Protestants Learned to “Do” Politics from Roman Catholics

Protestants Learned to “Do” Politics from Roman Catholics July 28, 2017

This is a follow-up to the previous post about how politics come naturally to American Protestants. Politics, in fact, come naturally to western (and eastern — Constantine, anyone?) Christians as well, and you need to be paint yourself into an Anabaptist corner to think that Christianity is free from the taint of politics. (Notice that “bad” politics are carriers of taint while most Christians don’t bat an eye when it comes to “good” politics.)

The irony for considerations about Roman Catholics and politics is the juxtaposition of a recent article (here is some background) in a leading Jesuit magazine that accuses politically conservative Roman Catholics in the United States of an unholy alliance with fundamentalist Protestants, with recent celebrations by devout Roman Catholics of the Battle of Lepanto. Here is how Joseph Pearce commemorates Christian Europe’s victory of the Ottomans at Lepanto:

The “common enemy of our most holy religion” was, of course, Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire. The siege of Malta, to which the anonymous biographer refers, actually took place in 1565, the year before Pius became pope, but one of his first acts as pontiff was to send large sums of money to Malta so that the fortifications could be rebuilt and a new town could be erected on the rubble of the old. He also declared the first year of his papacy a Jubilee, exhorting the faithful to penance and almsgiving to obtain the victory from God over the militaristic might of the Muslims. Apart from his financial support for the Knights of Malta, he also sent money for the fortification of towns throughout Italy, furnished monthly contributions to the besieged Christians of Hungary, and worked tirelessly to bring the major Christian powers together for the defense of Christendom. In 1571, a year after the Turks had attacked Cyprus, thereby threatening to dominate the Mediterranean, Pius was instrumental in the founding of the Holy League, an alliance of nations and city states, including Spain and most of the states in what is now modern Italy. Although he tried to persuade the Holy Roman Empire and France to join the League, they both refused. The Empire preferred to maintain its truce with the Ottoman Turks, while France was actually in league with the Muslims, forming an anti-Spanish alliance with them.

That’s pretty darned political. But it was ordinary fare for the Roman pontiff who down to the unification of Italy in 1870 was a prince who ruled over the Papal States. In fact, for the better part of a millennium the pope was both a temporal (civil) and spiritual (ecclesiastical) authority. A terrific book about the papacy’s political power is Tal Howard’s forthcoming, The Pope and the Professor.

But those old-style Vatican politics are seemingly part of a distant past and that is why the Jesuit authors could object to America’s Christian values voters. The problem with conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic activists is mixing religion and politics:

The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.” Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.

Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere.

Such a separation of religion and politics, while a change for Roman Catholics, is a tad complicated. First, the pope is a political sovereign within the city-state of Vatican City, a 109 acre territory within Rome that has its own court system, postal service, bank, police, and jail. The papacy resisted giving up its sovereignty over the Papal States (see Howard’s book) and the deal it cut with Mussolini in 1929 gave the Bishop of Rome a status that no other bishop in the world enjoys. The Bishop of Paris, or Omaha, or Sao Paulo may have to calculate his spiritual authority in relation to city, state, and national governments. But thanks to the papacy’s own sovereign space, the pope does not. He is subject to no civil authority.

Second, Pope Francis himself (like every other modern pope who has contributed to Roman Catholic social teaching) has not been immune to advocating political measures. Consider his encyclical on the environment:

177. Given the real potential for a misuse of human abilities, individual states can no longer ignore their responsibility for planning, coordination, oversight and enforcement within their respective borders. How can a society plan and protect its future amid constantly developing technological innovations? One authoritative source of oversight and coordination is the law, which lays down rules for admissible conduct in the light of the common good. The limits which a healthy, mature and sovereign society must impose are those related to foresight and security, regulatory norms, timely enforcement, the elimination of corruption, effective responses to undesired side-effects of production processes, and appropriate intervention where potential or uncertain risks are involved. There is a growing jurisprudence dealing with the reduction of pollution by business activities. But political and institutional frameworks do not exist simply to avoid bad practice, but also to promote best practice, to stimulate creativity in seeking new solutions and to encourage individual or group initiatives.

178. A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments. Thus we forget that “time is greater than space”,[130] that we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power. True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building.

Granted, the encyclical does not elaborate specific policy or legislation, and is silent about which nation-states should do what. But if the pope is mainly a spiritual authority, what does he pretend to know about science, economics, or government?

The answer may be related to the third point, namely, that everything is religious and so a Christian authority like the pope will inevitably speak about all manner of subjects because Christianity is part of all of human existence. In other words, the basis for papal teaching about topics not directly religious is integralism — a notion that all of life is God-breathed and so Christianity can’t like misbehaving children take a spiritual “time out” (tell that to the Jesuit authors who fault fundamentalists for mixing religion and politics). But here’s the deal: whose integralism, which Roman Catholicism? Michael Sean Winters has been writing about the controversy over the article and even he has trouble making sense of the dualism and integralism that informs contemporary Roman Catholic intellectual life.

On the one hand, you have a beef by certain kinds of integralists with the liberal political order that received legitimacy among some American Roman Catholics, especially those inspired by John Courtney Murray. The problem with Murray was a dualism that separated nature and grace. Winters quotes David Schindler, Sr.:

[John Courtney] Murray believed, in short, in theological liberalism. Now, liberalism considered theologically requires an ontological distinction between nature and grace. The natural order can be examined by reason, and the supernatural order is the realm of faith. The role of grace is to perfect the natural attributes of mankind, to bring them to fulfillment. This dualistic distinction has been a staple of Catholic theology for centuries, and it has its obvious uses in the liberal context. It permitted Murray to affirm the goodness of the natural apart from grace, and it provided a point of contact with those who do not share Catholic beliefs about grace. Murray remarked that ‘the dualism of mankind’s two hierarchically ordered forms of social life has been Christianity’s cardinal contribution to the Western political tradition.” This dualism usefully served to undermine Catholic integralism at Vatican II, and it is the theological presupposition of the neo-conservative position today. It furnishes them with the warrant for a headlong rush into the world.

To avoid confusion, on the other hand, Winters immediately needs to add that a good integralism exists that is different from the bad kind:

The astute observer will note the word “integralism” in the penultimate sentence and ask: I thought Spadaro and Figueroa were attacking integralism as well as dualism? Yes, they did. You see, many of the proponents of natural law do not use it in the same way that they claim it is useful. They claim it provides a denominationally neutral moral language with which a society can define the common good and pursue it. They use it to beat other people over the head. And, having used it to try and baptize democracy and capitalism, the neo-cons, and the theo-cons, are only too happy to erect a new form of integralism that unites the faith with the politics of the modern Republican Party.

Let that sink in. Combining religion and politics is a good thing if the recipe uses the right kind of integralism. Which is another way of saying that pining for Christian society is still something that Roman Catholics do (who also taught Protestants how to integrate).

From the vantage of this Protestant, a more fruitful way of carrying on this conversation is not to accuse the other side of bad faith since both politically conservative and liberal Christians mix religion and politics. The better conversation is political. Which policies, laws, governing structures, and economies are better for the people of a specific nation? But if Christians had to argue about politics without riding the high horse of Christian norms, they’d have to walk.


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