The phony “Catholic Right” and “Catholic Left”

The phony “Catholic Right” and “Catholic Left” July 23, 2007

I still remember the moment when Pope Benedict XVI transformed my thinking on Catholicism and society…

I was at a weekend silent retreat based on Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. We had covered all of Part 1, which consists of a brief but dense meditation on the radical difference between Christian agape and conventional notions of love, particularly that known as eros. What I had read and what the ensuing talk covered in Part 1 was not, on the surface, too novel. The distinction between the Christian concept of love–agape in Greek and caritas in Latin–and the various human expressions of love was not lost on me. In fact, I have read a number of books that tease out this distinction quite well: Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility; Josef Pieper’s Faith, Hope and Love; C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves; Erasmo LeivaMerikakisLove’s Sacred Order; Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman (By the way, if you haven’t read at least two of these books, then stop blogging and start reading!). So was Benedict XVI just re-inventing the amorous wheel? Further reading of the encyclical revealed the real drive of the Pope’s reflection on love.

The first sentence of Part 2, which is appropriately lifted from St. Augustine’s magisterial De Trinitate, discloses the heart of Benedict’s thought on love: “Immo vero vides Trinitatem, si caritatem vides,” which literally means: “If you see charity, yes indeed you see the Trinity.” Benedict XVI proceeds in Part 2 to describe the manner in which the Church and individual Christians live caritas through justice and service within society. The result? A radical programmatic for what can only be described (a la Erasmus) as a handbook for the militant Christian.

I recall reading Part 2 and thinking to myself that if it were to be taken as a subsistent whole in its own right, divorced or isolated from Part 1, then it would read like a sort of “liberal” manifesto with a Christian twist. However, that singularly important quote from Augustine, which bridges Part 1 and Part 2 together, precludes any such reading. The power of this first encyclical is encapsulated in that quote: If you see charity, that is, Christian faith working through love (cf. Gal 5:6) then you see the Trinity, the God not of reason but of revelation. You encounter God as He is revealed, not as he is approached.

The implications of Benedict’s invocation of the divinely effected caritas and the revealed communio personarum? To capitalize the supernatural character of Christian human action set ablaze by divine grace. Simply put, to witness acts of charity is not merely to witness acts of moral virtue or natural goodness, but to witness the transformative power of the emanating love of the Godhead: Father, Son and Spirit. Hence, the utterly unique and unanticipated nature of Christianity in the world: humanity in its totality is called to participate in the divine nature. If I may be so brash as to combine Eastern and Western themes, Christians are deified by grace due to their participation in the divinity of Christ and to the self-determining character of their graced actions. Deification of person and act.

But Benedict XVI did not content himself with reiterating the teaching of Christ on love and the divine testimony of the saints. Rather, Benedict XVI commends individual Christians and in particular lay Christians to saturate the secular sphere–even politics–with agape-caritas. The Church as a body does not replace the State, but her members–most of whom are members of the State–are to transform the State and its deeds through, with and in agapecaritas for the sake of justice and the common good.

It is my conviction–and Pope Benedict XVI’s many writings on law, society and politics confirm this–that Catholic perspectives on culture, society and politics will relentlessly challenge a world that has been interrupted by the advent of salvation in Jesus Christ. Something unexpected, something unanticipated, something foreign ought to be perceived by the world when Christians engage it with agape-caritas instead of conventionality-duty. And let me be frank: before a Christian can carry out such a glorious task, a Christian’s mind and heart must be initially and continually transformed and renewed by the very same agape-caritas that is to be present to the world through that Christian’s actions. This is a daunting and frightening prospect for the Christian, even after conversion, for this transformation and renewal never ceases as we plunge deeper and deeper into the mystery of divine love. Agape-caritas challenges our prevailing notions of love and, when extended into our actions in society, it challenges our prevailing notions of justice, shattering the simplistic reasonings and categories we cling to in our outlook of mundane tasks such as politics.

