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 about creative 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 system.
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 people—for 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 replaced–or identified—with 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 America.
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 will.
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.
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