What is the Church’s Political Role?

For more than 1500 years the Church was a major influence on Western politics. That is how it should be. Ultimate standards matter, and if the Church doesn’t explain what they are and how to apply them someone else will. It’s not an improvement when her authority gives way to that of journalists, advertisers, TV producers, cultural entrepreneurs, and “ethicists.”

That’s what has happened, though. Catholic social doctrine and the political views of the hierarchy have become a minor consideration even for the great majority of Catholics, who vote as other people do and in response to the same concerns. As a result, the political influence of the Church is gone except in special situations like communist Poland, where she served as a focus of national resistance to foreign domination.

Elsewhere, and especially in the West, she seems to have less and less power of leadership or even resistance. She feels ever less entitled to give offense, and can’t proclaim her teachings without doing so, so she falls silent. Nonetheless, she still wants to play a public role, so she has tried to stay in the game by cooperating with more influential players and identifying herself with their projects. Thus, Church leaders have lined up behind causes such as the UN, the EU, various social welfare schemes, relaxation of restrictions on immigration, and so on. The “servant church” has become a servant of others’ causes.

In some ways there appears to be a solid basis for such cooperation. Both the Church and the main tendencies of modern secular politics want a society that brings humanity into a coherent whole that eliminates conflict, fosters cooperation, and is concerned for the worldly needs of each member. So why shouldn’t everyone join together to bring that about?

The problem is that evil systems also share those goals. The communists supported them, the rulers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World supported them, and ISIS supports them. Basic principles matter, man does not live by bread alone, and the Church should be very careful when she gives her support to political projects whose leaders are not guided by a Catholic or even humane vision. We need to think politically, and ask who is being empowered and what system of things we are helping to bring into existence.

Politics today is extremely ambitious. The abolition of transcendent standards in favor of technology and human will give it an ultimate significance it never had in the past. Projects such as the EU and Obamacare are part of a movement of comprehensive social reconstruction—“Hope and Change”—that serves our rulers as a religion. That movement is based on an understanding of man and the world that rejects human nature, natural law, and any transcendent standard in favor of Choice, otherwise known as the Triumph of the Will.

The result is that we live in a world that is evolving less toward the Cosmic Christ than the Worldly Antichrist. The goals at home in mainstream politics today are profoundly anti-Catholic and anti-human, and leave little place for the social teaching of the Church. To support them is to support evil, so cooperation requires extreme caution. Even great successes of the Church’s worldly engagement, such as the fall of the communist regime in Poland, have turned out a decidedly mixed blessing. Poland is now assimilating to liberal EU norms, with mass attendance dropping and doctors getting fired for refusal to perform abortions.

So it seems unwise for the Church today, at least in the Western countries of which I am primarily speaking, to sign on to mainstream political projects. Such a change in approach would be painful from the standpoint of common moral sensibilities, since many things mainstream movements aim at look good and it seems right to give them practical support. A good and intelligent priest who writes on public affairs told me, for example, that comprehensive public healthcare was a matter of “how people ought to treat each other.” That view seemed to me overly optimistic, since comprehensive bureaucracy doesn’t seem the ideal for how people should treat each other, but he had a point. Comprehensive organization looks like a good way to deliver the services of technicians, and that’s what medicine mostly is today, so it seems believable that such programs reduce human suffering. That is a goal we should certainly favor.

Nonetheless, he was, I believe, wrong. Obamacare is developing in accordance with the basic principle any comprehensive government medical scheme will follow today, which is bringing the definition and management of human well-being under the control of bureaucracies guided by our rulers’ understanding of what life is all about. Normalization of abortion and euthanasia are integral to that understanding. So are family and emotional health, categories that easily expand to include moral and religious issues. Since the system is seen as medical, dissent is seen as a public health problem, and cannot easily give rise to a right to opt out.

What such a system aims at, the integration of medicine and its social authority with a political and economic system with little place for what makes us human, may produce some good results but is essentially evil. The Church can’t possibly support it without betraying her mission no matter how many holes in medical coverage it seems to fill.

Some Catholics have suggested libertarianism as a solution to the creeping totalitarianism of modern politics. If politics is too ambitious then we should support political tendencies that would reduce the range of government responsibilities. The strategy seems certain to fail, if only because very few people actually care about limited government. In theory, libertarians want to restrict government to a short list of responsibilities involving protection of persons and property. In fact, their supporters care more about results than procedural limitations. Like other people, they want to know how things will turn out: will they be able to do and get the things they want? Will they be burdened with government programs that seem useless or destructive? The ultimate standard remains the same, maximum preference satisfaction, but with less attention to equality and more to efficiency and the need to foster productive activity. It’s not clear why the resulting society, which would still reject traditional and transcendent standards in favor of something purely utilitarian, would be more favorable to the human spirit than what we have now.

So what should the Church do? Large-scale projects of social reform consistent with her teaching seem out of reach. She should continue to serve human needs and otherwise engage with society, especially by proposing her understanding of the human good and the general standards that follow from it, but she should recognize that her lack of public influence is likely to make that exercise more an inspiration to the faithful and expression of hope for the future than an effective intervention in present-day politics.

Her action in support of that understanding should normally be direct rather than mediated by the political system. She can protest specific evils, but her normal response to human suffering should be doing something about it herself any way that is open to her. The concrete political actions that are most likely to be productive for her will aim at maintaining her ability to do so, as well as her members’ ability to live in accordance with their beliefs. It is possible that that kind of engagement will bear concrete fruit. The contemporary liberal state aspires to uniformity but doesn’t like explicit use of force, so to some extent it’s willing to accommodate minorities with special concerns that are very important to them. If the Church makes demands that affect her members most acutely, and sticks by them, she is much more likely to get somewhere than if she demands more general changes that—if she is true to her mission—will be radically at odds with the principles of the public order under which we now live.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Check: Napoleon and the Cardinal” was painted by Jehan-Georges Vibert in 1840.


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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