My monthly column is called “Ecclesia et Civitas” because it mostly has to do with the relation between the Church and the secular community.
That’s a hard topic to get a handle on.
We are told to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” But the saying marks a divide without explaining it, and some say it’s a trick answer to a trick question.
In recent decades there’s been a tendency to solve the problem by identifying the things of God with those of Caesar. People fold love of God into love of neighbor, interpret the latter by reference to current secular understandings of what is good, and identify practice of the Faith with political action. So the Faith turns into secular progressivism using Christian language, and the Kingdom becomes the transformed society intended to result.
That can’t be right. The eschatological passages in the Gospels reject any notion of salvation through politics or historical development. And more basically, the first of the two great commandments is love of God, not love of neighbor. We are told to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself—a much weaker standard.
That’s obviously the right ordering, since downgrading what is best distorts everything. Love of God is needed to keep love of neighbor sane and genuine. It puts us all in a common setting in which each receives his true value. That makes it possible to love others as we love ourselves: otherwise it can be difficult to love some people at all.
It also makes it possible to understand and order goods properly. If we can’t do that we can’t tell what’s good from what we or others think is good. Morality becomes pushing our preferences on others or uncritical acceptance of theirs. The result is either self-righteous moralism or a conception of love that reduces to accepting, accompanying, and supporting the other in whatever he chooses to do.
Self-righteous moralism has a bad name. Nonjudgmental acceptance, accompaniment, and support now has a good one, even though it leads to its own moralism. But why would anyone want it, even in his own case? We are social beings, and in spite of our weaknesses we aspire to do what is right and good. But we have no way to get there if we make ourselves and our preferences the standard. Why would we want someone else to make them the standard?
It’s evident, then, that politics is not the same as the Faith, and we should put God and not man at the center. But that brings us back to the original question: what should Catholics do with politics?
The situation is complicated by Christianity’s unworldly streak. Jesus denied that his kingdom was a kingdom of this world, and silently accepted the devil’s claim that such kingdoms were his. He didn’t marry, have a home, job, or institutional affiliation, or own anything beyond the clothes on his back. And he spoke of the blessedness of the poor, meek, and humble, and didn’t resist arrest or even defend himself before Pilate.
The unworldliness continued among the early Christians. James 4:4 asks “know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God?” and II Corinthians 6:14-17 advises “bear not the yoke with unbelievers … Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”
Nor did the conversion of Constantine put an end to such views. The rise of a more worldly Church allied with power led many saints to choose the solitude of the desert. Even today, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are alive, contemplatives continue to separate themselves from worldly society, and people dream almost as ardently as Saint Francis of living a life like Jesus. And the talk of the “Benedict Option” shows how many ordinary Catholics are feeling the need for some degree of separation.
But those who welcomed the new connection to the Roman state under Constantine and his successors were also right. God created the world because He loves it, so to love God is also to love our neighbor. And love of neighbor includes concern with his practical affairs, and thus at times with politics. The Church needs solitaries, contemplatives, and fools for Christ, but not everyone is called to such things. Saint Francis, unworldly though he was, found the patron he needed in Innocent III, the most politically powerful of popes.
In any event, Christianity doesn’t do away with ordinary duties. Jesus was outraged when people thought they could beg off helping their parents by saying they had set their goods aside for religious purposes. So if you’re a king and a Christian, you should discharge your political responsibilities like a Christian. And when ordinary people have a share in government they should do likewise.
But again, what does that mean? Politics is inherently messy. As a practical matter political order is ultimately founded on war. And the day-to-day operation of government involves forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, if necessary with the aid of deadly force. We don’t let them work out their own way in cooperation with others, based on the goals and experience of those involved, we force matters.
That is often necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to what can be achieved that way. That is one reason subsidiarity, allowing as much autonomy as possible to local and informal associations, is so basic to Catholic social teaching. Catholics carry on their most useful public-spirited activities through such associations and not government.
And there are further problems. Getting things done politically involves acquisition of power and working with people who have it. But power is often acquired and used in dubious ways, and if you work with people you have to deal with them as they are and give them something they want. So practical politics routinely means cooperation with evil.
The effect is that politicians, although they may be affected by Christian concerns through conviction or calculation, are rarely saints. Not many people can engage in the rough-and-tumble of politics, with its ambiguities, convenient lies, and need for alliances and horse-trading to get things done, and adhere reliably to Catholic principles regarding double effect and remote cooperation with evil.
Even so, Catholics vote, and politicians need to please them as much as others. And the saints themselves can play a very important role in politics by changing what people aspire to. What view of life do people have? What do they expect from themselves and others? The answers to such questions form the setting in which politicians act and therefore the character of public life.
The greatest contribution the Church can make to political life is to help create that setting. Today the world needs that more than ever. For example, we hear a great deal about nature and ecology. Such concerns are important, and it is good for Catholics to concern themselves with them as citizens, but the Church’s primary mission and expertise have to do with how people relate to God and each other. Her big concern regarding nature and ecology should therefore be human nature—in other words, natural law—and the moral and spiritual ecology of human life. Who will deal with those questions if she doesn’t?
It seems to follow that her great ecological mission at present should be to stand up to those who want to clear cut and pave over family, religion, and evolved cultural community through global technocracy. To that end she doesn’t need solidarity with Jeffrey Sachs, the United Nations, and the Ford Foundation. Nor does she need to accessorize her efforts with images of Mother Nature and appeals to the Noble Savage. What she needs instead is to stand for what she has always stood for: love of God, a conception of morality centered on how each of us carries on his life, and a conception of society that emphasizes its multiplicity and the relative autonomy of its parts as well as its ultimate orientation toward man’s natural goods and to God.
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