My colleague, Jana Bennett, has offered a nice list of lessons from the election season. Her attention to the complex of issues out there is excellent. In this spirit, I’d like to augment her list by considering four lessons we might learn in our present situation, lessons that are a bit more “meta”:
Catholic theological distinctions becoming political ideology. Our site and others certainly had a busy time debating the finer points of phrases like subsidiarity, prudential judgment, intrinsic evil, and option for the poor. Unfortunately, the pattern of misuse seems to be similar in all cases: a temptation to take the language and make it conform to policy programs from one party or another. The desire for relevance (a questionable one – see below) quickly sends the language on holiday. Bishops and theologians both have primary responsibility to the integrity of the Catholic moral tradition, not to partisanship.
The unresolved problem of natural law teaching in a pluralist society. These confusions sometimes come, I think, because we are avoiding a much larger and messier question, of how teachings that are typically understood to be natural law teachings are to be articulated in a pluralist society. To many “plain persons” (both Catholics and non-Catholics), Catholic interventions seem mysterious because they so often seem to be attempts to use religious beliefs and language in what people think to be the pluralist public square. Worse, we also encounter those who want to use such language in the public square, but do not have a natural law understanding. Indeed, these “allies” (i.e. evangelicals) do not even accept Catholic natural law teaching on issues like divorce and contraception, but then common cause is made with them on other issues. Nowhere is this issue going to be more central than the question of same-sex marriage, and especially the relation of this issue to others (like abortion and euthanasia) where there is far more of a likelihood for the natural law tradition to receive a thorough public hearing. My concern is that we really have not done much to develop better ways of helping people understand natural law, not in the specific sense of particular teachings, but in the broader sense of a robust moral realism (a loaded term which I don’t like much, but it will do here) that can give us moral confidence without imposing a “religious” unity. As the fringes of both parties drift toward relativism and fideism, there is plenty of room for Catholics to offer natural law as something much needed. But we won’t be able to do so effectively if natural law simply becomes “the imposed teaching of authority.”
The irrelevance of Catholicism and the lack of a centered vision. “The Catholic vote” gets a lot of play, but for the second election in a row, Catholic voters virtually mirrored the national outcome. We have Catholics (very different) as vice-presidential candidates on both tickets. We have Catholics (very different) in charge of both parties in the House. We have a Catholic majority (not a united one) on the Supreme Court. Does identification as “Catholic” mean anything in terms of public philosophy?? Or does it just happen to be the case that we are a massive, diverse religious body, where self-identification sometimes continues even in the absence of much practice? I think we face two problems here which it would be fruitful to confront. The first is that our strength is also our downfall: our rich traditions of spirituality and our central focus on the sacramental and liturgical life make it easy to keep the “two Cities” separated. The reuniting of spirituality, liturgy, and moral theology – a big hope of the Council, in order to overcome both ritualism and legalism – has not yet taken much of a hold. The second is a tendency to approach social and moral issues one by one – the “non-negotiables” approach of the Right, or even the “laundry list of principles” approach of Faithful Citizenship – rather than try to develop a robust public philosophy of Catholicism. We have the resources for this public philosophy: it is called “solidarity,” and the last thirty years of social encyclicals – especially Caritas in Veritate, with its desire to bring together sexual, economic, environmental, and technological issues – have given us plenty of things to do. “Solidarity,” of course, could easily become language on holiday. But it promises something else, too: an approach to public life that genuinely, and for deep philosophical and theological reasons, resists the fragmentation that is becoming endemic in our society. There is a hunger for unity on both sides of the political spectrum – one may be nostalgic, and one may be a bit utopian – and the right language for this would be a more fully developed understanding of solidarity, which would influence not only the beliefs but the practical style of the increasing number of Catholics in political life.
The Democratic Party has a problem on sex, and the Republican Party has a problem on corporations (and the other party isn’t much better). “Solidarity” is really the uplifting center of a Catholic public philosophy. Its edge has to be its ability to be prophetic: to point out crucial issues that no one is willing to speak of, especially within a particular party. I think it is obvious what these problems are, because each party plays a bit of “pretend” in their rhetoric. On the Republican side, there is a rose-colored vision of free enterprise that seems not the least bit interested in challenging corporate power. John McCain, in his “maverick” mode, saw that corporate money was a huge problem. Dwight Eisenhower was unafraid to warn us about “the military-industrial complex.” Richard Nixon founded the EPA. If their vision of subsidiarity is to be a real one in any way, it has to call into question corporate power. On the Democratic side, the issue that will not speak its name is sex – because at the end of the day, abortion is an issue about sexual freedom, and the ongoing challenge of same-sex marriage is likely to be how to understand a legal relationship whose definition is now more or less entirely privatized. But the inability to speak about sex (and its extension, the family) goes much further. Familial breakdown is real, and it is a large-scale social problem, and it is much more of a scourge now in lower-income brackets. Sexual discipline and fidelity is a difficult, demanding task, but one that makes a huge difference in outcomes of education, psychological health, and economic success. Now, of course, the trick here is that the “other party” is not much better on these issues! Democrats have hardly been real tough on “the military-industrial complex” in the last few years. And Republicans, when they do talk about sex… well, they ought to stop talking, if yesterday’s outcomes in Indiana and Missouri are any indication. Catholics are in a fine position to bring up these really important, pervasive issues that too often seem to come down to consensual sex or consensual markets.
These four things are ongoing projects of clarification which would serve both Church and our society well – far better than the current tendency to reproduce the polarized political discourse in the ecclesial realm. Catholics as a Body should be a sacrament to the world. To me, the story of last night’s election is best seen in the New York Times map – not of the country (it always looks so red), but of the “size of lead” in each county. The map is pretty telling, I think, about what divides us – hundreds and hundreds of tiny little red dots (and a few red centers), and less than a dozen regions of huge, blue circles. The size of the circle represents not the margin of victory, but the sheer numerical lead. Catholics in fact are present and active in the red dots and in the big blue circles – these are worlds which seem fragmented and locked in deathly conflict. A politics of Catholic solidarity, well-thought-out, sufficiently provocative, full of conviction, yet notably non-partisan: how about we try THAT out to witness and to sow seeds of peace amidst this discord?