Can a Catholic be a Conservative?

One thing about the 2016 election that I am especially grateful for is how it caused principled conservatives to do some soul searching.  Faced with a candidate who was neither principled nor—let’s be honest—all that conservative, they could not help but question how far they would extend their allegiance. Some, I presume, even questioned their allegiance to conservatism altogether.  This sort of unease seems to have been especially present among many committed and orthodox Catholics.  I, for one, have constantly returned to this question: “Can a Catholic be a conservative?”  The answer, I think, is yes—but it must be a qualified conservatism.

 

The recently deceased Michael Novak, a former U.S. Ambassador whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly in his own home, was a devout Catholic and self-described political conservative.  He was perhaps most well-known for his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which is said to have influenced Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus.  The title of Ambassador Novak’s book was very carefully chosen.  Capitalism, he thought, could not be properly understood through the lens of “economics” only. Understanding capitalism, in his view, required looking at it through the lenses of morality (spirit) and politics (democratic) as well.  These three categories—the moral, the political and the economic—are useful for contextualizing and articulating the “qualified conservatism” that, in my view, Catholics may embrace.

 

The Moral

 

Conservatives are often championed on the right as being persons of traditional morals and “strong values.” On the left, they are often derided as moralists seeking to impose “their morality” (and religion) on others.  Both generalizations are inaccurate, because each gives the impression that all conservatives have morality as a central focus.  I wish this were true, but it seems this is not the case.  This is evidenced above all in the abandonment by many conservatives of the natural moral law—at least as regards its role in civil society.

 

Moral questions about which there can be legitimate debate may, as they say, be “left up to the states.” But governments may never sanction clear violations of the natural moral law (i.e., intrinsically evil acts).  This claim seems to be consistent with Russell Kirk’s first “canon of conservative thought”, namely, “[b]elief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience” (Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot).  Yet, many conservatives today are abandoning this argument in favor of so-called constitutional “originalism” or “textualism.”  For Catholics, that is not a tenable position to take up.  We must accept the supremacy of the natural moral law within civil society.  Such things are “self-evident” and precede the organization of a society.  If we fail to accept them, we will undoubtedly see the breakdown of our political system.

 

The Political

 

Speaking of our political system, what are we to make of it as Catholic Americans?  In an endorsement blurb for Marc D. Guerra’s book, Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy, political science professor Daniel J. Mahoney points out that Guerra challenges one of today’s “regnant orthodoxies”, namely, the idea that “democracy is the political correlate of Christianity.”  I lean toward agreeing with Guerra on this point, and think that such an idea is probably more of a prudential assessment than it is a theological Truth.  Moreover, I believe it may very well be the case that there is no political correlate to Christianity.  Thus, I think that we, too, ought to be cautious about this way of thinking regarding our democratic republic—lest we succumb to an exaggerated nationalism (as some conservatives do), and reduce Christianity to “a humanitarian moral message,” while elevating politics to the status of a religion (Mahoney, et al.).

 

That being said, I also think there are many potential benefits to society being organized as a democratic republic.  Not least among them that the people—provided they remain virtuous and diligent—have the power to restrain government overreach and encroachment upon their rights. I am afraid, however, that the rise of President Trump reveals that many conservatives are putting the people’s ability to do so in jeopardy.  They have done this by downplaying the need for the rule of law—in which, as Pope John Paul II claimed, “the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals” (Centesiumus Annus, 44). As the Federalist writer, Ben Domenech, said in a lecture at the Action Institute prior to the 2016 election: “If the president is to be an autocrat, let him be our kind of autocrat, his [Donald Trump’s] supporters say.”  Domenech’s words are an overgeneralization, but they nonetheless serve to reveal a very real threat that this “conservative” trend poses to our freedoms.  We would do well to reject his trend and instead embrace the actually conservative position of respect for checks and balances and the separation of powers.

 

Conservative thinking also poses a real threat to our freedoms—in much the same way as just mentioned—when it unqualifiedly defends, among other things, big business, unfettered “free” markets and the endless “progress” of technology…which brings me to my next point.

