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Does Catholicism Need A Theology Of Politics?


In May, the Vatican signed a treaty with the “state of Palestine,” officially recognizing and legitimizing the Palestinian Authority in the eyes of the Roman Curia. This came after a long series of political interventions Pope Francis has led. Some interventions have been good; most have been bad.

Among the good political interventions would be in 2013, when the pope called for a “day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria” ahead of anticipated American airstrikes in the region. Particularly moving, at least to me, was his cry “War never again! Never again war!” Ultimately the airstrikes never came, due more to conflicting American foreign policy beliefs than anything else.

The list of bad political interventions the Vatican has conducted recently is longer. In one way or another, the Vatican has been directly involved with or commented on: the U.S.-Cuba thaw, capitalism, environmentalism and climate change, liberation theology, and numerous odd and off-the-cuff quotes that leave many people scratching their heads—including the late, great Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Of course, most prominent at the moment is the new environment-related papal encyclical, due for actual release today despite a leak earlier this week.

This Isn’t New, But It’s Annoying

This foray into politics isn’t necessarily new for the Catholic church. Ever since Christianity was established as the religion of the Roman Empire, the church has welcomed its political role. The Investiture Controversy of the eleventh and twelfth centuries marked the ascension of Catholicism as the top religious-political entity in Europe, a spot it maintained for centuries. Ultimately, it can be fairly argued that Catholicism built the West, in no small part because it blended religion and politics.

It is frustrating to conservative Catholics under a liberal pope for the hierarchy to take sides in domestic partisan politics.

Thus, today’s forays into politics aren’t “new” for the Catholic church, but they come at a time when the church and its faithful find themselves in uncharted waters: Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are under attack in the post-Christian, secular West. Given this context, it is frustrating to conservative Catholics under a liberal pope for the hierarchy to take sides in domestic partisan politics. Nonetheless, this continues to happen, and it sows more unnecessary division and scuttles opportunities for inter-Catholicism unity on the cultural battles of the day.

Given that almost every foray into the political realm by the Vatican has gone poorly, or at the very least leans politically Left to the detriment of the Right, is Catholicism in need of a Theologica Politicus?

How Catholics Can Dissent from the Pope

This is a question worth asking if for no other reason than to legitimize a loyal opposition within the church. Currently, dissenting from the pope’s remarks gets you blasted from the media, church insiders, or both. Surely, there has to be a way for Catholics to dissent from the pope while remaining in good standing within the church.

Saying that workers deserve a ‘just wage’ is agreeable to almost anyone. Achieving that is something else entirely.

I’m not referring to dissent from the rare but powerful ex cathedra statements or a collection of teaching that is nearly ex cathedra (think Theology of the Body). Indeed, social-justice warriors (and sometimes church conservatives) from the 1960s to the present have repeatedly dissented from such statements with hardly any intellectual depth and with little moral justification that can square the circle about dissent from infallible or highly authoritative teaching. I am instead referring to remarks made during impromptu press conferences, remarks made in short, private homilies, remarks in questionable interviews, and remarks made in any setting that cannot possibly be meant for imparting timeless and infallible teachings. This pope especially has given us a number of such remarks.

What would a Theologica Politicus look like? In some ways, the Catholic church has already promulgated a theology of politics. There are the so-called “non-negotiables” that dictate a single, exclusive public policy due to the nature of the issue. These non-negotiables include abortion, gay marriage, contraception, and the condemnation of both “unbridled” capitalism and socialism. But for these issues the church has not created a policy so much as it has acknowledged the necessity of a single one in order for the law to be just. Abortion, for instance, can never be the direct result or intention of a surgery, but can be tolerated if it is a side effect of treating something like an ectopic pregnancy.

But those teachings and policies apply to the most sacrosanct dogmas. What about “lesser” teachings—on, say, the environment, immigration reform, and wages? These are all areas that need a collective theology because they can be addressed by a number of morally acceptable policy prescriptions. The environment, immigration, and just wages have their own separate theologies within the church, housed mostly within Catholic social teaching, but there is no corpus of knowledge to guide Catholics on a more detailed level. Saying that workers deserve a “just wage” is agreeable to almost anyone. Achieving that is something else entirely.

Theology Doesn’t Always Imply Specific Politics

Catholic social teaching lays out general principles of political action and (when needed) direct policy proposals, but missing is a branch of thought regarding more direct action. Bishops’ conferences and popes alike seem more and more intent to take sides in political discussions and throw their moral authority behind their favorite policies, for good or ill.

Their statements on the matter alienate the opposition and give the moral high ground to seedy politicians and social-justice warriors at the detriment of other well-intentioned Catholics.

If these leaders continue to pick sides on partisan issues, Catholics on the other side of the aisle need a branch of theology to defend themselves from questionable theology on some issues and even more questionable policies that are being endorsed. The minimum wage, for example, has been trumpeted time and again by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) with no attention given to other morally approvable policies like wage subsidies. Bishops are no economists, and perhaps they don’t care that individual Catholics support wage subsidies over the minimum wage. But their statements on the matter alienate the opposition and give the moral high ground to seedy politicians and social-justice warriors at the detriment of other well-intentioned Catholics. How, for instance, could a serious proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (a Catholic) be taken seriously if his own bishops align against him?

Therein lies the problem, and thus the necessity, of more developed political thought within Catholicism. When Catholic leadership uses theology to endorse and promote one option of many for a certain political issue, there is a problem. Theology cuts many ways, and to boil it down in the way the bishops have is a misuse of it. Such an oversimplification misses many of the nuances that have developed over 2,000 years of church history. But what recourse is there? Without a more-developed theology. it is difficult to overcome the moral authority bishops carry with them, even if it has been misapplied.

There is an effort among some Catholics to provide a theologically rational counterpoint. The Acton Institute, for example, provides the conservative Catholic and Christian view for many of the issues the USCCB takes on. Writers like Samuel Gregg also provide that viewpoint with works like “Tea Party Catholic.” These efforts are a good start, but again, when the bishops are against you, it is difficult to effectively argue against them. The moral high ground they sit on is less of a hill as it is a mountain.

There is a loyal opposition within the Catholic church, whether the hierarchy likes it or not. Instead of being continually ostracized by the leadership, such an opposition needs legitimacy. Can we get serious with a theology of politics and legitimize that opposition?