Lifted from the recent issue of New Oxford Review:
Why American Politics Marginalizes Catholic Voters
SEARCHING FOR A CATHOLIC THEO-POLITICAL CONSENSUS
By Kenneth Colston | October 2018
Catholics are outliers in American politics. Michael Doran’s public lecture “The Theology of Foreign Policy” (reprinted in First Things, May) provides a rich demonstration of this thesis. Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, attributes the enduring divide in American foreign policy not to animosity between Democrats and Republicans but to a 19th-century schism in Protestantism between modernists and fundamentalists. He names these two politicized Protestant camps the Jacksonians and the Progressives. Although he passes over it, Doran’s binary might also explain the division in domestic politics. Most arguments, Chesterton is claimed to have said, are ultimately theological, and this one rightly leaves Catholics out of the mix.
Both sides in the American Protestant schism, according to Doran, are missionary democrats. The Jacksonians (Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, William Jennings Bryan, Harry Truman, et al.), it is well known, favored the common man against the elites. Less well known is that they drew their political bias from dispensational premillennialism, the belief in an imminent Second Coming that will, in the words of a manifesto published in Prophetic Times, a 19th-century, Philadelphia-based premillennialist publication, “avenge [Christ’s] elect,” “revolutionize” all “systems in Church and State” (if not destroy them), and spare only those “properly awake to these truths” (vol. 4; 1866). Consequently, Doran observes, the Jacksonian persuasion is a “sleeping volcano” in politics. The “guardians of freedom” are quiet (i.e., isolationist and nativist) when liberty seems safe, but stirred to full-throated, unilateral war when righteously indignant — enough to, say, drop nuclear bombs on city centers to rid the world of tyranny.
The theo-politics of the Progressives (the Roosevelts and Rockefellers, Woodrow Wilson, et al.), by contrast, builds on a postmillennial eschatology. Spreading the Gospel will produce a period of peace and prosperity by virtue of centralized, top-down initiatives in which the elect direct the common man through industrialization, education, social justice, multilateral coercion, and do-gooding — e.g., the war to end all wars, the United Nations and Peace Corps, the universal brotherhood of man, and the right to abortion-on-demand everywhere on earth.
This schism between Jacksonian and Progressive Protestants accounts for both unexpected conflations and surprising polarities. Both groups are militaristic missionaries — one to keep liberty alive, the other to forge universal brotherhood. The dispensational premillennialists, however, eventually became committed Zionists, while the postmillennial Progressives sought CIA-backed friendship with Israel’s enemies. Perhaps most crucially, these two camps of missionary democrats are bitterly opposed in their extreme views of human nature — utterly depraved versus ultimately perfectible, with original sin either destroying everything or doing nothing. Those extremes squeeze out the Catholic via media in both theology and politics.
Although not a schism, a different theo-political tension — between Augustinians and Thomists — animates Roman Catholicism without polarizing it. For Augustine, the soul is nearly helpless without divine grace, and so the state, without justice, is a “band of robbers.” For Thomas Aquinas, the soul is less damaged by original sin, and the polis is a requirement of man’s social nature. At the parish level, the Augustinian view edges out the Thomistic. American Catholic conservatives often oppose single-payer universal health care, regulation of the market, food stamps, environmentalism, trust-busting, and even blue laws as violations of subsidiarity. Liberal Catholics, less Augustinian on these policies, are nevertheless quieter on abortion and often favor contraception, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and even sometimes robust military intervention abroad. Both groups show themselves to be, theo-politically speaking, more Protestant American than Roman Catholic in their distrust of government, more libertarian than communitarian. Culture often prevails over faith, or faith sneaks into culture. I once heard an ardent French atheist declare that he worked not only for himself but for all those who cannot work — mothers, children, the elderly, and the incapacitated. The preferential option for the poor seeped into the hearts of the Frenchmen whose revolution decapitated the saints’ statues.
Neither the Augustinian nor the Thomistic view, however, in itself creates democratic missionaries or American apologists. Christ is King, not the people or the commander-in-chief. Baptizing the nations does not mean making the world safe for democracy. There is no Gospel by compulsion. War must be rare and just, as little used as capital punishment. Revolution is usually disorder; dictatorship may be better than anarchy. The bias toward order is perennially Catholic.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church articulates this theo-political consensus. Any form of government that promotes order under the divine law is acceptable. Even a hereditary monarchy, so long as it respects the free choice of citizens, the natural law, public order, and the fundamental rights of persons (no. 1901) can possess legitimate, binding authority, even though the balance of powers and the rule of law are “preferable” to the arbitrary rule of men (no. 1904). Not irresistible, Catholic grace is operative from God on us and cooperative from God through us (no. 2008); the Catholic understanding of original sin leaves the stain of concupiscence, not the obliteration of the will, which naturally avoids evil and seeks the good (no. 405). Consequently, government is less a result of our fallen nature than a requirement for our humanity; we need it less to protect ourselves than to fulfill ourselves. We may even go so far as to say that it is part of our spiritual battle for holiness. Further, submitting to governing authorities but putting not her trust in princes, the Church eschews both violent righteous eruptions and oppressive utopian schemes.
Millennialism (pre or post), or a literal interpretation of the chaining of Satan and the reign of Christ on earth with the saints for a happy thousand years (Rev. 20-21), is not Catholic. (Does not the difference between Catholic and Protestant theology often come down to what is read literally by one and figuratively by the other, the Eucharist as the glorified Body and Blood of Christ for Catholics, “Do not resist evil” as the biblicus evangelicus for Mennonite pacifism?) Millennialism is explicitly denounced in the Catechism:
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world [not merely at the end times but] every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism. (no. 676)
The Catholic vision of the end times is marvelously vague: “The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven” (no. 677).
