October 16, 2008

On a number of literally life and death issues, American conservatives and Catholics stand in a firm alliance. On other subjects, these groups pull in different directions”€”and this tension causes suspicion, irritation, even hostility on both sides. I”€™ve noticed among a number of immigration reformers a bubbling up of old, anti-Catholic sentiments”€”although this is nothing to match the easy scorn some Catholics feel for the Protestantism that founded their native country and guaranteed their liberty to follow their consciences.

To counter the tiresome smugness of some of my co-religionists, I”€™d like to point out to Catholics that Protestantism is not some alien religion, nor are Protestants in any sense unbelievers. Viewed technically, according to the strictest principles of traditional Catholic theology, “€œorthodox”€ Protestantism is simply a truncated form of Catholicism”€”a constellation of churches that hold to every line of the Nicene Creed, but fail to draw from them several important inferences regarding religious authority and sacraments. The distinctively Protestant theories of free will, grace, and salvation are somewhat unbalanced forms of Augustinianism”€”overly literal readings of the greatest Father of the Western Church. From a Catholic perspective, people validly baptized and reared as Protestants are not “€œheretics,”€ but poorly catechized Christians with mistaken religious opinions, whose souls may be judged only by God. And He is a merciful judge. We who have been given the fullness of the truth, and have done so little with it, should all be glad of that.

Back to politics.

The Catholic/conservative tension is fiercely destructive to both the Church’s mission and the common good. This split competes with the tragic, suicidal liberalism of American Jews for the booby prize as the single most destructive factor in postwar public life. The sundering of Catholics from the politics that naturally follow from their Faith empowers an intolerant secular State to creep into ever more corners of American life”€”hampering both our freedoms and our faith. This schism helps explain why on every “€œsocial issue”€ of importance both to Catholics and conservatives, we have made in the 25 years since Roe v. Wade not a millimeter’s progress. Indeed, we have slidden backwards. Without the emergence of the entirely Protestant Christian Right (now in retreat), American laws and mores would currently resemble those of Canada or England. For all the heroic activism of individual Catholics”€”who pioneered the pro-life movement back when the Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice”€”the Catholic Church as an institution has made less political impact than the Church of Scientology.

And it’s mostly the bishops”€™ fault”€”because conservatism, rightly interpreted”€”in other words, a movement that took its bearings from the likes of Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, T.S. Eliot, Wilhelm Röpke and Russell Kirk”€”is more than the Church’s natural ally. As the great Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn used to say, conservatism is the political expression of Catholicism, and of all those articles of faith which orthodox Protestantism carried over after Wittenburg. Were men consistent thinkers, and bishops faithful teachers, they would have to see that there can be no truly Catholic Left, nor an American Leviathan baptized and catechized.

In America, by our Constitution as it has been authoritatively interpreted, the State is now relentlessly secular. In practice, it is rigorously relativistic. Altering either of these settled facts in American life would be unthinkably hard. Therefore, any Christian engaged in public life must seek to shrink the sphere of the State, and reduce its functions to their bare, libertarian minimum”€”in order to leave some room for the practice of Christian life. The bishops”€™ predecessors realized this, when they tapped the meager resources of impoverished immigrants to build an entire, nationwide system of alternative Catholic schools. Instead of trying vainly to Romanize the (then vigorously if vaguely Protestant) schools, they built their own. A very American response to such a problem”€”and also a deeply Catholic one. Homeschoolers today follow in the footsteps of Abp. “€œDagger”€ John Hughes.

The Church is officially committed to localism, rather than centralism. Catholic teaching on subsidiarity asserts that no problem should be taken up by the State which can be resolved by private action, and that no local matter should be referred to central authorities unless local institutions are hopelessly inadequate”€”as they are, for instance, to guard the border against foreign invasion, or prosecute interstate crimes. Empower the federal government to control (as it now does, with bishops”€™ approval) education, social services, health care and retirement benefits, and you guarantee that each of these vital areas of life will be directed according to non-Christian or anti-Christian principles.

And that is what has happened. It’s no surprise that our public schools teach sex education to very young children and dumb classes down to produce the illusion of equal results; that our welfare programs encourage illegitimacy and multiple generations of dependence; that most leading medical organizations favor legal abortion and the cloning and killing of unborn children to serve as spare parts; that our Social Security system punishes large families and rewards double-income, no kids (DINK) married folks and homosexual couples. This kind of social atom-smashing is what the secular state since 1789 was designed to do, and what it does, when you give it the power. All the pious chatter about “€œsocial justice”€ engaged in by prominent churchmen amounts to a mantra to soothe their consciences.

Conversely, were the modern leaders of our dying conservative movement attuned to the specific nature of the fragile social goods they claim to be “€œconserving,”€ they would learn to reject as alien and evil ideas that are incompatible with preserving our Christian, European civilization, and our American liberties. This would rule out”€”for instance”€”both racialism and egalitarianism (our opinion leaders have the first part, the easy part, right). Adopting a civilization-friendly criterion would at once incline conservative leaders to look askance at neo-Darwinians and at dry-drunks who swore off Trotsky in favor of Thomas Paine as their apostle of world revolution. Such a return to roots would thin our ranks, of course”€”but it is our only chance at emerging from the justified public disgrace that Bush and company have brought on the whole conservative enterprise.

