Politics is a Means, Not an End

Last week  I promised (or threatened) to discuss the issue of the relationship between faith and politics more fully (see last week’s post “Religion, Culture, & Politics” ).  Something that really helped lead me to think about this subject more deeply (and, I hope, more clearly) a few years back was a comment a priest once left on one of my earlier blogs. The post was one of my screeds (not unlike the one I reposted the other day) in which I was going on about building a Catholic culture, or more likely the failure of Catholics, and the Church, to build a Catholic culture.  Father’s comment was: “The Church doesn’t exist to build a Catholic culture. The Church exists to save souls.”

     I had to admit he was right, and that I had been writing as if a Christian, Catholic culture was an end in itself, when in fact it is a product of Christianity and its ultimate purpose is to help leads souls to Christ. Catholic culture is not an end in itself. That’s doubly true for politics.  I’ve tried to avoid that trap since.  And yet, I still write about culture and politics – in fact, I’m doing it right now.  How can we discuss politics and culture issues from an explicitly Catholic perspective without subordinating the ends of religion to those two lesser categories?

The Pyramid is Back

     I actually started this discussion last week, (even before that, really, in my inaugural post on this blog).  Last week I used a pyramid-shaped diagram to illustrate Pope St. John Paul II’s idea of how human society was structured, a concept which informed his successful effort to free his native Poland from communist tyranny. The Marxists claimed that economics was the dominant factor and therefore the “base” of the societal pyramid, while culture and politics both reflected and protected the economic system (and religion, the “opiate of the people”, was just another tool in service to that system).  John Paul saw religion as the real basis of society, the foundation upon which culture was built; politics and economics grew from there. Events, of course, vindicated the Pope’s view.

The Soul of the World

       Today I intend to focus on politics, the top of the pyramid, but we need to be clear about what we mean by “politics”.  There’s partisan politics, which is one of the lower species of politics; I’m not talking about that today.  I’m more interested in politics as defined by the late, great, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus: “How we order our life here together”.  How are we to do that?  One of the classic descriptions of the role of the Christian citizen comes from the second century, in the work known as The Letter to Diognetus. The anonymous author of the letter tells Christians they are to  “dwell in the world, yet are not of the world”.  That separation from the world, however, gives us a certain responsibility to it.  He tells us:

. . . as the soul is in the body, so are Christians in the world . . . The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world.

The Powers of the World bow down to the Christ Child: “The Adoration of the Magi”,
Jan Boeckhorst, 1652

     Being “preservers of the world” can mean a number of things.  For instance, there are many questions that don’t carry much moral import but are important for maintaining an orderly and prosperous society. Should we allocate tax money for a new playground, or a new parking lot for the town hall? These decisions are important in a limited, temporary sort of way.  We need to take them seriously because we have a responsibility to be good citizens and good stewards, but we can, in good conscience, make these decisions based largely on our interests and preferences.

     We also have a responsibility, a deeper responsibility, to questions of justice.   Our Lord  tells us:

 . . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ . . . ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  (Matthew 25:35-36; 40)

On the One Hand, On the Other

“Ruth in the Field of Boaz”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828

     This statement comes up in the Gospel of Matthew in the context of what we need to do in this world in order to be happy with God in the next.  Some questions, then, while they may have a political aspect to them, are really moral questions of justice that don’t simply involve the ephemera of pure politics but go right down through the pyramid, with implications that stretch into eternity.

     Some issues are not very straightforward because there are serious moral arguments on both sides.  Take illegal immigration, for instance.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, on the one hand:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. CCC 2241

The other hand immediately follows:

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. CCC 2241.

     Notice the Church doesn’t tell us how to implement these moral directives: that’s the job of political authorities and, in a republic, the citizens.  A responsible, Christian approach to the issue of immigration would involve serious and prayerful discussion of how to craft policies that both recognize the human needs of would-be immigrants and respect the common good of the citizens of our own country.  This issue, unfortunately, has become a weapon in the power struggle of partisan politics, and so for the time being seems beyond the reach of reasoned resolution.