This is why I feel ashamed when I see fellow Catholics not recognizing this radical work of agape-caritas and its transforming effects. But I ask myself, does not such wildly simplistic reasoning embody that tension that occurs when the Christian mind has not fully been transformed and renewed by divine grace? I believe this question is worth asking because to label radical Catholicism as “liberal” is: 1. Not an argument in itself (reason); 2. A failure to register the attempt to reflect upon the application of agape-caritas through action in society (faith). We must recognize that radical Catholic living is not the result of sheer political musing but of a strong embrace of the radical demand of the Gospel, which penetrates to every level of human action. To label its views as “liberal” or even as “conservative” is to betray one’s inability to recognize the transforming power of God.

Does this mean that social response will be uniform, monolithic and predictable among Christians? Well, does conversion to Christian faith entail the annihilation of the self and its self-determining actions? “No” to both questions. However, just as a non-Christian may easily find a Christian to be fanatically or irrationally “conservative,” a Christian who does not permit grace to transform his entire social outlook may find another Christian’s social outlook to be, well, “liberal.” It is true, there are many Catholics who permit “conservative” or “liberal” political persuasion to shape the expression of their faith in social matters (to name two clerics who clearly exhibit this trait are Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Fr. Ernesto Cardenal), and perhaps in this case the labels are appropriate for their secularizing tendencies. But truth be told, the most evident Catholic faith is not conservative or liberal; it is radical, as it should be. This is not some overly romantic depiction of the faith, for the saints and servants of God testify to its reality…Francis…Ignatius of Antioch…Thomas More…Mother Teresa…Dorothy Day…Vincent de Paul. Only those who have been truly transformed by grace will be able to recognize this radicality. The rest, sadly, will see only conservative or liberal motives in those who practice the Gospel in our contemporary setting and will see only distant and admirable heroes in the saints of the past.

My point in all this? Catholic social doctrine, while it at times resembles certain “conservative” (e.g. pro-life) and certain “liberal” positions (e.g. just distribution of goods), its foundation, meaning and effect is not coextensive with either camp. There is no such thing as the “Catholic Right” or the “Catholic Left” because Catholicism is radical. Anything else is phony. Catholicism is disturbing. It is transforming. And rightly so, for the world knows nothing more radical than a God who so loved the world that His Son became flesh and dwelt among us. Those Christians who cannot perceive the radical consequences of Christ’s interrupting Incarnation, non-violent surrender to Death, and death-defying Resurrection for the social sphere must ask themselves if they are fully permitting the Holy Spirit to transform and renew their minds.

Catholicism in its full scope is not comfortable to either the “conservative” or “liberal” mindset, so why do some Catholics still resort to such labels in the first place? I understand that it is much easier for many Christians to remain within the comfort and convenience of categorical binomials than to allow the Holy Spirit to transform and renew. I’ve been there. Still am in many respects. I was tempted to write Pope Benedict XVI off as a “liberal,” and before that retreat I probably would have, just as I would have written off many contributors of Vox Nova. But with a little study and a lot prayer, I am beginning to see that Catholicism ought to shake us up a bit, especially in our social awareness. If this is not happening, then something is wrong. I invite you to pray with me that you and I will always be receptive to the challenge of the Gospel.

Still not convinced? Still feel like “conservative Catholic” or “liberal Catholic” are honest or intelligent labels for those who embrace the fullness of the Gospel? Perhaps the voices of three diverse Catholic thinkers who have respectively been labeled “conservative,” “moderate” and “liberal” may help us understand that “radical” is the appropriate adjective for Catholic action.

Dietrich von Hildebrand

With the labels conservative and progressive they are in fact requiring the faithful to choose between opposition to any renewal, opposition even to the elimination of things that have crept into the Church because of human frailty (e.g., legalism, abstractionism, external pressure in questions of conscience, grave abuses of authority in monasteries) and a change, a “progress” in the Catholic faith which can only mean its abandonment.

These are false alternatives. For there is a third choice, which welcomes the official decisions of the Vatican Council but at the same time emphatically rejects the secularizing interpretations given them by many so-called progressive theologians and laymen.

This third choice is based on the unshakeable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of His Holy Church. It takes it for granted that there is no room for change in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church.

