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gty_church_Cross_thg_120119_wblogFor more than 1500 years the Church was a major influence on Western politics. That is how it should be. Ultimate standards matter, and if the Church does not explain what they are and how to apply them someone else will. It is not an improvement when her authority gives way to that of journalists, advertisers, TV producers, cultural entrepreneurs, and “ethicists.”

That is what has happened, though. Catholic social doctrine and the political views of the hierarchy have become a minor consideration even for the great majority of Catholics, who vote as other people do and in response to the same concerns. As a result, the political influence of the Church is gone except in special situations like communist Poland, where she served as a focus of national resistance to foreign domination.

Elsewhere, and especially in the West, she seems to have less and less power of leadership or even resistance. She feels ever less entitled to give offense, and can’t proclaim her teachings without doing so, so she falls silent. Nonetheless, she still wants to play a public role, so she has tried to stay in the game by cooperating with more influential players and identifying herself with their projects. Thus, Church leaders have lined up behind causes such as the UN, the EU, various social welfare schemes, relaxation of restrictions on immigration, and so on. The “servant church” has become a servant of others’ causes.

In some ways there appears to be a solid basis for such cooperation. Both the Church and the main tendencies of modern secular politics want a society that brings humanity into a coherent whole that eliminates conflict, fosters cooperation, and is concerned for the worldly needs of each member. So why should not everyone join together to bring that about?

The problem is that evil systems also share those goals. The communists supported them, the rulers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World supported them, and ISIS supports them. Basic principles matter, man does not live by bread alone, and the Church should be very careful when she gives her support to political projects whose leaders are not guided by a Catholic or even humane vision. We need to think politically, and ask who is being empowered and what system of things we are helping to bring into existence.

Politics today is extremely ambitious. The abolition of transcendent standards in favor of technology and human will give it an ultimate significance it never had in the past. Projects such as the EU and the Affordable Car Act are part of a movement of comprehensive social reconstruction—“Hope and Change”—that serves our rulers as a religion. That movement is based on an understanding of man and the world that rejects human nature, natural law, and any transcendent standard in favor of Choice, otherwise known as the Triumph of the Will.

The result is that we live in a world that is evolving less toward the Cosmic Christ than the Worldly Antichrist. The goals at home in mainstream politics today are profoundly anti-Catholic and anti-human, and leave little place for the social teaching of the Church. To support them is to support evil, so cooperation requires extreme caution. Even great successes of the Church’s worldly engagement, such as the fall of the communist regime in Poland, have turned out a decidedly mixed blessing. Poland is now assimilating to liberal EU norms, with mass attendance dropping and doctors getting fired for refusal to perform abortions.

So it seems unwise for the Church today, at least in the Western countries of which I am primarily speaking, to sign on to mainstream political projects. Such a change in approach would be painful from the standpoint of common moral sensibilities, since many things mainstream movements aim at look good and it seems right to give them practical support. A good and intelligent priest who writes on public affairs told me, for example, that comprehensive public healthcare was a matter of “how people ought to treat each other.” That view seemed to me overly optimistic, since comprehensive bureaucracy does not seem the ideal for how people should treat each other, but he had a point. Comprehensive organization looks like a good way to deliver the services of technicians, and that is what medicine mostly is today, so it seems believable that such programs reduce human suffering. That is a goal we should certainly favor.

Nonetheless, he was, I believe, wrong. The Affordable Car Act is developing in accordance with the basic principle any comprehensive government medical scheme will follow today, which is bringing the definition and management of human well-being under the control of bureaucracies guided by our rulers’ understanding of what life is all about. Normalization of abortion and euthanasia are integral to that understanding. So are family and emotional health, categories that easily expand to include moral and religious issues. Since the system is seen as medical, dissent is seen as a public health problem, and cannot easily give rise to a right to opt out.

What such a system aims at, the integration of medicine and its social authority with a political and economic system with little place for what makes us human, may produce some good results but is essentially evil. The Church can not possibly support it without betraying her mission no matter how many holes in medical coverage it seems to fill.

Some Catholics have suggested libertarianism as a solution to the creeping totalitarianism of modern politics. If politics is too ambitious then we should support political tendencies that would reduce the range of government responsibilities. The strategy seems certain to fail, if only because very few people actually care about limited government. In theory, libertarians want to restrict government to a short list of responsibilities involving protection of persons and property. In fact, their supporters care more about results than procedural limitations. Like other people, they want to know how things will turn out: will they be able to do and get the things they want? Will they be burdened with government programs that seem useless or destructive? The ultimate standard remains the same, maximum preference satisfaction, but with less attention to equality and more to efficiency and the need to foster productive activity. It is not clear why the resulting society, which would still reject traditional and transcendent standards in favor of something purely utilitarian, would be more favorable to the human spirit than what we have now.

So what should the Church do? Large-scale projects of social reform consistent with her teaching seem out of reach. She should continue to serve human needs and otherwise engage with society, especially by proposing her understanding of the human good and the general standards that follow from it, but she should recognize that her lack of public influence is likely to make that exercise more an inspiration to the faithful and expression of hope for the future than an effective intervention in present-day politics.

