A recent survey commissioned by EWTN News shed light on political fragmentation among American Catholics. Reading through the poll prompts the question of whether a unified Catholic politics is possible.
Declan Leary recently lamented in these pages that American Catholics apparently “have no interest strong enough to transcend party bonds and operate politically as Catholics,” and thus reshape the nation’s political landscape. And, mincing no words, Matthew Walther wrote a piece for The Week several years ago in which he argued, “It is impossible to reconcile Catholic orthodoxy — the immortal teachings of the church that have not changed but only developed, like a musical theme, since the death of the last apostle — with the platforms of either major political party.”
Indeed, some Catholics have pursued alternatives to the political status quo. A few years ago, I documented for National Review the phenomenon of young Catholics embracing an anti-liberal, traditionalist conservative world view. “These young traditionalists question the idea of Progress, and express discontent with the modern world,” I wrote. “They find value in community, and their views are usually rooted in faith… They reject libertarianism, especially what they see as its excessive faith in free markets and individual material gain.”
This questioning of the classical liberal consensus by Catholics has reemerged more recently, in magazines such as First Things, prompting considerable debate. Other Catholics have turned to socialism. The “tradinistas,” as defined by Crisis editor Michael Warren Davis in an amusing Catholic Herald piece from 2018, “combine the aesthetic sensibilities of a French royalist with the political instincts of a Cuban apparatchik… Tradinistas hold liberalism responsible for the collapse of Christendom and see capitalism as incompatible with Catholic social teaching,” Mr. Davis continued.
Among the supporters of self-avowed democratic socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is a small contingent of traditionalist Catholic “Bernie Bros,” according to a recent report in the Washington Examiner.
My purpose here is not to categorize the varieties of anti-status quo Catholicism. Nor do I intend to argue for one party over another as a more suitable home for Catholics. My point is that the Church offers a framework for discussing the human person and society that can serve as consensus-building language in politics.
Put differently, Catholicizing politics demands neither theocracy nor agreement on the particulars of economic relationships; rather, it means Catholics working to steer the discussion about social ills in the context of human dignity and creation in God’s image.
Take, for example, Florida senator Marco Rubio’s speech at Catholic University last year. Mr. Rubio, a Catholic and a Republican, criticized both the right and the left, and went after “an economic order that is bad for America.”
“The notion that, left unguided, the market will solve our problems will not restore a balance between the obligations and rights of the private sector and working Americans. It may lead to GDP growth and record profits, but economic growth and record profits will not, on their own, lead to the creation of dignified work,” said Mr. Rubio.
The senator then warned that socialism would be a worse alternative.
“What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism—a system of free enterprise in which workers fulfill their obligation to work and enjoy the benefits of their work, and where businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough of those profits to create dignified work for Americans,” said Mr. Rubio.
The speech was explicitly grounded in the thought of Pope Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum. Though neither anti-liberal nor anti-capitalist, it strikes me that Mr. Rubio’s willingness to criticize the current order and speak in a Catholic-inspired framework that places serving the human person first holds appeal for Catholics of varying political persuasions, tradinistas and free-marketeers alike.
A Catholic politics does not, therefore, begin with forced consensus on contentious issues; it begins with human dignity, returning to the foundational principle that every person is made in the image and likeness of God. And it requires Catholics working ardently to give a gift of this language to the nation as a whole and bring it into the halls of political discourse.
Neither the Republican nor Democratic parties offers a clear home for Catholics, and more fundamentally Catholics themselves disagree on a vision for the common good. But moving towards a Catholic politics is possible, and it begins with speaking frankly about certain basic truths about what man is.
Image: A supporter of Bernie Sanders in Rome waits for the Vermont senator to arrive at the Vatican in 2016. (Getty Images)