Is “Politics a Good Thing” ?

Jul 17th, 2016 | By | Category: Blog Posts
politics

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, I had the pleasure of taking an introductory politics course taught by the well-known commentator and political analyst Larry J. Sabato, who runs UVA’s Center for Politics. One of the most memorable moments in that course was when Dr. Sabato distributed small bumper stickers with the slogan “Politics is a Good Thing!” As a fairly cynical undergraduate, I was a bit skeptical of such a slogan. Sabato, however, pushed the point to the auditorium full of students, explaining that many of our culture’s great accomplishments — be they the preservation of freedom of religion and speech, universal suffrage, or our justice system — owe much not just to government, but to the complicated if frustrating back-and-forth of bi-partisan (or multi-partisan!) interaction and dialogue. Yes, Sabato acknowledged, the trials of partisan deadlock, political corruption, or noxious political debate can lead us to question, or even give up on politics, whether at the local, regional, or national level. Yet politics in all its forms, so our professor argued, remains an essential good to the human experience and society that requires our support and participation.

Concurrent to taking Sabato’s course, I was also knee-deep in exploring a new-found love for the Reformed faith. What did Reformation theology have to say about politics? Was it indeed, as Sabato proposed, a good? Certainly there is a fairly broad diversity of opinions regarding politics and government among Reformed Christians, or even among Protestants more generally. From the “two kingdoms” perspective elucidated by early Reformers like Luther and Calvin, to the “Reconstructionism” of R.J. Rushdoony or D. James Kennedy, or the often politically-liberal positions promoted by mainline Protestantism, there is ample space to maneuver for any Protestant considering his political opinions. In my own experience, however, I increasingly found myself and many of my Reformed friends leaning towards a more libertarian political ideology that bore a fundamental skepticism towards politics, and especially politics on a national or international scale. I should of course acknowledge that this might have reflected more on myself and the specific circumstances of that time and place in my life. Yet I would cautiously offer that in some respects libertarianism does seem a natural extension of certain principles of the Reformed faith. Both libertarianism and Presbyterianism harbor deep suspicions of centralized authority (they didn’t call us the “Split P’s” for nothing). Both prefer systems that reflect a certain purity and simplicity, particularly eschewing whatever might be an obstacle or hindrance toward the ultimate goal, be it God in the case of the former, or individual freedom in the case of the latter. And both maintain a fairly skeptical opinion of comprehensive social doctrines or regimes, as both the religious and political systems tend to argue that private citizens or groups of such citizens should be responsible for many societal needs, rather than a centralized government. Is politics good? Myself and my libertarian-leaning Presbyterian friends might have been inclined to say “no,” or, at best, a highly-caveated “sort of.”

What does Catholicism have to say about politics? Can politics be good without reference to an objective moral order? Can a self-described impartial political system such as our own protect man’s inherent dignity without recognition of that objective truth? Or, alternatively, vis-a-vis my earlier libertarian leanings, is politics a good at all? Should our goal be to limit as much as possible man’s need for politics so that he can be as free as possible to pursue his individual definition of the good?1 Two recent books, Christian Social Order, by Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., S.T.D., and A Concise Guide to Catholic Social Teaching, by Fr. Kevin E. McKenna, though approaching the question from different perspectives, help us see that politics can indeed be good, but only when informed by a proper understanding of the objective moral order. This moral order is discernable via the natural law, but finds its fullest expression in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Fr. Mullady’s study offers a helpful general philosophical introduction to the necessary role community plays in the Church, the State, and the Family, though with plenty of examples and specifics to substantiate the principles. Fr. McKenna’s work meanwhile serves as a useful summary of Catholic social teaching from the papacy of Leo XIII to Pope Benedict XVI – offering a quick, digestible way to understand more than a century of Catholic social teaching. The two books together also provide Catholic and non-Catholic alike a useful guide to knowing what Church has to say about various controversial issues, many of which are front-and-center to debates in America’s current election cycle.2 For the sake of our immediate question, we will look at a few broad themes discussed by these two authors that explain how and when politics can be a “good thing.”

