Catholicism and Politics: A Response

Josh’s post on Catholicism and Politics is excellent, and this is just a brief response below

I don’t want to disagree with anything Josh says in his post – I think he’s done a nice job of discussing how there are goals beyond this world, and how they don’t always reconcile with having goals in this world.

I really like how he brings out that at some level a sacred/secular divide is intrinsic to Christianity. While I like saying that “having religion” in a society committed to “religious freedom” first is a sketchy thing, there’s no doubt in my mind it stems from a logic intrinsic to Christian thought (nonetheless, it wasn’t Christians that got the “religious freedom” line of thought to prevail above all).

Our question has to concern his last paragraph: Is there a point of coincidence between transpolitical and political goods, and can that be used to get a better politics? He invokes Senators Kerry and Kennedy as successful politicians who have probably traded away their “Catholic heritage” to survive as politicians. Does the crowd-pleasing one must do as a representative mean that one cannot please God?

Josh seems to hint at an answer – knowing the tension between the two spheres of action, states of the soul (as Augustine said, the “city of man,” defined by the lust for glory, and the “city of God,” defined by humility) – that alone might be an ethic which creates better politicians. It certainly creates better humans: if people can respect religion truly and only back down from principles when they know the greatest good depends on consent, they might be able to see that acting practically is not all there is to life.

After all, the criteria for “success” in Josh’s last paragraph is rather low: being a successful politician in the mold of Messrs. Kerry and Kennedy would mean survival in politics alone is a good thing. And I know that’s not true – one gets into politics to do good, not merely make a career of being there.


  1. Well said, I never quite thought of it that way. I always start form the position, that most any way, politicians are self serving. They need the glory and honor heaped upon the position that they sought. I only want to get into politics so I can then get myself appointed to some “no show” job. If I get some good done along the way the better.

    You are right that there needs to be a better politic. Perhaps I speak a little too broadly when I say they are mutually exclusive. Like I said, I don’t always think of it in this manner. After all, we have more than just Catholics and Christians to contend with, there are now wickans and druids and what not. That, makes it all the more muddier.

  2. To deal with druids one just needs a class 5 mace. That bad boy trashes everything! Yeah!!

    You’re right, that’s a bad, bad, horrible joke. It must never be uttered again lest we destroy all of eternity with it.

  3. Its interesting- do you think Kerry and Kennedy have abandoned Catholicism or merely that they prioritise different bits- say a (possibly wrong) understanding of compassion from the bible as opposed to a concentration on abortion. What’s the evidence that they have actually abandoned their faith as opposed to disagree with you about where the stresses in the faith’s political requirements should be placed?

  4. We can look at faith as wholly personal. In which case, there’s no evidence I could possibly present unless I were God and knew the states of their souls exactly.

    Catholicism isn’t a wholly personal faith. Hence, “justification by works” was something that Protestantism argued was characteristic of it, and got leverage from.

    That having been said, while something isn’t personal, that doesn’t mean it is automatically oriented for a common good. And what is neat about Catholicism is that it has ideas about works that are oriented to the common good.

    The most powerful idea underlying Catholic thought is the notion that Marriage is a Sacrament. In this Catholicism is distinct from the Eastern Orthodox, who hold the monastic/contemplative life as highest and transcend the world in the way the speaker in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” does, and is distinct from the lack of rigor marking Protestantism on this count, where Marriage might as well be a teleological suspension of the the ethical, because it’s about God’s Will as opposed to actually showing another person you love them.

    Any denial of this teaching about the Sacraments for the sake of a purely utilitarian good makes one a a nationalist politician (“I’m Irish, I’m one of you, vote for me” or some such appeal) appealing to mass sentiments at the expense of any real deliberation where society is going.

    Look, it’s easy to be for sexual libertarianism. I don’t sit and crusade for right-wing causes in this regard. I think it’s a personal thing, and I don’t want to mess with it. But at the same time, that’s not some higher ethic motivating me. That’s more or less the fact that when push comes to shove I could care less if we reproduce and have another generation to care for, or stay wrapped up in ourselves.

    That’s a calculation of self-interest, where I don’t want to stand up to the forces that make democracy turn on itself and destroy itself in the name of “freedom.” A representative in our system exists not merely as a manifestation of the popular will, though, but as a check on it. He’s supposed to know better, not merely calculate for his own political survival. Ted Kennedy is not going to go down as someone principled for good reason.

  5. When you say that it wasn’t Christians who got the religious freedom line to prevail above all, who was it?

    Were not the vast majority of America’s founders Christian? I know Franklin was rumored to be a Deist, but him aside, were any of those generally credited with concocting the establishment clause not Christians, with the lone aforementioned possible exception?

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