Catholics and American Politics

It is logical to say “The Catholic position is …” when one speaks of doctrine and the credal core. If one believes, as I do, that there is a Christ-established Church ordained precisely to preserve, offer, and teach the truths of Christ’s revelation, and that it has a structure and authority, then it is, indeed, logical to speak of the Catholic position on those limited but titanic matters revealed, jealously protected, and religiously taught as central Catholic doctrine.

But it is not logical to say “The Catholic position is …” when one speaks of the ongoing politics of a democracy such as ours, unless the formal teaching Church has uniformly defined a political position as Catholic; or unless, as luck would have it, all Catholics agreed on the position in question. As a practical matter, the formal Church does not (because it should not) offer uniform definitions of “Catholic” positions on political particulars. As a practical matter Catholics (because they are not monolithic) do not unanimously agree on political particulars. As a general rule, then, there is no single or “true” Catholic position on the particular, concrete issues that form the nation’s political agenda at any given time. It is important to bear that in mind as the political season intensifies. Some may call their particular political position “Catholic” in the hope that that will make it more attractive or compelling to some within earshot. Others may call a political position “Catholic” in the hope that so labeling it will offend or frighten various observers. But either use of the religious designation “Catholic” for such particular political purposes is a corruption of the words religion and politics.

The stuff of politics inevitably is a dividing and antagonizing stuff. Politics encompasses different and competing private interests, clashes between private interests and the general or common interest, and conflicts among them all on whether to choose short-term or long-term responses to the various problems confronting us at a given time. And the political process, or government, settles those conflicts in a definitive fashion by finally choosing among the competing and conflicting opinions, the greater goods and lesser evils. A wise politics tries to heal wounds thus created, tries to help even the losers see that they have not lost all and, indeed, may be winners another day. But it cannot avoid the fact of win and lose, of division, of antagonism.

The issues thus settled by politics are always moral issues. Politics is, after all, lust a species of ethics. The choices made, the conflicts settled, are always choices among the different views of what the human good is. Should we build a highway, condemn the requisite land and relocate the landowners, tax the citizens to pay for it, thereby diminishing their economic self-determination even as we enhance their and our physical mobility? That is a routine (I almost said pedestrian) political issue, not thought by many to be an intense moral matter, no doubt. But even the slightest scrutiny shows that in its clear human impacts it constitutes an evident moral issue. It has to do with choices to be made among different views of the human good, and is no. less a moral matter than is, e.g. nuclear targeting strategy — though the latter is obviously more urgent and weighty than the former. Recognizing that politics is inevitably dealing with moral choices, one can see, also, the silliness of the old saw: “You can’t legislate morals.” There is nothing else to legislate!

The scriptures it guards and its traditions of 2000 years explain why the Catholic Church calls upon Catholics to care for others, to keep our brothers, to help those who need help and who can be helped by us. Since biblical times the world has become greatly more interconnected, and our capacity to impact on the other, for good or ill, has expanded in the same way. Our practical “brother,” in that sense, may be anywhere on the globe. And, for the small portion of humankind privileged to live in democratic circumstances, there is not only the technical capacity to influence well or badly the lives of people all over the earth, but there is also the political responsibility to see that such influence will be for the human good on balance. This “burden of freedom” joins with modern technical capacity and social-economic interconnectedness to form today’s context for the Catholic’s responsibility for the other:  It is not a responsibility that can be fully discharged in personal, individualistic initiatives. A comprehensive grasp of brotherhood in today’s world seems clearly to call for a political life, a political sensitivity, on the part of the integral Catholic citizen.

Seen in this light, there is a natural interaction between an enlightened religion and a responsible politics. The Catholic religion teaches the social responsibility of believers, and those believers-as-citizens can plainly see that, in some considerable part, their benevolent actions will need to take political form. Believers-as-citizens can influence and give shape to politics by seeking their values in political action. Such values, whatever their sources, are entirely legitimate contenders for public policy, coming as they do from fully-fledged citizens. For example, if a Catholic has come to believe that unborn life is worthy of protection, and judges that Roe v. Wade‘s attack on that protection was a wrong exercise of judicial authority, he may understandably argue for political action to re-establish the conditions existing before Roe v. Wade. That is in no sense a religious act, but is instead a political act which, in this case, may have a religious origin in the informed conscience of the believer – as -citizen.