What is Politics? A Short Digression

In the 1958 rock song entitled “Summertime Blues,” singer/songwriter Eddie Cochran croons:

…I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my congressman and he said quote:
“I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

This is what we typically think of when discussing politics: governments, elected officials, voting, political parties. More than likely, this is what Larry Sabato has in mind, as well. These concepts certainly compose much of the political order, but fail to do sufficient justice to politics as it is classically understood. Mullady, drawing on Aristotle, observes, “politics is the perfection of man’s life in this world which is limited and incomplete.”3 Given our culture’s perception of politics as often exhibiting the very worst of human behavior — corruption, reckless ambition, self-aggrandizement — such a definition may come as a bit of a shock. Yet Mullady (and Aristotle) have much more in mind than voting in an election, canvassing for a political candidate, or serving in public office. The classical tradition, as well as Catholic philosophy, define politics as man’s role in public life, in the community outside his immediate family — a natural society that presents man with the opportunity to perfect something about him that could not be accomplished alone. How political society (properly understood) can accomplish this we will discuss in more detail below. Suffice it to say, our discussion here of politics will certainly touch on those elements most popularly connected to politics: voting, political parties, elected officials, etc. A fully-formed understanding of politics must however take account of all the ways in which man participates in the society existing outside of his immediate family.

What Does Washington Have To Do With Jerusalem?

An important question worth considering is why and how the Church should have anything to do with politics, given its other-worldly, spiritual orientation. Indeed, an important narrative present in many Protestant communities is a strongly negative opinion of the Catholic Church’s intimate relationship with secular authority beginning with the emperor Constantine and coming all the way down to the present day. The investiture crisis, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, popes leading armies on the battlefield – all of these and more are raised as examples of Church-government relations gone horribly wrong. Should not the Church, or Christianity more generally, keep itself free of the unavoidable stain of politics? Mullady cites the Second Vatican Council as a helpful way of explaining the Catholic understanding of that relation:

The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system. It is at once the sign and safeguard of the transcendental dimension of the human person. The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, both are devoted to the personal vocation of man, though under different titles4

This is in many respects the same proposal set down as the Gelasian “two swords” theory first proposed by the 5th century bishop of Rome from which it takes its name. The Church is not in the business of determining the best form of government, or focusing on some narrow particular political goal (even if at times specific churchmen have indeed done this). Instead, serving as a moral authority representing Christ Himself, she can recognize what kinds of governments and laws are just and unjust, or, alternatively, “define and assert solutions to problems concerning the state and family which are based in their character as human and ethical institutions.”5 Morality is part-and-parcel of the political sphere: is this law fair? Is that policy good for citizens or the world? If the Church does not speak on these issues, other voices will step in to fill the void, such as a mainstream media with strong antipathies towards Christianity, or even natural law. Indeed, many in the media or politics would prefer that the Christian faith — frequently labeled backwards, archaic, or “on the wrong side of history” — play no role in informing political decisions. The same voices have also often suggested that Christian institutions get out of the public square wherever those institutions’ beliefs collide with that of secular government, be it in providing health care, running schools, or offering adoption services. Yet McKenna, citing Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate writes, “if religion is excluded from the public square it will hinder an encounter between people and their collaboration for the progress of humanity.”6

mullady

Moreover, there are certain questions the Church has greater authority to answer that provide the very framework for determining the justness of every law and policy.7 For example, what is man? Is he a being with an eternal soul, with inherent human dignity given by God, and a purpose existing outside himself, or simply a sophisticated collection of cells to be manipulated by the subject as he or she wills, with no inherent, extrinsically-given purpose? Or alternatively, what is the “final purpose” of a given society? To keep people from doing violence to one another, vis-a-vis Thomas Hobbes? To achieve some arbitrary standard of living deemed sufficient for achieving that happiness? Or something grander, such as the improvement in virtue of its citizens? The crux of many contemporary American debates on marriage, sexuality, or “death with dignity” stem from diametrically-opposed answers to those questions.

Politics Requires Recognition of An Objective Moral Order

Mullady and McKenna both cite the same fundamental concept: when a government abandons any recognition of an objective moral order, its laws and actions sway confusingly about, relying solely on the subjective and entirely fickle sentiments of majority public opinion, with disastrous results. Mullady observes, “democracies seem to have adopted the point of view that majority rule creates ethics with no nod made to objective human nature.”8 McKenna likewise summarizes Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “an overemphasis upon rights can lead to a disregard for duties… If the basis of human rights is only to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, these rights can be changed at any time and are no longer seen as inviolable.”9 Elsewhere McKenna cites Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, summarizing the encyclical:

Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that the majority determines truth, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. However, if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. History shows that a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.10

Politicians should embrace some recognition of the objective moral order that must circumscribe all political decisions. Moreover, such an objective moral order presumes a certain teleology for both individuals and the greater society – is our end something we as individuals determine, or something given to us from an external source? The Catholic Church has taught that man’s ultimate end is fellowship with God, while his earthly end is his own perfection, accomplished through virtuous acts. Much of the modern political debate alternatively suggests our end is “freedom,” though what this freedom is for remains nebulous. As First Things editor R.R. Reno has observed, this freedom is typically expressed as a tautology: freedom for the sake of freedom, rather than freedom to pursue the objective good.11 Take for example Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey asserted: “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” The fruit of such a description of freedom – which implicitly rejects belief in an objective moral order that transcends the personal opinions of individual citizens – is visible in recent government decisions regarding what is deemed as the supreme freedom of individual sexual identity and personal choice.

