This post is part of Ethika Politika's ongoing post-mortem on the 2012 elections, Lux Mundi. For more contributions please click here.
During the last several months I have deliberately tried to avoid commenting much on current political questions and strategies, instead keeping to more general and fundamental questions. I did this in part because, although I certainly agreed with the bishops that the HHS mandate was wrong, I also thought that the strategy of the bishops was profoundly misguided—about which more below—but I didn't think that as a layman it was my place to openly question their leadership in an obviously difficult time. Although formally the bishops' strategy is a legal strategy, actually it appears as more of a political one, and, at least as interpreted by many Catholic groups, seemed a clear, if indirect, endorsement of Mitt Romney. In any case, in the minds of many priests and laymen, electing Romney was a priority, and one heard the ritual chant of THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF A LIFETIME enough to be thoroughly disgusted.
To make myself clear at the outset, obviously neither Obama or Romney were candidates worthy of Catholic support. To the extent that an articulate and relatively large segment of the Church in this country concluded that electing Romney was a necessity, this shows, it seems to me, fundamental errors in our thinking, errors that can only damage the Church's mission and probably render null and void any influence we might have for good in the near future. From the point of view of what I will call the political Catholics, the election was an unmitigated disaster. Not only was President Obama reelected, but in four states referenda concerning same-sex "marriages" went the wrong way. And this latter truly is of concern.
But I hope that even the most political and Republican of Catholics might pause at this moment to consider whether an entirely different strategy might be worth trying. Whether we should stop banging our heads against the political wall and seek simply to obey the commands given to the Church by her divine Founder.
Catholic tradition, of course, by no means despises the political as such. St. Thomas repeats Aristotle's dictum that man is a political animal, i.e., one who necessarily lives in a political community, a community in which some organ of government exists, whether that organ be a king, an informal group of tribal elders, a legislative body or whatever. Leo XIII in his remarkable series of encyclicals on political questions, Immortale Dei, Libertas, Diuturnum and others, presents again the Catholic approach to the state. The state is a necessary good in human social life, and Catholic thought does not belittle its necessity. But this chiefly concerns the state as it should be. When the state is hostile to the Church, whether actively persecuting or milding harassing, we have to model ourselves after the Church of the New Testament. Our Lord himself, and his apostles, especially St. Paul, recognized the Roman state, paid due respect to it, for example taxes, but did not expect it to do the work of the Church. For that the apostles had been commissioned by Christ specifically to preach, to baptize, to bring the Faith to all men and nations. They did not deny the Empire, but they knew that a pagan state would be at best a grudging ally, as when St. Paul sometimes asserted his Roman citizenship to obtain better treatment from the authorities. By all means let us emulate that, but let us not expect anything much beyond that. That is not the way we are going to preserve whatever we have of Christian civilization, let alone extend, deepen and develop it.
Most people understand that the political situation is a reflection of the culture. Although it is true that the law does influence the culture, and at times Catholics have used the law to initiate conversions of entire pagan nations, generally the process is the other way around. Convert the people and they will change their laws and customs. And here we must take a close look at the cultural situation in the United States right now. It is not a happy sight.
There is obviously much that could be said about our cultural state, our selfish individualism, our rejection of most communal authority, our pursuit of riches and pleasure, and much else. But let me talk instead about another aspect of the cultural situation. Our culture today is divided, how sharply is not altogether clear, between those who hold to what is usually considered a traditional view of life and those who embrace a kind of progressive journey toward vistas with no clear final goal. At least in the minds of many of their supporters, Romney stood for the first, Obama for the second. The fatal mistake that Catholics have made is to try to position the Church solidly in the first group. This is a mistake both as regards fact and as regards intelligent strategy. Let me discuss this at more length.
Although this is not the place to argue this point in detail, the culture of the United States has always been deeply un-Catholic. The United States in fact is the powerhouse of Protestant culture in the world, and took over that role from Great Britain sometime between the Spanish-American War and the 1920s. To the extent that American Catholics have embraced the "American Way of Life" they have abandoned any Catholic culture they ever had. Cardinal George of Chicago noted this in 1997 at the Synod of Bishops for the Americas, stating that U.S. citizens "are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith" and that American society "is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God." If this is correct, then Catholics cannot uncritically identify with any of the various cultural models offered us by America today, or for that matter, at any time. We have to construct our own cultural model, which to be sure, we did at one time to some extent but this has largely evaporated. But by positioning ourselves in the cultural model that Romney was generally seen as embodying—whether he really did that or not is another matter—the Church was in effect writing off many Americans, perhaps nearly half the population, who would from now on view the Catholic Church as simply another institution in the rather tired version of what it is to be an American, the version generlly known as conservative. Of course the solution is not to embrace the liberal version of American identity either. By no means. Rather, the solution is to try to construct a genuinely Catholic identity, an identity based on Catholic doctrine, Catholic tradition (as the living out of Catholic faith and morals), one that, in my opinion, could be actually interesting and even exciting. If we are intelligent about it, it could even appear as something new, an option not often seen on the American cultural or social landscape before.
