The Apostolate of Politics

[Reblogged at The Josias.]

The excellent journal American Affairs, which from its very first issue has consistently delivered content of the highest quality to its readers, now publishes an essay on The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism, by Kevin Gallagher. It is an account of the rise and fall of «fusionism», the alliance of convenience between the disciples of right-wing liberalism and those who sought to defend the moral law of the Church. This settlement, through which Catholics sought to make their mark on politics, reached its highest degree of influence in the Bush II era and into the early years of Obama’s first term. Needless to say, it was a complete political failure.

The article is of great interest, so I will not deprive you of the utility and pleasure of reading it. Apart from a certain ambiguity (perhaps deliberate) in the author’s treatment of the role of arguments from natural reason in Catholic political polemics, I second its diagnosis. Go and read it.

There is one aspect of Gallagher’s argument, however, which is not essentially tied to the rest of his piece and which I would like to comment on. He concludes his essay with the following words, which I read as an expression of a hope:

As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

(Emphasis added.)

The author seems optimistic about how even non-believers might welcome a more assertive Catholic political voice. I would like to suggest that this wish, as stated, is unrealistic. The issue is not taken up in Gallagher’s piece, so what follows is more in the manner of a gloss than of a critique.

People do not evaluate political arguments as they do mathematical proofs ― at least not since God placed a holy angel armed with a fiery sword barring the gates of paradise. As an authoritative exponent of integralist thought has noted, the coherence of traditional Catholic political doctrine rests, among other things, on its sober acceptance of this central fact.

To see this, consider the following. What does Catholic doctrine end up asking of the members of the community? It demands compliance with a number of moral laws and obligations that, as both Scripture and history show, most men will abide by only through clenched teeth. These laws force them to rein in their desires, to silence their impulses, and to surrender their judgment in the pursuit of the common good of the state, which in this context we can define as the good life, life according to reason, lived in society.

Venal and weak creatures that we are, this is a hard sell for most.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is a doctrine that tends to appeal to what is baser in man. In fine, it is about giving political and juridical cover to the unfiltered desires of the common man: the amassing of wealth, the «right» to vent one’s mind on any and all matters, the drive to sleep with anyone, virtually without any limits. What chains modern man to the liberal «order» is therefore not merely an intellectual conviction about its alleged superiority as a political philosophy, but a servitude to concupiscence, to which this doctrine grants a veneer of juridical form and legitimacy.

Frank discussion of political doctrines in the public square is therefore simply not enough to convince most people that integralism is true and good. Something more is needed, and this fact is indeed an essential aspect of the very political doctrine we defend. Part of the teaching of integralism is that true political order is not possible without a vigorous and clear application and enforcement of the moral law (as prudence requires, for sure). That is, man needs that public authority not only propose to him, but also move him (by force, if necessary) to comply with the moral law. And it is precisely by this act of enforcement and habituation to it that the rightly ordered state makes it possible for man to understand that law and to grasp (even if only inchoately) why it is preferable to license.

The insight is from Aristotle: the student of ethics must have a rightly ordered soul before he can understand the good. Similarly, right political order is a necessary condition for the the citizens’ capacity to understand right political doctrine.

The encyclopedists and other lunatics of the 18th century had it exactly backwards: it is not political theory that establishes for the people the rightly ordered state, it is the rightly ordered state that reveals to them where truly sound political teaching is to be found. Because integralism makes high demands on the common man, it is necessary for that man to begin historically with order. Because liberalism flatters his desires, it begins historically with theory. The big brains of the Enlightenment were, strictly speaking, seducers, not teachers of mankind. A useful historical parallel: how did the kings of Castile and Aragon create rightly ordered Christian polities in the lands they reconquered from the Moors? It was not by distributing Christian pamphlets and funding subversive cabals.

Public authority, ecclesiastical or civil, is necessary for integralism to have a real chance of clearing a path through which to reach the people. See, for instance, the recent case of the defeat of an abortion law in Argentina. After the bill was passed by the lower house of Congress, the Church moved to act with decision: «[p]riests and bishops spoke forcefully against abortion from the pulpit. As senators debated the bill, the church held a “Mass for life” at the Buenos Aires Cathedral». Bishops invoked their authority and preached about the moral and political pit into which the nation would fall if such a monstrous law were sanctioned. On August 9, the Argentine Senate rejected the bill, thanks be to God. One of the major Argentine dailies summed up the result with this headline: «The Church, the key player that managed to stop the law». Compare this with the also recent case of Ireland, where many bishops acted with can only be described as pusillanimity, to the point of pathetically recognizing their own failure as teachers.

Other examples can be found in the cases of Poland and Hungary, where a more recognizably Christian view of man and society is gaining traction, this time at the hands of the civil power. The remarkably effective results the exercise of ecclesiastical and civil authority has delivered in these places, and the relatively short times involved, are a lesson in political hope.

Speaking sincerely and directly, in what Gallagher calls the Catholic tradition’s «own voice», is thus only a part of it. The public square is contaminated: not only our fallen nature but the flattery that liberalism does to it place a truly Catholic discourse at a clear disadvantage. Sound doctrine must be taught primarily to power, because the use of that power to further political truth is, politically speaking, the vehicle of that truth’s manifestation to the mass of society. Only the corrective and pedagogic arm of public authority can truly and reliably order our epistemological waywardness. This is the meaning of the res publica christiana, of political order at the service of truth.

What must integralists do, then? Throw up our hands in despair as we realize that our power barely goes beyond the few hundred followers that echo our voices on Twitter? Of course not, so long as we have some clarity about what our goals should be. Our principal object today, I would suggest (and this is by no means an original thought), is archeological and pedagogical: rescue sound doctrine from its primary sources, and expound it with renewed freshness and clarity, in current language and in the light of our historical context. A great deal of this work is already well underway in various languages and with a great deal of acuity, sophistication, and brilliance. We need to get more capable people interested in, and ― crucially ― give more structure to, these efforts: this is our political apostolate (in this regard, the example of the Fundación Speiro in Madrid, with its quarterly journal, regular meetings and colloquia, related institutions, and international contacts, is especially useful).

But what about reaching power? What we are doing now is leaving, as an astute friend has quipped, «breadcrumbs for a more propitious time». But let us not scatter them at random. We must make sure to place them deliberately and strategically, so that they may be found on the road to power, or to put it perhaps less jarringly for «intellectual» ears, on the road to authentic restoration. And who knows, as another friend notes, that propitious time, today seemingly unreachable, may well be just around the corner.


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