Orthodoxy, Not Ideology: A Review of Daniel Schwindt’s Papist’s Guide to America

Having previously interacted with Daniel Schwindt via Solidarity Hall (for which he edited the Radically Catholic anthology I was proud to be a part of), and followed his writing on their blog and on Ethika Politika, I knew his thinking defied easy categorization, especially within the political vocabulary of the day.  Even in areas of divergence, I’ve known him and other “solidarians” to be of the sort with whom one can not only civilly but fruitfully disagree.  So I received a review copy of his latest book, The Papist’s Guide to America, with relish.  By and large, it did not disappoint.

On the other hand, anyone looking for a perspective that fits the conventional left/right categories of the American political paradigm will be sorely disappointed in this book. Indeed, that’s largely the point: a Catholic cannot be at home within this paradigm without some serious distortion of his or her faith. By contrast, the perspective Schwindt writes from is thoroughly and authentically Catholic. As one of those rare voices in America that genuinely embraces the fullness of the Catholic tradition, including its tradition of social justice, Schwindt is about as orthodox as he can possibly be. And in so doing, he demonstrates how Catholic orthodoxy challenges the American cultural orthodoxy of exceptionalism and liberalism (a word which, it should be noted, Schwindt uses not in the now-conventional sense as a shorthand for the political left, but in the more classical sense as the libertarian individualism of which the American left and right are two sides of the same coin).

That said, the one major point on which I have to part company with Schwindt is his integralist leaning in terms of the relation between Church and State. Schwindt is very “old world”, to the point where he may be mistaking a certain kind of Europeanism for Catholic orthodoxy, apparently by virtue of its vast difference from Americanism.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s terminology may be helpful here.  Within the Catholic Church, there is a long and deep-seated impulse toward what Niebuhr would call the “Christ of culture” that I have struggled to come to grips with since I’ve been a part of it.  If Schwindt appears to take a “Christ against culture” approach in this book, it is out of a deeper hankering for a “Christ of culture” confessional-state model that is fundamentally at odds with the American secular state.  Having been myself formed in a much more deeply “Christ against culture” tradition that is in many ways at odds with both, I wonder about the possibility of finding a third way that is neither the libido dominandi of old-world integralism, nor the artificially compartmentalized private faith of Americanism.  Perhaps such a third way might be found in what Niebuhr terms “Christ transforming culture”, which has also developed strong strains in both the Catholic and Mennonite traditions. The Vatican II image of “leaven in the world”, to name one example, could be a helpful start for reorienting the imagination in this regard.  All this is to say that, while the ideal of the confessional state may run deep enough in the Catholic psyche to appear self-evident to some, there are in fact other ways – and, I maintain, better ways – to envision the Church’s role within the public square.

I have to say a word on the book’s final section, titled “Positions”, which is a nice little goldmine of papal statements, from Gregory XVI to Francis, culled to illustrate many of the points argued in the preceding two sections. It makes a good introduction to Catholic social teaching, which hopefully will whet the appetite of those who are unfamiliar with it.

Even with what I perceive as one or two possible blind spots – or maybe especially with that – the whole thing makes for a bracingly thought-provoking read, especially for those of us who are both Catholic and American. On the whole, I have to applaud Daniel Schwindt for calling out the often uncomfortable yet necessary tension between the two.  He and I may at times be feeling that tension in different places or for different reasons, but we are in full agreement on which to give precedence.


The above is an expanded version of my review on Amazon under the handle Roaming Catholic.

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