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Friday, November 30, 2012

Thinking Well About Things (Other Than Politics)

By C. C. Pecknold

One of our greatest living philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre,
recently gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame titled “Catholic instead of what?”  MacIntyre always has a way of provoking thought, of unsettling our categories, and helping us to understand ourselves and our place in the world.  This brilliant lecture was no exception.  He began by observing that Catholics have always understood themselves in contrast to something else.  That is a particularly good starting point for any post-election analysis since Catholics have been increasingly reduced to a political caricature of what they are against (contraception, abortion, redefinition of marriage).

MacIntyre stressed that Catholic Christians have always lived the Christian story in such a way as to unfold its communal learning before the whole world, largely in terms of affirmations and denials.  For example, Catholics have always believed and affirmed “that God exists, that the Word was made flesh, that the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes Christ’s body and blood, that the pope and the bishops teach with apostolic authority.”  But Christians also disbelieve, as often in response to confused internal claims (such as heresies) as to external claims (counter narratives).  In each particular time and place, Catholic Christians have disbelieved anything that provides grounds for rejecting the Catholic faith. That is, MacIntyre stresses, “a reflective Catholic is always a Catholic rather than something else.  So Augustine was a Catholic rather than a Manichean; Pascal was a Catholic rather than a skeptic or a Cartesian; Maritain was a Catholic rather than a materialist Bergsonian, etc.”

MacIntyre was asking, as he so often does, what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular culture.  But the context of his comments suggested an even more timely question in the post-election season – one akin to the one he asked in 2004 by reflecting on why he would not be voting – what does it in mean to be a Christian in a liberal democratic culture such as ours? What does it mean to be a Christian in a thoroughly polarized political climate, with a “vulgarized liberalism” on one side, and a “vulgarized conservativism” on the other?
I am prompted to step back from our fractious political climate for a moment to assess:  where are we now?  How do Catholics understand themselves in the wake of the last election?

In response to a quite important policy question concerning the HHS mandate, MacIntyre had the good sense to affirm the Bishops in their fight.  It is the Bishops, after all, who have led us to ask ourselves (more than anyone else) the question: “Catholic rather than what?”  Yet MacIntyre also paused at the dangers implicit in the fight.  Is it possible for Catholics to simply become coopted, subsumed, reducible and redefined by politics?  He gave this important caution: “If we are going to think well about politics as Catholics in the United States now, there are a lot of things other than politics that we have to start thinking well about [too].”  And I think one of those things that Christians need to think well about are the narratives that shape how we ourselves think about the shape and scale of our politics. In every age, Christians have found their own narrative to be at odds with other narratives that in some way deform or divide the fundamental unity of Christian faith.  At times, Christians can be subtly coerced, often by the psychological force of the general will of the culture they inhabit, to make affirmation and denials that do not flow from their own substantial commitments as Christians, but which mirror affirmations and denials of another narrative.

Currently the literature is awash with accounts of why Christians are more aligned with Republicans, or why Christians are more aligned with Democrats, but I must admit that I find both suggestions equally worrisome.  To say that a Christian must be a Republican rather than Democrat, or a Democrat rather than Republican – while having some intellectual cogency with respect to the hierarchy of moral truths under consideration – seems also to be a sign of a very deep confusion worthy of reflection.  It should signal a warning:  the deepest commitments of Christians are being parceled out for other purposes, deformed and divided for political ends which undermine Christian faith.

For example, Catholics are committed to a strong metaphysical understanding of the justice that is owed to the unborn child.  But Catholics are also committed to a strong theological account of the love of neighbor, whose poverty is a constant occasion for the very generosity and friendship that God has given to us in our poverty.  Now if the parties are to be believed, this means Catholics should split down the line: half-republican and half-democrat – like some perverse mythological creature.  Turns out that, by and large, that split is what happened in the election.  That was not a distortion of liberal democracy, but it was a distortion of Christian belief.  It was a distortion of the unity of Catholic social teaching.  I am not suggesting the Catholics vote in lock-step.  Rather, I am suggesting that this division is a sign that Catholic Christians have not been asking – as a group – the “Catholic rather than what?” question.  In this sense, the Christian in our current political climate is not really asking the substantial questions concerning Catholic belief.  Instead, Catholics are currently faced with a choice which is potentially destructive of Catholic belief:  republican or democrat?  In this post-election season, we have to ask whether our vulgarized modes of partisanship indicate a symptom of a larger problem with the political order we now inhabit, and whether this constitutes a moment for self-understanding of what it means to be Catholic in this political order at this time in history.

Catholics affirm that the state has the authority, within limits, to recognize marriage and to protect people who enter into it; to recognize the sanctity of life, and to do no harm to it; to recognize the dignity of the human person, and therefore ensure an economy in which every person can flourish according to their capacities without being debilitated by poverty.  Yet currently, the Catholic is being asked to divide her affirmations and denials more or less equally between political parties that may or may not finally represent these concerns at all.  It is like asking King Solomon, or a mother, to tear a child in half.

That means that we are beyond the Churchillian “least bad” problem in choosing between parties.  The political culture we inhabit has exceeded that problem.  Ours is not only a polarized politics, it is also an excessive politics.  It dominates every aspect of life.  Political campaigns have learned to carefully cultivate every existing identity for itself, and only for itself.  It has come to take over every aspect of life so there is no place where presidential politics is absent. I think this excessiveness is an enduring aspect of every politics that detaches itself from natural limits, that consistently refuses to allow space to that which is not politics, that refuses to admit that there is anything prior to politics, that habitually ignores anything which supersedes politics, and which denies anything which is not reducible to politics.

All of this makes my post-election reflections sound like a plea for resistance to political instrumentalism.  It is that, but it is also simply a plea for contemplation on those things which are not political, but are nevertheless important to political community.  The popular motto of the Catholic resistance movement during WWII, “France be careful not to lose your soul” is worth recalling to this end.  A generation earlier, Charles PĆ©guy, the atheist socialist convert to Catholicism, sought to remind France to attend those things which were preludes to politics:  metaphysics, narratives, language, family, friendship and contemplation upon the causes, effects, and ends of our most cherished commitments – our loves and our liberties (to recall St. Augustine).   In our post-election reflections, Christians should be the ones asking the really substantial questions, not the ones asked at our very insubstantial presidential debates – but the questions we would want our children to ask:  questions about existence, such as why there is something rather than nothing; about justice, and to whom it is owed; about truth, and making ourselves truthful; about the nature of goodness and how we can be formed in accordance with it.  Questions like these are pre-political, but they matter for politics too.  If these sorts of question whither, we will get the politics we deserve.  Amongst ourselves as well as with others, we must be asking what it means to be a Christian in our excessive, polarized, political order.

At its best, true Christianity has always resisted being instrumentalized by politics – it has always affirmed the legitimate authority of the state, but it has also helped the state to flourish precisely by pointing out its limits, and its disorder.  Sometimes it has done so with martyrs, but usually with a different kind of Christian witness — one which entails discursive reasoning as well as contemplation and prayer, marked by both seriousness and joyfulness about things other than politics but which nevertheless matter for the political health of the places that God has entrusted to us.

Reflective Christians might feel politically homeless in America right now, but if they do, it seems to me that this is an exceedingly good thing because they are finally in a place to ask the more substantial question that MacIntyre suggests that Christians have always asked, not republican or democrat, but “Catholic instead of what?”


C.C. Pecknold
is assistant professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. He is most recently the author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade 2010)