There are rare circumstances in which the formal, teaching Church — that one to which we belong, rather than the one some would say we are — may need to be a direct political actor. Such might be prudent, even necessary, if the Church and society generally are in the yoke of an oppressive autocracy and, let one imagine, the only voices of protest still audible are Church voices. Such conditions, I am inclined to believe, explain the Pope’s various intrusions in Polish politics, even as he rigorously cautions against Church involvement in politics generally. Another condition in which the formal Church may be advised to take political action is the kind of self-interest issue in which preservation of itself might be at stake. Nicaraguan hierarchical criticism of the Sandinistas may illustrate such a condition. Less dramatically, but in the same spirit, the American hierarchy may quite legitimately take a formal stance on certain political questions which impact on its institutional existence, e.g., tax-exempt status of churches, or tuition tax credits for parochial school parents. Such protection of self-interest is fully expected from any institution in a democratic context, and fully legitimate.

But in general the formal teaching Church has no legitimate direct role in the political process. Rather, it can have a mighty role in shaping the cultural context within which politics will occur, in shaping the ethos of its society. Such seems to have been Pope John Paul II’s message at Salvador, Brazil, as reported in Origins, July 31, 1980, when, echoing Vatican II’s clear teachings, he said “… the Church will respect the competence of public authorities in these [political] matters. It will not claim to intervene in politics; it will not aspire to share in managing temporal affairs. Its specific contribution will be to fortify the spiritual and moral bases of society by doing what is possible for all or any activity in the field of the common good.” In a democratic society especially, it can do this by powerful exegesis and preaching aimed to help the believers see and accept the political and social responsibilities implicit in Christian faith, and thus help them become efficacious believers-as-citizens. That same Church can and should proceed, also, to articulate the general human values and principles in the faith, the values and principles one would expect to find informing the Christian conscience. Benevolence and recognition of equal value among people are evident Christian principles, as is a general obligation to assist those who need assistance. And the direct inferences from such principles, e.g. that the world’s property needs to provide for all, or that political regimes should be devoted to the common good, can and should be explored as part of developing an integral perspective.

Two things can be noted about that kind of Church role in political life. First, if it is done consistently and well, it could contribute mightily to an enlightened and humane politics. Second, it does not invite the formal Church to be a dividing, partial political actor, a role for which it has no warrant or competence.

In that connection, such a restrained role for the formal Church, in contrast with intrusion in political particulars, spares the Church from two drastically unhappy results of an “activist” role. The first such result is that Catholics, gathered in parishes as they are under the assumption of a divinely-mandated Church providing sacramental sustenance, find themselves manipulated when Church representatives take advantage of such a gathering for political purposes. Such activity basically victimizes a captive audience, and is never justified. It violates a Christian understanding of the personal worth and integrity of each Catholic so gathered. And the second result flows from the first. Such manipulation will not last for long, because formal Church intrusion into political particulars is inevitably divisive in the Church community and likely invites the emptying of the Churches. I emphasize inevitability. Because politics is that hard, rending choosing noted above, the divisive effect of political intrusion by the Church simply cannot be avoided. This is the evident message conveyed by papal representatives to Archbishops Roach and Bernardin when they were called to Rome in January, 1983. As reported in Origins, April 7, 1983, one of the Roman admonitions stated as follows: “Bishops must not take sides, as magistri fidei, when various moral choices are possible. This has to be taken into account when general moral principles are applied to concrete situations, facts, government policies or strategies.”

As always, some religious voices today imagine, as they pursue their own political objectives, that they can do so without dividing the Church community. They are heirs to two traditional, utopian fallacies. In the second draft of the nuclear pastoral — before Rome’s January, 1983, intervention — both these fallacies were prominently displayed, as they are in much of the work of political and liberation theology.

