What is a “Tea Party Catholic”?

Samuel Gregg discusses Catholic social doctrine and what it has to do with economics, limited government, and religious freedom.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford, where he worked under the supervision of Professor John Finnis. A leading commentator on political economy, natural law theory, and Catholicism, some of his books include Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (2013), The Modern Papacy (2009), and The Commercial Society (2006). He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his newest book, Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing (Crossroad, 2013).

CWR: Why the use of the term “Tea Party Catholic”? Isn’t the Tea Party mostly made up of angry white voters who hate government and don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes? 

Gregg: Actually Tea Party Catholic has very little to say about today’s Tea Party movement—many members of which, by the way, are socially conservative Christians, including many Catholics, worried about America’s present direction. Instead, Tea Party Catholic seeks to underscore that it’s entirely possible to be a faithful Catholic and a supporter of the project in constitutionally ordered liberty that we associate with events like the Boston Tea Party and the American Founding. That Founding involved, as we know, rather strong commitments to limited government, economic freedom, and religious liberty: commitments that some think are under serious strain today.

Now this is obviously controversial. Many Catholic Americans, for example, still believe that the “two Johns”—Blessed John Rawls and Saint John Maynard Keynes!—have said everything that ever needed to be said about justice and the economy respectively. But many of the ideas outlined in Tea Party Catholic will irritate those Catholics inclined to shout “Americanism!” whenever a Catholic says that the American experiment, while not perfect, is in fact something that Catholics should promote and celebrate.

In short, to be a “Tea Party Catholic” means that you reject the path of Rawlisan-Keynesian-New-Dealism, especially regarding its expansionist view of government. But it also indicates that you’re unwilling to live Amish-like in a Catholic ghetto. Instead you believe (1) there are many things about the American Founding to be celebrated by Catholics, but also that (2) Catholicism can help shape that experiment in the direction of truth, virtue, and what I (and others) call human flourishing. I would never claim that Tea Party Catholic articulates the only possible Catholic stance on such matters. But I do suggest it’s a legitimate position for a Catholic to hold.

Lastly, much of Tea Party Catholic draws upon the thought of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Not only was Carroll one of the best educated of the Founders, but he was an immensely successful businessman, a clear economic thinker, a legislator, and a strong supporter of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Carroll was always a faithful Catholic and worked to ensure that the Republic embraced a robust conception of religious liberty. Carroll also understood and articulated the moral and economic case for economic freedom and limited government. As what I call the very first “Tea Party Catholic,” readers will soon see the influence of Carroll’s life and thought upon my book’s content.

CWR: How have the bishops in America generally changed their approach to economic issues over the past 20 years? 

Gregg: In Tea Party Catholic, I suggest that the bishops’ engagement in economic issues has generally moved in a positive direction since the mid-90s. In the 1980s, I think it is fair to say, the American bishops’ conference issued many documents on economic policy about which the bishops had no more competence or authority to speak than the average lay Catholic. Among other things, it meant that many politicians, Republican and Democrat, increasingly regarded the bishops as just another lobby group—or, as Pope Francis might say, a mere NGO—that, like all activist-groups, was to be alternatively placated, humored, and occasionally threatened.

Today we know many American bishops at the time weren’t especially aware of the content of the economic commentaries being presented in their name. But it was also the case that those millions of faithful Catholics who didn’t agree with the mildly center-left economic positions being articulated by the bishops conference were made to feel as if they were somehow deficient in their commitment to the faith and concern for the poor. This was despite the fact that most questions of economic policy fall in the realm of prudential judgment for Catholics.

Those days are, I’d argue, behind us. My sense is that most American bishops regard the Catholic contribution to economic policy to be first and foremost the responsibility of lay Catholics: a category that goes far beyond those lay people formally employed by the Church. The bishop’s responsibility, they believe, is to teach the principles of Catholic social teaching rather than stray into the realm of policy-wonkdom. I also think the same bishops are rather detached from the New Deal-Great Society programs that an older generation of American bishops grew up with. But the awareness of today’s bishops that such economic questions are primarily for the laity to shape—and legitimately disagree about among themselves—means that such bishops exercise considerable self-restraint in commenting on economic matters.

CWR: What does the Catholic Church bring to the political and economic debates in the US that other groups are unable to, or cannot do so nearly as well? 

