Left, Right, and Catholic

Left, Right, and Catholic December 1, 2012

My friend and mentor Ivan Kauffman has finally published this long-simmering and very timely article in America.  I encourage everyone (every Catholic in America, if I had my druthers) to read the whole thing; it’s right up there with Bishop Richard Pates’ article which I quoted extensively this past August.  Here’s a section that gets to the heart of it:

There are three options open to us, not just two—left, right and Catholic. The options offered by both the left and the right are based on ideology. The Catholic option is based on realism—the careful and patient discovery of facts and the search for policies based on both facts and on the Catholic imperative to preserve and enhance the common good. Catholic and centrist are not the same; we do not achieve the common good by splitting the difference between competing ideologies. We achieve the common good by finding and advocating solutions to the real problems of real people living in the real world.

Despite a widely expressed desire to end the partisan gridlock that now paralyzes American politics, it stubbornly continues and grows. And despite the U.S. Catholic bishops’ regular pleas for a new politics based on human rights and the common good, Catholics have been unable to offer a national alternative to the political warfare now taking place. Instead, we have contributed to it….

Rather than becoming a moderating force in the civil war of ideas now taking place, we have allowed the secular political establishment to set the agenda for political debate within the Catholic Church itself. One does not have to be a theologian to see the defects in that development, nor a political expert to see where it will lead. What is the alternative? What are politically active Catholics to do when our real choice is between reality and ideology, not between conservative and liberal?

After a lifetime of struggling with these issues, I am convinced the greatest contribution U.S. Catholics can make is to organize coalitions of citizens—both Catholic and non-Catholic, conservative and liberal—to develop nonideological solutions to our major political problems and then to advocate them effectively.

Amen.  May we rise to the occasion.


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  • dudley sharp

    “After a lifetime of struggling with these issues, I am convinced the greatest contribution U.S. Catholics can make is to organize coalitions of citizens—both Catholic and non-Catholic, conservative and liberal—to develop nonideological solutions to our major political problems and then to advocate them effectively.”

    Julia, you seem to interpret that statement as some type of Holy Grail for settling differences.

    All of those groups – both Catholic and non-Catholic, conservative and liberal – are defined by their ideologies. Would we simply ask all to become devoid of all of their beliefs, to accept solutions which do not adhere to their beliefs? Of course not. Well, yes.

    What Ivan offers is nothing new, but is the same ole same ole. To move forward requires compromise of some core beliefs for the greater good, so that society can move on, even if not forward, a conclusion which depends upon your ideology.

    Even within all ideological groups there can be and are very strong differences of opinion and interpretation – just look at the radical differences between the right and left within Catholicism.

    Just history repeating itself.

    • Julia Smucker

      The point, though, is that Catholicism is not supposed to be an ideological group. It’s the alternative to ideology.

      As for the final statement I quoted, I don’t know what that would look like, and I’m not sure about it being a “Holy Grail for settling differences” – probably a long-term commitment to the hard work of reconciliation and/or a transpartisan commitment to the common good would be more like it. I decided to end the quote with that statement mainly because I wanted to get to where he begins to propose a solution rather than ending with the critique.

      • dudley sharp

        Exactly. The exact same efforts for the exact same reasons which have been continuous throughout history.

  • Mark VA

    A wonderful article – thank you Julia for linking to it. Much of what I wrote below will make sense (hopefully) only after Mr. Kauffman’s article is read in full, as Julia recommended.

    Mr. Kauffman’s historical perspective, and his recommendation, are both incisive and point to effective solutions to our troubles. I would like to offer a few points of my own:

    A) I believe that it was the Holy Spirit that brought on the peaceful demise of that totalitarian system (except for one husband-wife execution in Romania). While President Ronald Reagan, First Secretary Gorbachev, and Pope John Paul II were the main players, the astonishing choreography was all by the Higher Power;

    B) “The next year the Berlin Wall came down, and Poland became free.” It was the other way around. Once in became clear in Poland in the summer of 1989 that Gorbachev did in fact abolish the Brezhnev doctrine ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brezhnev_Doctrine ), the remaining dominoes, including the Berlin Wall, fell with astonishing speed;

    C) Much of this recent history remains terra incognita in the West, except perhaps for the remarkable sight of the Berlin Wall literally being felled. However, the inside nature of this kind of sophisticated totalitarianism remains hidden for many – thus, to truly understand what Mr. Kauffman is recommending for us, in the here and now, each interested individual will have to educate herself or himself. There are many good places to start – here is one: http://www.anneapplebaum.com/# and here is another: http://georgeweigel.blogspot.com/

    D) On a more personal note, I’m glad that the Amish were mentioned in that article. Whether Old Order, Beachy, or otherwise, their humble, peaceful, and orderly way of life has much to teach the rest of us. Their quasi-monastic ways are worth contemplating, and some (carefully chosen) implementing in our lives. See Steven M. Nolt and Donald B. Kraybill for friendly and realistic descriptions of Amish life.

