Catholics’ Primary Politics

COMMENTARY: How we organize ourselves socially and politically is not a spiritual irrelevance for the Christian and the Gospel does indeed have deep political implications.

In many ways the divide is made even more intractable because as Americans we tend to place an almost messianic importance on our political decisions.
In many ways the divide is made even more intractable because as Americans we tend to place an almost messianic importance on our political decisions. (photo: Amanda Wayne / Shutterstock)

The midterm elections are now in our rearview mirror. And after much political agitation and debate the results show what I expected them to show. Namely, that America continues to be a nation almost evenly divided politically. Since most of my friends are some version of what we can call, for want of a better term, “conservative” Catholics I have heard a lot of comments that lamented the fact that the Republican wave that so many expected did not happen. Conversely, my more “liberal” Catholic friends were elated and opined that perhaps now we can finally put the Trump “scourge” behind us. Emotions are running high on both sides of the political divide with a lot of heated rhetoric, the consequence of which is the ginning-up the acrimony to a fever pitch. 

In many ways the divide is made even more intractable because as Americans we tend to place an almost messianic importance on our political decisions. I remember being in London in 2008 when Obama was elected president and the Americans I encountered there (and not a few Londoners) were euphoric and giddy with delight. They gushed with exuberance as if the Kingdom of God had finally arrived. And eight years later, with America largely unchanged, Obama retired from the presidency a millionaire and built his own version of Mar-a-Lago in Hawaii.

The president of “Si se puede!” (Yes we can!) is now just one more wealthy former president with a mixed legacy. So much for the “Obama as messiah” motif. But hey, being a messiah is hard work and eventually you need the respite that only a gated mansion on a tropical beach can bring. I am being sarcastic, of course, but the point is a cautionary one about putting halos on our preferred political actors and horns on those we oppose.

G.K. Chesterton once described America as a “nation with the soul of a church” and by that he meant that since America has no established religion, the nation as such, has taken on the role of chief moral arbiter, with the government, rather than any church, viewed as the glue that holds the society together and molds its dominant values. In this vision, America, as Ronald Reagan often said, is a “nation set on a hill” and set apart for a special divine mission in the world. 

American exceptionalism is the eschatological theology of this “church” with the U.S. Constitution held up as a quasi-scriptural reality second only to the Bible. And maybe not always second. The churches fit into this Americanist scheme as mere subsidiary aids in that process inculcating in the citizenry the virtues required for self-governance and war-making when “necessary.” This is why we place a messianic significance in our politics because we have too often conflated the Kingdom of God with Manifest Destiny. 

And let me bring in a bit of autobiography here to make my point. I am now 64 years old and I cannot recall a single presidential or midterm election that wasn’t hyped as “the most important election of our lifetime!” Every single election has been portrayed as an epoch-changing event the consequences of which will either save us or destroy us, depending on your point of view. 

Politics is important, of course, since we are inherently social animals and God created us to live as creatures oriented to love and to have a deep moral and spiritual concern for one another. I am my brother’s keeper and we will be judged based on what we did for the least among us. Therefore, how we organize ourselves socially and politically is not a spiritual irrelevance for the Christian and the Gospel does indeed have deep political implications. Furthermore, there are some issues more important than others from a Gospel perspective — life and family issues, for example — and Catholics have a moral obligation to prioritize their political decisions accordingly. So yes, politics is important.

But as important as the processes of electoral politics are, there is a broader sense of the word “politics” that has a deep resonance within important elements of the Church’s tradition. And that is the politics of culture building, which begins with a rejuvenation of Catholic community life on the local parish level — parish by parish, school by school, brick by local brick — and which seeks to create pockets or islands of a deep and profound Catholic culture that can in turn form the laity to go out into the world as changed Christians who can live the life of holiness and give witness to Christ wherever they may be. Because short of such a conversion, and short of a cultural renewal, the winds of secularity will continue to blow against us in both cultural and political ways. 

It has been said that electoral politics is downstream of culture, which means, simply, that ultimately the coloration of our politics will look very similar to the general ethos of the culture. And in a democracy such as ours you will be hard-pressed to find a politician who can win elections if he or she is upstream of the dominant culture in significant ways. 

Take abortion, for example, and look at how many supposedly pro-life Republicans ran away as fast as they could from the issue in the midterms. What this shows is that even after Roe v. Wade was overturned, if a majority of Americans still want legal abortion then we will have legal abortion. My goodness, even “Red State” Montana voted down legal protections for infants born alive after botched abortions. And Red State Kansas had previously voted down a referendum that would have made most abortions illegal. 

I am not saying that we should stop fighting for pro-life causes in the political sphere. This is not an “either-or” situation but a “both-and” situation. But if we adopt the same messianic attitude toward electoral politics that is now the reigning motif — the politicization and commodification of absolutely everything — and ignore the fact that more often than not it is culture that shapes politics rather than the reverse, then we will ultimately fail at both culture building and electoral politics. In pursuing the latter at the expense of the former, we lose both.

St. Augustine is instructive here in important ways. Living during the era of the demise of the Roman Empire he faced the pastoral reality of many pagan Romans blaming Christianity for the fall of the empire, as well as a deep fear among many Christians that all of it represented a huge calamity that portended the end of the world. In other words, both the pagans and the Christians viewed the fall of the empire in apocalyptic categories. 

In response, he penned The City of God, which, among many other things, scoped-out a broader view of history — a view in many ways that was “beyond” the proximate politics of his time — that affirmed the fact that there are only two basic impulses that guide the human landscape, both personal and social. On the one hand, you have those who are oriented toward the love of God who comprise the “City of God” and on the other hand you have those who are oriented toward purely worldly concerns characterized by the libido dominandi (the will to power), which he called “The City of Man.” And it is the primary concern of Catholics, as well as the Church, to energize the former while combatting the latter. 

In our time today — an era marked by Church scandals that have seriously eroded the Church’s cultural and political credibility — perhaps it is time to revisit the notion that Catholics’ primary “politics,” and the Church’s, is that of the creation of countercultural resistance via the path of a renewed effort to clean out the Church’s fetid stalls and to engage in a revolution of holiness. And to also point out that electoral politics is a penultimate and not an ultimate reality. For Catholics and the Catholic Church, only Christ is ultimate and the holiness to which he calls us.