Politics Requires Recognition of the Unique Dignity of Man

Integrally related to the fact that man and society do indeed have some end is that he has a unique dignity that stems from his possession of a rational soul. Our souls have acts that transcend matter, capable of knowing “real objective universal ideas through sense experience,” namely intellection and the will12 We are not mere compilations of cells, but eternal beings with an existence beyond our physicality. This makes us different from all other animals, because they rely solely on their matter and sense powers for their existence. Our laws must then respect the unique character of the human person. McKenna’s summary of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae offers one important application of the belief in the human person’s inherent, eternal dignity. Summarizing the pope’s teaching on abortion and euthanasia, McKenna writes,

The direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. No one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying…. Among all the crimes that can be committed against human life, procured abortion is particularly serious and deplorable…. from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is that of neither the mother nor the father. It is the life of a new human being with its own growth. The human being must be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception… The use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person…. The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act

Our culture’s acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, and other attacks on the dignity of the human person flow from a rejection of the earlier principle discussed: that civil law must be based on an objective moral order reliant on natural law and/or the Christian tradition. In its place, we have elevated democracy and majority opinion as the standards for determining right and wrong. McKenna, again summarizing Evangelium Vitae, further explains,

In the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority… Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. The moral values of a democracy are not automatic; rather, democracy depends on conformity to the moral law, the “natural law” written in the human heart, to which it must be subject.(( McKenna, 20-23. ))

Democracies are capable of great good, as evidenced by such remarkable achievements as America’s unique contributions of freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Yet it is also democracy that has permitted – and even endorsed – such evils as racial inequality, abortion on demand, and what St. John Paul II has so accurately described as the “culture of death.” Democracy is then no panacea capable in-and-of-itself of creating a just or happy society that will recognize and preserve man’s unique dignity. It must rely on something beyond itself, or even preceding itself, that is capable of defining the nature, extent, and implications of that human dignity.

Social Order is Necessary for the Perfection of Man

The goal of man’s existence in society is not, contra widespread public opinion, individual freedom, as if political society is a “necessary evil” and the purpose of the state only to serve the individual.13 Nor is society “an accident pure and simple,” based purely on choice, as if it is composed of autonomous, atomized individuals who determine to enter into a “social contract.” Neither is society’s character substantial, as if human beings are incapable of acting apart from the collective, an idea emanating from Marxist and communist political philosophy.14 Rather, man is by nature a social animal, and we have responsibilities to various strata of human society: our families, our religious communities, and indeed our civil societies. We exercise our freedom in fulfilling, and even transcending these responsibilities, by doing “something together.”15 As we discussed earlier, politics then enables man to perfect something about himself, as he gives of himself, his talents, and his resources, to the welfare of others, and grows in virtue in the process. This may be incomplete and limited and requires God and the Church for its full fruition, but it is a perfection nevertheless.

Our participation in public life — to include our vocations, our social or charitable activities, and yes, our support of and participation in various political institutions — can accomplish the achievement of acts for the common good. Consider the many political activities at the local, regional, and national level that provide services indispensable to our daily existence: the institution and enforcement of just laws, the creation and preservation of infrastructure necessary for commerce, or even the protection of its citizens from external threats. These are shared goods that belong to everyone, individuals who act not in competition with one another, but as a “single unity,” or as Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World explains it, a “family,” treating one another “in a spirit of brotherhood.”16

mckenna

The problem we soon discover is that society disagrees over what exactly this common good is – a disagreement with deep ramifications on account of the kind of perfection at which politics aims. When such a common good is sought, persons can begin fully to realize themselves in the world when they offer themselves as a “disinterested gift of self to others.”17 When there is little or no agreement, “there can be no community.”18 Moreover, this common good is not directed at the acquiring of material goods, but is instead oriented at something non-material, an idea articulated by Aristotle. He notes, “…the end of politics is the best of ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”19 We pursue the common good so that we ourselves might become good: virtuous people whose souls are perfected for a more eternal end. This perspective is in stark contrast to our contemporary politics, where so many people are motivated not by the common good, but by a mob psychology that eschews critical thinking, “[and] merely to indulge in a general mood created and manipulated by clever group dynamics.”20 Ironically, such a mood typically rejects any “common project for society” apart from that of an aggressive individualism and libertinism: freedom to be one’s self, to define one’s life and purpose apart from any reference to an objective moral authority.21

