Left, Right, and Church teaching: Seasonal reflections on politics

The Church’s teaching is what it is, and stands apart from all factions. But where people stand politically affects what they think that teaching tells us.

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What life are we leading today? And what is it for? Lent has been a time to reflect on such things, and Easter and Spring are seasons of rebirth. But sometimes reflection brings little comfort, and the new life Easter brings can seem more a foreshadowing than present reality.

This time around my experience has been a bit like that. Times are bad. But recognition of difficulties is clarification, and Christianity is based on faith in promises and things seen through a glass darkly. God remains always the same.

Suppose we reflect on politics, for example. Catholics differ wildly on the subject, and the differences don’t go away, so it’s not something that becomes clear with a little reflection. Even so, people seem to consider it fundamental to the Faith and it generates endless rancor. How do we make sense of this situation? And what do we do with it?

Today everything is political. If you want to know whether a man is a man or a baby a baby you ask the politicians. Even in the Church, everything is political. There are radical, liberal, moderate, conservative, and reactionary Catholics.

The differences go deep, and the religious and secular distinctions align with each other. Pious people often deny the point, and say religious issues are wholly distinct from secular political ones. That sounds right, but in practice doesn’t altogether pan out. How many conservative Catholics are “woke” on racial issues? And how many liberal ones seriously oppose legal abortion and legal recognition of same-sex marriage?

The Church’s teaching is what it is, and stands apart from all factions. But where people stand politically affects what they think that teaching tells us. Is a permissive approach to immigration a Catholic principle, or a possible application of principles that depends on conditions that may not be present? Answers very often depend on whether someone thinks easy immigration is good or bad policy.

Most of us aren’t total party-liners, and some people deviate quite sharply from their side’s orthodoxy. But the latter are a minority, and rarely adhere to one side in religion and the other in politics. Their views are usually less classifiable.

So what’s going on?

To me both sides seem generally consistent. The reasons for their positions are basic and apply quite naturally to religious as well as secular issues.

If you’re on the right, you think that reality is more or less given. It doesn’t depend on us, and we don’t understand it fully even though we need to understand it to live well. So we rely on revelation, and on informal methods such as tradition and commonsense that piece together experiences and glimmerings from whatever source into patterns that work and seem reliable. And we believe that attachments and loyalties are good, because that’s what makes the system work. That view makes us more likely to accept traditional boundaries and distinctions.

If you’re on the left you think of the world much more as a human construction. What we have now is the result of past efforts that were guided by the knowledge and concerns—and often the ignorance and dubious motives—of the past. But knowledge is progressive, and morality improves with the growth of understanding and mutual sympathy. So we should rely on our own knowledge and moral understandings, arrived at by clear public methods like those of the modern natural sciences, and go with what they tell us. And that means we should accept open-ended intentional change, and reject traditional distinctions as unthinking and arbitrary.

How do you decide who is right? Leftists accuse their opponents of irrationality, for rejecting the guidance of experts. Rightists accuse theirs of being out of touch with reality, for their belief that life can be administered and modern natural science should be the model for all knowledge. Why, they ask, is that the way to deal with things that everyone agrees are hard to grasp? If someone were awarded a PhD in Lifeology would that make him an authority on how to live?

Rightists say they are the true Catholics, because their view has a place for the tradition, revelation, and hierarchical authority on which the Church is based. Their opponents say it is they who are, because the biblical tradition is prophetic, the Christian revelation is a revelation of human freedom, equality, and dignity, and the Catholic tradition and the decisions of hierarchical authority have led Church institutions to adopt an ever more progressive attitude toward such things.

Leftists have the advantage that their views line up with technological methods that have proven themselves immediately effective. Rightists have the advantage of having views that make sense of the world as a whole, because they make more room for realities people live by that we don’t control or fully understand.

The arguments go on forever, tit for tat. It’s worthwhile going through them a few times, since argument clarifies what is at stake. But in the end something beyond argument is needed to convince people.

What is that? One possibility is historical verification. How does each view end up working overall?

A problem with answering that question is deciding what standards apply. Rightists say their view is better because it delivers family values; leftists say theirs is better because it delivers wokeness. Each seems correct on its basic factual claim, even though there are adulterous rightists and racist leftists.

Rightists say the decline in Catholic belief and practice since Vatican II shows that many changes it inspired were ill-advised. Leftists say it was good to get rid of inauthentic piety, and Catholicism hasn’t been declining because it’s been spreading in Africa, so the changes were good and indeed too limited.

So the question becomes whether wokeness or family values is better for people, whether Catholicism has become more authentic since the Council, and whether the spread of Catholicism in Africa is a specifically Catholic success, or simply a sign that Africa is modernizing and its inhabitants giving up ancestral beliefs in favor of world religions—-Catholicism, but also Islam, Protestantism, and others.

