The public challenge of the Catholic Faith

Catholic citizens have an indispensable contribution to make to the national discourse in the present day, one that could prove to be the salvation of the republic.

Sun shines through a statue of Christ on a grave marker alongside an American flag June 7 at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Appleton, Wis. (CNS photo/Bradley Birkholz)

Writing under the pen-name “Publius” in the autumn of 1787, as the debate over ratification of the proposed Constitution for the United States was nearing its climax, Alexander Hamilton addressed the first of what came to be known as the Federalist papers to the People of the State of New York, noting, “[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

Hamilton went on to say, “If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.” This consideration would, he hoped, “add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.”

Hamilton also considered that it would be a very happy thing, indeed, “[I]f our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good,” though he went into the thing with eyes wide open to the realities of politics and human nature. “[T]his is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected,” he wrote. “The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

The circumstances of our national life and the situation of our public discourse are at present very similar to those, which faced our forebears in 1788, while the forces acting upon the various portions of our citizenry are certainly not less complex and powerful than those, which affected the body politic in those heady years. The twofold question before us, then as now, is: are we to be a people, and if so, of what kind?

Catholic citizens have an indispensable contribution to make to the national discourse in the present day, one that could prove to be the salvation of the republic.

The lines to follow – largely a re-visitation and adaptation of others I wrote and published when I first brought out my book, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood – seek to bring the contribution that Christians generally and Catholics specifically have to make to our public conversation more clearly into view. They regard what I would like to call the peculiar Catholic genius for politics, which is rooted in the Catholic tradition of thinking about the nature of man and the things of the city.

If the way of thinking I am after is peculiar, it is not therefore inaccessible to our fellows in citizenship, who do not share or subscribe to Catholic claims regarding the basic structure of the world, epitomized in the words of our Creed: “We believe in one God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible,” and our recognition of the ultimate reason of things, expressed in the Holy Gospel according to St. John: “For God so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” The very universality of the Catholic way of thinking – the universality of the claims Catholicism advances and by which Catholicism professes to live as true – requires all who profess Catholic faith to engage discussion and debate in the public square – whenever they do engage in such discussion – by way of publicly available arguments. That is to say: Catholicism calls its adherents to engage in politics by way of reason deployed in a manner that does not require even notional assent to the data of faith in order to be comprehensible and even cogent.

In fact, the duty to such engagement is one that all citizens of our republic – citizens of every tradition of faith and religion, and none at all – all share in equal measure.

As Benedict XVI put it when he visited the United States in 2008, “[Freedom] also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.” It is freedom that requires such courage, not Catholic faith specifically, nor even religious conviction broadly considered – though the measure to which Catholic faith is compatible with ordered liberty in society will always be established in the concrete by the measure to which Catholics actually do display such courage in public life.

That is no easy task.

The difficulty is often the greater for Catholics, since we very often disagree not only about which of our particular convictions should guide us in our consideration of a given public question, but also with respect to the direction in which our faith is guiding us in this or that public matter, great or small. That things should be so, ought not surprise anyone. Catholics are and always have been people who – to say it with Chesterton – agree about everything, and disagree about everything else.

More to this: the “everything” about which Catholics agree, is an intricate weave of truths the Church teaches, which do not come to us all directly from a single source. Some of the things the Church teaches as true are things the Church has learned directly from God, e.g. that He is one nature in three persons.

The Church teaches such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments and the Church’s own hierarchical constitution, precisely because God has revealed them to her. It is God who teaches such things to the world through the Church. There are other things the Church teaches, which we know are true quite apart from a direct and immediate Divine didactic intervention. We know, for example, that there is a cause of, and an order to all that is, and that we are capable of knowing a good deal about that order and about the principle by which things are ordered. Said simply: there are some things we know are true because the Church teaches them, while there are other things the Church teaches because we know they are true.

To illustrate this second kind of thing: we know that we are to do good and avoid evil. It follows from this, that it is wrong deliberately to destroy innocent life. We also know that human life begins at conception. Nota bene. This is not a matter of religious conviction, as people on both sides of the abortion debate so often erroneously claim. If real assent to the truth of revelation were necessary in order that a rational agent should recognize the intrinsic evil of procured abortion, then advocates of legal abortion would have a much stronger case.

An urgent practical consideration is fitting here.

While it is frustrating to see the manifestly weaker case prevail in public counsels, even when the object at issue is of far lesser import than is the protection of innocent life, and while it is consternating to find so many fellows gone to the weaker side, who ought to be companions and allies in the work of justice, the fact of the matter is that the cause of life in the United States will not advance absent a frank recognition on the part of those who are its champions, that we have too often failed our fellows with respect to our duty to argue on the twin bases of good faith presumed in our interlocutors and readiness to make slow progress on the way.

If, as many of us ardently hope, the Supreme Court’s binding decision in Roe v. Wade is overturned before too long, then the debate over legal abortion will likely return to the states, and a recovery of those basic attitudes shall be an even more urgent necessity. The temptation to vindicate wrongs real and perceived will be great on all sides, as will the temptation to denounce, condemn, and vilify. Pro-life citizens of every stripe and bent and inclination will be victims of such unjust treatment. We must not ever be authors of it. In our common American register, we have the guidance of Publius once again, who urges us:

So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.

Such expansive generosity in the cast of mind we have toward our interlocutors – our fellow citizens on the other side of public questions great and small – is not often conducive to easy victory in the short term. Even more rarely is it satisfying to our baser appetites. Nor is the circumspection for which Publius calls often pleasant – though it is often needful in a measure directly proportional to its unpleasantness. This is not, therefore, a call for false irenicism, still less is it one to quietism. We must – all of us – support the good as we see it wholeheartedly and oppose evil without stint, even as we recognize that our fellows on the other side have a right and a duty to the same.