  • Thanks for once again pointing us in the right direction. This afternoon, I’m teaching the final class in a social justice series for our archdiocesan deacon candidates. I had not hit on the “perfect” piece with which to close off our discussions, and now I have it in hand. Julia, you’re wonderful!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Look, the social ideals that were gradually developed in Papal encyclicals since Rerum Novarum have been pretty good ones (and btw often beholden to ideals held by groups the Catholic Church battled against), so that one feels it may be counter-productive to make reality any thornier than it needs to be. But since the real world has been invoked as somehow a special bailiwick of Catholic thought, let us just offer a few real observations. The just passed Vice Presidential debate, featuring two Catholics of striking different political mien, offers a very useful grid on which to read the “reality” mentioned in this article. Thank the Lordy that fewer believed Paul Ryan, than Joe Biden, when he asserted a worldview in which churches and religious charities would somehow do a better job than the state. Yet somehow in the argument the really interesting part left un-analyzed. Namely, that since both invoked Church teaching, and the ideals of their shared church, it might be simply worth looking at how this same church ran things when it was actually the ruler of a “country”. For naturally, the argument can always be made that when the Rc church’s desires are admixed with the reality of rulers that are no churchmen, there is a profound wiggle room for later non-blaming, even in a very Catholic country, say, like France historically. But the same canNOT be said of the history of the Papal States. I do not get at all why Catholics seem to think that their claims about having a kind os Sacred- Goldilocks option beyond left and right should be taken as serious, if the Church’s own track-record is not factored in with all the “reality”. That the Papal States were always amongst the worst run and impoverished and un-educated of all areas in Europe for average human beings of their day, is somehow not to be taken as “reality”. Again, it is good that this same church has gotten some better ideals since Leo’s XIII’s famous social document. Yet if you are going to make a serious argument that people should spend their time and political capital organizing around the ethos of an organization, in contradistinction for working in a much more results-likely ambit of real goals and real politics, then the actual ethos cumulatively of this organization’s history is surely relevant for “reality”. President Obama, whatever his faults as a leader might be, has still with healthcare reforms has actually helped improve the future of average poor and middle-class people, than a mountain of reflection on RC doctrine ever could. Obama’s de facto “preferential option” for the poor has one great advantage over Goldilocks reflections. It is real, and will have real results. And if as counter the Rc Church’s admittedly very large charitable endeavors are brought in for discussion, remember this. Though those charities are large, they are in fact a surprisingly tiny percentage of the massive monies that the Church brings in regularly. Most of it is not remotely spent on the poor. I am not making the the tired old “sell the Vatican artworks” arguments (God forbid! I love those!). Just that the actual percentage that is actually devoted to works-for-the-poor, should be factored in with “reality”. The reality is that it is tiny, compared to money spent on priests to study here and there, and colleges to be founded, etc, etc, etc. One can say that it is now a lot better than the Papal States were. But really not by much. So much for Goldilocks.

    • Mark VA

      Peter Paul Fuchs:

      It seems to me that you haven’t read Mr. Kauffman’s article, as Julia wisely recommended – read it first, PPF, and then we may have something to talk about.

      I, for one, am not inclined to follow your “Catholic gold” tangents.

      • It was not clear to me what Mr. Kauffman meant by “reality” in his article. While I don’t dispute his contention that both the right and the left are characterized by ideological mindsets that ignore the real world and its problems, Kauffman did not show me how the Catholic mindset is any more susceptible to discerning “reality” than are the right and left political viewpoints. Moreover, to address Mark VA’s criticism of what Mr. Fuchs had to say, I can’t see how Mr. Kauffman expects Catholics to find common ground with Protestants on political issues aimed at helping the poor, when the Catholic church is squandering huge sums of money in support of a professional priesthood–a priesthood which, is also, not incidentally, seen by pretty much all non-Catholics as thoroughly corrupt, if not evil. In short, I don’t see that Kauffman has come to grips with “reality” any more than those political entities he critiques in his article.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs

