What’s a peaceful, freedom-loving, family-oriented, hard-working Catholic guy to do with the current state of U.S. politics?
For decades, now, it’s been obvious that even a moderately faithful Catholic cannot feel at home in any of the major, or even the minor, U.S. political parties.
We are given the choice between an increasingly jingoistic, even bellicose Republican Party that goes out of its way to ignore civil liberties and enthusiastically endorses torture, illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens and the death penalty… and the morally tone-deaf party of slavery (both literally and figuratively), the Democrats, who have never seen an authoritarian Big Government program they didn’t like and whose only economic policy prescription is to “Tax the Rich” (the “rich” being defined as anyone who holds a non-government job) and whose embrace of “abortion rights” is so extreme that it even includes outright infanticide.
Not a very appealing choice. The Party of Death versus, well, the Party of More Death.
The truth is, Catholics are odd ducks in American politics.
The ones who actually go to church and believe the central tenets of their Faith (as opposed to the “I was raised” Catholic variety who skew polling data) are, by and large, fairly conservative on social issues (abortion, marriage and embryo research), moderate on economic issues and occasionally downright liberal on environmental, peace and justice issues. (Polls now show that most church-going Catholics, for example, now accept Pope John Paul II’s teaching that the death penalty is illegitimate in most modern societies.)
Part of this odd political schizophrenia stems directly from Catholic social teaching as enunciated in papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Mater et Magistra (1961), Populorum Progressio (1967) and Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991). As the popes have explained for the past 200 years, the dominant principles underlying Christian teaching on both social and economic issues are what are called the Principle of Subsidiarity and the Principle of Solidarity.
The Principle of Subsidiarity means that, for both practical and philosophical reasons, matters ought to be handled by “the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.” That means that Catholics believe in local, de-centralized, “small is better” forms of government. You don’t have the Federal government setting education policy, for example, when education is done on a local neighborhood level. In practical terms, the principle of subsidiarity favors regional solutions to problems over diktats from distant and unaccountable authority. On this score, Catholics would gravitate more towards a free market or Republican approach to economic matters. The Catholic political sensibility favors federalism, local control, regionalism, non-empire building. Small is beautiful indeed.
But the principle of subsidiarity must also be balanced by the Principle of Solidarity or a commitment to the common good. As Pope John Paul II explained it in his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis, “Solidarity… is a virtue directed par excellence to the common good, and is found in ‘a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘ lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage ([cf.] Mt 10:40-42, 20-25;Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27).”
Thus, while Catholics believe in the liberty-based ideals of a free market and de-centralized authority, these ideals are not absolute: They must be balanced with a “commitment to the good of one’s neighbor.” For that reason, most faithful Catholics are not libertarian purists: They do not object to, say, zoning regulations that prohibit strip clubs from opening near schools… or environmental protection laws that forbid dumping toxic waste directly in the ocean. The principle of solidarity is also why Catholics oppose abortion on principle: A woman’s freedom of choice ends precisely where another human life is involved.
For me personally, the only U.S. politician who even comes close to living up to these ideals is the “unelectable” and “crazy” Dr. Ron Paul. Ron Paul is a radical libertarian on economic matters (more libertarian than Church teaching), opposed to the death penalty, opposed to America waging undeclared and unending wars overseas, opposed to the illegal and immoral use of torture, opposed to violations of civil liberties through the U.S. Patriot Act. Because he was a true physician and O.B. and delivered thousands of babies, Dr. Paul is also pro-life, which, to me, shows a willingness to concede that his libertarian principles are not absolute. I thus voted for Dr. Paul in 2008 and again in 2012 even though he had no chance of winning. He is the only Republican candidate who even pretends to adhere to any fixed principles.
For a while, I was tempted by some of what the Green Parties say. I am, after all, pro-life. I was raised in a vast forest. I’ve always liked the Greens and agree with a lot of the Global Greens Charter adopted in Canberra in 2001. The global Green Platform includes many very Catholic statements of principle in regards to nonviolence, social justice, participatory democracy, economic and ecological sustainability, de-centralized decision-making, human rights, and so on. Were it not for abortion, I would probably even sign up! The Greens oppose capital punishment and torture, as do I. They support regional farming and small business, as do I. Their champion for a long time was Ralph Nader, whom I have always liked even when I disagree with him on some economic questions and despite the fact that he is a lawyer.