 

The Economic

 

My previous statement may give the impression that I am opposed to free markets.  In fact, however, I would probably describe myself as a free-market thinker. But this need not mean equating myself with the most passionate defenders of big business, cronyism and technological “progress.”  Regarding big business, I would say this: that economic freedom—and thus, wealth at all levels of society—would begin to erode in the presence of a big businesses economy seems, to my mind, obvious.  For, there is much truth in the famous saying that “money is power.”  As businesses grow larger and larger, and acquire more and more revenue, they simultaneously gain more power to exert their influence to crush smaller competitors.  The idea that virtually no government intervention should be allowed in such cases seems suspect—especially when big businesses are able to do this by their being, as the saying goes, “in bed” with the government.

 

As Catholics who call ourselves conservative, we would do well to adopt a more critical approach toward an unqualifiedly “free,” big business economy, as well as one that thrives on endless technological “advancements.”  Perhaps this would mean adopting something more akin to a Chestertonian or Kirkian vision, though admittedly I do not know enough about their thinking in this regard.  It seems evident to me, though, that the poor will suffer if the biggest creators of jobs in our country (i.e., small and medium-sized enterprises) are crushed under the weight of big businesses.  It also seems clear that a society that praises the “progress” of technology in such things as nuclear weaponry, in vitro fertilization and human cloning (to name a few), has inflicted a great injustice upon its citizens and many people throughout the world.  As Catholic conservatives, these are things we simply cannot rest content with, even if they deviate from current American, conservative orthodoxy.

 

Conclusion

 

If you are a conservative Catholic who is now wondering, “Where do I go from here?”, my answer to you is simple: be Catholic.  If that means not being a conservative, then so be it.  But I don’t think that it has to mean that.

Proud To Be A Papist!

Since the time of the English Reformation to even this day, Catholics have been derided as “Papists” for their loyalty to the pronouncements of the Pope and the Church’s Magisterium—over and above, say, the pronouncements of other Christian confessions or the supreme law of the land (i.e., our constitution). Even in our own country the term has been used to denigrate Catholics. While the term’s intended use was derogatory, it nonetheless serves to remind one of a certain truth that demonstrates a principled and courageous conviction of Catholics. Namely, our conviction that there exists a law higher than that established by governments, which all men must revere and to which they must be obedient.

 

The term “Papist” does also mischaracterize Catholics. It suggests a blind obedience to every word that comes from the Holy Father’s mouth. Further, it implies that Catholics would be ever so happy to establish a sort of theocratic state unwavering in its fidelity to the pronouncements of (in the minds of some) an authoritarian Bishop in Rome. When the term “Papist” was first coined, this was perhaps a fair criticism. Today, however, most Catholics could not be fairly criticized of this type of thinking. It is commonly understood among most serious Catholics today that their obligation to pledge their highest allegiance to the pronouncements of the Pope and the magisterium on matters of law, while very real and serious, is limited.  This sort of allegiance is required of Catholics when (and perhaps only when) it is requisite for safeguarding against clear abuses of the natural moral law, of which the Church is the great defender. Such allegiance need not be a deciding factor when, for example, some Catholic casts a vote based on his view of the specificities of some economic policy, when there can be legitimate moral debate regarding those specificities.

 

What this all boils down to is a long-standing tradition within the Catholic Church that teaches there is a law that all governments must be held accountable to upholding. Referred to as the natural law, it is the moral law that all men know (or are at least capable of knowing) by reason alone. It is due to this fact—i.e., that men know this law by reason—that the law is termed “natural.” It refers not to the mere material and animal aspect of man, as some might be tempted to think because of the use of the word “natural”. Instead, it refers to a more significant and immaterial aspect of human nature—namely the human mind, which bears within it the imago Dei. This distinction is important, for it grounds the Catholic’s defense of a law higher than the laws of governments in, well, reason—not mere emotions, which are seemingly connected primarily to our physical nature.