          I think that Senor Rodak has (unintentionally?) hit on a crucial vein in this matter. Namely, that since some more vocal Catholics, like Kauffman, are wont to portray the Church and its elements, (the priesthood, the episcopacy, etc.) are not amenable to normal categories (left, right, etc.) the exaggerated notion of “evil” for the “corrupt” priesthood becomes almost a default position as compensation. By contrast, a more healthy and useful way is to see all these matters as very sociological and unremarkable in normal societal senses. To wit, I do not think that it makes much sense, nor accords with most statistics, to say that the priesthood as a group is any more corrupt than any other comparable group– or even any group period. People are people, and that is a sound assumption. There is a separate question as to special difficulties occasioned by governmental structures of the RC Church, and the abuse scandal speaks mightily to those. But in general I think the RC church would be well served to encourage such a sociological analysis (which in no way militates intrinsically from a spiritual conception in some other sense, though both would have to be given equl weight) . For in a profound sense it would be — in principle — quite exonerating……ironically.

        • gadria

          Thank you Mr. Fox for your usual elegant insight – I guess the claim of clerical and religious exceptionalism will ensure that this line of reasonable argument will not get too much official airtime. Yes one hears a lot of lipservice payed along the lines of ‘we are all sinners’ – but in the end the official mighty Roman Catholic Church deeply believes that God thinks pretty highly of the instituation itself. The human flesh might be weak but of course the institutional church itself can not possible be the culprit.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Catholic Goldilocks, not Catholic gold, big diff. I read what was provided here, as described the the “heart” of it. Do you think I am going to do a lot of research at this point on these things. It is really at the push-comes-to-shove level of intellectual delectation on these matters with the RC church. I am not hiding it. The point is, they don’t stand up to it very well, if facts, historical and otherwise, matter. Good luck panning for gold in them thar hills!

        • @PPF — But, in fact, the Church did try to play the “sociology card” with regard to the sexual abuse scandal. They tried to say that the cover-up was occasioned by bad advice given to the bishops by secular psychiatrists, etc. What hogwash. If you catch a man raping a child, you call the cops. It’s that simple; unless you intend to protect him from justice, in which case you pull the kind of shenanigans pulled by the Catholic hierarchy. And eventually it comes back to bite you on the butt. I really don’t see how these things can be rationalized away by intelligent people–but they continually are. Certainly there have been child rapists among Protestant clergy, but they don’t tend to be elaborately protected and supported once exposed as such. I also think a very good case could be made–sociologically–that the priesthood and its protections actually attracts a disproportionate number of such men; it’s a systemic problem. Is it “evil?” Not for me to say, but certainly it is open to such a charge.

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  • It seems kind of self-serving to define one’s own beliefs as “reality” and everyone else’s as “ideology”. I don’t think Catholicism holds a patent on a desire for the common good or on efforts to achieve it. If this were true, our church would not be hip deep in things like the abuse scandal.

    • dudleysharp

      Precisely. it is hardly a good method of compromise to say you posses reality and everyone else is working from ideaology. It is, in fact, counter productive.

      Depending upon anyones perspective, everyone else has ideology, yet we posses reality. Same ole, same ole.

      Throughout history, these various efforts, through various folks have met with different success. It is always worth the effort, but the only thing that seems to change throughout hisotry is technology. The state of men and civilization stay, remarkably, consistent.

      The Truth is everything, yet many say they have the corner on it. Odd, when Truth appears to be different for so many – the never ending rule of history.

  • Jordan

    Ivan Kauffman’s piece is both prophetic and optimistic. Sadly, though, I do not hold any hope that the American institutional Church can rise above at least some involvement with partisan politics. I dearly hope that Kauffman is correct when he writes that not a few bishops disagree with the hard-right political turn of a number of brother bishops. Why, then, are they not speaking up? Perhaps it is because politics is an irresistible vehicle for the restoration of a false sense of episcopal power in the Church and greater society.

    Rodak’s [December 1, 2012 6:19 pm] observation that the institutional Church is saddled with “a priesthood which, is also, not incidentally, seen by pretty much all non-Catholics as thoroughly corrupt, if not evil” has driven some bishops into a new arena for self-aggrandizement: conservative partisan politics. Some bishops in the American episcopate, a body whose reputation has been gravely harmed by the sex abuse crisis, wish to divert attention from this fall-from-grace with conservative politicking. Abortion, same-sex-marriage, and “religious freedom” are mere smokescreens for an unmoored episcopal conference desperately grasping for a veneer of control over an increasingly ethnically and ideologically diverse American Catholicism.

