Much has been made of the “tea party” movement in the United States, but not a lot has been said about a question it raises for Catholics: In what ways — if any at all — is “tea partying” an appropriate activity for a Catholic American citizen?
There are many difficulties in thinking through the soundness of the tea-party movement, but perhaps the hardest is simply that there are many “tea parties” out there, and many of them are protesting or standing for different things. As I understand them, “tea party” movements are local, or grassroots, organizations of men and women united by their concern about the expansion of government and the rise of taxation.
The proliferation of different “tea parties” may already be a sign that there is really nothing to fear, and perhaps something to embrace. Grassroots political organizations are not only compatible with Catholic social doctrine; Catholic social doctrine welcomes and requires political participation.
Indeed, we should count as a strength of the American political system precisely the space it creates for local political organizations. Political systems that don’t allow such space — and which we can justly call “authoritarian” or “totalitarian” — were the great challenges of the prior century. We should welcome any political activity organized to check the tendency toward expansion that characterizes modern nations. I think this is exactly Pope Benedict’s point, missed in many commentaries, in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), when he exhorts us to re-evaluate the state’s public authorities. “Once the role of public authorities has been more clearly defined,” he writes, “one could foresee an increase in the new forms of political participation, nationally and internationally, that have come about through the activity of organizations operating in civil society; in this way it is to be hoped that the citizens’ interest and participation in the res publica will become more deeply rooted.”
For more than a century, Catholic social doctrine has had as one of its goals the emboldening of civil society. Civil society is that uncoerced space within society, distinct from the institutions of state, family and the market. Since Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum (Capital and Labor) and elsewhere, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized the need to protect and grow civil society: A good and harmonious society requires a robust civil society where men and women meet to pursue, define and deliberate about ideas and interests. Again, to the extent that tea parties express robust American civil society, and to the extent they contribute to that robustness, they are worthy and apt institutions to commit time and energy to.
That said, there are also potential dangers associated with such movements. Let’s signal two of particular consequence. First, of course, is the danger that one inordinately pursues the achievement of this or that political organization, be it a “tea party” movement, the Democratic or Republican Parties, the U.S. or any other political grouping. The language of “inordinate” is intentional — and should alert us to an Augustinian point: There is only one institution worthy of our unconditional love, and that is the Church as the body of Christ.
Second, we must be careful not to unintentionally embolden the state. I don’t mean by this just that the state will respond defensively against an apparent threat (though that very well could happen). I mean instead that we’ll create within ourselves dispositions that incline us to think more of political goals than should be thought and that the state (or any other political institution) has more control of us than it does.
Joseph E. Capizzi is associate professor of moral theology
at The Catholic University of America in Washington.