The Reformation unintentionally undid the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. Now we romantically seek a spiritual life free from authority and tradition, or rationalistically seek truth as if human beings were autonomous and self-sufficient.
The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.
I don’t know what Professor MacIntyre will do this year. For my part, along with my brother bishops in Pennsylvania, I believe it’s important to vote today and on every election day. A well-formed Catholic conscience can choose wisely between the candidates. And this year, vital issues are at stake.
Still, elections are tough times for serious Catholics. If we believe in the encyclical tradition–from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate–then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”
Any committed Christian might be tempted to despair. But the truth is that it’s always been this way. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “here we have no abiding city” (Heb 13:14). Augustine admired certain pagan Roman virtues, but he wrote the City of God to remind us that we’re Christians first, worldly citizens second. We need to learn–sometimes painfully–to let our faith chasten our partisan appetites.
In the United States, our political tensions flow from our cultural problems. Exceptions clearly exist, but today our culture routinely places rights over duties, individual fulfillment over community, and doubt over belief. In effect, the glue that now holds us together is our right to go mall-crawling and buy more junk. It’s hard to live a life of virtue when all around us, in the mass media and even in the lives of colleagues and neighbors, discipline, restraint, and self-sacrifice seem irrelevant.
Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian, seeks to show how we got this way in his recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. His answers are surprising, and for some readers, controversial. But his book is also important–and in its explanatory power, brilliant.
Gregory argues that today’s relativism and cult of the consumer–what he ironically calls “the goods life”–have roots that run centuries deep. He wastes no time on nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. But he does show with riveting clarity that in the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers unintentionally set in motion certain ideas that eventually enabled today’s radical self-centeredness.
Gregory also shows that while the Reformers lit the fuse, medieval Catholics laid the dynamite. Late medieval laity were, quite often, profoundly pious. And because they were pious, they minded when their leaders weren’t. Pious laypeople had an appetite for reform precisely because of their devotion. Late medieval clergy too often preached one thing and did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual license, and schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching and practice.
Many Catholics worked for reform from within. Some had success. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians owe their origins to medieval reform. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were part of an international community of letters determined to renew Christian life from the inside. Saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux spoke truth to ecclesiastical power.
But one key difference separated these Catholic voices from the Protestant Reformers: The Catholics believed that the Church had her teachings right. She just needed to actually live them. The Catholics believed that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the saints, and in the Church’s historic doctrines offered an authentic, all-encompassing Christian way of life sufficient to sanctify human existence–if it was actually embraced and shorn of its abuses.