Of course, it’s hard to see this natural convergence of republican throne and Christian altar from the piled-up political effusions of America’s bishops over the past 25 years. I won”€™t drag the gentle reader through the turgid phonebooks worth of poorly informed, moralistic advice generated by the U.S. Catholic Conference and its large research staff of Irish-American Democrats. It’s enough to say that most of these clerics are deeply nostalgic for the days of FDR, when the president himself relied on the bishops to “€œdeliver”€ a large segment of his political coalition”€”and consequently incorporated major elements of pro-family, even “€œmaternalist”€ policy into his proto-socialist programs. Allan Carlson does a better job than I could at laying out how this alliance worked, and why it broke down in the 1960s. Still sunk in denial, too many bishops are vainly daydreaming of a Democratic party recaptured from the likes of Rahm Emmanuel and Barak Obama by a new incarnation of Robert Casey or Richard J. Daley. Beguiled by this mirage, they lurch progressively further leftward on every issue where infallible Church teaching does not specifically mandate otherwise”€”all in service of maintaining a bridge to nowhere.

There are indeed a few fundamental problems in squaring the heritage of Catholic political thought with the tolerant, “€œlow church”€ Protestant culture that dominates the American Right. But each of these issues is so removed from political plausibility as to be moot. They all concern subjects like the following: Should a massively Catholic country like the Philippines adopt Catholicism as its tolerant state religion, or hew to American-style separation of Church and state? How do we reconcile the Aristotelian/ Thomistic notion of freedom as the liberty to choose the good with the Enlightenment view which pictures freedom as simply the absence of coercion? And so on…. All very interesting, and utterly irrelevant to current politics.

In fact, the Church is not so much the ally of the Right as its origin. When she forgets her prudence and principles she abandons her (fitfully loyal) son”€”and in his place, she harbors monsters. Such a forgetting took place at just the wrong moment for America”€”when the Protestant elites who”€™d misplaced their faith also lost their nerve, in the wake of World War II. That “€œCatholic moment”€ seemed so promising that even Old World curmudgeon Evelyn Waugh looked ahead with mixed feelings (including flickers of hope) to the “€œAmerican Epoch in the Catholic Church.”€

American Catholics had overcome through patriotic assimilation and loyal citizenship most of the natural suspicion their ancestors”€™ arrival had provoked in a country founded by the “€œreformers of the Reform.”€ In 1950, these Americans loyal also to Rome retained at once a faith as fervent as the fundamentalists”€™, and an intellectual culture which even highbrow Anglicans had to respect. Their universities and school systems clung to ancient languages, medieval formulas, and Renaissance humanism in the face of relentless Progressivism that was even then dumbing down and radicalizing other institutions.

This institutional excellence”€”one wit described the Catholic Church and the U.S. Navy as two institutions that had been built by geniuses so they could be operated even by idiots”€”seemed unsinkable as late as 1960. Of course there were icebergs below the water line, as there always are. Much of what outsiders might have attributed to fervent faith was traceable to simple inertia, or tribalist competition with secular and Protestant institutions.

Indeed, the psychological burden of maintaining a separate, Catholic identity in America must have been very heavy; when John F. Kennedy was elected, Catholics greeted it with hysterical excitement, as a sign they”€™d finally “€œarrived.”€ It was not long before they abandoned the effort of living “€œin”€ the U.S. but not “€œof”€ it, and remade their lives on the models of their non-Catholic neighbors. This happened most famously on the issue of birth control”€”a vital issue for Catholics living in a West where infant mortality had plummeted and the need for young, farm labor no longer could support large families for every Catholic couple in the country. As Anne Roche Muggeridge documents in The Desolate City, it took some 10 years for a dithering Vatican to make up its mind about the Pill, and several more for Catholic researchers to find an effective alternative that didn”€™t contravene 1900 years of authoritative teaching. In that turbulent, revolutionary decade, Catholics were told they could “€œfollow their consciences.”€ They did, and developed intimate habits they weren”€™t ready to break in 1968″€”when Pope Paul VI reluctantly issued Humanae Vitae, a cogent condemnation of the chemical assault on fertility, which warned of its catastrophic potential for unleashing sex from marriage or even love. When the Prufrockian pope refused to enforce the document, and underlings at the Vatican backed dissenting theologians against their orthodox bishop, the moral authority of Church teaching suffered a blow from which it has not recovered. That process may take centuries.

In the absence of a strong and deeply trusted institutional culture”€”an asset squandered in all the squabbling”€”the Church in America has come to depend for what voice she has on the charisma of isolated individuals, such as Mother Angelica, Fr. Joseph Fessio, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Fr. George Rutler. The clearest spokesman in the hierarchy for traditional Catholicism during this dry spell was Cardinal John O”€™Connor of New York. With his death in 2000, the American Church lost its most recognizable civic advocate, and no one has filled his niche. Some dubious characters have tried, such as Chicago’s Joseph Bernadin”€”who nearly suffocated the pro-life cause beneath his “€œseamless garment”€ of sentimental liberalism, and that creepy enabler of clerical pedophiles Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. But neither of those men was ever taken seriously by serious Catholics, and their legacy will be slight: Vandalized cathedrals, enormous class-action settlements, and long lists of men in collars who should never have been ordained. 