Gregg: Central to Tea Party Catholic’s argument is that a primary contribution that Catholicism brings to the American public square is its vision of human flourishing: the all-round moral, spiritual, and material development of each individual and community that occurs when they make free choices for the goods that make life distinctly human: life, marriage, family, creative reason, work, beauty, and religion, understood as the knowledge of the truth about the transcendent. In short, Catholicism tells us why liberty is important, and that true freedom is to be found in the excellence of living in the truth. It enjoys some parallels with the ideal of republican virtue that was so influential upon the Founders, including Charles Carroll.

Such a vision, rooted in the Gospels and the natural law, means that something like business is no longer just a useful activity that supplies us with the stuff we need to do more important things. Instead we begin to see commerce as a realm in which we can flourish precisely as human beings called upon by Christ to continue unfolding God’s original creative Act.

The Catholic vision of freedom is thus quite foreign to that of modern secularism. Their vision of man, regardless of whether they’re on the left or right, is essentially one of people as driven by their passions. In that sense, Catholicism raises some very big questions about the adequacy of not just the entire Rawlsian modern liberal project, but also the view of liberty articulated by most libertarians.

CWR: Americans are often presented with a Big Picture that has Big Government in one corner and Big Business in the other, pitted against one another in mortal combat. What is wrong with that picture? How can Catholic social doctrine help Catholics to better understand the actual relationship between business, government, and the individual? 

Gregg: One reality of modern economic life is that many businesses are in bed with the government. Many American business leaders are not in fact very interested in economic entrepreneurship and the free market. Why? Because they prefer arrangements often called “crony capitalism.” This is when businesses call upon political power to keep competitors out of “their” markets, in return for which such businesses support the political class with favors and resources. Neither group appreciates anyone or anything that might upset this comfortable status quo, such as entrepreneurs or open markets. The end result is favoritism, economic stagnation, and corruption.

Unfortunately Catholic social doctrine hasn’t, to my mind, really addressed this problem. But to the extent that it affirms a preference for what John Paul II called “the free economy,” Catholic social teaching already possesses the resources to tackle crony capitalism. And the sooner it does so the better, because, as Tea Party Catholic argues, crony capitalism is among the top three economic challenges presently facing developed economies.

CWR:  In recent decades, we’ve heard a lot about solidarity and almost nothing about subsidiarity. Why is that? And how are two principles related to one another? 

Gregg: If you look at the USCCB’s justice and development website, which outlines themes of Catholic social teaching, you’ll see the principle of subsidiarity isn’t even mentioned.

By contrast, papal teaching, especially the last two social encyclicals, examines subsidiarity in depth. John Paul II used it to critique aspects of modern welfare states, while Benedict XVI applied it to suggest some creative new approaches to thinking about finance. More importantly, however, the popes have understood that subsidiarity is the way that we give effect to solidarity, the latter being the virtue of constant commitment to love of our neighbor.

As Tea Party Catholic explains, subsidiarity reminds us that solidarity as well as its derivatives (most notably, the option for the poor) doesn’t automatically translate into an option for state intervention. It underscores that there are many non-state communities that are often much better at addressing social and economic problems than government officials. It also points to the fact that the individual being assisted is a person. They too are graced with reason and free will, and should be subsequently helped to make the same type of choices that facilitate their human flourishing. Obviously there are many people such as the chronically ill or the profoundly disabled whose capacity to live independent lives is much more limited than most other people. But the general point should be to help people in need of genuine assistance, as far as possible, to choose and act in ways that allow them to flourish as human beings. Making people dependent on government doesn’t help them to flourish.

CWR: What is the most misunderstood or misrepresented aspect of Catholic social doctrine? Why?

Gregg: One mantra we’re all heard is that “Catholic social doctrine is the Church’s best-kept secret.” That’s always struck me as inaccurate. Many of us grew up hearing many more references to Catholic social teaching than to Catholicism’s core dogmas and doctrines. Yet what we learnt was a highly fragmented, poorly-articulated mélange of citations from encyclicals selectively quoted out of context, much of which was designed to assure us that “real Catholics” were essentially mild social democrats, albeit pro-life.

