What does a Catholic do when he finds his outlook radically at odds with the direction of politics and public life?
In America, at any rate, the answer has almost always been to stay in the game, and support the causes and candidates that have a chance of winning and seem in conscience most supportable or most nearly so. Anything less immediately pragmatic is considered a self-indulgent attempt to maintain personal purity at the expense of civic responsibility.
One reason for the approach is a national mixture of idealism and practicality. Americans have usually believed in America as the embodiment of a universally valid ideal of life. They also like to do things that look like they’ll be effective. With that in mind, participating in the everyday functioning of the political system by supporting major parties and their candidates has seemed patriotic and right as well as expedient.
Another reason is American conformity, a trait commented upon since Tocqueville. Americans have always downplayed class distinctions and emphasized rising in the world. The result is that social identity has been fluid, and what a man is has depended largely on how he looks to his neighbors. So Americans want to be liked, and certainly don’t want to be on the outs with their fellows. Those qualities lead to some good results, but not to independence of thought, and among Catholics they have led to a one-sided emphasis on assimilation.
Among Catholics concerned with outreach, or with the effect of secular society on the faithful, the preferential option for the mainstream has expanded to a general project of “engaging the culture,” which might involve, for example, taking pop culture somewhat seriously. If we say “who needs that stuff,“ it’s said that we’re ignoring realities and writing off our fellow citizens, so we should attend to it and respond to it as sympathetically as possible. (The danger, of course, is that the wrong concerns and persons—the wrong inspiration and the wrong Madonna—become our points of reference.)
Times change, and they force changes on us. Much of pop and elite culture have become remarkably degraded and anti-Christian, and public thought and policy are becoming ever more anti-human as they work out the implications of efficiency and self-defining freedom as supreme standards. The last, in particular, imposes ever more intrusive and demanding requirements as the understanding of what constitutes a violation of equal freedom expands without limit. If Bob doesn’t want to participate in Bill and Tom’s gay marriage by baking them a wedding cake, it turns out today that he’s violating their equal freedom to marry and needs to be stomped on for the sake of social justice and public civility.
Under such circumstances many Catholics no longer see American society as allied to tendencies they can support, and believe a decisive break is needed. Some of them speak of the “Benedict option,“ for example, which involves fewer direct attempts to influence American society as a whole and more attention to local and specifically Catholic community.
Others object strongly to what seems like a turn away from active engagement with public life. If Catholics turn their backs on mainstream national life, they ask, what happens to civic duty and the obligation to contribute to the common good? Aren’t those required by love of neighbor? Voting forces the issue on all of us. Do we have a duty to go to the polls in November and vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? If we abstain, or vote for a third party or write-in candidate, are we shirking our public duty by wasting our vote and letting the worse candidate go effectively unopposed?
Such objections take too narrow a view of how people contribute to the lives of others. Human life is complex, and we affect each other in a variety of ways. Jesus and the early Christians didn’t try to reform the Academy, get their guys into the Sanhedrin, involve themselves in running their local synagogues, or engage culturally with the shows at the Colosseum or the Theater of Marcellus. Nor did Saint Francis run for the governing board of the local cloth merchants’ guild or try to get a position at the University of Bologna. And contemplatives have always been recognized by Catholics as useful to the Church and therefore the world. All those people concentrated on God, lived their lives accordingly, founded brotherhoods, and presented their views when opportunity offered. By doing so they presented an alternative to the contemporary mainstream that drew people because of what it was. And that changed the world.
Nor did the rise of the Left to dominance start with the “long march through the institutions“ by ‘60s radicals working their way into positions of power. It started with definite beliefs that the Left held devotedly, developed, propagandized, and acted on regardless of popularity or the immediate likelihood of success. “Working within the system“ came later, after generations of despised radicals had succeeded—by never idling or shutting up—in shattering the previous consensus. Sympathizers within the system played a role in the process, but there had to be Reds before parlor pinks could lend them their support.
The demands of the public good depend on the situation. The most obvious and debilitating feature of today’s public life is its extreme narrowness. Only a small range of views, divorced from basic human realities, are allowed to play a role. Otherwise, how could political correctness be possible, or conceptions such as “safe space“ and “microaggression“ become so influential? And how could the Supreme Court find that a desire to injure people is the only possible motivation for supporting the traditional and natural definition of marriage?
In current jargon, we suffer from an “Overton window” (range of acceptable discussion) that badly needs expansion and shifting. Many things that are now unthinkable ought to be policy, and vice versa. For that to happen, what is unthinkable must come to be thought conceivable though radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, and finally be made policy.
Catholics won’t move that process along by always sticking with major parties, concentrating on “what brings us together“ because it’s already popular, and making the dominant powers feel they can work with us. There is often room for such things, of course, but if that’s all we have we always lose. If the only legitimate intransigents are the “progressives,“ then giving way to them will always be the fast and easy way to social harmony. Why is that a good thing?
Post-Vatican II openness to the world has therefore gotten the Church nowhere. It suggests a Church that is happier talking to secularists than to people who are somewhat stricter and more fundamentalist than it is, and thus one that is embarrassed by its own views imperfectly or inartfully stated. In contrast, the success of the Left has been favored by their insistence on the legitimacy and indeed nobility of views farther to their left—“no enemies to the left!“—and the illegitimacy of any view that fundamentally opposes them.
But such talk of opponents and tactics, like talk of pragmatic success in general, is of course secondary. The key to Catholic public action isn’t ideological strategizing, which nobody’s clever enough to bring off effectively for long, but accepting the truth and authority of our own message and acting accordingly. That means loving God, living rightly, and preaching the word in and out of season. And those things can sometimes best be served by emphasizing what is local or voting for someone who isn’t a major party candidate.