Every election year, a deluge of guides, pamphlets and blog posts presenting the Church’s social teaching explodes upon the scene. Given the acute concentration of these resources — and especially considering their relative absence in nonelection years — you’d be forgiven for thinking that participation in an election is the most important, if not the only, form of faithful citizenship in which a Catholic can engage.
Red, White, Blue and Catholic appears to be heading in this direction in its opening pages. Author Stephen White begins with an analysis of the Catholic vote, observing the voting patterns of U.S. Catholics (no different from their non-Catholic peers) and noting their electoral influence (25% of eligible voters).
But just as one might begin to expect White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to launch into a full-throated argument that the 2016 presidential election is the most important moment in the lives of Catholics since the Battle of Lepanto, he takes an abrupt turn.
“Most of how we live as Catholic citizens doesn’t happen in a voting booth,” White writes.
White maintains that voting is important, but it’s not what Red, White, Blue and Catholic is primarily about. In his own words, it’s “a guide to faithful citizenship for every day of the year — not just Election Day.” His aim is to help Catholics rediscover a deeper, fuller vision of citizenship, rooted in the very core of our faith.
By and large, White succeeds in what he sets out to do. At only 101 pages, Red, White, Blue and Catholic is an eminently accessible and incredibly practical review of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, contextualized for the busy, modern American reader.
To profit from reading this book, there’s no need to be a “professional Catholic thinker” with a thorough grasp of political theory and papal encyclicals — because White is, and he has gone to the trouble of translating the Church’s sometimes loftily-written social doctrine into something more approachable. Although there’s admittedly not much said in this book that hasn’t been said by Augustine, Aquinas or Pope Benedict, it’s the simple way White re-presents the thought of the Church that makes his book worthwhile.
For instance, White helpfully frames civic participation as a “work of love” that seeks what is best for ourselves and those around us, a point returned to repeatedly throughout the book. This is a refreshing description of the core of Catholic social teaching, a compelling counter to contemporary approaches to politics that reduce it to a means of imposing one’s will upon another.
In another passage, White summarizes a key point of Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), quipping that the political role of the laity is to “add meat to the bones” of the Church’s social doctrine by living them out in our everyday lives. Again, no new ground is being covered here. But for those who’ve been previously rebuffed by the seemingly-esoteric language of Church documents, White’s language is clear and straightforward.
Red, White, Blue and Catholic unfolds organically, beginning with the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching, before applying them to specifics. The importance of this cannot be overstated; too often, organizations, even Catholic ones, throw issues and candidates at us, urging us to vote in one way or another, but fail to provide opportunities for deeper catechesis and short-circuit the process of conscience formation.
Like a middle-school algebra teacher urging us to “Show your work!” White makes a point of not just “giving us the answers,” but unpacks the deeper principles, equipping his readers to live out faithful citizenship the whole year.
In the subsequent chapters, the book uses this framework to look at several institutions in contemporary American society, from the family to the courts to the economy. Some may argue that the issues White addresses align more closely with a “conservative agenda,” as challenges like immigration reform and climate change are not substantively addressed.
But to White’s credit, his writing goes beyond the limited scope of left-right political dynamics. In fact, a central point of his book is that the Church’s social teaching must supersede any ideological commitments and that division between the social-justice and the pro-life “wings” of the American Catholic Church is a tragic distortion of the Gospel. “The false divide between orthodox faith and social-justice work is pernicious, a sign of dysfunction in our politics and an obstacle to the evangelical witness of the Church in an era when it is desperately needed,” he comments.
And although he works for a “right-leaning” think tank, White neutralizes accusations of partisanship by identifying some of the errors of movement conservatism, such as when he makes the point that government serves the common good, rebuffing Reaganesque tendencies to view it as, at best, a necessary evil.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Red, White, Blue and Catholic is its emphasis on living out faithful citizenship in ways beyond overt political engagement. This current is found throughout the book, but White devotes the entire final chapter to it, providing concrete ways of putting the Church’s social teaching into practice in our family, parishes, communities and nation.
Initially, this transition from analysis of papal encyclicals to advice as practical as “say please and thank you” and “eat meals together as a family” can seem jarring. But it is only jarring because we’re not used to such connections being made; works that explicitly tie the principles of Catholic social teaching together with eminently practical ways of living them out are, unfortunately, too often absent from the Catholic world.
Which is why Red, White, Blue and Catholic is such a welcome addition. It’s not a screed about voting, nor is it a manifesto for a Catholic utopia. Instead, it’s a work whose aims are more everyday and practical, inspired by simple Christian love more than lofty ideals — appropriately, the same approach that Catholics in the United States are called to take toward citizenship.
Jonathan Liedl is the communications manager
of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
Red, White, Blue and Catholic
By Stephen P. White
101 pages, $12.99
To order: liguori.org