Unfortunately, however, in the U.S. the Greens, like Amnesty International, have been taken over by extremist pro-abortion fanatics for whom the right to kill infants in the womb is “non-negotiable.” In Europe, some of the Green Parties insisted that “questions implying life and death are sensitive ones indeed and let it be clear that the European Green Party has never advocated unrestricted abortion rights.” The European Greens, especially in Germany, have had painful experience with what happens when societies endorse medical killing…. and are thus much less enthusiastic when it comes to abortion and euthanasia than are liberals in the U.S. The Global Green Party platform in 2008 didn’t even mention abortion except to denounce forced abortions in China. But for U.S. liberals, abortion trumps all else. How a party that claims to be “green” can celebrate the surgical dismemberment of an infant in the womb… or think that chemically poisoning such a child through saline solution or RU486 is somehow a “life-enhancing” act… is beyond me. Here is what the platform of the Green Party in the USA states on abortion:
Women’s right to control their bodies is non-negotiable. It is essential that the option of a safe, legal abortion remains available. The “morning-after” pill must be affordable and easily accessible without a prescription, together with a government-sponsored public relations campaign to educate women about this form of contraception. Clinics must be accessible & must offer advice on contraception; consultation about abortion and the performance of abortions. (Source: 2008 Green Party Platform from 2008 Chicago Convention Jul 13, 2008)
Well, that crosses the Greens off of the list for Catholics, at least the Greens in the U.S.! (In the past few years, the European Greens have also become increasingly pro-abortion… to the point that the European Green Party Congress, held in Paris in 2011, declared that while “access to safe and legal abortion remains a controversial issue in European countries… the right to have an abortion in good psychological, sanitary or economic conditions must be re-asserted as an indispensable condition to the evolution of countries.”)
What about the Phillip Blond’s Red Tories? They are consciously drawing upon Distributist ideals. Distributism is the name given to the political aspirations of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP, in the early 20th century. Opposed to both Big Government liberals and Big Business conservatives, the Distributists favored small, locally owned farms and businesses and sought to put into practice the Corporal Works of Mercy. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement were an example of early Distributist thought. Certainly, neo-Distributism has many attractions for Catholics… and much of what the Red Tories say appeal to us. Yet among their many attractions, numbers isn’t one of them – meaning, both Distributism and the Red Tories are more of a philosophical objection than a real-life movement.
If I was really pressed, however, I would have to say that the political movement that comes closest to authentic Catholic ideals and my own temperament would have to be The Idler movement founded by UK writer and general layabout Tom Hodgkinson.
In a very real way, Tom comes far closer to living out the ideals of Distributism, and thus of Catholic social teaching, than any of the more “serious” political parties we’ve been discussing. In a very real sense, The Idler movement is apolitical. Like G.K. Chesterton and the Distributists, Tom thinks that the most important things in life have nothing whatsoever to do with politics — things like raising children, dancing with your wife, river racing, drinking with friends — and that we should, by and large, ignore both politics and politicians. For example, Tom does not vote… and, the more I see of U.S. politics, the more I understand why he takes this stance. How can a person with principles stand with either the Party of Slavery (the Democrats) or with the Party of Torture (the Republicans)?
While I can’t quite bring myself (yet) to go that far, clearly the world needs a political and economic alternative. The obsolete ideas and ideals of Big Government collectivism … and the equally bankrupt ideas and ideals of Big Business collectivism… have run their course. Now all that is left, in most developed countries, is a political stalemate that is increasingly acrimonious, even dangerous.
The only sane alternative for fair-minded humanists everywhere is to abandon the siren song of politics altogether… to flee the plantation of government rules and regulations… and channel their energies into social and economic projects that lie outside the realm of politics.
What sorts of projects? Anything that is based on voluntary cooperation, not force. Any individual initiative or social effort that invites participation, not demands or forces it. That would include new businesses, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, food and medical co-ops, charities, churches and temples, social outreach enterprises.
For thousands of years, this was how people served the common good: voluntarily.
Someone saw a need that wasn’t being met, thought of a way that need could be met, and then either created a solution that could be sold, or, alternatively, persuaded neighbors and friends to join in a collective effort to provide a solution. Thus, Benjamin Franklin and the early American colonists created the first fire departments and libraries. Politics had little to do with it. Everything was done on a voluntary basis, by subscription.
Increasingly, Catholics and other people of faith will be forced to Just Say No – no to politicians and their increasingly authoritarian schemes, no to never-ending war, no to political coercion of any kind. In the U.S., unfortunately, it increasingly means saying no to party politics. It means voting your conscience instead of for a party. Sometimes it even means voting for idealistic losers.