Some political meditations

We do not delude ourselves: our discussing endlessly the interpretation and consequences of Amoris laetitia must be tiring for you, dear reader. And, if we are being honest, it is tiring for us at times. Likewise, reading the tea leaves of every Vatican political development is likely to grow tiresome for you, even if we find it evergreen. Though do yourself a favor and read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s shocking piece at The Week about certain moves afoot to withdraw jurisdiction over priest sex abuse cases from the efficient, severe judges of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and transfer it back to the less efficient, less severe judges of the Congregation for Clergy and the Roman Rota. This is important stuff. But there are other important things to think about. And, therefore, to give ourselves and you, dear reader, a break from the drumbeat of doctrinal crisis and ecclesiastical politics, we have thought about them. We have thought, we note with some pride, about civil politics. And we thought about them primarily in the context of the Church’s teaching. So perhaps it is not as big a difference as we might have first hoped.

This is still Semiduplex, after all.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, we have seen, elsewhere, many people running to join radical political groups. Some of these people are Catholic. On one hand, good for them. The Democrats decided that the appropriate response to Trump was Hillary Clinton. This was a credibility-destroying move on their part. Despite the Democrats’ attempts to blame Russia, FBI Director James Comey, the Electoral College, or any number of other factors, most people acknowledge that a major problem in Hillary Clinton’s campaign was Hillary Clinton. But at no point has Donald Trump given especially strong or especially credible indications that he intends to govern especially justly or especially in line with the common good. All indications is that he will form another standard Republican government. Perhaps he will push back a little bit against the Republican orthodoxy regarding free markets, but it is unlikely that he will get far. And other aspects of his administration will be, we fear, much less good. So, for many people there is a natural desire to resist Trump.

But such a purely negative view—i.e., forming a politics on the basis of resistance—is not really a proper basis for politics. Indeed, the proper basis for politics is to form a virtuous populace. Aristotle tells us at the very end of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics,

it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for excellence if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble.

(1179b32–1180a5, Barnes ed.) Aristotle goes on to argue:

if (as we have said) the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions, and if this can be brought about if men live in accordance with a sort of intellect and right order, provided this has force,—if this be so, the paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power (nor in general has the command of one man, unless he be a king or something similar), but the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time an account proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and intellect. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome.

(1180a14–24, Barnes ed.) Most modern liberals would reject the notion that the law is supposed to be a teacher of virtue. At most, they would say that the law is a framework that permits those who are inclined to pursue virtue. We will not bore you with a recitation of Aristotle’s definition of virtue, which you probably know already, but the bottom line is that to frame laws to point citizens toward virtue means that careful, prudential choices must be made. These choices are entirely incompatible with the studied agnosticism of liberalism. One cannot permit all ideas to compete for support on one hand and on the other hand map out a course of virtue for one’s citizens. Moreover, with virtue rightly conceived in mind, it is obvious that the choices pointing toward virtue cannot be made from a position of mere opposition; at some point one has to begin moving in a positive direction.

The Church, of course, has long been aware of these home truths. Consider, for example, what Leo XIII says in his great encyclical, Immortale Dei:

So, too, the liberty of thinking, and of publishing, whatsoever each one likes, without any hindrance, is not in itself an advantage over which society can wisely rejoice. On the contrary, it is the fountain-head and origin of many evils. Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object. But the character of goodness and truth cannot be changed at option. These remain ever one and the same, and are no less unchangeable than nature itself. If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption. Whatever, therefore, is opposed to virtue and truth may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favor and protection of the law. A well-spent life is the only way to heaven, whither all are bound, and on this account the State is acting against the laws and dictates of nature whenever it permits the license of opinion and of action to lead minds astray from truth and souls away from the practice of virtue. To exclude the Church, founded by God Himself, from life, from laws, from the education of youth, from domestic society is a grave and fatal error. A State from which religion is banished can never be well regulated; and already perhaps more than is desirable is known of the nature and tendency of the so-called civil philosophy of life and morals. The Church of Christ is the true and sole teacher of virtue and guardian of morals. She it is who preserves in their purity the principles from which duties flow, and, by setting forth most urgent reasons for virtuous life, bids us not only to turn away from wicked deeds, but even to curb all movements of the mind that are opposed to reason, even though they be not carried out in action.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, a clear continuation of Thomas Aquinas’s project of rescuing Aristotelian philosophy from its pagan roots and applying it in the context of Christ and the New Law. Now, the New Law is no insignificant thing in this context. We know, of course, that Christ committed to His Church the special authority to interpret and defend the natural law, what Aristotle perhaps wrongly called “a sort of practical wisdom and intellect,” and, therefore, the Church becomes inextricably linked with politics. Again, before Dignitatis humanae and some of the other documents of the Second Vatican Council, these were not especially provocative propositions among Catholics.

