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Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.


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  • Yes there will be new parties, but the Church can be assured of renewed significance, without joining politics directly!

    Personally I find the concept of subsidiarity to be juxtaposed with anarchists like Graeber plus libertarians on the right except it seems, with more personalism instead of uniformity, more emphasis on local instead of national and international ambitions…. Nestled somewhere in between, is a true conservatism informed by an emphasis on religious life, on one nation under God, not one nation under maximum resource consumption and its equitable distribution…

    Yes these things are coming, and as you note, they won’t be due to Republicans and Democrats, but will be due to interpersonal communication finally overcoming mass media.

  • Gus

    A Catholic Party is never gonna happen for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which are that 1) Catholics are only about a quarter of the U.S. Population; 2) the Church no longer wants to be directly involved in government; and 3) there is still too much difference of opinion regarding doctrine and teachings between many Protestant faiths and Catholicism. Plus a lot of the heterodox Catholics probably wouldn’t support it, since they support pro-abortion and pro-homosexuality Dems already.

    On the other hand, a new “Moral Majority Coalition” (but a
    better name is absolutely needed!) might be possible if Catholics can
    successfully reach out to other faiths. I like what Archbishop Chaput said at BYU to the LDS folk as reported in First Things —

    • Barf!

    • Interesting JGG, and I have also used “new moral majority” to describe the coalition massing against the horrible middle. However the requirement is quite clearly, for true Christian elements to join hands with far left elements. If most Southern Baptists are too parochial to convert the OWS crowd to the Lord, and would rather walk with the mainliners, that is too bad for them.

      P.S. Please ask Mr. Rosman to elaborate on his rejection of your opinion.

      • Gus

        Thomas, I don’t know how the ‘true Christian elements’ can join with far Left elements since the far Left is primarily secular. The biggest political party right now is not even a party, it is all those who are Independents. My guess is that the Independents are those who are the ‘true Christian elements’ – Catholics and Protestants alike. The last number I saw said 42% of voters are
        Independents. I would also bet that 95% of Independents are Reagan Conservatives.

        As for Mr. Rosman, I suspect his ‘Barf’ comment was directed at the New Moral Majority suggestion.

        • I suppose the only secondary “fusion” in the near term would have to be led by a Presidential candidate. Is there a Reagan out there? Darn..

          Anyhow, after all my anti-imperialist, anti-war, anti-capitalist rhetoric, there is zero chance of me pulling a lever for Hilary, the real problems started with Unholy Alliance of Clinton-Gingrich. I can go for either end, either a Nader type, true populist, or conservative without any axes to grind, and compassion… The only one I trust at all is Santorum, I just hope his Christian mettle will take hold when there is clamoring for war.

          • Gus

            I like Santorum too, and he is Catholic to boot, but I don’t think he has the necessary ‘charisma’ to rack up enough primary wins. At the same time Hilary, Liz Warren and Joe are definite no’s. We’ll just have wait and see who the GOP candidate is I guess. I find most I often I end up voting for the lesser of two evils.

          • See now, don’t listen to the Beltway gurus and their yap machines. I can’t see how Santorum loses Iowa, in fact I think he was going to take a pass, but Iowans were CALLING HIM BACK… So what happens is the new thing that happens when a “goody two shoes” wins Iowa, they quickly write it off as a fluke of those weird Iowans and lay down the law right away, in the Boston media market… With Huckabee in, the problem is that Santorum needs to overwhelm him by surprise and make him drop EARLY, otherwise everything just gets dicey and then Jeb Bush is leading by narrow but growing margins regardless, with the organizational prowess… I do not dislike Bush but he is not any real change.

          • Gus

            My opinion of Santorum is based on me watching him and listening to him in the GOP debates and in interviews. He just does not come across as confident enough in his statements and in his responses to questions. But that is just my opinion, and I may be in the minority on that. I don’t consider Huckabee a serious contender, and we will have to wait and see if Jeb and Mitt really are going to run. Right now it is a really crowded field. I do have a feeling the GOP will end up putting up yet another establishment candidate. Hope I am wrong.

