Independence Day Introspection: Catholic Perspectives on America’s Current Political Moment

ROUNDTABLE: Five Catholic thinkers contemplate this challenging moment in American political life.

America turns 247 in 2023.
America turns 247 in 2023. (photo: Unsplash)

As the nation marks Independence Day this year, it does so in the midst of an existential crisis, unsure of its identity, its ideals and its purpose. In this climate (or possibly contributing to it), shared commitments and values that have held American society together for decades no longer seem to work. Polarization and acrimony have set in as defining features, and assumptions about social and political life that went mostly unquestioned yesteryear are now subject to unrelenting scrutiny — with Catholics taking part, if not leading the way.

In particular, liberalism, a broad philosophical outlook that emphasizes individual liberty and has arguably been at the heart of the American experiment, its laws and its institutions, has come under renewed criticism. Catholic critics argue that an overemphasis on individual liberty has supplanted the preeminence of the common good, with some calling for the use of state power to advance Catholic ends, while others propose an alternative practice of Christian politics altogether. Meanwhile, other Catholics argue that the ideals and institutions of liberalism are compatible with — if not conducive to — the Church’s post-conciliar emphasis on human dignity, the rights of conscience and religious freedom.

This debate is as old as America itself.

But as our nation marks its 247th birthday, deep questions about the trajectory of the United States and the political vision needed in this moment seem both more relevant and more unanswered than at any point in recent history.

To help think through this challenging moment in American political life, the Register spoke with five Catholic thinkers with a diversity of views.

Jesuit Father Bill McCormick, ordained to the priesthood on June 10, is a political scientist set to begin assignment at St. John’s College in Belize and is the author of the recently published The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas.

Chad Pecknold is a professor of political theology at The Catholic University of America, with a specialty in the political thought of St. Augustine, and a founding co-editor of The Postliberal Order.

Paul Baumann is the former editor of Commonweal and currently serves as the magazine’s senior writer.

Jacob Imam, an economist, is the executive director of New Polity, based in Steubenville, Ohio.

And Dominican Father James Dominic Rooney, a friar of the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great (Central U.S.), is an assistant professor of philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University.

You’re giving a “State of the Union” address to your fellow Catholics. What’s the 30 second version of it?

FATHER McCORMICK: I am reminded of Ross Douthat’s words on Cormac McCarthy’s recent passing: “a view of the civilized world as a passing thing, enfiladed by shadows, haunted by forces it can deny but not withstand.”

That is not to say we do not live in a period of hope. For we do. As with most decadent societies, the U.S. has many problems, and only we can fix them. In a world seemingly fixated by the primacy of the will over reason, we somehow lack the willpower for the most basic tasks of society, what can make us healthy or happy.

Our problems are fixable. How willing are Catholics to be a part of the solution?

PECKNOLD: Liberalism is a flight from the Catholic ordering of all things. Over the last decade, the world has been experiencing the final crack-up of this fugitive political theology, which was originally, and then progressively, set against the Church and the world in harmony with it.

In the United States, we see the consequences of this war against Christendom in the very civic embrace of a vicious religion of pride, the ruin of many souls, families and nations. To recognize this is to be postliberal — and Catholic.

BAUMANN: It is a commonplace to observe and regret how polarized we are today as a nation. Of course, we as a people have often been at odds with one another. That is, in one sense, the very meaning of individual liberty. Liberal democracy, it is often noted, is a system of government designed to keep the peace among people who are otherwise divided economically, culturally, politically and religiously. Catholics and Protestants were deeply suspicious of one another for much of this nation’s history, a time when Catholics were often cast as the enemy of liberty, democracy and religious pluralism.

Although rightly skeptical of certain aspects of liberal individualism, the Church moved beyond opposition to participatory democracy at the Second Vatican Council, becoming a consistent and powerful advocate for democracy across the globe. It must remain such a force today in the United States, at a time when our governing institutions — especially free and fair elections — are under cynical assault. As the historical struggle with communism reminds us, defending liberal democracy is the best way to safeguard religious freedom.

IMAM: My fellow Americans, we are at the end of a long experiment, during which we have replaced justice with the free market, charity with the welfare state, and human skill with human technology. We gave the experiment our best shot. It did not work.

Our politics, our shared lives with our neighbors, must find a new basis in virtue, rather than in systems; in the Incarnate God, rather than nature’s God.

FATHER ROONEY: The people of the United States are going through a crisis. That crisis manifests itself in drug abuse, violence, widespread selfish tendencies to isolate ourselves (both individual and social), and, most of all, a lack of confidence that the American political project and our way of life has a future.

