Monthly Archives: February 2013
While most people are probably not called to the monastic life, we are all certainly called to be more monk-like.
What does it mean to be a conservative? In the American sense of the word, it largely means a commitment to two things: the free market and traditional values. The modern GOP, as allegedly supportive of family values as it is of low corporate tax rates, is the embodiment of such a seemingly natural harmony.
However, as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, these might be mutually exclusive ideas. That is to say, gains for one will come at the expense of the other. His main point is, I think, an obvious one, but one that those on the American right don’t seem to grasp: capitalism tends to destroy traditional values and ways of life.
Ross Douthat’s weekend column, in which he asserted that the sex abuse scandal and the Church’s poor handling of it effectively ended a unique period of Catholic influence in American politics, has generated quite a lot of discussion. Most of the responses agreed with Douthat that this Catholic moment had indeed ended, but argued that he placed too much blame on the shoulders of the clergy and the decline of the Church’s reputation in the wake of the scandal. These folks, such as Peter Lawler, contended that it’s instead the case that the decrease in salience of Catholic ideas about society is primarily due to the fact that both parties are more polarized than they were in 2000, more deeply entrenched in their own extreme forms of liberalism (economically on the right, socially on the left).
Rod Dreher of The American Conservative took this line one step further, not only arguing that this particular Catholic moment was the victim of the extremes of the American political spectrum, but that any Catholic moment would inevitably be living on borrowed time, given the deep incongruities of Catholicism and liberalism. In fact, Dreher questions that such a Catholic moment could ever really exist with any real vitality in a liberal society such as America.
In his weekend column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat declares the “end of a distinctively Catholic moment.” First articulated by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic moment was understood as a period in which “the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism — enjoyed real influence in U.S. politics.” Douthat points out that as recently as the mid-2000s, the Catholic Church and its ideas were at least partially embraced by both sides of the aisle, as the GOP and its “compassionate conservatism” agenda could be understood as a right-wing approach to Catholic social teaching, while the Democrats were concerning themselves with how to go about winning over “value voters” and appear friendlier to the religious.
But according to Douthat, those days are over. The Church and its ideas regarding society are no longer seriously considered in American politics, a development he attributes largely to the fallout from the sex abuse scandal and the hierarchy’s fumbling of the matter.
Pope Benedict’s XIV announcement of Monday, detailing his decision to abdicate the Seat of Peter and step down as pope, triggered the expected maelstrom of ill-informed, knee-jerk media reactions. The majority of these pieces couldn’t help but point out the many perceived flaws of Benedict’s papacy, charges that ranged from failing to make the Church “relevant” in modern times to the truly damnable offense of just not being as charismatic a pope as Bl. John Paul II had been.
Just as wide-spread as the barely disguised Benedict bashing was the tendency of members of the media to label the pope as “very conservative.” Coming from the American media, this was a label that struck me as curious. In calling Benedict a conservative, the media was attempting to position Pope Benedict and his views on the American political spectrum, placing him firmly on the side of the GOP and casting him as at odds with anything and everything related to the Democrats. Whenever the label “conservative” appeared next to Benedict’s name, it was almost immediately followed with a list of his traditional positions on matters of human sexuality as some sort of substantiation of the claim.
In our day and age, there exists an incessant compulsion to label everything, to categorize it, to take anything that smacks of the political and nail it down somewhere along the two dimensional spectrum that characterizes American politics. Every issue, every politician, every perspective is sorted accordingly, whether it be cast as far-left, center-right, moderate, or whatever. Everything, we are told, is reducible to the language of the spectrum.
Catholicism undermines this false paradigm. It’s not simply the case that Catholic political thought is necessarily hard to define, and therefore, to pigeonhole accordingly; instead it’s the case that Catholicism is incommensurable with the American political spectrum itself; it can not be placed anywhere on the line segment, because the Catholic understanding of politics differs fundamentally from the political philosophy that underpins the entirety of the American spectrum. Any attempt to fit Catholic political thought on the spectrum is as futile as squaring the circle.