    The silent majority of bishops who disapprove of some of their brother bishops’ politicking cannot steer the episcopal conference back to a truly Catholic prophetic message in this state of institutional disarray. The bedrock of Catholic engagement with society, as Kauffman notes, resides within council, scripture, and magisterium, not a seminary moral theology manual turned political manifesto. Only when the American episcopate returns to the solid ground of Catholic principles will the political Right loosen its hold over an influential minority of bishops.

  • Mark VA

    Peter Paul Fuchs and Rodak wrote, respectively, regarding the Catholic Church:

    “Though those charities are large, they are in fact a surprisingly tiny percentage of the massive monies that the Church brings in regularly.”

    “… I can’t see how Mr. Kauffman expects Catholics to find common ground with Protestants on political issues aimed at helping the poor, when the Catholic church is squandering huge sums of money in support of a professional priesthood … ”

    Whereas one of the conclusions from the referenced article is:

    “It is hardly consistent with the Catholic tradition to let those who do not share our values set our political agenda.”

    Speaks for itself, doesn’t it, gentlemen?

    Mr. Kauffman has incisively diagnosed our situation, and more than that, he has offered a viable solution. The un-addressed problem may be that some of us are simply not enough historically informed, and are thus unable to resonate with his reasoning.

    So, let’s change gears a little, and approach this article from a different angle. I believe in American exceptionalism, but I define it carefully. There are two versions of it I don’t subscribe to, one from the right, and one from the left:

    The version from the right roughly states that the political pathologies haunting the world cannot affect us, because we, being special in God’s eye, are immune to them. Thankfully, this version seems to be waning;

    The other one roughly states that the political pathologies haunting the world were not pathologies originally, but are actually good ideas, only misapplied by less advanced peoples. We’ll do it right, because we are special in Evolution’s eye, and are thus above the mistakes of others.

    Mr. Kauffman has avoided both of these ditches on the road we are travelling. Narrow indeed is this road.

    • Julia Smucker

      Mark VA, I wholeheartedly agree with your critiques of the exceptionalisms of the right and the left. But what version of national exceptionalism could possibly be compatible with Catholic faith?

      • Mark VA


        My understanding of American exceptionalism is this:

        Just as God gives us our personal vocation, so He gives each nation its own calling.

        We are a young nation, made of people originating by ancestry or birth from every other nation on the globe. We are endowed with a rich and vast natural environment. We are governed by an inspired constitution, that has proved its wisdom and resilience.

        If there is a common thread in all of the above, it is to struggle for and speak up for freedom. I shudder to think what the twentieth century would have made of this world, if there were no United States, or if the United States withdrew from it.

        To borrow a phrase, we are God’s playground, an exceptional place, with a noble and difficult calling.

        • Julia Smucker

          If you want to say that every nation has a vocation of a sort, fine. But I cannot caution strongly enough against the idea that the United States or any nation in particular (except perhaps the ancient, biblical Israel) is uniquely, exceptionally an instrument of God. Contrary to what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (and virtually every US presidential candidate) said during their campaigns, the United States is not the hope of the world. As soon as we start thinking this about ourselves, we cross a line into national self-worship, and we really need to consider the implications of that as Christians and specifically as Catholics. One meaning of “Catholic” is “universal”, and one meaning that can be derived from “orthodoxy” is giving the glory where it belongs, which is profoundly subversive of the exceptionalist mythos.

        • American exceptionalism. … It’s that ‘city on a hill’ idea, I guess?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I think I must agree with Crystal on this one. Following Zizek, I am profoundly suspicious of any attempt to define something (political movement, technocratic government, etc.) as “non-ideological.” In practice, such movements are profoundly ideological and in the service of the regnant ideology. Mr. Kauffman seems to accept, without question, the mechanisms of liberal democracy and late capitalism. I may be wrong: I am making inferences from a short article. But this seems to be the “reality” he wants us to work within.

    On a pragmatic level I agree with him: the revolution has been postponed indefinitely, and we need to do the hard work of caring for the poor and marginalized with the tools at hand. But at the same time, we need need to work within the framework of our Catholic ideology (“ideology”=”symbolic framework for understanding and explaining things”) to strive for fundamental change. Or, as Peter Maurin put it, we must build a new order within the shell of the old.