Her action in support of that understanding should normally be direct rather than mediated by the political system. She can protest specific evils, but her normal response to human suffering should be doing something about it herself any way that is open to her. The concrete political actions that are most likely to be productive for her will aim at maintaining her ability to do so, as well as her members’ ability to live in accordance with their beliefs. It is possible that that kind of engagement will bear concrete fruit. The contemporary liberal state aspires to uniformity but does not like explicit use of force, so to some extent it is willing to accommodate minorities with special concerns that are very important to them. If the Church makes demands that affect her members most acutely, and sticks by them, she is much more likely to get somewhere than if she demands more general changes that—if she is true to her mission—will be radically at odds with the principles of the public order under which we now live.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine

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8 replies to this post
  1. Should the Church *inform* politics, yes, absolutely.

    Should the Church be *involved* in politics. Hell, NO!

    History has declared, at least since the time of Constantine, when ecclesiastical leaders get into politics, they shortly become tools of the politicians. Politicians who don’t care spit for the teachings of the church, only for its blessing — and votes.

    When the Church keeps above politics, however, it can sometimes even call an Emperor to heel.. In the snow.

    • Dear sir if the Church abandons politics it would surrender to the devil. Constantine saved civilization by fighting for the one true God. This is what annoys me about Catholics on TIC with all due respect. They neglect the greatest Catholic Conservative thinker namely Joseph De Maistre. Catholic conservativism is monarchist not republican.

      • Nate, my brother, I do not ignore de Maistre, neither do I believe him to be (even one) of the greatest Catholic thinkers. It may be a mere matter of personal taste, however, and not an item regarding which I feel it necessary to be “doctrinaire”.

        With all due respect, and hopefully, in a sprit of humility, knowing the road is fraught with peril, I do not think a Catholic who is a conservative is bound to monarchial sympathies (although I confess a twinge when regarding either the English or Hapsburg monarchies).

        Since the advent of republicanism, nationalism, and secularism which goes by the peculiar name of “Enlightenment”, monarchism has tended to be at ebb in the world. As Catholics, we live in the world which we have inherited, and a major part of the heritage, in the USA at least, is republicanism, or as it is vulgarly called, “the democracy”. A dictator, or a tyrant, we might manage here, as we have come frightfully close in the past, and I have little confidence the future will be that mush different. But, so far as electing a royal family, I think that boat has sailed long since.

        Since we have not a monarchy here, and living in the world as it is, what is a conservative to do? While Holy Mother Church has a bad track record when seeking to influence politicians — as the Church — there is naught to be said against individual Catholics, with informed consciences, engaging in politics (though perhaps I was not clear on that point). Indeed, I pray that good Catholics WILL engage in the political process, sturdier souls than myself, who can resist the stains of partisanship better than I.

        May God Bless you, and may you have a Joyous Advent and a Merry Christ-mass’

        • It has less to do with Maistre as a thinker it has more to do with his politics. Sir Robert Filmer said the same thing so did Padre Pio (an Italian Royalist). Thank you for your open mind. Merry Christmas.

          • Just another thought Mr. Naas, America has an opportunity to bring the rightful successor to the throne of of the kingdom of Great Britain. Namely the Jacobite successor

  2. The “Church” as Jesus taught, is His people – the Body of Christ. Every man or woman who serves in a political capacity should make decisions based on the ‘inner man’, the teachings of Christ. One cannot walk into a political arena and leave his soul checked at the door.

    The “Church” should therefore “influence” politics – governmental issues, and not to “demand” or “dictate” policy.

    The battle that keeps arising is that the “non-Christians” want no one in office who has an opinion, or a conviction concerning the walk of faith, the life in Christ. This, is the ‘separation of church and state’, as they choose to interpret it. Entirely unrealistic, and unlawful.

    • I have always found the arguments for “separation of church and state” to be amusing, inasmuch as they profess the logic of “heads I win, tails you lose”. What is not so amusing, is the humorless folk who advocate such cannot even be brought to a realization of what they are doing. (In particular, thinking of the viral video of a reporter from the Daily Show asking the head of the “Freedom From Religion” group, “Why are you being a ____?”)

  3. This reminds me of the thought of the Canadian (political) philosopher, George Grant (1918-88), sometime member of the Oxford Socratic Club: is that happy coincidence or conscious debt?

    With an eye to Nate Nobile’s comments, Grant has some interesting remarks about a strand or tradition of English thought ‘from before the Age of Progress’ which is not without its Jacobite connections, represented by Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, among others.

    Over at the original 4 November Crisis Magazine online posting, there are some quotations from Lord Acton in the comments well worth reading. They shed light, directly or indirectly, on some of the problems of much Eighteenth-century monarchy with its centralization and uniformitarianism which paved the way for its revolutionary anti-monarchical statist absolutist successors.

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