 

All this to say, Catholics need not be ashamed of defending and revering the natural moral law, even if we find ourselves being derided as our ancestors were. And we certainly must not give into the (liberal) argument that our understanding of law ought to adjusted according to each passing change to social norms. Nor should we ever give into the “conservative” argument that, in the name of “originalism” or “textualism”, governments are permitted to legalize abhorrent practices like, say, abortion or euthanasia—even if only at the state level (a belief that, sadly, Justice Scalia seems to have held). Here I am reminded of the words of Pope Benedict XVI who, when speaking on radio broadcast around the year 1970 regarding the future of the Church, said that “[t]he Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right” (Ratzinger, Faith and Future, p. 116).

 

Rather than being ashamed of our principled convictions and religious heritage, we ought to embrace them all the more unashamedly. But rather than being “proud” to be “Papists” (as this article’s title suggests we should be), we ought to be immensely humbled. For we belong to a Church where men would rather die by the sword with the words “I am the king’s good servant but God’s first” (St. Thomas More) on their lips, than betray their Creator and the people whom He loves and has made in His image. Heck, since that’s the case, maybe we should even revive the term Papist?

 

The Public Square Needs Catholic Men

This article was originally published by Those Catholic Men.

 

Unless you have been hidden away in a cave for the last year, you probably do not need me to tell you that our body politic is facing a serious crisis. The political events of the last year have been, in large part, disheartening. The reasons for this are many and varied; notable among them is a decline in religious faith. Of great concern also is the apparent absence of intellectual rigor that was seen among some candidates in the debates, in media coverage of the last year’s events, and among certain talk show “pundits”. That such a decline of reason has taken place at the same time as religious faith has declined should come as no surprise, especially to Catholics. A people who believe that “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio) should not be shocked that reason should decline in proportion as faith declines.

 

If, as I believe, the problem of the decline of reason in public life is largely a result of a lack of faith, then engagement in public life by persons of faith will play a large role in remedying that problem. Thus I would argue that men of faith who have a reasonable grasp on things political ought to count it as their civic duty to take part in that clash of minds referred to by Arthur Brooks —a devout Catholic and self-described political conservative—as a “competition of ideas”. If we do not rise to the occasion and accept this challenge, our world will suffer from our sins of omission. For there is a certain void in our public life, and it begs to be filled with true substance. It is on us to provide that substance.

 

If we accept this challenge (better yet, calling) to engage in public discourse so as to offer it something of real substance, we will have to be prepared. A good place to start in building ourselves up for this manly challenge is to draw inspiration from some of the great minds of the past. We might, for example, recall the mind of Stephen Douglas (1813-1861).

 

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman speaks about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, casting them as a model for a serious presentation of ideas. He recounts one moment in the debates that is particularly striking. “At the first debate in Ottowa,” he said, “Douglas responded to lengthy applause with a remarkable and revealing statement. ‘My friends,’ he (Douglas) said, ‘silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms’” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 45).

 

That is a remarkable statement indeed, and we can learn a very important lesson from it: We must not engage in political discourse to be right or to win people over to our way of thinking by winding them up emotionally. Rather, our engagement must be aimed at presenting to others what we know and believe to be true, for the purpose of advancing the common good. Sadly, we would be much better off in this regard if we were to follow the example of Stephen Douglas, rather than much of what we have seen from our President-elect.

 

In addition to learning from great minds of the past, another way to prepare ourselves for engagement in public life, is simply growing in our faith. I will try to illustrate this through reflection on one part of Pope Francis’s first encyclical. In Lumen Fidei (Latin for “The Light of Faith”), Pope Francis references Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of religious belief, saying the following:

 

The young Nietzsche encouraged his sister Elisabeth to take risks, to tread “new paths… with all the uncertainty of one who must find his own way”, adding that “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek”.

 

Pope Francis then points out that, in Nietzsche’s way of looking at the world, “[b]elief would be incompatible with seeking” (Lumen Fidei, 2). If this is the case, if belief really is incompatible with seeking, then my earlier claim—that people of faith possess the true substance (namely, truth) that is lacking in our public discourse—counts for nothing. For how else does one come to know truth except by seeking it out? Fortunately for us, however, the reality is actually precisely the opposite of what Nietzsche claims. Belief, in the Christian worldview, is the strongest driving force behind seeking. For we who believe that God is Truth recognize that to know truth of any kind—yes, even political or economic truth—is to know something of God. Furthermore, believers know that the truth will set us free, not only from sin if we choose to accept and abide by it, but also from slavery to popular opinion and media indoctrination.