Historical details and objective data including surveys on social trends can help somewhat on these issues. What is happening to religious belief and practice? Does talking up family values do family life any good, or just multiply hypocrisy? And does talking up Black Lives Matter benefit black people, or mean that more of them get killed?

In the end, what persuades people of an outlook is its truth to their own experience. If we are at our most attentive and living as best we can, how does the world end up appearing to us? Does it look like the world described by experts and social planners, or the world described by tradition, revelation, and common sense? And which outlook helps us live better?

So understanding basic matters takes time and depends on more than argument. While we are working toward clarity, each in his way, it seems there are a few principles that ought to govern us. We should take our own views seriously, which means avoiding willfulness and factional spirit, and applying our principles first and foremost to ourselves. Leftists should cultivate a disinterested will to understand objectively, rightists humility and awe in the face of mystery. And both should reform their own lives in accordance with their best understanding of how life should be lived. If we all become the best versions of ourselves discussions will become far more productive, and we may actually help each other by learning from what is best in the other.


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About James Kalb 114 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

24 Comments

  1. Dr. Kalb: this is a very good article. It has been my experience in discussing issues with “liberal” Catholics that without exception they want the church to make peace with the sexual revolution and the spirit of the age. They do not believe that the church should be counter cultural.
    Our previous pastor allowed a former priest, very knowledgeable in scripture, to teach many of the theories of The Jesus Seminar. Specifically, there was no physical Resurrection and Paul had an idiopathic seizure on the way to Damascus.
    I don’t understand how to reconcile these theories with what I understand is the teaching in the Catechism.

    • Steve,if you have access to the FORMED program or app, Dr. Brant Pitre has a course on The Case for Jesus. very solid teaching!

  2. Seeing the supposed division of Catholics based on their politics into right and left, conservative and progressive, can also, and better, be viewed from the lens of their ecclesiologies – theological understading of what the nature and mission of the Church is – Fortress Church and Field Hospital Church. The politically right and conservative Catholics generally have a defensive mind- and heart- set and hold the Church as a Fortress walled in and closed to itself from the threatening world around and thus constantly engages in a culture war with it. Extremist Fortress Catholics actually started much earlier today’s heralded “cancel culture” as heresy hunters for the inquisition-exclusion and denunciation-judgmental machinery of these kindred Catholics. A lot of these Fortress Catholics are naturally highly disloyal and disrespectful (bordering on schism) bashers of Pope Francis because under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he views and leads the Church as a Field Hospital Church. The reigning pope advocates for a Church engaged ‘with’ (rather than ‘against’) the world (wounded by the forces of sin and death) in the spirit of inclusion, accompaniment, outreach and mercy. Field Hospital Catholics are politically left and progressive, building bridges – instead of walls (as in a fortress) – to the world, and as outlined in the opening lines of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes hold that “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” As a Fortress Catholic is a culture warrior, a Field Hospital Catholic is a wounded healer.

    • This comment is exactly what the author is speaking about. As a Catholic whom you would call part of the “Extreme Fortress”, you get it wrong. We don’t want to wall off Catholicism, that is not what Evangelization is all about. Rather, we must speak to the authentic faith, teaching and revelation, that leads us to speak and act as Roman Catholics. Those who believe in “social justice” teaching based on political views have re-defined morality by mis-led ethics and faulty reasoning. Yes, that will get a rise out of most who are not part of your so-called “fortress”. We are not “walled off”, nor do we want to be..rather, we pursue what is right, what is just and what is faith of Jesus Christ. That means we love one another, however, that love does not translate to agreeing with abortion, or agreeing with transgenderism or homosexuality as a right or as being a right way to live. Love the sinner, not the sin is the mantra. Immigration, yes it is supported, legally and with an eye towards helping those in need; that does not mean unfettered illegal immigration when we cannot support those who want to immigrate. Is it right to allow everyone in and then place them in detention facilities with disease, lack of necessities or send them to cities where there is no support, no one to help them or who is willing to do so? We look at the number of homeless in our nation, we love them, we find ways to support them and help them get out of the cycle; yet, we are condemned when we say homeless tents popping up all over is wrong and should not be allowed. We are condemned as “racist” when we in the “fortress” say there is no systemic racism, yet we agree there is racism.. just not everywhere and from everyone (which is what systemic racism is). Get it straight, we in what you call the “fortress” believe in Jesus Christ teaching according to the Bible, Revelation and Church teaching; if the Pope is criticized by us is it because of lack of Love or rather, we would appreciate and need clarity of teaching, not words that cause chaos, that are mis-understood or mis-interpreted because they are NOT clear. Building bridges is what Jesus did, it is the core of Evangelization., it is not however a “one-way” street