If there is a single document that explains precisely what Catholic social doctrine is and its place in the broader canopy of Catholic truth, then it’s not, alas, the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. Rather it is the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1986. Maybe it was because the core “business” of that Congregation is to provide clarity on Church doctrine, but in the second half of its 1986 Instruction, you’ll find the fundamentals of Catholic social doctrine spelt out far better than most social encyclicals.

CWR: Is it possible to have robust religious freedom and a continually growing federal government? Why or why not? 

Gregg: The short answer is no. Tea Party Catholic argues that today’s welfare state is thoroughly permeated by secularist assumptions about the person. As the historian James Hitchcock notes, the ideological claims underlying the HHS mandate are “endemic to the modern welfare state” and we can expect many more state-church clashes to flow from such claims. And when there’s a conflict between religious freedom and liberalism’s exaltation of individual desires, modern secularism invariably relegates religious liberty to, at best, a fourth-level concern.

But even beyond the secularist claims now underlining much of today’s welfare state, there’s a serious risk that government’s on-going expansion will simply crowd out—or co-opt—many of the associations in which people live out their religious freedom. As Vatican II states in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, religious liberty is something we owe to not just individuals but also religious communities. By increasingly occupying the space once inhabited by religious organizations, expansionist government can slowly reduce religious freedom in practical terms to freedom to worship. Even those Catholic agencies, often staffed by wonderful people, which now receive much of their funding via state-contracts, can find themselves slowly morphing into organizations that take their cues from the state rather than the Church.

CWR: You came to America in 2001 from Australia. In Tea Party Catholic’s introduction, you compare American Catholicism to Catholicism in Australia and England. What are some of the key differences? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Catholicism in the United States?

Gregg: After Vatican II, Catholicism in Australia experienced the same problems that the rest of the Church in the developed world experienced. Muddled or non-catechesis and the homiletics of feelings-babble were the norm. Religious orders desperate to be “relevant” began their slow-motion collapse into irrelevance. And many bishops and priests seemed thoroughly bewildered and intimidated by the secularization of an already very secular society. By the mid-1990s few would have described Australian Catholicism as anything but moribund.

Things turned around, however, when Cardinal George Pell became archbishop of Melbourne and then archbishop of Sydney. He demonstrates that one person—someone who has the intellectual hardware, the strategy, the courage, and above all the faith—can make an enormous difference.

There’s still much to do, but Catholic life is now more vibrant in Australia than it’s been for a long time. In terms of raw numbers, Catholicism is now the biggest religion in Australia, though the practicing rate is low. The seminaries are filling up, and the young Australian priests I encounter are joyful evangelizers of the faith. Australia now also has some excellent bishops who bring together Blessed John Paul II’s evangelical zeal, Benedict XVI’s passion for the truth, and Francis’ desire to engage-in-order-to-shape contemporary culture. As well as Cardinal Pell, there are bishops such as Anthony Fisher OP, Julian Porteous, Mark Coleridge, Philip Wilson, and many others who grasp the challenges facing the Church in Australia and are proving real support to those Catholics trying to bring the fullness of Christ’s message to a country that is not so much hostile to religion as it is indifferent.

As for England, the institutional maintenance mentality was generally the norm when I lived there in the 1990s. You could feel it in the air. I was, however, fortunate enough to be somewhat insulated from that dead-end. At Oxford, Catholic life was alive: not in a Brideshead Revisited way, but rather because Catholicism and, interestingly, Eastern Orthodoxy had become very attractive to many dons and students as the Anglican church continued embracing positions plainly irreconcilable with the teaching of the ancient Church willed by Christ. I was also extremely fortunate that my doctoral supervisor was John Finnis. He’s been described by even some of his critics as the smartest man at Oxford. He gave me the best possible intellectual formation, but also taught me how to think clearly from the standpoint of right reason and faith.

Coming to America, however, was a revelation. Of course there were the same problems I had seen elsewhere. But the Church in America was active in a way that was, at the time, harder to see in other Anglophone countries. In America, there were many sound, orthodox Catholic clergy and laity who were well-formed, joyfully living in the culture without being of the culture, and thoroughly un-intimidated and unimpressed by the usual suspects: secular or religious. They are now, I’d argue, a critical mass in the Church in America, and neither the mediocrity of institutional maintenance or atavistic desires to get back to the glory days of the ’70s can compete with them. In short, I’m more optimistic than I suspect some others may be about Catholicism’s future in America.

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