This position maintains thatt there is a radical difference between the kingdom of Christ and the saeculum (world); it takes into account the struggle between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Satan through all the centuries past and to come, until the end of the world. It believes that Christ’s words are as valid today as in any former time: “Had you been of the world, the world would love its own; but as you are not of the world, as I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.”

This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification. It rejoices in any renewal that enlarges the establishment of all things Christ–the instaurare omnia in Christo–and that brings the light of Christ to added domains of life. This is in fact a specific encouragement to Catholics to confront all things with the Spirit and Truth of Christ–in season and out of season–regardless of the spirit of the present age or any past age.

(Trojan Horse in the City of God)

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Whoever tries today, in obedience to God’s word, to say something about God and man has to negotiate the narrow path between two forms of titanism.

But the Lamb of God walked the narrow way and, by telling us to follow him along it, gave us the hope of avoiding all forms of human titanism. Neither the conservatives nor the progressives can bear the fragmentariness of existence in time. They offer formulas for how the fragment can be made a whole; perhaps it is even seen as a whole itself. The dynamic progressives seek to harness the social program of the prophets and of the Sermon on the Mount as a dynamic force to change society, while the conservatives see the hieratic and hierarchic forms founded by Christ as timelessly and finally informing the frail material of the world.

The “program” of the Lamb, true to the earth by being truly humilis (i.e., close to the humus), can be popular with neither right nor left. It cannot be built into earthly programs; it does not offer enough for them and it cannot be exploited. If you use it as a front, it looks fine and possibly has propaganda value, but the misconception cannot be hidden forever.

(A Theological Anthropology)

Joe Holland

The classic secular Left has rightly perceived the great drive toward social destruction at the heart of modern civilization. But it has generally failed to perceive the destructive blocking of divine creativity, which flows from an ever-deepening “progressive” secularization of society. The classic Left thus challenges social destruction, but cuts itself off from the religious root of creativity.

As a result, its efforts to stop the destruction often prove sterile, and sometimes even compound the crisis. The flat vision of secular scientific socialism, or of a secular scientific state as the key to the future, feeds the loss of cultural creativity.

The situation on the classic religious Right is just the opposite, with the same unfortunate result. For the religious Right, the main problem is secularization. It correctly sees the whole “progressive” movement as deepening secularization and therfore cutting itself off from the divine root. But the religious Right fails to understand the prophetic side of the divine, and winds up defending the very social destruction that the Left fights against.

The Right tries to retrieve an authoritarian, patriarchal, militaristic society tied this time to powerful modern technology. It apeals to a divine image, but that divine image is no longer the living God of justice and peace. It is rather a war god, a god of oppression, an idol. This idol in turn provides religious legitimacy for demonic destruction.

Thus on one side the secular Left often makes of secularization its own idol and cuts itself off from the divine root of human creativity. On the other side, the religious Right holds high the principle of religous transcendence, but often allows a false god to unleash the demonic.

The complete task is to link faith energies with energies of justice and peace in service of the Living God and social transformation. Faith and justice need to become as one flesh in service of both. The secular hunger for justice from the Left needs to find its deeper root in spirituality. The spiritual hunger of the Right needs to find God’s true face in justice and peace.

There are two seeds of creativity in the world–social engagement and spirituality. Similarly within the Christian community, these two movements have their echo–on one side the justice and peace movement, often developed in secular style; and on other side the prayer movement, often without social engagement.

It is sad when good people from both sides fail to see the other’s complementary gift.

Is it the terrible sin of human pride on both sides which causes this division? Is it the pride of secularism on the Left–afraid of spiritual energies because they are not subject to rational control? And is it the pride of religiosity on the Right–afraid of the Spirit’s prophetic power in the secular arena because it is not subject to religious control?

Thus we may speak of two criteria for guiding our path in the crisis which envelops us. The first criterion is openness to the creative transformation of our civilization. The second criterion is openness to the spiritual roots of creative energies. The classic secular Left fails the test of the second criterion. The classic religious Right fails the test of the first criterion.

(Social Analysis)

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