The natural law being what it is, of course, most people have an innate sense that politics cannot be founded upon mere opposition. And this is ultimately why many people, including some Catholics, have sought out radical political groups in the wake of Trump’s election. They have a sense, probably rightly, that Trump will not further the common good and that “not Trump” is not coherent. And radical political groups, especially those groups on the left, usually offer something like a coherent positive philosophy upon which they propose to govern. These days, regardless of how they characterize themselves, these groups tend to be focused on social justice, fairly broadly described. Given the nastier elements that attached themselves to Trump—seemingly to Trump’s amusement, if not with his encouragement—social justice as a cause appeals to many people. Certainly no one is really interested in coddling racists or treating foreigners shabbily. We do not mean, of course, the sort of political correctness most popular on university campuses that masquerades as social justice. Often times these groups will describe themselves as socialist.

Now, a word on cooperation with socialists generally. We have written about this before, so we will not bore you with a full rehearsal of the question, especially after trying your patience with Aristotle and Leo XIII. Bl. Paul VI, in his apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, teaches us that Catholics may, with careful discernment, cooperate with socialists. Of course, “socialism” may be said in many ways, and papal condemnations of “socialism” generally ascribe specific ideological content to the term. (Cf. Leo XIII, Quod apostolici muneris nos. 2, 5–9.) For example, the popes never condemn simply supporting a juster distribution of private property or a just wage, even though in modern American political discourse, such positions would be undoubtedly “socialist.” And Paul recognizes this point, acknowledging that, “[d]istinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man” (Octogesima adveniens no. 31.) The issue, as Paul explains, requires some discernment between those levels of expression, but that is politics more generally. Of course, Pius XI reminds us in Quadragesimo anno that socialists really ought to become Catholic if they are truly interested in these shared goals, since it is ultimately the Church that furthers them. (He also says that socialism and communism would not have existed if rulers had heeded the Church’s many warnings about justice, but to insist on that point may seem like gloating.) But the interplay between the Church and every conceivable socialist tendency is not ultimately the problem we are interested in. 

The issue we think is that most refugees to radical political groups are ultimately refugees from liberalism. The problems confronting most people most acutely are a function of liberalism, especially the sort of neoliberal economics most popular in the world’s financial centers and central bank boardrooms. Consequently, there is a desire to move beyond liberalism into something that even promises to be better. However, these groups themselves are by no means free from conventional liberal ideology. And first and foremost among their commitments to conventional liberal ideology is their commitment to a “right” to abortion. Indeed, various interactions that we have seen indicate that these supposed radicals are as committed to abortion as any Democratic candidate, and, indeed, many of them seem to believe that commitment to abortion is necessary to adopt meaningful radical politics. For many Catholics, this is enough: the Church has warned us and warned us about collaborating with abortion extremists. But it seems to us that there is another very good reason to reject the radicals who insist upon abortion as a core value of a just society: it undermines fatally the coherence of any claims they might make to advance a positive vision of social justice.

Every claim for social justice is, at its bottom, founded upon solidarity. In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II teaches us that solidarity consists in seeing the other not in purely instrumental terms, but as a neighbor (no. 39). The capitalist must view the worker as a neighbor, not a tool. Likewise, rich countries must view poorer countries as neighbors, not means to ends. This shift in perspective leads to justice and development. (Cf. Bl. Paul VI, Populorum progressio no. 76.) Abortion, however, denies that the unborn other is a person, much less a neighbor, “to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). The logic of abortion, therefore, is fundamentally the logic of instrumentality, of convenience. The child is reduced to instrumental terms and judged by her convenience vel non to her parents. And the magisterium has made manifest this point in recent years. In Laudato si’, Francis explicitly draws a connection between the compulsion for convenience of a diseased anthropocentrism and abortion (nos. 120, 123). Such logic is incompatible with solidarity.