 

But what becomes of the Nietzschean “seekers”? The irony is that they are actually the ones who becomes enslaved to falsehood. The Nietzschean seeker—or, more accurately, doubter—is the same kind of man whom Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of in Democracy in America. He is the man who “undertakes to be self-sufficient and finds his glory in making for himself beliefs that are his own about all things” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pg. 406), relying “only on the individual effort of his reason” to do so (pg. 403). In striving to do this, the Nietzschean seeker is in fact striving for the impossible. For, as Tocqueville notes, such a man “does not have the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind”. He is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself, but that the more able have found or the crowd adopts” (pg. 408).

 

The humble man of Christian faith, however, is different. He is not so proud as to try to know everything, but he takes great pains to be as sure as possible that what he claims to know is actually in accord with reality. Furthermore, he has as his aid the light of faith, a light which is “unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 4). It is the man of Christian faith, then, who has something of real substance to offer to our public discourse. For he is not interested merely in party talking points or political sloganry. Instead, he concerns himself above all with Truth.

Are You Defending Freedom? An Independence Day Reflection

Defending Freedom

Independence Day has come and gone.  For some, it was a day marked by joyous celebrations and expressions of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy. For others, it was marked by rowdy gatherings of drunkenness, seemingly absent of any real patriotism.  What surely it ought to have been marked by, is reflection.  Reflection on just what it was that compelled the signers of the Declaration of Independence to put their very lives at stake by acting in grave defiance of the British Crown.  Reflection on our duty as citizens to protect and, as the framers of the Constitution so eloquently wrote, “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” And finally, reflection on whether we are living up to that duty, or instead allowing for the very foundations of liberty to collapse before our eyes.  For those who value the “Blessings of Liberty”, reflecting on these questions is a must.  For it is naïve at best to think that an unreflective people can long be free.

 

This Independence Day was different for me than any previous one, precisely because it involved reflection of the kind just mentioned.  On the eve of the 4th, I took the time carefully to read through the Declaration of Independence.  It occurred to me that the question of what compelled the signers of the Declaration to do what they did, could best be answered in one word: tyranny.  This becomes particularly clear if one considers the following words of the document itself.  Just after the authors list their grievances toward the king, we read this:

 

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

 

The authors of the Declaration may well have been referring to themselves as “free” only in the sense of being entitled to the same rights and privileges as other Englishmen, thereby highlighting the grave injustice of the king’s tyrannical treatment of them. Yet a truth of much greater significance can be gleaned from their words.  The truth that every man (and woman) is free by nature, endowed by his Creator with a capacity for free choice that ought to be permitted to be exercised.  It is upon this truth that our  sacred duty to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity”, and to oppose tyranny in all of its forms, is founded.  It is a sacred duty because even God himself honors and reverences man’s freedom, to the point even of allowing the sin of one man to bring death to all men (Rom 5:12).

 

I should make one thing clear.  While it is true that not all sin should be legislated against, I am in no way calling for the defense of some kind of libertarian freedom that accords man the “right” to do just about anything he would like. I am advocating rather for the defense of a freedom that consists, as St. John Paul II said, “in having the right to do what we ought”—a freedom which of late has been called into question and shamefully abused.  We who are Christ’s disciples must examine if we are living up to our high calling to defend this freedom from all those who would seek to snuff it out.  For such attacks on man’s freedom offend not only man’s dignity, but almighty God himself.

Morality and Religion – The Enemies of Tyranny

This article was originally posted by Those Catholic Men.

 

John Adams famously said that “our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  If we wish to have any substantial hope for our nation’s future, we must believe these words with deep conviction and make them a driving force behind our activity in society.  If we do not do this, we will move further and further away from “a government of laws”—only to move progressively more toward a government “of men” (Adams, 1780 Massachusetts State Constitution).  This we would do at our own peril, bringing disgrace upon ourselves.  But it need not be that way.  In fact, it will not be that way if we rise to the occasion and fulfill our high calling as citizens—citizens first and foremost of Heaven (Phil 3:20).