There are those who look for solutions in using the political system to restrict liberties of those with whom they disagree on fundamental issues, civil and economic, if not also to punish them as “enemies.” This is characteristic of all forms of reactionary politics today, whether progressive or conservative.

To those who see with the eyes of faith, America’s crisis is a crisis not merely of self-confidence, but of conscience. Lovers of Christ can see that what is at stake both in the problems and the proposed solutions: the moral or spiritual heart of America. Our way of life has a future only if we recognize the source of our moral unity lies in a love which extends even to our enemies.

There has long been a sense that Catholics are “politically homeless” in the U.S. landscape, but with polarization at its current peak, it can seem like the choice is between partisanship or political irrelevance. How can U.S. Catholics navigate the dangers of polarization while still fully participating in political life?

FATHER McCORMICK: Catholics are politically homeless. But perhaps in a time when so many feel so disaffected by and disillusioned from any kind of group life, it is also good to recall that we are social and political animals, never mind spiritual and liturgical ones. That’s a truth that humans in principle can know through unaided reason, but in practice do not know in our time.

In many circles, Catholic and otherwise, “polarization” means that a smaller and smaller group of people are arguing about things that are increasingly irrelevant to a larger and larger group of people opting out of the conversation.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, the focus of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, calls us to act in the world. I encourage everyone to read Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build.

PECKNOLD: We have a positive duty, born of the Lord’s great commission to make disciples of all nations, to heal and elevate the temporal order in both word and deed. Since we have a birthright which precedes and transcends both the left-liberal and right-liberal wings of our present disorder, we are actually not politically homeless. Catholics who are well-formed by the laws of the heavenly city must pray and work for the peace of our very troubled country — for even the nations are restless until they rest in God. Catholics have a duty to intercede, to cure, and to govern.

BAUMANN: Liberal democratic institutions are built on the concepts of checks and balances and the necessity of compromise, not the unconditional surrender of the “losers” in any public issue. No political party neatly reflects the values of the Catholic Church, nor are individual Catholics required to arrive at the same practical conclusions on public issues that require prudentially applying the Church’s teaching. As Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray wrote on the separation of church and state and the question of outlawing access to contraception: It is not “the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong.”

Voting usually requires choosing the better of two unsatisfactory options. Catholics can best navigate the dangers of polarization by urging moderation on all parties, especially now that seemingly nonnegotiable issues animate the opposing coalitions. No matter how noble our cause may be, we need to recognize that politics is not about the coercion or reeducation of those with whom we disagree. We must not let our political opponents become our enemies.

IMAM: There is no simple way to participate in a political life that has lost its grounding in reality. As Catholics, our first duty is conversion to Christ and witness: which means a genuine love of our genuine neighbor. We cannot spend the majority of our political lives mediating between two different forms of compromise. Irrelevance within pagan systems may be the price of conversion to Christ.

We must learn to think less in terms of the “issues of the day” and more in terms of what we actually encounter around us. Without such attention and attachment to the way things really are, all political action will reduce to generalized force and become unreal. It may be necessary and prudent, in the meantime, to fight for certain goals within the system, but we shouldn’t treat this as a long-term goal or pin our hopes on it, as we live so as to awaken people to the possibility of an authentic “politics of the real.”

FATHER ROONEY: Faithful Catholics need, above all, discernment to know what is or is not a component of our faith and moral commitments. Much of the confusion in contemporary Catholic political discussion is simply the natural outcome of (what we all acknowledge to be) a history of bad catechesis and widespread, unchecked corruptions of our Catholic faith. Much polarization comes from the fact many people are unsure what actually does constitute a political position that involves rejecting Catholic teaching.

We pastors have failed to do our jobs of providing a clear and unified stance on where those lines should be drawn. In the vacuum that results, confusion reigns. What I suggest is that we all learn to agree that Catholic social teaching by itself does not resolve most of our political debates and that adhering to what the authentic magisterium definitively teaches is a precondition for working together as Catholics to find solutions to political problems.

Catholic critiques of liberalism aren’t new. But in recent years, these critiques have gained renewed prominence, and more Catholics seem to be discussing them than perhaps ever in the past 50 years.

What do you make of the rising prominence of these Catholic critiques of liberalism? Why are we seeing this right now, at this moment in American Catholic history?

FATHER McCORMICK: Critiques of liberalism are as predictable as death and taxes — and perhaps for just as long. Too much that is being rejected as liberal is in fact as old as politics itself. Christians need to be able to distinguish between the transience of regimes and regime forms and the perennial challenges of politics on this side of paradise.

Why now? We live in a spiritually hungry time, and those hungers require genuinely spiritual avenues of fulfillment. But usually they are diverted to mundane activities. Social media and demagogues are playing an ancient game in co-opting those energies.