    We will not achieve complete success: the kingdom will not be fully present until the Parousia. But we need to be faithul, and strive for such victories as we can get. But at the same time we need to accept that failure is an inevitable part of our lot—we cannot overcome original sin by our own efforts. The two examples Mr. Kauffman cites are instructive in this regard. The civil rights movement succeeded to the extent that it built such a new order; it failed to the extent that it was co-opted and subverted by the old order, when it began to put more faith in political and judicial power than in being a mass movement. Solidarity successfully brought down one ideology (state communism) but was not prepared for and was swept away by its main competitor (state capitalism).

    • Julia Smucker

      I can see how he can be read as claiming a presumptuous moral (or even ideological) high ground, but I’m quite sure that is not his intent. I will grant that maybe he should have defined ideology more explicitly, as there seems to be some semantic confusion around his use of the word. I know from what I’ve heard from him in numerous conversations that his working definition of ideology has to do with presuming to have an automatic answer to every possible problem even before they arise. So there is a standard beyond a simple assertion that “I am realistic and anyone who disagrees with me is ideological.” I think he would acknowledge that nobody, himself included, is immune to ideology, which is why we constantly need to be reoriented, by God’s help, to the much more difficult task of seeking viable solutions based on actual reality.

      What you are defining as ideology, David, I would rather call a paradigm or metanarrative – and then I would have no problem attaching the word “Catholic” to it. But I have heard Ivan say that all ideology is idolatry, and based on the way he defines it I am inclined to agree.

  • Mark VA

    I think there is a misconception lurking around regarding the word “Solidarity”.

    While to some extent it was indeed a labor movement, in its essence it was an effort to re-establish a forbidden private and public space, free of the state’s totalitarian dictates. We call this space “civil society”, and perhaps some of us take it for granted.

    Solidarity was an antidote, and it seems to me that Mr. Kauffman has grasped that. It went hand in hand with the “Do not be afraid” (properly understood, this was an accusation). With the fall of the totalitarian state, this civil society resurfaced, and resumed its natural course. Solidarity was not swept away – like an actual grace, the need for it ended.

    Additionally, Mr. Kauffman’s article doesn’t strike me as a quest for some Catholic utopia. His is a deeply historic diagnosis and remedy for the here and now – yet both may remain elusive until the history he draws on is better known and understood.

  • Kurt

    I find the article unobjectionable but vapid. What is this Catholicism of which he speaks? Does it just mean each of us reflecting on our faith and letting our varied conclusions there dicate our politics? Or is it a specific programme and policy?

    Those of us of the anti-Communist Left were forced to coin the term “actually existing Communism” to get beyond tired polemics about Communism that had no relation to its actual practice. What is actually existing social Catholicism? Is it love for Franco and hatred for Captain Dreyfus? Is it the resolutions of the USCCB? Bishop Jenky? Dorothy Day? Smuckerism?

  • David writes, “… we need to do the hard work of caring for the poor and marginalized with the tools at hand. But at the same time, we need need to work within the framework of our Catholic ideology (“ideology”=”symbolic framework for understanding and explaining things”) to strive for fundamental change. Or, as Peter Maurin put it, we must build a new order within the shell of the old.”

    And incidentally maybe save a few souls along the way, just for the heck of it? ; )

    • Julia Smucker

      False dichotomy alert. Salvation is neither merely spiritual nor merely personal. The individualistic language of “saving souls” is a lot more at home in an Evangelical Protestant paradigm than a Catholic one. And we can’t save souls in any case.

  • Mark VA


    Yes, that’s all I wanted to say: every nation has a God given vocation (“of a sort”, if that’s how you choose to put it).

  • Anne

    Although I sympathize with Mr. Kauffman’s hope that Catholicism play a transformative role in solving the problems of the world, I’m afraid his thinking may be too much influenced by what has been written about the fall of Communism and the part allegedly played by the Pope and other outsiders in that historic event. Then as in America today, one political ideology played a big part in causing the “real” problems at hand, and another political ideology offered solutions to the problems. Catholic principles could, and did, point out which ideology held the most promise (and which the least), but when push came to shove, politics had to solve what politics (and its economic cosequences) wrought. As much as I’d like to find a specifically religious argument to get certain US bishops to leave rightwing politics behind, I have to admit politics is still enormously important in itself, and that the solution to the nation’s current “real” problems will be found there, not in religion per se.