Even when common ground exists – such as religious and secular authorities’ concerns with threats to the global environment – various factions will debate the proper means and ends sought. McKenna cites a 1991 statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on the Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. McKenna’s summary includes reference to Catholic bishops’ concerns that “advantaged groups often seem more intent on curbing Third World births than on restraining the even more voracious consumerism of the developed world…. Christian love forbids us from choosing between people and the planet.”22 Indeed, current US foreign policy attaches strings to foreign aid that require other countries to accept various US political agendas related to birth control or acceptance of alternative sexual lifestyles.23 Governments — even when capable of doing good — still require an external objective moral authority that will define and promote the inherent dignity of all persons, lest man seek immoral means to achieve some good end.

Conclusion

Politics at this moment in American history is viewed with an especially skeptical eye. Our election season has been a particularly disconcerting one for committed Christians, be they Reformed, Catholic, or anything else. Recent surveys indicate a growing pessimism with this election cycle – a statistical finding that is particularly identified with conservative voters, the demographic more commonly associated with evangelical, Reformed, and practicing Catholic voters. Of course, many have a tendency to equate national politics — and more so a presidential election — with the complex, many-layered levels of politics, which, as we have seen, encompasses much more than the executive branch of government. All the same, we increasingly hear voices, frustrated with our current milieu defined more by emotivism and slander than charity and rational conviction, suggesting that the American experiment, or even politics in any form, is a failed, irredeemable enterprise.24

Yet such a perspective, as Fr. Mullady and Fr. McKenna have demonstrated, would be an errant one. If there is a problem, it may be with contemporary American politics, or even more specifically, national politics, rather than politics itself.25 Society, even political society, remains an essential part of human existence, and a mechanism through which we grow in virtue, both individually and collectively. And through the political life, in the many varied forms that it takes, we discover we are capable of accomplishing far greater good than we could ever hope to achieve individually or through smaller, less formal associations. Such action transform not only societies for the better, but even ourselves. What we require, however, is a political system and government officials who recognize and submit to the objective moral order, and who accept the unique, unalterable dignity of the human person. Under those circumstances we can wholeheartedly agree with Larry Sabato’s mantra, “politics is a good thing!”

  1. Catholic political thought — contra Reformed Protestantism — flows out of a complex, layered intersection of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterial teaching. It is perhaps exemplified most specifically in Vatican II, a number of papal encyclicals spanning the end of the 19th century to the present, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. []
  2. This article also relies on the 2009 book The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origin and Contemporary Significance, edited by David Matzko McCarthy. []
  3. Mullady, 2. []
  4. Gaudiem et Spes, 76. []
  5. Mullady, 1. []
  6. McKenna, 32. []
  7. For further information on this topic, see Bryan Cross’s “The Relations of Man’s Two Ends to Church and State”: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/05/the-relation-of-mans-two-ends-to-church-and-state/ []
  8. Mullady, vii. []
  9. McKenna, 46. []
  10. McKenna, 93. []
  11. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/false-freedom []
  12. Mullady, 5. []
  13. Cloutier, David. 2009. “Modern Politics and Catholic Social Teaching.” In The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origin and Contemporary Significance, edited by David Matzko McCarthy, 95. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009. []
  14. Mullady, 33. []
  15. Cloutier, 2009, 97. []
  16. Clouthier, 2009, 98. []
  17. Mullady, 21. []
  18. Mullady, 44. []
  19. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1999), 23. []
  20. Mullady, 47. []
  21. Clouthier, 96, 104. []
  22. McKenna, 126, 127. []
  23. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/ugandan-leader-signs-harsh-anti-gay-bill-despite-warning-from-obama-administration/2014/02/24/88486066-9d63-11e3-878c-65222df220eb_story.html []
  24. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/is-the-us-presidentialist-democracy-failing/2016/02/10/37fa9ec8-d018-11e5-abc9-ea152f0b9561_story.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trump-is-the-product-of-our-failed-political-system/2016/02/22/20a3b378-d99a-11e5-81ae-7491b9b9e7df_story.html and https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2016-04-14/democracy-decline-puzzle-non-western-democracy and https://theintercept.com/2016/06/25/brexit-is-only-the-latest-proof-of-the-insularity-and-failure-of-western-establishment-institutions/ []
  25. http://brandon.multics.org/library/Alasdair%20MacIntyre/macintyre2004vote.html []

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