But St. Augustine would caution us against claiming to have any special insights into the character of our own times.

PECKNOLD: The Catholic Church has condemned “liberalism” in all its forms at every stage of its advance — from the nominalist rebellion against metaphysical realism and the Protestant revolt against Catholic order, to the fugitive social contractualism of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, from the French Reign of Terror to the new American civic religion of pride, the Church has always been clear-eyed about the disordered nature of liberal philosophies.

The reason why these critiques have gained renewed prominence is simply because we are now witnessing the social destruction in a way which can’t be missed. Individualism, even in its Catholic varieties, has led us to a world in which everyone loves their own private preference above anything real or good which is naturally to be shared. This has not made us free, but has driven us to madness, and with our passions gone berserk, what we see is a society not of one tyrant, but many “frustrated tyrants” who each refuse the common good. All skepticism around the common good stems from a fundamental hatred and distrust of God and neighbor. Our people will continue to die deaths of despair, and so will our country die, unless we can give our country a better political vision.

BAUMANN: The current Catholic critiques of liberalism are indeed old and familiar. My best guess is that we are seeing them again because a significant number of Catholics feel the Church is under siege from a militantly secular and morally relativist culture. That is often the case. So, in a sense, the return of “integralism” is repeating the Church’s 19th-century response to the French Revolution, nationalism and popular sovereignty.

In another sense, of course, the Church is under siege, as Mass attendance and vocations evaporate, Catholic marriages decline dramatically, and confessionals remain empty. Unfortunately, much of the damage to the Church has been self-inflicted. Simply blaming the larger culture won’t put the Church’s house in order.

IMAM: Liberalism is a false narrative about who the human person is. As a result, people never believed liberalism because it was true: They devoted themselves to it because of what it promised.

Liberalism said that it could bring us to prosperity; instead, we have created a global system with the greatest wealth gap in history. It promised us dominion; we now rent everything — our homes, memories, even the ability to navigate our own hometowns — from tech billionaires. Liberalism promised us peace; but instead we have found ourselves in a state of constant war. Liberalism promised us unity; see your question about our polarized society. While the popes of the 19th century critiqued liberalism because it was a pretense, a falsehood, the laity of the 21st century critique it because it is not making good on its promises.

FATHER ROONEY: What critics often mean by “liberalism” is this attitude: “If he doesn’t hurt you, what business is it of yours?” “Liberalism” becomes a catch-all for indifference to the common good, i.e., what is really good for all. In their overreaction, critics see this attitude as central to the American way of life and institutions. But the crisis is real. The changes over the past decades involving contentious moral issues, e.g., abortion, gay marriage, and minors “transitioning” to another gender, inspire fierce debate, as advocates of these changes argue that not to provide these services would be to violate human or constitutional rights. On both sides of the issues, many have come to believe that the power of the government is being unfairly used against them to promote moral views with which they disagree. Some become cynical and argue that there is no fair/unfair use of power aside from promoting the correct moral/political views. This cynical perspective appeals to many who see no serious hope for political change. Catholics are among these.

What do you make of the arguments being made by Catholic critics of liberalism? Both the critiques, but also proposed alternatives?

PECKNOLD: There are many Catholics who have sounded the alarm about liberalism for a long time. Most encouraging to me is the fact that a new generation of young Catholics now take the critique as axiomatic, as self-evident just by looking around at the moral carnage. In this sense, the liberal Catholics — those who defend the compatibility of liberalism and Catholicism, whether on the left or right side of the liberal ledger — are no longer ascendant. That’s a very hopeful sign, in my view.

The difficulty lies in the patience to think creatively together about a way out. There have been a range of systemic solutions proposed around localism, around law, around the common good, around executive and legislative power — all of which have great merit — but there has been an unfortunate amount of jockeying for dominance in finding a common vision for America which is harmonious. Those who find themselves on “the new right” need each other, and they should avoid in-fighting, and work together on concrete initiatives that reverse our despair.

BAUMANN: There is a good deal of truth in the critiques of the excesses and false promises of expressive individualism. Unfortunately, there is little of promise in the proposed alternatives, which fail to deal with the fundamental value Americans now place on personal autonomy. The sources of authority — including the Church — that once shaped American life no longer compel obedience. There is a strong strain of libertarianism in the nation’s DNA, and it has been given greater legitimacy by the impersonal and disruptive modern economy.

I don’t like the culture’s denigration of solidarity and community much more than do its integralist critics, but uprooting it would require the sort of intrusive government action that many rightly fear as despotic. You can’t take Catholic concepts like the natural law and the “common good” and simply graft them onto such a disparate polity. The graft won’t take in a pluralistic society — one embraced by most Catholics — that abjures such comprehensive visions.