 

If we accept Adams’ claim that our constitution is suitable only to a moral and religious people, we must be able to answer why.  The thought of the constitution’s framers is especially helpful in this regard.   In my understanding, the framers believed that the constitution they created erected a system of government based on self-governance by the people, albeit through their elected representatives.  The framers also thought that the structure of government laid out in the constitution was such that it served to protect the people from their own passions —by means of making the passing of legislation a long, difficult and uncertain process.  Perhaps most important to the minds of the framers, though, was that the constitution also served to protect the people from the passions of their governing officials—by means of checks and balances, the separation of powers, etc.

 

Because the framers erected a form of government of the kind mentioned above—one based on the rule of law—the people enjoyed a significant degree of freedom.  This is precisely why I attach so much importance to Adams’ words.  For freedom can be used for good or ill.  It can be used as an opportunity to “serve one another through love” or “as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13).  How men decide to use their freedom depends, to a significant extent, upon how their consciences have been formed and upon their belief (or lack thereof) in God and the possibility of eternal life with Him.  It is evident that there are many today whose consciences are seriously malformed and whose “moral compasses” seem to have been altogether lost.  Moreover, there are many who are confused about, indifferent, or outright hostile to God and His Church.

 

What does this mean for us as Catholic Christian men?

 

It means that we must live our lives so as to make people ask questions.  In a world obsessed with carnal pleasures, people become curious about the man who drinks only moderately and lives chastely.  When many would do anything to “make a quick buck”, people wonder about the man of integrity who is upright and honest in his business dealings.  At a time when silence in the face of wrongdoing has become all too common, the outspoken man catches people’s attention.  In a society filled with young men living for “fun” with no view to the future, the young man of foresight who works strategically toward success stands out like a sore thumb.  We, then, must be the men who do these things—the men who exemplify the human virtues (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1804).  To do so, however, is not enough.

 

You may have noticed that I just referred indirectly to the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.  These are subsumed under the category of the human virtues and are acquired largely by our own efforts.  The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, however, are free gifts of God . They are “infused by God into the souls of the faithful” and “are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being”.  Moreover, the theological virtues are “the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character” (CCC, 1813).  The importance of these virtues to our discussion cannot be overstated.  If we work tirelessly to preserve them in our souls by remaining in a state of grace—and preach the gospel which they impel us to preach—then we do a great service to our fellow citizens.  For in so doing, we will undoubtedly draw men and women into the joyous life of Christ and His Church.

 

It may seem that I have strayed and made points unrelated to my initial focus. I do not think that is the case; I will now try to tie everything together to show you why.  As I have noted, the framers of our constitution erected a system of government based on self-governance by the people.  They knew, however, that man in his sinfulness and frailty sometimes desires—even seeks insatiably after—that which is inconsistent with his true good.  So they set up a difficult and uncertain legislative process, and a system of checks and balances and the separation of powers, in order to protect the people from their own passions and those of their governing officials.

 

I think the framers knew well, however, that such a governmental structure based on rule of law—and consequently, on liberty—would degenerate into lawlessness and tyranny if the people and their officials ceased to be virtuous, and if the Christian religion ceased to hold sway over the general populous.  Why? Because a politically free people unhindered by any moral norms—“without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12)—will clamor and labor incessantly for the immediate satisfaction of their base desires in law, corrupting politicians in the process and leading them to abuse their authority. One need only turn on the news for a brief moment to see that this is happening today.  I leave you, then, with a chilling statement from Alexis de Tocqueville. It is meant not so much to arouse fear as to inspire you to labor incessantly—not for the satisfaction of your base desires, but for the restoration of morality, religion and ordered liberty in our nation.  “What is most repugnant to me in America” said Tocqueville, “is not the extreme freedom that reigns there, it is the lack of a guarantee against tyranny” (Democracy in America, 241).