“Why’d you join?” a friend asked about my work with Ethika Politika when I joined the editorial board early last summer, and a different friend asked the same question when the proprietors announced a couple weeks ago that they’d named me the editorial director. They were curious, not critical.
“Because they asked,” was my first answer. The Christian is the steward of his gifts and last summer the proprietors asked me to spend a few hours now and then using mine on the enterprise’s behalf. I’ve been writing, editing, and teaching for a long time and been engaged for just as long in works of cultural reflection like Ethika Politika’s. It was a worthwhile work I could help. Though I didn’t know the two founders, I trusted the people on the editorial board, especially Patrick Deneen, with whom I’d worked. Andrew and Mattias asked me to help and I was pleased to be able to.
Being editorial director requires more of an answer. I’d liked the enterprise a great deal before I had any contact with it. A libertarian conservative writer in a Twitter battle a few days ago called Ethika Politika “a leftist front using Catholicism in Marx's cause.” This bemused me as much as it probably does you, being of the same level of discernment as calling Queen Elizabeth II a republican propagandist. But I think I know why someone might think something like that, and it points to one reason I liked the work so much.
I liked Ethika Politika because it seemed to me to begin with the commitments we have as Catholics, not with what “conservatism” or “liberalism”—whatever, exactly, they are—require. Reading political and cultural reflection that didn’t immediately drop into a political rut was refreshing. The site avoided the seductively easy “split the difference,” “third way,” and “above ideology” options. Ethika Politika’s work assumed an intellectual commitment that needs more exploration and development in relation to the challenges we face, that saw that while many questions are settled, many others are still open, and in some cases wide open.
Speaking, again, as a reader, I enjoyed the site’s diversity of voices and opinions and appreciated the fact that it showed no great interest in making final definitive judgments on the meaning of Catholic social teaching. It drew upon writers of different commitments to address the open questions. Both free marketing and socialist Catholics have something to offer, even if you think one of them, or both of them, wrong. There weren’t many sites (other than the aggregators) where you could find all sorts of serious Catholics speaking. Elsewhere the ideological policing was too stringent.
I am generally conservative, but one can be a conservative without believing that conservatism answers all the questions that need to be answered, or even asks all the questions that need to be asked. One can be a conservative and see that conservative political theory doesn’t perfectly overlay Catholic social teaching, and know that when it doesn’t, too bad for conservatism. This is the kind of thing a libertarian conservative could misunderstand as leftist.
So there’s that. I was also attracted to the work by the slogan “Wisdom serving prudence.” The order struck me, since most of the people I knew who talked about these things would have put the slogan in the other order. I admit to having reversed it more than once in talking with Andrew and Mattias, and gotten polite corrections each time.
The idea of drawing upon the Western tradition to understand what we ought to do in our public work was by itself attractive, as was thinking of the insights of that tradition as wisdom and the use of those insights as prudence. It oriented the enterprise to our public life without leaving behind the deeper concerns. Many others are trying to do the same thing, of course, but not always so directly. And in this matter, when the world is too much with us, another voice is all to the good.
So there’s that as well. My last reason for joining was the practical one that here is an enterprise run by people who are serious about what they are doing, who are very professional about it, and who created something that could easily become an important voice in the Catholic world in particular but among others as well. There is work to be done that Ethika Politika can do. And they did ask.