The Non-Negotiables

     The moral dimensions of other issues are much less nuanced, especially issues relating to marriage, the definition of the family, and, preeminently, abortion. It’s hard to find a clearer case than abortion for illustrating how an issue that may look like a political issue at first glance is really much deeper: the crack that we see at the top, in the political step of the pyramid, is just the surface evidence of a flaw that goes all the way down through the cultural level and into the religious level.

That is not to say that a political response isn’t necessary. Remember we’re called on to do justice, especially for “The least of these my brethren.” There is a real need for political action, to protect innocent human beings targeted for destruction in their mother’s womb, and to rescue the adults implicated in obtaining, performing, or promoting abortion, who are in danger of something far worse than the death of the body.

March For Life 2020, author’s photo

     Which brings us to the second reason for political action.  You may recall the image from my previous post of the crumbling step pyramid, where the falling debris from the eroding upper levels damages the lower levels on the way down. Legal abortion corrupts the character of the people involved, who become accustomed to the casual slaughter of unborn human babies.  It also corrupts political institutions: one of our major political parties has been completely ensnared by it, with large parts of the other party compromised as well. Legalized abortion was imposed undemocratically by a corrupt ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision one of the dissenting justices called “an exercise in raw judicial power”.  Such exercises have become more common since, imposing novelties such as same-sex marriage.  Also, because the continued exercise of raw judicial power is needed to keep abortion legal, the process of confirming Supreme Court justices has been corrupted. Formerly sedate and almost pro-forma proceedings, confirmation hearings have become ferocious campaigns to destroy any nominee who might possibly rule against Roe vs. Wade.

The Spreading Corruption

     The corruption spreads from the political sphere to the other layers.  Corrupt political players enlist cultural forces in the media and the arts to support the abortion regime. Language is corrupted, where ordinary words like “choice” are used to disguise ugly realities. Even people who are not directly involved in abortion (although huge numbers are involved) become accustomed to the taking of inconvenient life; eventually it becomes thinkable to hasten the end of those near the end of life, or even, as is the case in some European countries, to facilitate the suicide of young, healthy people who have given up hope.  We see that people and institutions compromised by the evil of abortion are willing to countenance all sorts of further evils.

     The religious base of society is not immune from the spreading corruption. I’m sorry to say that many clerics,  not only many priests and religious but even many bishops, for the sake of pet political causes of a much lower order, support parties and candidates that promote abortion. Some even promote abortion itself, such as the nun who publicly declares that “God is pro-choice”. This situation is a classic example of the scandal in the classical meaning of the word: the bad example of public Catholics, especially those who are public representatives of the Church, sends the message that the Church doesn’t really believe her own teaching, and so even more people are led into sin.

    Which brings us back to the beginning of the cycle because, as we might recall, the religious institutions form the base upon which the cultural and political institutions arise.  A strong religious basis would not have produced a culture which permitted the imposition of something as diabolical as legal abortion.  We might also note that, since even widespread contraception can’t prevent lots of irresponsible sex from producing lots of unintended babies, abortion is a necessary adjunct of the the culture of sexual license that has grown stronger in our society as the influence of Christian teaching has grown weaker.  It’s probably not necessary to point out that, sadly, the institutional Church itself has not been immune from sexual scandal.

Spes Nostra in Domino

     That’s why I said previously that the role of politics is mostly defensive: it can help protect vulnerable people from direct harm, and shield more fundamental layers of society from further damage.  Those are essential tasks, but politics can’t fix the damage that already exists at the cultural or the religious levels.  The psalmist tells us:

“The Archangel Michael”, Poulakis Theodoros 1650-1699

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God. (Psalm 146:3-5)

The real battle, as St. Paul reminds us, is at a much deeper level:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Let’s fight the political battles that come our way, but remember that we can depend upon the powers of this world to save us no more than Jesus could rely on Pilate to save him from Calvary. Our true Hope is in The Lord.

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