          • Yes that is the 98 percent likelihood, which us why need to pray for a truly independent fusion, third party run. But do expect the establishment candidates to talk the talk, against cronyism etc, but they are hogtied for doing anything about it.

  • LawProf61

    I’m tired of people foisting Catholic social teaching upon government. Charity, along with most other moral virtues, is an individual virtue, not a collective one. The tendency toward a large centralized government that exercises more and more control over people’s daily lives, however well-intentioned it may be – lends itself only to big money; because people with money will have the resources and the connections to buy their way out of the kind of surveillance and officious intermeddling that the state does so well.

    Additionally, the larger the government is, the LESS accountable it is to the very people whom it is supposed to be serving. If we care about poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, violence, etc., far better to devolve the units that deal with those to levels much closer to the people – state governments, city governments, charities, churches, etc.

    Finally, as the government becomes more and more unconnected to Judeo-Christian values – an event that many Progressives view as “progress” – it will be harder and harder to argue what the basis for the government’s beneficence will be. For example, if a government decided to alleviate illegitimacy and child poverty by forcing poor women onto implanted contraceptives, and tied their receipt of federal benefits to that – what would the argument against that be?

    There is a reason that Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Efforts to bring about utopia through government is a fool’s errand, which history has shown AMPLY.

    • Thomas Storck

      “I’m tired of people foisting Catholic social teaching upon government.”

      Too bad you dissent from constant papal teaching.

      • LawProf61

        Yes, I often do. Especially recently.

        • Thomas Storck

          You say you dissent recently from “constant papal teaching”? Do you know that “constant papal teaching” is not the same as off hand remarks by the pope?

    • Demerits, LawProf… you are picking up the collectivist immoralism yourself. E.g. evil is OK as long as we have a group effort to do “the dirty business that must be done” in a fallen world, a corrupted world we must be corrupt too we were just “doing our job”. That is picking up the Calvinist mindset of America, which is also the problem with our neo-Thomism… As Catholics we are supposed to strive for the spiritual perfection God invested into us and which nearly succeeded except for the serpent… It still resides right there inside of us if we only open our hearts to the Holy Spirit. Thanks…

      • LawProf61

        Did you read a thing I said? I oppose collectivism. I absolutely do NOT think we “must do the dirty business” as long as we do it as a group. That was my point.

        • “I’m tired of people foisting Catholic social teaching upon government.”. CST is not made up out of whole cloth just to stymie large corporations and enable big government. It is based on the Word of our Lord, and is an application of moral principles designed to stymie the worst tendencies of corporations AND of big, socialist governments. You are just believing all the left-right nonsense, which is just some dirt under the feet of our Holy Father and the struggle we face to reduce the neoliberal monster.

          Wake up… neoliberalism shelved the left-right nonsense in favor of maximum utility and radical autonomy, over 20 years ago. The rhetoric you see and hear from mass media, is a shell game designed to divert you from the Truth.

  • Simon D

    There can’t be a “catholic political party” for the straightforward and sufficient reason that the Catholic faith does not supply binding answers to anything that even remotely approaches the full range of questions to which a political party must have answers. Such a party would either be a circus, with strongly-defined central positions on a small number of issues and complete anarchy on the rest, or a betrayal of its premise, filling in additional positions to which members would be obliged that are supplied from something other than Catholicism.

  • Jesus did not form a political party when He was amongst us. Instead he said very clearly: “My Kingdom is not of this world” and advised us “Beware of the leaven of the Phraisees and Saducees.”

  • Jake

    Catholics have tried their hand at party politics in Germany–the old Center Party successfully turned back the most blatant anti-Catholic policies of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. But they also largely failed to successfully govern the Weimar state in a coalition with the Socialists. The Center Party is the predecessor of today’s Christian Democrats led by Merkel.