Sunday, May 07, 2017

Would Political Freedom Would Make Our Parishes Stupider?

Here in the United States, President Trump just announced a new executive action that is supposed to loosen the restrictions on religious organizations from engaging in political activity. How exactly this action will change things is uncertain at the moment, as Trump's action only gives directives to the IRS and Treasury to interpret existing legal norms with maximal leniency when dealing with possible violations. To actually change the law itself would require an act of Congress.

At any rate, this turn of events led me to consider whether it would be a good or bad thing for the Church in the United States if all restrictions on political activity by religious organizations were lifted. After reflecting on this for a few days, I think my answer is yes it would be good in theory, but in practice it would be harmful.

Why would such a thing be good?

The Church historically was extremely engaged in politics. Obviously the whole history of Christendom is replete with examples of the Church engaging political matters vigorously. One only need think of the struggles of the Investiture Controversy and similar Church-State conflicts to see that political activity has often been a necessary prerequisite for the Church to maintain her autonomy.

In fact, the traditional understanding of the Church's relationship to the state as exemplified by the famous teaching of Pope St. Gelasius (c. 494) presumes that the Church is able to make her opinion known on political matters, insomuch as political acts sometimes overlap matters of faith. The State concerns itself with the temporal ends of man, the Church with the supernatural, but sometimes the former touches on the latter, and in such cases the Church may engage in activity in order to advocate for political activity that does not contravene divine law; indeed, in some cases, the clergy actually have an obligation to speak truth to power, as Pope St. Gelasius says, "there is no slight danger in the case of the priests if they refrain from speaking when the service of the divinity requires."

The Church has often used political speech in the past with great benefit to the public good. For example, in 1948 Massachusetts put Referendum No. 4 to voters, which would have relaxed the state's ban on artificial contraception. Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing led a vigorous opposition to the measure, plainly telling Catholics not to vote for it. The Referendum was defeated by a 57% margin. Such plain political engagement by the Church was subsequently banned with the 1954 Johnson Amendment - which may partially explain why Cushing later changed his tone on contraception.

At any rate, I don't think I need to belabor this point. Most readers of this blog, who tend to be more historically and theologically literate, understand why, in theory, returning more autonomy to the Church in this regard should be a good thing, and certainly more in keeping with Catholic tradition.

If I admit this in theory, why would I deny it in its application here in the USA?

In application, I feel that loosening restrictions on political activity would be harmful for the Church in practice for one simple reason - the two party stupidity of the American mainstream has infected the Church.

Greater freedom to engage in politics would be wonderful for the Catholic Church - if American Catholics had a well-grounded Catholic identity and some semblance of a Catholic political vision grounded in the Church's social tradition. But, since American Catholics are so pathetically lacking in any independent Catholic political ethos, in practice we would witness each parish devolve into a satellite of the Republican or Democratic Party. It would not engender an independent Catholic political spirit; rather, it would inject further secular partisanship into parish life and fasten the chains of Catholic thought more securely to the agendas of Hudge and Gudge.

It would also be horribly divisive for Catholic parishioners. Even now parishes tend to lean liberal or conservative politically, but the lack of overt political activity provides a kind of breathing space for Catholics who might not agree with their pastors on every issue. As it stands now, a Catholic might, for example, realize his pastor is softer on illegal immigration than he would like. But since there are limits on what sorts of political advocacy a pastor can engage in, he is somewhat prevented from shoving his opinions down his parishioner's throats. And this allows pastors and congregants to kind of co-exist socially in the same parish, because their obnoxious political opinions are buffered and they don't have to engage each other directly.

Now suppose, however, you walk into your parish one day and your pastor is vocally pushing a petition drive to turn your town into a Sanctuary City. He is lambasting political candidates by name and campaigning for others. He has ushers ready with the ballot petition at the back of the Church and is hovering around encouraging people to sign it. Even if the pastor and parishioner would have had the same differing opinions before, now the buffer is removed. The parish has become a locus of political confrontation. The man who disagrees with his pastor's political agenda will no longer feel "safe". This would be the case whether the pastor was pushing liberal-Democratic garbage, or whether he was stumping for the local GOP hack.

