How to Build a Healthy Political Culture in America

If Catholic colleges want to help build a healthy political culture in America, they need to shed their political correctness and find conviction.

The interior of the Oratory at Ave Maria University in Florida
The interior of the Oratory at Ave Maria University in Florida (photo: Photo credit: Fr. James Bradley, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis Says We’re Too ‘Politicized’

Last month in the heat of the presidential campaign, Pope Francis indicated his dismay about the quality of the candidates and Americans’ depth of understanding of political issues.

Offering a “theoretical” response to a reporter’s question about the Trump-Clinton race, the Pope said on October 2, “When a country has two, three or four candidates who are unsatisfactory, it means that the political life of that country is perhaps overly ‘politicized’ but lacking in a political culture.”

For comparison he pointed to unnamed Latin American countries where people embrace political parties “for emotional reasons, without thinking clearly about the fundamentals, the proposals.”

The solution, he suggested, lies partly with our Catholic colleges. “One of the tasks of the Church and of higher education is to teach people to develop a political culture,” said the Holy Father.

I often find myself seeking a reliable interpreter for remarks made by Pope Francis, and his criticism of America being overly politicized but “lacking in a political culture” is no exception. And since my work at The Cardinal Newman Society promotes faithful Catholic education, I am also intrigued that the Holy Father would suggest that Catholic colleges are partly responsible for building a political culture. What does it all mean?

I consulted a faithful Catholic scholar in political science, Dr. Stephen Krason at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, who also serves as president of the national Society of Catholic Social Scientists and is author of the recent book, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians.

I also communicated with James Towey, president of Ave Maria University, who has a long history of working with Catholic apostolates (including direct service with Saint Mother Teresa), was head of Florida’s health and human services department, and served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Healthy Culture Doesn’t Coerce or Suppress

To be clear, neither expert claims any certainty about what Pope Francis himself meant in his October 2 interview. But they agreed to help me shed some light on the claim that America is overly politicized without a healthy political culture, and how a Catholic college might contribute to building such a culture.

“A healthy political culture doesn’t indoctrinate, coerce or suppress, but instead welcomes and respects divergent opinion and beliefs,” Towey suggested. But he didn’t think that’s been America’s recent experience under the Obama administration.

“The United States is leaving an eight-year period where religious liberty and the rights of faith-based institutions, including those within higher learning, have been under constant, coercive attack,” Towey said. “America’s culture has become contaminated with a political correctness that now seems to strive to equate the words of Sacred Scripture with ‘hate speech.’”

Krason blamed “the ascendant leftist ideology, which has politicized virtually everything as it has turned away from the transcendent and sought to remake American life according to its grievously flawed vision.”

This, he said, is particularly apparent within the Democrat Party.

“It seems like one can’t be a Democrat without accepting in toto the ruling leftist ideology—probably because of the hold of rigid leftist interest groups on the Democratic Party and the fact that they and their followers provide so much of the funding,” he said.

But it goes beyond political partisanship to the culture itself, which is becoming increasingly hostile to Catholic values and practices.

“If you follow your faith beliefs and speak out on traditional marriage and family values or the so-called ‘gender rights movement,’ or if you don’t follow the script on global warming and pro-choice policies and refuse to march in the ‘armies of contraception,’ then you find yourself assailed as religious bigots, as hateful, as opposed to woman’s rights, and so forth,” Towey said.  “That is not American, that kind of political correctness run amok.”

Instead, Krason said, a healthy political culture “would adhere to natural law and the traditional role of the political, which understands its centrality but does not allow it to consume and shape everything.”

Such a culture should be rooted in “basic moral principles” but have “a commonsensical, realist view about man, culture, and the political,” Krason said. It ought to “rely on human experience as its reference point, in a Burkean fashion,” and reject attempts “to implant ideology.” That’s what the American Left is doing, he warned, “increasingly in the manner of the French Revolutionaries.”

Looking to Catholic Colleges

So what can a Catholic college do about that? Ave Maria University has opted for a strong voice on issues that are important to the Church—especially resisting any sort of political or government coercion.

“People of faith have a right to be in the public square and influence the culture,” Towey insisted, while acknowledging intense opposition. “Those who champion mandatory political correctness and the orthodoxy of radical secularism will continue to try to banish devout Catholics and people of faith and stifle their influence.”

Whereas much of American higher education has been captured by political correctness, “Catholic colleges and universities aren’t called to conform to this nonsense but instead oppose it,” Towey said. He noted his university’s court fight against President Obama’s “HHS mandate” for contraceptive and sterilization coverage in health plans—a fight that in Catholic higher education has been left almost entirely to financially challenged but faithfully Catholic colleges in our Newman Guide, while nearly all large Catholic universities have never filed suit.

“Catholic colleges and universities—the very places where faith and reason intersect and inspire the hearts and minds of our youth—need to be at the forefront of the effort to shape a healthy political culture that is faith-friendly, worthy of human dignity, and consistent with our country’s noble history and values,” Towey said.

This occurs especially within the classroom. Krason believes that Catholic colleges should strive to “teach again sound philosophy and a political science based on it, and renew the notion of scholarship as aiming for the truth and a social science that makes conclusions according to the facts and evidence and also doesn’t pretend that one can or should be value-free.”

In essence, he said, it’s “a restoration of the liberal arts.”

“Catholic colleges and universities need to get back to the highest tradition of the liberal arts, where truth matters,” Krason said.  “The right training of the mind will result in a better politics for and by the future citizens and leaders.”

Within political science, Krason recommended grounding programs in “sound realist philosophy, including sound ethics” and that colleges “teach Catholic social teaching” so that it is “permeated throughout much of their social science curriculum.”

All of this, however, first requires a renewal of fidelity and Catholic identity in most of America’s Catholic colleges. It doesn’t help, Krason said, if a Catholic college teaches philosophy the way secular institutions do—“just an exposure to different philosophical schools, with philosophy not seen as involving truths that reason can discern.” Likewise, Catholics shouldn’t be teaching political science “without a sound philosophical foundation, embodying an empiricism outlook, not paying any more attention to the forming of good citizens than they do the forming of the good human person.”

In other words, Catholic colleges “can’t help transform culture for the better—especially by helping to rightly form the students who are in their charge—when they are operating from the same flawed premises that the secular institutions are,” Krason said.

I wholeheartedly agree. If the Holy Father’s wish is that Catholic colleges will help build a healthy political culture in America, many of them need to first shed their obvious and often coercive political correctness and then find the conviction that undergirds Ave Maria University and other such faithful institutions.

It’s the graduates of such strongly Catholic colleges who will bring the sort of hope and change that is meaningful and good for America.