  3. I think Mr. Kalb may be riding the fence a bit too closely. Notwithstanding the left’s vaunted confidence in science and technology (actually the confidence is quite shallow), ascribing to wokeness even an underlying interest in truth or reason is sophistry. All values, principles and virtues, even knowledge are ever subject to change. It’s all about the power to impose utopia. It’s not about persuasion; no, it’s about coercion and crushing. I realize there are theological, philosophical and political dangers that pertain to the right, but the progressive left is not just a horse of a different color, it has become an entirely different animal. Wokeness is an ideology that chews and spits out its adversaries. It takes no prisoners; its goal is total victory through annihilation. In short, it is a tyranny. Please do not fool yourself, Mr. Kalb, with this game of equivalence. Yes, eventually wokeness will cannibalize its own, but until then, the future is devastatingly frightening. We’ve seen this way too many times in recent history. You know it, and I know it. All the signs are there. Equivocating to keep friends won’t work anymore, Mr. Kalb. And it’s my hunch that you and I are probably aligned on most and perhaps nearly all things. But the gig is nearly up; they will not wait, and they will not be denied. Sides will need to be taken. I wish it were otherwise.

    • Crude realities are important, but if you don’t step back from the battle now and then and consider multiple ways of viewing the situation you’ll lose perspective and make mistakes.

      People are a mixture, overall social tendencies even more so. I think it’s important to understand what’s is best in the more respectable among your opponents. Otherwise you’ll miss something you have to deal with in order to make real progress.

      How do you persuade people if you don’t understand what might draw someone with mixed feelings to the other side? Is 100% of the problem bad motives? Isn’t it clear that part of the problem is current conceptions of knowledge, rationality, and expertise?

      And from a tactical standpoint it’s a good idea to ask people to live up to what they say – and in most cases actually believe – their principles are. It’s not such a bad thing for us to do so too.

      • My opinion is that people pick and choose the data or science that align with their belief. For liberals to say they align with science is just an example of confirmation bias. They choose the science they agree. Take for example abortion, probably the main liberal/conservative deviding line. How after all the science can one deny it’s a baby, but liberals will. Another more current example our Liberalp President and Press Scecretary deny that there is a border crises. The data and facts obviously documents that there is a border crisis. To be blunt liberals are just arrogant, prideful and dangerous, when they support the butchering of babies how can one say anything else.

        • Universal dismissiveness is a bad idea. Do you think that all the people who e.g. voted for Biden are 100% bad, with no aspiration to anything good?

          • Mr. Kalb, I think you mean the useful idiots. There are plenty of them out there, as there were in Lenin’s Russia. Some of them can be won over, but I am amazed how impervious so many are to logic and evidence. By their nature they are easily manipulated and intimidated. Finally, as Mr. P notes, they are not the ones driving the agenda. To take one example, race relations in this country would be much better if it were not for the deliberate campaigns of the Left’s media to stoke the animosities.

      • It is true that some, perhaps many on the progressive side are not extremists, but they are not in charge of the narrative, the strategy or even the goals. Many are as intimidated as we, by the ones who are driving us off the cliff. The thinking progressives have folded and are fearful of being “cancelled.’ And there it is! “Cancelling” and brute intimidation is where we are. How can you not see that? Rational conversations have become impossible. Reality has become a manufactured narrative, devoid of obvious truths and facts. China’s cultural revolution, Stalinist intimidation, brown shirts … the signs are unmistakable. And the press is in league with them. Read the journalists who had to leave the NYT. It’s all there in plain sight.

        • The left is dominant and it has taken a horrible turn. So why emphasize their unity when we deal with them? Why not look at the people who aren’t consumed by hatred and aren’t fully on board with everything they are doing? There are lots of ex-progressives. Why not try to multiply their numbers by looking at what’s good in progressive aspirations, and pointing out what’s lacking and the lessons of experience?

          • Who and where are these ex-progressives? I will assume for the sake of argument that they exist. Media will not give them a platform. They will be shutdown. I, for one, don’t see or hear them. All I hear from that side are campaign slogans and the rhetoric of victimhood. But for the sake of your exhortation, progressivism is based on the conviction that the past is riddled with ignorance and cruelty, rendering it useless and even evil. With that as the lens through which progressivism (extremist and moderate) sees history and the present, how can one even begin to have a rational conversation about the merits of the past, about the institutions, values and faith that brought us to this point and have enduring value? I would love to hear from ex-progressives. Why did they leave that camp? What went wrong as far they are concerned? What is exactly that list of aspirations you mention? My hunch is that they will never show up, terrified of being cancelled and personally attacked – by their friends, damaging their social status, scared to death that they will be labeled conservative, maybe even Republican, or worse yet, Trumpsters. I hope you try, Mr. Kalb, to find the ones willing to show up, maybe even on this website to have the conversation we desperately need. (It’ll never happen, is my guess.)

