American political institutions give us
all part of the responsibility for how we are governed. Catholics need to carry
out that responsibility in accordance with their best understanding of man,
society, and American political life.
The Catholic understanding of man and
society is reasonably well worked out, but the nature of American political
life is ambiguous. Our institutions are republican by design, and based on
limited and distributed powers. They are also democratic, and claim to reflect
the will of the people. What’s needed to bring those two aspects together is
mutual persuasion. If powers are limited and distributed, mutual persuasion is
necessary for government to go forward, and if that is how decisions are made,
they can reasonably be viewed as the considered judgment of the people.
That system seems a good one for carrying
on public life in accordance with reason. For government to do something a
great many people in different situations must be persuaded the action would be
sensible. As described, though, the system is simply procedural. It says that a
variety of people have to agree before something happens, but not what kind of
people they are or what leads them to agree. It leaves uncertain what the point
of the activity is.
Our foundational documents do not really
settle the issue. The
Preamble to the Constitution says that the goals of the “more perfect
union” established by the Constitution are justice, domestic tranquility,
common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. The First
Amendment tells us that religion and the press have a protected though
unofficial role, while other amendments protect property and privacy rights and
show a tendency to broaden the popular element in government. And the
Declaration of Independence says that we are all created equal and endowed with
rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Such points are suggestive, but they do
not do much to settle the goals of government or the grounds of its decisions.
The goals are said to include happiness and the general welfare, for example,
but what are those things? Do they include wisdom, virtue, and religion? How
destruction and liberation from traditional restraints? And how do “we the
people” go about making decisions? Political spin? Fasting and prayer? The
maneuverings of activists? Also, how much influence should Exxon, the New
York Times, Harvard
University, the Pope, or the AARP have on the process? The documents don’t
answer such questions, so on the face of it they’re left to the workings of the
That’s not satisfactory to most people. A
system of government must be able to demand loyalty and sacrifice, and it has
to stand for enough good principles and good people to justify that. Those
called to support it won’t be satisfied if it’s basically a free-for-all. For
that reason a political system is never defined solely by reference to
institutions and procedures. It is always tied to a vision of what life is and
ought to be.
So what is that vision in America’s case?
Or if it’s ambiguous, what should Catholics take it to be? If we look at events
since independence it’s evident that we started with a mixture of tendencies
that turned out to be unstable. On the one hand we had radically secularizing
tendencies, such as equal freedom understood as something that defines itself,
that tended in the long run to identify the human good with practical and
mainly economic advantages, and put power in the hands of managers who claim
they can deliver those advantages to each of us. On the other hand, public life
was also influenced by religion and natural law, as well as by understandings
of the good life inherited from Christendom and classical antiquity. Those
understandings were strong in daily life and profoundly affected law and
policy, but they were less often mentioned as political principles, and were
often considered undemocratic because they led to differences of social
position among ordinary peoplefor example, between men and women.
In recent years there have been two main
ways of resolving tensions among the opposing tendencies. Both of them have
involved subordinating inherited to secularizing tendencies while trying to
divert attention from what was being done. Religion, natural law, and inherited
conceptions of the good life have been replacedor identifiedwith some
understanding of individual rights oriented toward doing and getting what one
wants. That understanding is then said to be the meaning and justification of
The first way of resolving the conflict,
which now counts as conservative, emphasizes the strength and assertiveness of
particular individuals and institutions as the highest standard, and interprets
the meaning of America as global capitalism backed by American power abroad,
and entrepreneurship backed by somewhat traditional family life at home. God
and God’s law are real, the idea seems to be, and traditional values and
understandings of the good life are a good thing, but what they all stand for
is American freedom, power, and economic individualism.
The second way, which calls itself
progressive, downplays effective action by particular actors in favor of a
legal and administrative order that secures and equalizes the satisfactions of
all individuals. God and higher law are merged into a system of universal human
rights that is intended to be backed by emerging global bureaucracies.
Strength, assertiveness, effective action, and traditional patterns of life
disappear as ideals, except to the extent they undermine the position of
traditionally dominant groups because they are displayed by the less advantaged.
Both resolutions are evidently
unsatisfactory, for reasons that can be gathered by contemplating the
presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both leave out basic features
of human life, and neither is willing to limit itself by admitting that human
actions and relations have a setting that is larger than human desire. The
result is that both lose touch with reality and end badly.
Since neither makes sense, neither is
usable as a guide for what America should be. People claim from time to time after
an election that one or the other has won definitively, but that will never
happen because each soon discredits itself. In the meantime the dysfunctions
resulting from the deficiencies of the two views accumulate: in the world they
have given us, one in eight young black men is in prison, more than half of all
births to women under 30 are out of wedlock, the life expectancy of white
people without a high school diploma dropped four years between 1990 and 2008,
foreign adventures exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve, and
obviously unsustainable levels of government borrowing are insufficient to prop
up economic activity and employment.
Hence the need for the Catholic view,
otherwise known as Catholic social teaching. In spite of efforts by bishops,
the record presence of Catholics in high public office, and a huge array of
Catholic institutions of learning, that view is all but absent from public
discussion. Nonetheless, it is the one that best supports what has made
American life and politics functional and worthy of loyalty. The others kick
out too many considerations in the interests of a pure system of technology and
Catholic teaching is essentially moderate
and inclusive. It respects individual and local freedom, and takes economic and
other practical concerns seriously. And it accepts a First Amendment approach
to religion as appropriate in a country in which influential people do not
accept Catholicism as their standard of cooperation. But it also recognizes
God, nature’s law, and the inheritance of Christendom and antiquity as
indispensable components of social life. Since those things have been
fundamental to what has been best in America, and they are evidently needed to
make it clear that there are limits on what power can do, the Catholic view or
something very like it is the only one available that is capable of restoring
America to itself.
A great deal has to happen before it can do
so, but we need to understand the goal before we worry about how to get there.
The Church is politic, and she thinks in terms of centuries and eternity. We
Catholics need to do the same, and reject immediate effect as the standard for
political action. In times of crisis it is more true than ever that it is
principle that is decisive.