The result would be the politicization of parishes in the image of our stupid two party system. We would see a massive population realignment as parishioners who no longer felt welcome at their parishes would migrate to others more reflective of their views.

I understand this already happens to some degree, but if the Church in the United States were to have complete freedom of political action, watch parish life be entirely politicized immediately. GOP and Democratic operatives would swoop in and organize the parishioners politically. The two party stupidity we all hate would take over our parishes. It would be omnipresent and inescapable. There would be no breathing space.

In conclusion, it would be excellent if Catholics in this country had an independent political vision grounded in the perennial truths of the Gospel. If that were the case, political freedom for the Church would mean the creation of a robust "Third Way" that could challenge the prevailing political dichotomy and bring true reform to the nation. But, in the absence of such a coherent mindset, in practice we would see each parish become a tool of the Democratic or Republican parties, and the politicization of parish life in the basest manner. Catholic social life, already anemic, would become that much stupider.


Anonymous said...

How about a Catholic Integralist party?

Boniface said...

That'd be great. But Catholics in America are too dumb for that

Anonymous said...

Great point about a topic to which I have never given any thought. I already keep a safe distance from my parish priests because while they are pretty solid regarding doctrine (Latin Mass and all), they have a positive view of diversity, which I despise. It could be that the Archdiocese is simply pushing it from above (Cupich), but either way I figure instead of making waves it's better just to come for the sacraments and be social elsewhere.

Tom W said...

I agree. It would 'balkanize' the Church at the parish level.
Sadly, personal opinions today are primarily formed by political orientation, with religious perspectives 'shoe-horned' in after the fact.

Stephen Lowe said...

I wonder if there would be any Republican parishes? If so for how long would they remain in a diocese led by a leftist bishop? Retribution from leftists is quite nazi-like and indeed their intelligence is much in doubt. Exhibit A is the state of the church today. By any measure it is declining as they embrace unnatural vice and all leftist causes. Congratulations go to the leftists that inhabit the higher positions in the church i.e.the shepherds.

Chris Whittle said...

It would not help Catholics, who've for the most part have never been told "it is a sin to support abortion, same-sex marriage, birth control, etc." from a Catholic pulpit the past 50 years. They don't have to endorse a candidate to say this. Since the USCCB is the Democratic Party at prayer they will still continue to not excommunicate Democratic (and RINO) politicians as long as they are parishioners.

Speaking of Cardinal Cushing, in 1965 he sold out by supporting the bill in the Legislature that repealed the 1899 Law that banned birth control, which passed.

Anonymous said...

I've attended an FSSP parish, and the TLM exclusively for over twelve years.

I can confidently say that not a single Democrat attends my parish, nor do any attend the weekly diocesan TLM.

Deo gratias.

c matt said...

If so for how long would they remain in a diocese led by a leftist bishop?

Do you mean how long would the Bishop allow them to remain?For as long as the collection plate was filled. Still don't know if it would be good or bad. I get that it would be polarizing, but at the same time, it would "out" certain clergy. And then the chips (and collections) could fall where they may.

Anonymous said...

You're very impressed with yourself Boniface.

donnie said...

One big factor that you forgot to mention is that the reason for this inevitable political madness is due to the fact that American Catholics have never treated His Holiness's encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae with the seriousness and consideration that it deserved upon its promulgation, and still deserves to this day. Americanism was simply never taken seriously as a heresy by American Catholics.

Sometime between 1776 and 1898, when Pope Leo XIII promulgated his encyclical condemning the Americanist heresy, American Catholics somehow began to identify their faith with democracy and the American Experiment. Our Catholic forefathers really started believing in Religious Pluralism as the foundation of this experiment. Fast forward to today and we have raised America and her Constitution to a status parallel with God's Chosen People and the Bible. We have worshiped the civic religion of America at least as much as we have worshiped the True Religion.

How many American Catholics, if you asked them, would be able to describe what a converted American nation could look like? How many Trads? Even among those who take orthodoxy and Church doctrine seriously, I'd be surprised if their vision for a converted America was anything more than a repeal of Roe and Obergefell and maybe a return to prayer in school. Those are truly noble causes, no doubt, but those changes hardly constitute a national conversion. And isn't that what we as American Catholics ought to be working toward at the end of the day, the conversion of our beloved nation? Could there be a cause more noble, more patriotic than this?

