Published on March 4th, 2014


Catholicism and the American Middle

When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society.”

It is unlikely that any major American political figure would say anything like the statement above: to be sure, its terms would seem much too opaque to trust to the dissection of the press or the blogosphere. But its skepticism about liberty for its own sake would be even more disturbing than its loftiness. For example, a Democrat would find the implications dangerously ambiguous for the socially libertarian philosophy that flourishes on the left. A Republican would see any caveat about the value of freedom as potentially at odds with the right’s propensity for describing freedom as the commodity most at risk from Barack Obama’s brand of liberalism.

Then, for good measure, consider these two quotations:  

Faced with the tragic situation of persistent poverty which afflicts so many people in our world, how can we fail to see that the quest for profit at any cost and the lack of effective responsible concern for the common good have concentrated immense resources in the hands of a few while the rest of humanity suffers in poverty and neglect. Our goal should not be the benefit of a privileged few, but rather the improvement of the living conditions of all.”

The promotion of the culture of life should be the highest priority in our societies…If the right to life is not defended decisively as a condition for all other rights of the person, all other references to human rights remain deceitful and illusory.”

If the initial quotation seems unusual terrain for an American candidate, it is literally impossible to imagine in our political culture that the last two quotations could come from the same source.  A wrenching description of economic inequality would be the province of an Obama style liberal who would never venture into the sensibilities of the pro-life movement, while it would be just as implausible that a social conservative would spend time blasting the wealth gap.

All three of these quotations happen to be words uttered, and echoed constantly, by Pope John Paul II, the pontiff whom a substantial number of Catholics would be happy to recreate in the form of Benedict’s successor. Of course, they (combined with the equally unlikely blend in our campaigns of entrenched opposition to both gay unions and militarism) are also the established positions of every single contender for the papacy in the coming weeks.

This amalgamation of viewpoints that American politics renders incompatible calls to mind a recent column by the New York Times’ Ross Douthat. He argues that the decline in the ranks of American Catholics prefigured the disappearance of Catholicism as a domestic electoral force. It’s an indisputable point that can be enlarged into a broader set of observations: first, rather than being just a symptom of that decline, the fact that the elements of Catholic orthodoxy are such an imponderable mix to American voters has contributed to its weakening.

Arguably, today’s versions of the left and right tend to be organized around mutually reinforcing bogeymen. Liberals regard social conservatism as a species of the exclusionary policies that they associate with Republican free market rhetoric.  The right links the dependency that it fears from big government liberalism with the permissiveness of a rights-based culture.  Viewed from either lens, the Vatican mix of Tony Perkins and Elizabeth Warren sounds weird and contradictory, and American Catholics steeped in the ecosphere of the modern left and right must see Catholicism as just as irrelevant to politics as church doctrine against divorce and contraception is to their sex lives.

Second, I generally agree with Douthat’s point (and Rick Santorum’s intuition) that a socially conservative, populist toned coalition, what he calls the “Catholic synthesis”, would actually resonate with a considerable swath of the electorate. It’s a conclusion worth pondering for liberals whose presidential victories in recent years haven’t lifted the ranks of self identified liberals much beyond 25 percent, and who have written off appealing to downscale white southerners who lean populist on economics but right on social issues. The same goes for social conservatives who are unable to make inroads in territory that ought to be friendlier, like the Hispanic parishes and black churches where Bible based social policy and economic redistribution are typical sermon material.  

The point is not that either camp might plausibly trade its economic and social guideposts, much less that a candidate could ever fund or organize a race that adopted wholesale the Catholic vision: but in the persistent gridlock that is contemporary politics, Democrats and Republicans missed chances to consolidate their victories with overt movement toward the traditions they currently ignore. I’m considerably more skeptical than Douthat about a comprehensive worldview emerging but there is ample space for both camps to expand by assuming more modesty about their ideological certainties.

Democrats need not become official skeptics of gay equality or abortion to acknowledge the legitimacy and the continuing public appeal of notions of morality that conflict with their own views; or to admit that personal freedom detached from responsibility is corrosive; or to show much greater tolerance for the proposition that, say, abortions based on gender or occurring in the third trimester are morally indefensible.

Republicans need not morph into class warriors to show greater sensitivity to the fact that free markets do sometimes leave behind human wreckage, and that some of the losers are morally upright people whose responsibility still hasn’t kept them afloat.

And the parties could shore up a weakness that afflicts them both, the suspicion that their respective economic and social libertarianism is just the sum of their donor bases’ self-interest, by taking to heart John Paul’s warning about a culture of freedom that is not anchored in a larger sense of public purpose.

The reality is that there occasional nods on the part of each party toward the other’s priorities, but they are invariably short-lived (the flurry of interest Democrats showed a decade ago in tying economic egalitarianism to biblical principles) or minimal, like fleeting asides about black poverty at the end of the standard Republican indictment of Obama’s failings.  Neither set of gestures has seemed enough of a real conviction to earn much credit for sincerity. But it’s worth noting as the American Catholic church sheds members that a durable political majority might reconcile some of what sounds to our ears like Catholicism’s breathtaking ideological contradictions. 

This article was originally published on Official Artur Davis


About the Author: Artur Davis is a former four-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama and a current fellow at Harvard’s prestigious Institute of Politics. Despite today’s hyper-partisan environment, Davis has made a career of advocating for the ever-narrowing political middle. He is a 1990 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a 1993 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, is a licensed attorney in Washington, D.C. He previously served as a federal prosecutor with a near 100 percent trial-conviction record and as a partner at the law firm SNR Denton LLP.

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