If this seems a hard discipline, it will prove in practice even harder than it seems. Woeful wrongs long unremedied have drained the vaults of justice in America, sorely testing our patience. Meanwhile, our patience strained, the brilliant allure of easy delight in barking and insult tempt us all. When we indulge our appetites for these things, we too often compound the sin of our indulgence by delusion: we tell ourselves we are paladins of the just cause and embarked on high polemical adventure, when we are really weak and silly composites – caricatures of vulgar street toughs dressed as two-bit tent revival preachers.

When we prefer vitriolic dismissal to patient discourse, when we spout improbable rhetoric designed to earn us accolades from our side – whichever side that is – rather than carefully probe our interlocutors’ positions in search of understanding, when we denounce deliriously without probing fully or at all; when, in short, we pound our own chests and beat our enemies’ brows – preferring that base pleasure to the real joy of argument; we would do well to remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s advice and example, who practiced all the needful excellences even in the jail cell from which he wrote a famous reply to a group of “moderate” fellow clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

In our day at least as much as in his, it is also necessary carefully to consider and determine who and what is worth our moral and spiritual energies, and recognize that prudent restraint is often the better part, when the temptation to express outrage in tones of moral superiority seems too powerful. If physical abuse and unjust confinement were not too much for him, then shame at least ought teach us to resist indulgence of our baser sentiments when we are at liberty and comfortable.

If discipline and restraint in the face of provocation ever seem too much to ask, then remember Dr. King, who wrote the words reported above – and the words that followed those, well worth the reading – from a jail cell to which he was confined simply because of a conviction we all share: that “all men are created equal” is not an ejaculation made in revolutionary fever, but the genuine and fixed expression of our common moral and spiritual commitment – the ordering principle in the soul of our nation, in which we discover ourselves a people – the manifestation of the truth of which is the highest aspiration of our national life.

More than a hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had urged the people of our country to remember their deep bonds of friendship. “We must not be enemies,” he said. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Catholic citizens, who have struggled and suffered and sacrificed greatly to win the enjoyment of their rightful place in American society, ought to be especially vigilant against the temptation to any participation in public affairs, which, by its modes and manners, designs to strain and possibly sunder the fabric of our nation.

Though such strain and risk of sundering may become inevitable, they ought never be our object.

Even after four years of unremitting bloodshed, Lincoln was able to urge, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Aided by the grace of the Sacraments, and informed by a great tradition, Catholic citizens today must heed the call of which Our Lord in the flesh was the author, and Lincoln only the erstwhile herald.

Most importantly, we must be mindful of an ineluctable fact.

When “everything” is so complex, “everything else” is inevitably complicated. We owe it to our fellows in religion and to our fellow citizens – not to mention ourselves – to remember the complexities as we discuss matters touching the public weal. When we reduce our public advocacy of this or that policy to a mere matter of applying Catholic teaching to a particular social problem, we do ourselves and our fellows a grave disservice, even as we risk a greater evil: false testimony to our common faith. If we take principles meant to guide our prudential judgment, and erect them into maxims of conduct from which policy directly flows, we shall lead ourselves by a short route to irresponsible citizenship and ineffective Christian witness.

To be Catholic is to participate in an intellectual tradition that has always inspired those in its way to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger, the Church wiser, and God greater than our own powers of apprehension.

True religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement, to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it, to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity and only for the best of all possible motives: the salvation of souls – the salus animarum, which in this context has the added incentive of serving the salus rei publicae.

Meanwhile, let us remember that all of us citizens are imperfect even in the best of times. The world, after all, is fallen and awaiting the fullness of its redemption. The only true and lasting victory over sin and death belongs to Christ, Our Lord. Meanwhile, we mostly muddle – and though most of citizenship is muddling, we must be about it, for we are citizens of a great republic. The contribution Catholics have a chance to make to the national discourse, is that of example. We will not get another.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 212 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. A fine article assessing how we benefit public discourse as Catholics. Author Altieri suggests more example less imposition of maxims. Less judgment. The flow of history places us in a moment when the absurd, at good moment may have more beneficial effect than the rational. Society seems irrevocably embedded with unprincipled Liberty the Golden Calf crafted by the Aaron of the Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy. Dr Gregg’s article on politics as religion has relevance in this debate as does Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue that justice is now reduced to “sentiment that affects adherence to rules”, sentiment that favors transitory societal concepts like a woman’s right to dismember her infant or LGBT activists to impugn, assault Christians and a judiciary imposing transgender insanity upon adolescents in school and at home. Liberty then has fierce religious overtones in society that makes Catholicism appear pallid. The maxim has a place in contrast to our religious complacency the legacy of a flaccid Catholic Hierarchy [except for the wonderfully outrageous few like Bishop Paprocki] and the growing dictatorship of the Left.

  2. The task will become much easier when Pope Francis is no longer around.

    In the alt-Left environs where my leaky trailer house is parked, I am constantly reminded that “my pope” wants the Church (that is, Catholics) to shed its hide-bound notions of sex (etc.).

    The more bookish and educated the Leftist enclave is the less they ear (or brain) they have for nuanced and sourced argumentation. To them, the direction of the Vicar of the Surprising God has closed off all dissent, let alone discussion.

    Nothing will change their perception outside of political and cultural defeat.

  3. Looking to the example of the tyrant Lincoln and his war against the states legitimately seeking independence? No thanks.


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