          • To JP: I know personally a number of ex-liberals and ex-progressives. These are mostly people who bailed out years ago, before the current insanity. That’s been going on for years, for example with the ex-communists who became anti-communist. Such people have affected public discussion.

            The expression among younger people today is “getting red pilled.” It means realizing you’ve been lied to about basics. So far – we’re still in the middle of the Great Woke Cultural Revolution – their chief effect has been to provoke hysteria. After the Revolution goes crash we’ll see what develops.

          • Mr. Kalb, I have read your books. You lay it all out, and you did so years ago. What has made you pull back? I ask that sincerely, because I think it is in your pulling back that we will learn how powerful the pressure is. I say that, not in any offensive way. I say it because I think that is where we find our bishops. The have lost their voices. I have no hope of converting the tyrannical left; they are fanatics. But can we at least try to muster up in our church leaders a courage to face the reality, to know and speak of the dangers and evil that is coming over us? Your pulling back, as I see it, will tell us much about the power of the left – how it has totally infiltrated the press, overtaken a mainstream political party, and runs our educational system. No one dares to speak up, and we need powerful voices to speak up. (We commenters on this website are mere gnats in this battle.) What are our leaders afraid of? The first step in gaining courage is understanding one’s fears. You can help us, Mr. Kalb. Why have you pulled back?

          • I don’t understand the claim that I’ve pulled back. My books don’t say “people are liberals because they’re bad people.” I look at basic principles like “equal freedom” and try to show how even though they sound good the implications turn out pretty horrible when you make them supreme standards. I even go into the issues regarding knowledge this piece deals with.

            It’s like the situation with heresy. You start with a concern that has something to it, the true humanity of Christ or whatever, and then you try to make it the whole picture and end up with catastrophe.

            But what do you do with someone in that situation? Pascal says you’re better off saying “yes, it looks that way from that direction, but then there are these other directions you have to consider.”

  4. War rages Right and Left presumed implacably at odds. Enlistments favor Leftism. “In the end, what persuades people of an outlook is its truth to their own experience. If we all become the best versions of ourselves discussions will become far more productive”. Although resolution of the disparity seems futile James Kalb searches for a rational resolution, at least a start for a road to reconciliation. Kalb nevertheless identifies the major premise that determines all truth, that reality is a given. Persuasion to the truth “in the end” hence is not really determined by relevance “to the truth of our own experience”, unless we interiorly comprehend the dynamics of our paucity. Kalb may be correct at least for some perhaps in wonderment all that this interior admission exists. Although it does potentially. And life in this world shows becoming the best that we can be isn’t accomplished by reason alone. Kalb obviously is aware of grace and enlightenment neither does his output indicate a Christian rationalist. God expects all of us, lawyer, priest, editor, theologian, philosopher, ordinary laymen to use our intelligence to reason and propose and not surrender to the malaise of futility. Grace akin to water may seep into the smallest aperture.

    • “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Even so, we should use whatever natural means are available to us, and it seems worthwhile discussing what those might be even in situations that seem intractable.

      • Agreed. Why I ended with, “Grace akin to water may seep into the smallest aperture”, which aperture may be initiated by reason.

  5. As I read these comments and reflect on the discussion, I can’t stop questioning myself, “Where am I in all of this?” I am a practicing Catholic, OBGYN, mother of 5, Director of Pro Life ministries and NFP coordinator for my diocese and I am able to see the hypocrisy on both sides of the political and religious spectrum. I reflect on my role in my community and feel unsure of what I am being called to “do” during this tumultuous period. My opinions are not woke enough for some and are too soft for others. I find my self concentrating more and more on my own family and friends and will evangelize verbally when I am asked questions, but strive to evangelize through my actions and choices daily. I pray for my fallen away family members and friends as well as our leaders and adversaries. Striving to be authentic as a Catholic is not for the faint of heart and I try to remember that our faith has survived some very dark times. I am scared for our youth because our secular norms are obviously perverse. Relativism and permissive attitudes have degraded our expectations so much that I don’t believe our children can recognize evil anymore. I do not want to quit the war on evil but am unsure of what battle to fight. I am striving to recognize Jesus in everyone I meet. The family is the domestic church and it needs to be protected vigilantly.

    • Michele I can’t conceive your doing better than you are, except to continuously acknowledge the graces God has given you, to be confidently thankful.

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