But this cultural option is not something we can achieve by political activism. Certainly, if the opportunity offers itself, let us vote to prohibit the oxymoron known as "same-sex marriage." But is there anyone who does not recognize that, given our present cultural environment, the campaign against it is doomed? The cultural current is too strong to be stopped by merely political means. Not only are we spending valuable time and money, but, much more importantly, we are orienting the Church in the United States toward political tinkering instead of preaching the Gospel and teaching people just how far we must distance ourselves from any idea of America that hitherto has had general currency. By zealously participating in the political process we make the Church seem just another pressure group, and in this case, we are implicated in the tired and boring cultural grouping known as conservative, a grouping which has zero chance of winning and—if truth be told—does not even deserve to win.
While I am on the subject of political action, let me say a bit more about the bishops and the infamous HHS mandate. The mandate is wrong, certainly, but wrong because contraception is wrong. But the bishops' efforts have been based entirely on the abstract notion of religious liberty. Catholic tradition has never embraced the concept of religious liberty uncritically, and for that matter, despite the First Amendment, neither has U.S. constitutional jurisprudence. From the cases in the 1870s limiting the freedom of Mormons to practice polygamy to the Smith case in the 1990s limiting the legal rights of members of the Native American Church, the Supreme Court has always taken the view that (in the words of Justice Antonin Scalia),
the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a "valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes)."
It is certainly the case that the government often did, and rightly so, attempt to accommodate itself to sincere religious beliefs, but it is still the case that infringement upon religious conduct was never in se regarded as a violation of the First Amendment. But most Americans do not know this, although presumably the bishops or their advisors do. So I blame the bishops for giving the impression in their numerous statements and publications that the mandate is an obvious violation of religious liberty as that is understood in our legal tradition. It certainly may turn out to be so, but given the history of our jurisprudence on that subject, it is not entirely clear.
Although it is probably impossible at this point to present to the American public a full-scale attack on contraception as a violation of the natural law and of genuine marital intimacy, still an opportunity has been missed of not teaching Catholic Americans that the almost universal acceptance of contraception in American society is simply an indication of how we must distance ourselves from that society. But this neither the bishops nor very many active Catholics want to assert. It is so much more comfortable simply being another group within the overarching umbrella of secular society, rather than challenging that society at its roots, telling it of the good news of Jesus Christ, yes, but also telling it some highly uncomfortable truths, truths as equally uncomfortable to conservatives as to liberals. An opportunity is being missed of making some small steps toward building a Catholic culture, without which we are reduced either to ultimately futile political activity or to more or less direct cooperation with a system which increasingly is revealing the evil foundations that have been there from the beginning.
But if Catholics are to do any of this, there is another difficult obstacle to be faced. This is that we no longer really think, most of us, that to be a Catholic is the greatest privilege one can have on this earth. Why do we no longer think this way? Unfortunately one has to place the blame mostly on the runaway practice of ecumenism. Ecumenism, according to the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism, exists to bring about "the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ" (section 24), which the decree plainly identifies with the Catholic Church. But sadly this is not what ecumenism has meant. It has meant rather a downplaying of what makes the Catholic Church distinctive, a pathological fear of offending our separated brethren, a vague notion of the relationship of the Church to Protestant bodies. And more to the point, for my purposes here, it has meant a near total abandonment of the concept of Catholic culture as something to be striven for.
In the past, when Catholics were more clearsighted, it was a commonplace of our historical and sociological analyses that Protestantism contributed mightily to secularization. Now it appears that we regard Protestants in an entirely uncritical manner simply as allies. In fact, it appears that most active Catholics no longer even dream of a really Catholic culture, but would be content with banning some of the more egregious evils that secular society has thrown up at us over the last forty years or so. But in the past our Catholic brethren dreamed other dreams. They dreamed of a real conversion of this country, indeed of the world, and even if they didn't entirely understand how much Protestant culture they had unwittingly accepted, they did aim higher than a mere political or cultural papering over of evils.
So now, after the election of 2012, we have, it seems to me, two choices, two roads we can proceed on. One is the familiar way, familiar but futile, the way of our present failures, the way that seeks little and gains less. Or we can try something new, at least new for quite a few years now. We can first learn, learn what our Faith and its traditional embodiment in society really mean, then teach this to the faithful, and offer it as something almost unknown to everyone else. Will this be successful? I do not know, but it will be faithful to what our Lord commanded us, and it will not compromise the truths and riches of Catholic faith for a few political goals, goals that, even if sometimes attained, will be shortly undone, after which, all we will be able to do is to stare helplessly about and wonder what went wrong.
This post is part of Ethika Politika's ongoing post-mortem on the 2012 elections, Lux Mundi. For more contributions please click here.