November 18, 2020 (877 words)
The problem with trashing Democrats as thoroughly as social conservatives do is it leaves us with only one viable political alternative: Republicans.
You may be prepared to hang your hat on that particular hook, but not me.
It’s sad when a practicing Catholic who takes the faith seriously endorses Republican fiscal policy – whether enthusiastically or by default. It’s even more disturbing when a good Christian soldier embraces a concept like “economic freedom,” which, as the Church has always held, is inherently immoral.
Most Catholics who confidently identify as “conservative” are so busy denigrating the Democrats’ decision to go rogue on sexual morality fifty years ago, they have completely forgotten the Republicans (and before that, the Whigs) have been rogue on economic morality since our Founding.
And speaking of history, believers who consider themselves defenders of the faith intent on cultural restoration are openly nostalgic when it comes to our Founders. They invariably refer to these towering figures as Christian gentlemen. They also have a corresponding belief our nation is Christian at its core. These are both heartwarming notions that do not hold up to further scrutiny.
In the interest of clarity, we should stop playing this superficial parlor game in which Democrats are always despicable and Republicans unfailing praiseworthy. Finding our way out of the wilderness is not a simple case of assigning good guys and bad guys from the readily available options. Neither it as simple as choosing to align oneself with the “right side of history” or deciding to “conserve tradition” – not when what’s being conserved is an underlying rebellion against the virtue of obedience.
All of which is merely to say it’s the entire American Experiment in pluralism we should be evaluating. Anyone who possesses even a passing acquaintance with Catholic thought should easily recognize the fault lines.
One such individual is David Wemhoff, a lawyer based in South Bend, IN, who observes: “The American system of social organization, which is Liberalism, (is) condemned by Catholicism.” (Mr. Wemhoff has published a magnum opus that parses our awkward national paradigm in great detail.)
In pointing out how Liberalism has failed, it should be quickly added “conservativism” has not succeeded. “Liberalism” in this broad sense does not refer to our conventional understanding of the liberal/progressive persuasion. Rather it is a handy synonym for “liberal democracy,” a hallowed concept praised by both liberals and conservatives throughout the West.
You may have noticed how frequently the “values of liberal democracy” are reverently cited as our crowning achievement. And I admit those values do sound swell, at least on the face of it. But a liberal democracy operates on the principles of classical liberalism, which in turn is based on the complete emancipation of the individual from all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.
What fills the void left by an emancipation that dispenses with authority, custom, and tradition? Why, it’s “the rule of law.” Because this phrase is so neat and tidy as it rolls of the tongue, we are inclined to skip over the obvious: The rule of law effectively replaces the rule of God. And morality gets tossed to the side of the road, having been downgraded to nothing more than a nebulous “social construct.”
This may explain why Catholicism has never been especially keen on either “Liberalism” or “liberal democracy.”
For purposes of record, one might say Christ officially stopped being King when our Declaration of Independence was signed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say our momentous Founding was the last nail in the coffin. Pius XI tried to rehabilitate the idea that societies as well as individuals owe Christ obligations as King, with a papal encyclical on this very subject in 1925. But his work made nary a dent.
To sum up, then, our cultural woes can all be traced to the pursuit of individual liberty, with liberals and conservatives being equally culpable. This rootless emancipation, this selfish notion of freedom, allows everyone to decide for themselves what is right, and what is wrong. Such recklessness is applied to both public (economic) behavior and private (sexual) behavior.
Elevating individual conscience above all other considerations means we needn’t worry about an objective moral order that must be obeyed to avoid disastrous consequences. The ideology of Liberalism – and it’s popular political manifestation, liberal democracy – boils down to a repudiation of everything that animated the lives of the saints, and fired the imagination of every doctor of the Church who put pen to paper.
Any American wishing to behave as a Catholic should not spend their time grappling with the familiar (and comforting) liberal/conservative dialectic that dominates our discourse. Better to focus one’s attention on how the last five hundred years – all of modernity – has led us hopelessly astray.
What complicates the picture is that “economic freedom” is undeniably responsible for the dramatic increase in material well-being so many have experienced since 1800 or so. In hindsight this remarkable improvement in our standard of living looks suspiciously like the modern-day equivalent of selling one’s soul for thirty pieces of silver.
When all is said and done, part of me envies the ability of social conservatives to focus their ire on Democrats. Ah, if only it were that easy.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
November 18, 2020