The first of the fallacies which permits some errantly to imagine that they can be both representative of a Church Universal and a Church Political is the refrain that this issue (my issue, whether it be nuclear arms, or Vietnam of 15 years ago, or whatever) is a “moral issue, not a political issue.” As noted above, political issues are always moral issues, and one cannot escape divisiveness by pretending to be dealing with a unique, non-precedent setting “moral issue.”

And the second fallacy says “our role is not politically divisive for it is non-partisan” — as if partisanship were the essence of the problem. It is not. Politics divides necessarily, not because of the accident of party or no party. If the nation faces very complicated and difficult choices on aid to Central America for example, and I announce that I am for one of those choices, then, on that matter, I have divided myself from all those with other choices. It makes no difference if those others are party political and I am non-partisan. The division is intrinsic. And if, when I do that, I attempt to portray my action as not just mine as a citizen who is a believer but as the “Church” position, then I have inflicted a dividing wound on that Church which exists for universal purposes.

Thus, the attempts to escape the dividing and antagonizing implications of political action are, in fact, only traditional utopianisms. They are only efforts to say: “The rules of social and political existence may apply to others, but not to me. I am dispensed.” Such efforts are doomed to failure. Direct political participation by the formal Church, except in the rare circumstances described above, will brand that Church as only partial and particularistic, and will lessen its credibility for its other and higher purposes. Pope John Paul II made that point, it seems to me, when he advised the priests of Zaire to “leave political responsibilities to those who are charged with them: You have another part, a magnificent part, you are ‘leaders’ by another right and in another manner…. Your sphere of interventions, and it is vast, is that of faith and morals” (Origins, May 22, 1980).

When Church representatives decide that social responsibility requires direct political action by the Church, the results are tragic not just because they result in manipulation and division, as seen above. The tragedy is compounded because it is quite unnecessary. It needs to be said that the teaching Church in the United States, up to this time, has simply not devoted the time and effort required, the serious work needed, to lead the faithful to acceptance of political responsibility as discussed here. It is ironic, then, to see some insist that political particulars be portrayed as “Catholic” when the principles that rightly can be called Catholic have not been preached in sustained and effective fashion. If the Catholics of this nation can be taught the modern responsibilities which are theirs as Christians, they themselves can bring Christian values to bear on the great issues. They are believers and they are fully-empowered citizens. Their values, derived from religious belief or any other source, have the same legitimacy as does any citizen’s, and their influence can be decisive.

It is, then, a unnecessary as well as dis-edifying to corrupt the pulpit and manipulate the believers by advocating political platforms under religious banners. Those who feel that urge would be wise and humane if, instead, they “changed hats,” i.e., if, when they cross the line from clear Church principle to political particular they acknowledged precisely that, and did not claim or pretend Church authority for the political choices they made. And, if they are not sure where the line is, they should at least acknowledge that there is one and that if, unintentionally, they cross that line they do not intend to be divisive and manipulative in so doing.

If such restraint on particulars should mark the pulpit, no similar restraint is required for the effort to establish as mind-binding and conscience-obligating the fact that integral faith today implies the exercising of social-political responsibilities; nor for the effort to offer such values and principles as honestly can be located in and extracted from the core of Christian belief.

The believers who, seeing and accepting their duties as citizens, begin to bring their values to bear on the political order will want to remind themselves of what the Church has consistently taught and experience in any case insists on: equally virtuous, equally well-intended people will differ on prudential assessments and specific applications of values to the concrete needs of society. Realizing that fact, even though they may rightly see themselves as Catholics in action, their positions on practical political matters should not be paraded as the “Catholic position.” There is an overarching and divine reality conveyed by the word “Catholic” which provides a unity in faith even when we divide on policy questions — if we sustain the transcendent religious meaning of the word and do not use it as a mask for our particular political judgments.

  • Quentin L. Quade

    Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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