In Caritas in veritate (no. 28), Benedict XVI makes a more remarkable assertion: “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.” Benedict goes on to argue that, “[i]f personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (ibid.). In other words, abortion is corrosive to not only to other forms of acceptance but also to the pursuit of the common good itself. With this in mind, Benedict makes explicit the connection between abortion and solidarity:

By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual.

(Ibid.) To see the other as a neighbor, as St. John Paul describes solidarity in Sollicitudo rei socialis, necessarily involves respecting the other’s right to life as a person called to the most high dignity of son or daughter of God. Abortion is a flat denial of that right to life. It is plain to see that abortion is inimical to true solidarity. Therefore, no coherent claim for social justice can be articulated without a claim for justice for the unborn.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on a point Benedict made in passing: abortion ultimately causes “other forms of acceptance that are valuable to society” to “wither away” (ibid.) Claims for social justice extend beyond mere economic justice, beyond mere claims for just wages. Frequently, one hears of opposition to racism, sexism, ableism, and violent malice against persons struggling with same-sex attraction. Yet none of these claims are ultimately tenable, Benedict teaches us, if abortion is permitted. The same instrumentality and compulsion for convenience that leads to abortion will lead to racist, sexist, or ableist behavior. One cannot contain such approaches to other persons, or limit them only to one sphere. Indeed, there are intimate connections between racism, sexism, and ableism and abortion itself. For example, one has only to read Margaret Sanger’s bloodthirsty response to Pius XI’s great encyclical on marriage and procreation, Casti connubii, to see the eugenicist, classist roots of the modern abortion and contraception movement.

While Sanger’s response to Casti connubii contains many passages of breathtaking savagery, one example will suffice to make clear my meaning (and turn your stomach):

It is a damaging commentary on our civilization that the rich, with their knowledge of scientific birth control, should have received so little encouragement to make that knowledge available to the poor, that the educated should have been prevented by superstitious and narrow-minded law-makers from providing information to the ignorant. Although the birth control movement has recently made remarkable progress in our country, as will be shown later, there are too many states in which doctors are forbidden to tell their patients about contraception; and the federal laws still prohibit the sending of information and contraceptive materials through the mails. This stand on the part of organized society is both a cruel and a short-sighted policy, because the race is vitiated by the breeding of diseased, defective, badly nourished children.

With such thinking underpinning the movement, can anyone seriously contest Benedict’s point? Can abortion, intended to prevent “the breeding of diseased, defective, badly nourished children” (ibid.), do anything except corrode “other forms of acceptance that are valuable to society” (Caritas in veritate no. 28)? By no means! It is impossible to advocate simultaneously for a juster, more inclusive society and for abortion. You might as well advocate for good health for your parents while poisoning their soup.

With all this in mind, it becomes clear, we think, that support for abortion undermines gravely any attempt to formulate a coherent case for social justice. Abortion is an unspeakable crime, which is always and everywhere not only contrary to the common good but also completely incompatible with solidarity. Returning to John Paul’s terms, one does not reduce one’s neighbor to instrumental terms, and condemn them to death based on questions of convenience. Thus, the very foundation of social justice, solidarity, is undermined by the logic of abortion. More than that, the modern abortion and contraception movement is founded upon explicitly eugenicist, classist rhetoric. There is simply no aspect of abortion that is consistent with society ordered to the common good and any organization that advocates for abortion ultimately sets itself at odds with the common good.

Much of this is not especially news to Catholics, especially Catholics who spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. However, it presents for Catholics an opportunity in this post-Trump moment, which we have previously discussed. Instead of playing the games of liberalism, which anyone with half a brain knows have gotten us into this situation, it might be more useful for Catholics to articulate an authentically Catholic politics. And the first step to doing that is to propose a fundamentally Aristotelian politics, acknowledging, as Leo XIII and Paul VI teach us, that the Church has special competence, granted by Christ Himself, to articulate, interpret, and defend the natural moral law. In other words, Catholics should seize the opportunity to remind their fellow citizens that politics is ultimately about virtue, and the Church is the “true and sole teacher of virtue,” as Leo put it.