Now there is another American bishop who seems to be presenting himself as the point-man for Catholic politics in a hostile public square: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. An American Indian”€”it’s easy to forget that the Church converted large numbers of Native Americans, like Canada’s Hurons, New Hampshire’s vanished Abnekis, and finally Sioux such as Sitting Bull”€”he is a smart and persuasive speaker. His diocese attracts large numbers of vocations, and he’s typically a voice of principle at meetings of fellow bishops. His recent book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life has become an unexpected bestseller. It’s ringing reassertion of the traditional, loyal Catholic citizenship that characterized men like Founding Father Charles Carroll, political philosopher Orestes Brownson and Gov. Al Smith. Chaput holds up the American separation of politics from any institutional Church as a fine environment in which the Christian mission can thrive”€”provided that believers are willing to use their faith as a guiding compass in the practice of their citizenship, and insist on defending those goods which reason alone (the “€œnatural law”€) can demonstrate are essential to human thriving.

In a short review I wrote for InsideCatholic.com, I reflected that the archbishop might be engaging here in optimism rather than hope:

It’s telling enough that an important American archbishop has to cite the example of St. Thomas More, a martyr for papal authority, to coax practicing Catholic politicians into opposing the mass execution of unborn Americans. Perhaps a frank discussion of the natural law isn”€™t enough to win people over to respecting human life, at least not when it really endangers what we want. It may be that in the cold light of fallen reason, humanity doesn”€™t look so dignified after all.

There’s a deeper problem with Chaput’s well-meaning and calmly ordered brief for the reunification of faith and civic virtue, one which I didn”€™t spot when I first read the book. But I see it now.

A tendency thrives among earnest, kind-hearted Christians that easily moves them from the firm ground of charity down the road to sentimental liberalism, and it is the temptation to short-circuit justice in favor of mercy“€”when in fact, real mercy is only possible where justice has already been paid its due. This tendency drives bishops to support the massive redistribution of wealth by a self-aggrandizing State”€”instead of following the genuine Catholic tradition, found in the writings of Pius XI, Chesterton, Belloc, and Röpke, which favors small business, small farms, and decentralized government. (In other words, self-sufficiency instead of addiction to government handouts.) Such a sentimentality makes churchmen suspicious of business and profit-seeking, and unduly open to claims of grievance made by grasping activists. It leads bishops to issue ringing condemnations when our duly elected government enforces its just (nay, lax) immigration laws. It even, I would argue, explains most of the cases where bishops foolishly accepted the word of hack psychologists that abusive priests had been “€œrehabilitated.”€

Mother Angelica, mentioned above, spoke wisely when she said that the vice of our time is “€œmisguided compassion.”€ What creates this opening to modern liberalism”€”which destroys the soul by making of the responsible adult a perpetual child? It’s a complex question, but I think it starts with a one-sided view of the person, a pious construct intended to inspire kindly behavior on the part of serious Christians”€”which opens itself to abuse by the unscrupulous. As I wrote concerning Chaput’s book: 

[T]he Other whom we face”€”who cuts us off in traffic, who’s rude to us across the conference table, who argues with us in bed”€”is in some real sense a “€œpresence”€ of Christ…. When we fail to respond with proportionate reverence to this mysterious presence”€”the Church has a zippy shorthand for this: “€˜human dignity”€™”€”we are committing a kind of sacrilege.

This is true, but is only half the picture. The Church, over the centuries, has seen things more fully”€”if it hadn”€™t, it would have vanished within a generation or two, and been forgotten. No Christian soldier, jailor, border guard, policemen or juror could borne doing his job”€”and no Christian ruler could have kept his throne.

Indeed, we see in the face of every person an image of God and in some sense a brother of the incarnate Christ. Do you know what else we see? A descendant of fallen Adam, with a heart not unlike Cain’s, capable of acting like Herod or Pilate or Judas. We see Barabbas. Both tendencies, grace and sin, coexist within the human heart”€”and the battle between them is never settled until we breathe our last and wake to judgment. That judgment is issued by Christ, and if it’s not up to us to convict a person, neither may we acquit him. By presuming to judge as innocent the apparently weaker party in every transaction”€”the worker against the employer, the immigrant against the border guard, the Third Worlder against the First”€”a Christian abandons the balanced view of man which made Christian civilization possible. He abandons both justice and mercy, and empowers society’s sociopaths, its manipulators, those who know how to milk the system”€”and he renders it powerless against outsiders who would conquer it. He cannot bear to deport the jihadist imam preaching in a London mosque, or to execute the mass murderer who has been conclusively proved guilty. He can”€™t leave in poverty those whose actions richly deserve it. He can”€™t offer elementary justice to the hard-working, the honest, and the honorable. That is the heart of sentimental liberalism, and there’s nothing sacred about it.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor.


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