We as American Catholics should not be getting distracted by the frivolities of our broken politics. We can't allow ourselves to think that the best uses of our political energies are toward earning short-lived victories through democratic means, before the imminent march of liberalism eventually tramples over us. We ought to have more hope than that. We ought to have more faith than that! We ought not to lose sight of the fact that one day, we hope to live in a country that looks something like this:

Pray for the conversion of our country.

Karl said...

A Catholic nation has to be a monarchy, donnie? How absolutely ridiculous. I live in a monarchy myself, so don't try to accuse me of being too American. What does the Catholic faithful or Church care about what form of government is ruling, as long as it is just? That kind of silliness you link to is little above live-action role-playing in my book.

donnie said...


I'd say that your knee-jerk reaction is a prime example of why we can't have nice things.

No, I have not and would not say that a Catholic nation has to be a monarchy. But as has been discussed on this very blog in years' past, there is reason to believe that monarchy is indeed the best form of government:

Charles Coulombe's book, discussed in the link I provided, is a fanciful bit of fiction, especially in its made-up premise. But I don't think that the author's aim is to make realistic predictions about the future. Having read the book, I see it as an invitation, an opportunity to imagine a different state of affairs than the one which we find ourselves in currently. It is the beginning of a conversation, nothing more.

I don't know how old you are, but you may recall that in the Sixties the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kind of heresies. All except one: "Power to the imagination."

In that, they were correct. The only problem was they had no imagination. And, sadly, neither do most American Catholics. But Our Lord certainly does. I would like to see us take after Our Lord in this regard. I would like to see us develop just a sliver of His most wondrous imagination.

donnie said...

Additionally, for what it's worth (and I would think that it is worth a great deal considering it is the words of one of Christ's Vicars), consider the following:

In fact, after having abolished the monarchy, the best of all governments, it [The National Convention] had transferred all the public power to the people -- the people which, guided neither by reason nor by counsels, forms just ideas on no point whatsoever; assesses few things in accordance with the truth and evaluates a great many according to mere opinion, which is ever fickle, and ever easy to deceive and to lead into every excess, ungrateful, arrogant, and cruel ...

Pope Pius VI, Pourquoi Notre Voix, 17 July 1793

Of course, subsequent Pontiffs such as the great Leo XIII had different ideas about the forms of government, owing to changing secular circumstances. But if you go back and re-read Immortale Dei, especially in light of Pope Pius VI's words above, I think you might find that while saying what precise formal structure of government is or is not best for a particular people exceeds the Church’s competence (a fact I fully acknowledge), there is less to that formal disclaimer than meets the eye.

Doragoon said...

As I see it, political affiliation is actually a tell for a person's metaphysics. I'm not talking about political party, but political theory. If someone tells you they are a conservative, progressive, libertarian, classical liberal, constitutionalist, white nationalist, socialist, christian reactionary, &c. they are actually telling you how they answer questions such as "What is Good?" and "How do we know it?"

These are absolutely questions that the Church must answer, and has answered. When the churches remain silent on core issues such as these, it makes one question if they really believe any of what they say. If churches aren't taking their beliefs seriously, why should anyone else. Or if religion must remain silent when politics or science speaks, then religion must be subservient to them. At best, this is the "god of the gaps", at worst, politics and science become our new religion.

Philosoraptor said...

Well dayum.

I was in favor of greater political freedom to preach until I read this.

You, sir, have entirely convinced me. Thank you for the education.

Anonymous said...

I think this essay leaves out a crucial consideration:

What happens to the soul?

The Gospel, the good news, and God's Will are concrete realities, though we often are confused about how they apply to us.

As we muddle through, we conform ourselves, or not, to God's Will. The conform gets us to heaven...the not gets us to hell.

I say let all the poisons of the mud hatch out. Bring it into the open. Let people confront the choices they make! And let the choices they make confront them!!!

Goats and sheep will be separated and led to different pastures eventually, why not now?

The thoughts of may hearts will be revealed...except when it is important to avoid conflict at the after-mass donutfest.