habits fueled by consumerism and materialism;
  • callously spend our wealth on luxuries and entertainment, which could otherwise be redistributed to the starving or even the disadvantaged;
  • either practice or wink at white racism, unjust male privilege, American jingoism, and an individualist Protestantism that marked our country’s founding, and which has been condemned repeatedly by several popes; and
  • covertly identify with figures in the Bible such as the rich young man who “went away sad,” the older brother of the Prodigal Son, and the workers in the vineyard who’d labored the longest hours — preferring justice to mercy because in our sinful pride we don’t think we need much mercy, and we don’t care to dispense it.

Given the fact of original sin, it’s safe to assume that both sides are right. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the great divide on political issues between Right and Left is indeed a confrontation between the Pharisees and Barabbas. Each of us could stand a political examination of conscience; a test for the toxins we’ve absorbed from the world, the flesh, and the devil; and a look at the log in our own eyes.

I’m preaching the bad news today to clear away the nonsense that takes up most of the time in political arguments, wherein we assail each other’s motives and sternly defend our own. Instead, let’s assume and admit the worst, get the ad hominem attacks over with, and try to face the practical problems at hand.

 

We all know that in our fallen world there is a gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, talent, decent political order, good looks, brains, and even psychological health. A certain percentage of people are born in First World countries to attractive, prosperous, hard-working, non-psychotic parents who treat them kindly and teach them virtuous habits; most people aren’t so blessed. How should members of the first group reach out, in the spirit of Christian love, to help those in the second? The Church’s traditional answer has been to encourage, organize, and administer the spiritual and corporal works of mercy prudently, in a spirit of benevolent paternalism. Secular socialism and welfare programs exorcised this spirit, replacing it with value-neutral “entitlements” and utilitarian tinkering, as secular progressives seek the greatest short-term pleasure for the greatest number of registered voters. Conservatives push back by organizing consumers and taxpayers who wish to keep all the pleasure-opportunities they have either inherited or earned. We’ve forgotten the veggies and fruits in the fridge and are squabbling over the pizza and the bong.

What the Church wants is something quite different. Catholic social teaching assumes that the basic unit of society is neither the individual nor the victim group, but the family. Neither political party, and no organized movement in America, is advancing this agenda. None will within our lifetimes. Deal with it, people. Let’s accept this stark fact, assume that neither socialism nor individualism is going to accommodate our fundamental values, and focus instead on the concrete ways that Catholics in America have addressed inequality, supported the integrity of families, and prepared even the poorest among us to form and support them.

The primary means the Church has used in America to accomplish these goals have been Church-sponsored charitable and educational institutions — all organized, funded, and staffed without (sometimes in the teeth of) the secular state. In other words, Catholic charities and Catholic schools.

Both have suffered greatly in recent decades, losing influence and importance compared to their secular, state-funded competitors. But we’re helpless if we don’t recover the memory of what we used to do well and why it worked.

We’ve all heard old, wince-worthy stories of mindless memorization, rote repetition of the Catechism beaten into helpless children using methods few today would employ for training animals. My father would recount how one Irish Christian Brother at his school in midtown Manhattan during the Great Depression cracked chalkboards by slamming them with the hardest heads of his students. But the tough old mills that were traditional Catholic schools mostly ground true, and for all the emotional scars they inflicted — I’m sure there are elderly grads of Catholic schools whose formative experiences with women religious have left them forever terrified of penguins — these schools helped build a solid working-class Catholic America from the desperate, unschooled refugees who washed up on these shores.

Indeed, as scholar William Stern showed in a famous City Journal article, “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” the rough-and-tumble, intensely moralistic Catholic social welfare and education system did a far better job than today’s pricey therapeutic bureaucracy of stemming and reversing social pathology — and on a much more massive scale. Privately funded and staffed mostly by religious, this system took the broken remnants of Irish society that floated westward during the Potato Famine and remade them into mostly solid citizens, who soon took over cities such as Boston and New York. If an immigrant wanted a job, he would have to prove to a nosy priest or nun that he was not a drunkard; girls who wished to find work as maids would need to keep their clothes on. It was thus that prelates like New York’s Archbishop John Hughes rooted out the alcoholism and prostitution that had run rampant among the starving refugees.

This is paternalism at its best. My mother’s parents were both Irish-American alcoholics, bearing eleven children — six of of whom died in childhood from disease, malnutrition, or accidents such as tipsy parents cause, for instance falling out of an unfastened high chair and cracking open their skulls. My mother knew, she told me, that if she got pregnant out of wedlock she would be essentially destitute — dependent on a bare-bones “relief” check that bore with it a stigma almost as ugly as bearing a “bastard.” That was enough of a buzz kill for most girls to help them keep their knees closed. A daughter of addicts today is much more likely to grow up without a father and become a mother herself at age 13 or even younger. The poor who are born or arrive in America today face a massive, morally nihilist nanny state, eager to load them down with “entitlements” that are almost impossible to lose — and perfectly designed to keep their families dependent for generations.

It is the existence of this nanny state that Catholic conservatives deplore. Call us selfish if you want — we’ll admit that, if you’ll fess up to being envious — but we would rather that poverty simply, starkly, go unaddressed than help perpetuate it by handing out free needles, funding multi-generational families headed by single mothers, and turning public schools into multicultural training for disaffected ethnic activists. We refuse to pay for such privileges. But as we fight tooth and nail to dismantle the pagan Leviathan that seizes a third of each of our paychecks, it’s incumbent on us to strive to rebuild the institutions that offer alternatives — to reknit the sinews of a healthy, vigorous Church that can serve the poor and push back against the beast.

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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