IMAM: The critiques range from luminous to dubious. Most of the proposals attempt to keep systems generated by liberals and just put Catholics in charge. Christian politics is about moving away from the systems approach (the technocratic paradigm, as the popes call it) and toward the virtue approach to politics.

FATHER ROONEY: I cannot speak for all parties. But I find “post-liberal” or “integralist” Catholic criticisms of the American system unpersuasive. The American system makes it hard to force our neighbors to do what we want not because it assumes nothing really matters, but because individual freedom is part of what is good for us (as both the Founders and our Church acknowledge).

The critics fundamentally disagree with the American system because it puts everyone in charge. Critics look cynically at their enemies’ ability to use the government in ways they think are harmful and conclude people would not reliably do what is good for them if we were allowed to govern ourselves. They think the common good demands excluding citizens with the bad views from voting. They are wrong. It is simply false that free people are incapable of governing themselves or of following Christ and his law voluntarily. Putting everyone in charge is practically to recognize that everyone is unreliable and affected by sin — nobody has a monopoly on truth.

Concretely, what are things that ordinary Catholics can do to start engaging in American political life in a manner more consistent with the mind of the Church? And who’s a model of this approach, dead or alive, that you could highlight for our readers?

FATHER McCORMICK: Recover the virtue of prudence. A Christian must ask: What am I able and willing to do given who I am, where I am, who I am with?

In an age where the ends of the human person and social order are questioned more than ever, what we sorely lack is the cultivation of the kind of prudence that allows us to live out our lives toward their ends.

There are too many theoretical assertions about politics, e.g., that meaningful changes must come from below or must come from above. Yes, we need some people to think more locally, and others need to think more top-down. But it’s in the Catholic tradition, as Heinrich Rommen explains better than most, that we recognize the invaluable role of prudence in political life, and that through prudence we come to see that there are many valuable avenues of thought and action that synthetically bring us closer to something like peace and justice.

PECKNOLD: I’m inspired by a number of concrete examples of ordinary Catholics who are interceding in politics as agents of the heavenly city. The first person that comes to mind is Tom McFadden, a faithful Catholic father of 11 who works at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He’s running for the local school board to protect his kids and his neighbors’ kids from the vicious legislation of immorality which has swept through the American educational system.

You need Catholics like that who are willing to intercede, to act sacrificially, to govern. We do not need millions. If we had just 10,000 men like Tom McFadden, working at every level of governance, local, state and federal, we’d either be martyred for the right reasons, or we’d have a better country — and with God’s help, those are both very good and very possible outcomes.

BAUMANN: The Church has several “minds,” at least as far as American Catholics are concerned. It has one “mind” on abortion and euthanasia; another on the profoundly un-American idea of the “universal destination of goods.” These values are not easily reconciled. I don’t think a “model” of such an approach has been found yet. For the vast majority of American Catholics, Dorothy Day is not the answer, but neither is Richard John Neuhaus or Patrick Deneen. Perhaps the answer will come from the laity. Now, that would be a real miracle.

IMAM: If the magisterial critique of liberalism is to be taken seriously, we must have a patient outlook. We must look to our own lives to see where we have replaced human responsibility with mechanisms. Liberalism has made the most mass-conformist society in history. The only solution to that is through a genuine knowledge of neighbor and commitment to building customs based upon fidelity to each other.

Those of us in political office must fight for the liberation of the real and for authentic consensus. Those of us without such recognized power must focus more on what is truly in our power. For example, Pope St. John Paul II said that all investments are “a moral and cultural choice” (Centesimus Annus, 36), and Pope Francis has said that every purchase is a moral decision (Laudato Si, 206). As far as models, we’re currently doing a podcast series on “political saints” that you can check out on our YouTube channel.

FATHER ROONEY: From my perspective, three authors have the timeliest perspective for today: John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain and Joseph Ratzinger.

Newman was a fierce critic of theological liberalism (roughly, the view that nothing you believe could affect your salvation). Indifference to the truth of Christianity or morality is just as prevalent in our time. His clear arguments about the duty of obedience to the voice of truth, to form our consciences in line with reality and God’s Word, help us respond to views that moral/religious disagreement does not matter, as long as one is sincere.

Maritain’s perspective was that we are called to build a modern Christendom through efforts to build consensus on what matters, on moral and spiritual truths, and through voting.

Ratzinger was a defender of the role of the Church in directing the public (not merely private) conscience. Religious freedom is a freedom for the Church in its pastors and faithful together to influence the political life of society. The Christian faith is the truth about what matters for us all.