America Needs to Want a Catholic Politics

Catholics need to offer something simple, radical and real — and something that can transform hearts and change what Americans want.

Ross Douthat (l), Matthew Walther (c) and Paul Baumann (r) participate in an Oct. 13 panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.
Ross Douthat (l), Matthew Walther (c) and Paul Baumann (r) participate in an Oct. 13 panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. (photo: Institute for Human Ecology/YouTube Screenshot)

“Does America need a Catholic politics?”

Or, in other words, does our broken political landscape, divided between two rival emphases of the same liberal individualism, need the healing balm of communal solidarity and personal dignity offered by the Church’s social application of the teachings of Jesus Christ? 

That was ostensibly the topic question at an Oct. 13 panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. 

But the answer to this query seems to be so obviously “yes!” that the participants — which included New York Times columnist Ross Douthat as moderator, and The Lamp’s Matthew Walther and Commonweal’s Paul Baumann as discussants — instead spent the hour and half focusing on a far more difficult pair of questions:

Does America even want a Catholic politics? And are American Catholics even in a position to provide it?

Walther, whose July column in the Times sparked the whole discussion, played the role of youthful idealist — internet meme references and all — arguing that a silent majority of Americans are hungry for the kind of socially conservative, fiscally moderate/liberal policies that applied Catholic social tradition tends to align with.

Baumann, who was invited to continue the dialogue he started with Walther in a previously written piece, played the role of seasoned naysayer, suggesting that he’s been “drilling that hole” of advancing a coherent Catholic politics in American public life for 30 years, but continually coming up empty. “Don’t get me wrong,” he quipped, “it’s an exploration worth pursuing. Just don’t expect to hit a geyser.”

Whereas Walther suggested that the “ideological bifurcation” of the American public into one of two brands of libertarianism — social or economic — is a machination of party elites against the true desires of the people, Baumann countered that it simply reflects the reality of the deeply individualist motivations of most Americans. While Walther argued that “people want some kind of wholesome order brought to bear on their lives” and find solidarity appealing, Baumann pointed to how unwilling most of us are to make a meaningful sacrifice for something beyond ourselves and our interests. 

Listening to a recorded version of the event, I found myself more convinced by Baumann’s diagnosis, a sign perhaps that I’m getting wiser, more apathetic, or maybe both. It doesn’t seem like Americans are just waiting for someone to offer the type of communitarian politics prescribed by the Church. For instance, identity politics, which seems to be filling the space where a politics of communion could go, actually undermines true communion by using “smaller belongings” — race, country of origin, sex — as tools to attack the “larger belonging” of shared humanity, all to carve out power and preserve interests. As Douthat put it, there seems to be a whole lot of “operational libertarianism” beneath the surface of “this inchoate yearning for solidarity.”

Any attempt to advance a Catholic politics in such a climate primarily from the top down — as the integralist approach seems hellbent on doing — often seems more like ahistorical fantasy than politics grounded in realism, incapable of gaining any truly transformative traction.

Therefore, the most interesting moments of the IHE conversation had less to do with politics — at least on the national stage — and more to do with culture. I’ve given up thinking there’s an objective answer to which is “downstream” of the other, but one at least seems more organic and more accessible to a population of Catholic social teaching adherents that has no real access to the levers of power that shape national politics.

In fact, as the panelists pointed out, the last time there was a genuine Catholic politics that could contribute to American political life it was because there was a genuine Catholic culture. The Catholic politics prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s directly flowed out of a strong Catholic ethos, a communal reality in which the social teachings of the Church could make sense and from which they could be presented coherently. 

Walther, for instance, held up Father Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things, as a model of this unified Catholic social ethic — not the Neuhaus of later years who championed the Iraq War, but the younger Neuhaus who protested the Vietnam War and then turned his ire against abortion (ironically, before he became Catholic).

For a lot of reasons, that unified Catholic culture — the kind that produced the likes of the late Bob Casey Sr. or even Rep. Dan Lipinski, the most recent pro-life Democrat to be cannibalized by his own party — has dissolved. With Catholic unity lost as affluence and societal acceptance was gained, the social vision of most Catholics has come to be defined most fundamentally by ideology. 

Instances of this bizzarro split — for instance, the way a Pope Francis press conference is covered by different Catholic media outlets as if they were at completely separate events where the Holy Father read completely different remarks — would be funny if it weren’t such a shameful scandal, a counter-witness to the faith. And as Baumann put it, “Without a coherent and unified Catholic culture, there can’t be much Catholic contribution to politics.”

The speakers touched on the need for a revitalized Catholic culture in the context of Catholic politics — Walther, for instance, spoke of the need to make political appeals to people with an expanded lexicon, a framing that appealed more to the imagination and the heart than merely the pocketbook. 

But Baumann laid out the most practical proposals when he spoke of pursuing a “generational repair” of the Catholic vision, through small steps, at places like the local parish — where, when he faces temptations to ignore the poor or envy the wealthy, he can go “to be reminded of what my real responsibilities are. 

Baumann’s practical, incarnational wisdom reminds me of the brilliant list of down-to-earth “idle suggestions for doing Christian politics” shared by Marc Barnes at the end of the New Polity conference this past March, such as having fireworks for every local wedding and extending godparent invitations beyond family and close friends. It also reminds me of the paramount need to rediscover intentional communal living, the theme of 2022’s Symposium on Transforming Culture at Benedictine College.

But most of all, it reminds me of the ordinary radicality of the new Catholic Worker house that’s just sprung up in my corner of Minneapolis, started by Duke divinity-educated converts animated by “a philosophy so old that it looks like new.” 

The initial steps taken by the two families who make up the “house” might not appear extraordinary — moving into homes with adjacent backyards, tearing down the fence, building a chapel, and inviting anyone and everyone for prayer and dinner two times a week. The dinners are anything but fancy — you’re literally invited into the midst of these families’ ordinary lives, complete with dirty hands and droves of kids under 12 running around the yard.

But it’s the fact that they’ve done something in a world (and a Catholic intelligentsia!) so dominated by legless ideas and empty words that’s stuck with me, haunted me, ever since my first visit. 

I don’t have many ideas about what it looks like to revitalize Catholic culture and unity, and therefore our capacity to offer a Catholic politics. But I know it needs to be something like that. Something simple, something radical, something real. Something not only that America needs, but that can transform hearts and change what Americans want.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

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