As a result, the Thomistic view of politics, milder and yet more positive than the Augustinian (and Protestant premillenniabpwhile also more limited than the postmillennial, prevails in the Catechism. The positive aspect of politics follows from Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon politikon: “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature” (no. 1879). Thus, not only the family but also the state “correspond more directly to the nature of man” and are “necessary to him”; we “associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities” (no. 1882).
Catholic politics is not Hobbesian tending toward authoritarianism, or libertarian tending toward anarchy; the Mystical Body of Christ has a natural political analog. At the same time, Catholic politics is limited by the principle of subsidiarity, by which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (no. 1883). Subsidiarity opposes “all forms of collectivism,” sets “limits for state intervention,” aims at “harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies,” and tends toward “the establishment of true international order” (no. 1885) — always with a “view toward the common good” (no. 1883).
The common good, that grand term missing almost entirely in American political discourse, in turn requires authority. But this authority is circumscribed by a limited view of the common good, and yet authority is defined more expansively than the typical American small-government model. Authority is limited by, first, the “respect for the person as such,” permitting him to “fulfill his vocation” through such freedoms as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion” (no. 1907); second, by “the social well-being and development of the group itself,” such as “food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (no. 1908); and third, by the goal of “peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order,” which “is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense” (no. 1909).
The second component of the common good is expanded from the American small-government model and “implies a universal common good” calling for an organization of the community of nations “to provide for the different needs of men” (no. 1911), such as questions of food, health care, education, immigration, and progress, in the order of persons “founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love” (no. 1912). As Chesterton observed, this Catholic view of the common good falls between Locke’s desire for security and Marx’s effort to recreate reality.
Military intervention, however, in order to secure the universal destination of goods, is noticeably absent. Indeed, the Catechism does not even outline just-war theory per se; rather, it sets the conditions for “legitimate defense by military force,” which is to be undertaken only when (1) the “damage” inflicted by the aggressor is “lasting, grave, and certain,” (2) “all other means of putting an end to it” are “impractical and ineffective,” (3) legitimate defense enjoys “serious prospects of success,” and (4) “the use of arms” does not produce “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Responsible authorities are further restrained by “the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict,” so that “non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be treated humanely.” Genocide is “a mortal sin,” and we are “morally bound to resist orders” to commit it. Peace through strength is itself cautioned against, for “the accumulation of arms” as a method of deterrence “gives rise to strong moral reservations” (nos. 2309-2315).
The Augustinian emphasis on original sin, the will remaining free, leaves enough room for Aquinas’s confidence in the intellect to inform the will to master the passions. Together these two classic Catholic poles result in theo-political caution through the principle of subsidiarity and rigorously conditioned self-defense. No earthly nation, no alliance or empire, enjoys special privilege in the City of Man. American Catholics must therefore be careful not to be more American than Catholic, especially since American politics, both foreign and domestic, like most things in American culture, is essentially Protestant, even when it is neither Jacksonian nor Progressive. The founder of the Constitution was James Madison, who studied at the Calvinist Princeton University, doing special course work under its president, John Knox Witherspoon, a political philosopher and Presbyterian minister. Is it any surprise that Federalist No. 10 so assumes the depravity of man that the separation of powers is not to fulfill man’s social nature but succeeds only if “ambition counterattacks ambition”? While this dark view of human nature checks the Progressives, it also excludes Catholics who seek something beyond political gridlock.
A newly organized third party, the American Solidarity Party (ASP), highlights this exile of Catholics from American politics. Without being explicitly Christian (that reticence is itself a sign of American secularism’s animus against Christ), its four core principles span the Protestant divide in American politics and express the Catechism consensus in charged Catholic language:
Part One: “I affirm the sanctity of human life.” Our nation began with the profession — however often it has been violated — that all persons are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, chief among them the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The ASP…affirms the foundational assumption that human persons, from conception to natural death, possess a particular dignity that sets us apart from the rest of the created world.
Part Two: “I affirm the necessity of social justice.” Social justice is the natural corollary of the sanctity of human life. We are designed to live in community, to thrive together, to bear each other’s burdens, to not only pursue happiness but to find it in love.
Part Three: “I affirm our responsibility for the environment.” The privileged place of human beings in the natural order means we have a special responsibility to care for the rest of the world.
Part Four: “I affirm the possibility of a more peaceful world.” Violence begets violence, which threatens life, liberty, and human dignity. At the same time, those who threaten the rights of the most vulnerable are rarely deterred by mere admonitions. The use of force is necessary at times, but it should be a last resort, taking as little life or liberty as possible; leaving open the door to reconciliation as much as prudence allows.
Have you heard of the ASP? I doubt it. It didn’t register even 7,000 votes in the last presidential election. Without at all endorsing it, I cite it as, on its surface, an all-in statement of Catholic theo-politics, billboarding the “culture of life” of Evangelium Vitae, the “common good” of Rerum Novarum, the “common home” of Laudato Si’, and the “world peace” of Pacem in Terris. Dig a little deeper and you will find the philosophic personalism of Pope St. John Paul II, the economic distributism of Chesterton and Belloc, the UN Thomism of Jacques Maritain, and the service to the poor of Dorothy Day — solidarity balanced by subsidiarity but reaching out to the nations.
The ASP is more all-four-cylinders Catholic than almost any Christian Democrat Party in the West. Its platform is as pure and chivalrous as Don Quixote in the bawdy inn, and it shows how marginal and isolated the American Catholic voter who would think with the Church really is.
Brought to you by Allan Gillis