Thursday, February 16, 2012

American Catholics & Politics


What stance should American Catholics assume toward politics in light of President Obama's contraception mandate? Is that stance reactionary?

Here on the Guild Review I have never really had an explicit agenda. The topics on which I write are sometimes quite random. What, for example, connects Goethe with Irish music? Nevertheless, there are certain concerns that color much of what I write here. Many of my posts over the last three or so years have been about how different individuals have come to terms with politics and the state. Hence my fascination with exile and persecution, the two situations when the individual is under the most pressure to figure out what sort of relation he can establish with the world of politics. For reasons I hope to make clear below, perhaps the best stance toward politics at the present time is that of the reactionary.

Recent events have given all American Catholics reason to reconsider their relation to the US political system. The HSS's new rule requiring Catholic employers to provide medical insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients enraged this country's bishops, and President Obama's accommodation could not placate them either. The contraception mandate, then, would seem to mark the beginning of a Kulturkampf against Catholics in the US. Now any Catholic who takes the bishops' pronouncements seriously must ask himself: What stance am I to take toward a political system that has essentially declared war on my Church?

One option, of course, is simply to refuse to engage the culture at all and instead retreat into to political "quietism" or aestheticism. Just as the French quietists of the 17th century saw spiritual perfection in complete passivity, the political quietist seeks a complete Nirvana-like cessation of all desires to participate in political life. Moreover, just as the French quietists were condemned as heretics, political quietism is not a viable option for Catholics. The Church has always recognized that man is a social creature and that participation in the common good is essential for his fulfillment. Even contemplatives in monasteries do not withdraw from all worldly concerns; they must participate in the life of their community, which both shapes and is shaped by the world outside the cloister. A truly hermetic life is exceptional even among contemplatives.

On the other hand, there are many types of engagement with politics and culture, ranging from living in a Catholic ghetto or working within the system to civil disobedience and military resistance.

When Catholics first immigrated to the US in significant numbers, they were discriminated against by the Protestant establishment. Fortunately, though, they were generally allowed to live within their own ethnic communities as long as they did not become too ambitious. This gradually changed throughout the 20th century, as Catholics became more accepted by Americans but also became themselves more accepting of American culture.

Ever since John F. Kennedy's presidency, American Catholics have not generally perceived any serious conflict between the two parts of their identity. Working within the system has come to seem perfectly normal to most American Catholics. Indeed, most would agree with Mary Ann Glendon's interview "Politics as a Vocation" (h/t First Things). According to Glendon, Catholics in America are blessed to live in a country where we can actually influence politics through our vote, or other ways of "making our voices heard." Glendon, of course, is not oblivious to the need for politicians to make courageous decisions, but she generally thinks that participation in elections and the regular political process can still bear fruit.

There are times, though, when one group fails to achieve its goals through the normal political process. That is when the group will turn to civil disobedience. In our imagination, civil disobedience is a drastic step to be taken only when a group is suffering under intolerable tyranny. Yet civil disobedience also presupposes that the "tyrant" in question is reasonable enough not to slaughter civilians en masse. Not that violence is never a possibility, of course; but, it is vital that the state not kill too many protesters. Gandhi, for example, when he undertook his campaign of civil disobedience against the British Empire, knew that the British were too civilized to kill all of his followers.

Only when civil disobedience fails do most people even begin to consider military resistance. And yet, just like civil disobedience, military resistance is generally optimistic in its own way. One engages in military resistance only if one believes that violence can solve the immediate problem and restore a proper political order.

Each of these stances toward politics assumes that politics is a struggle; there is no way to avoid conflict. That is obvious. But, what is the smartest way to fight? What if none of these stances is effective in stopping or repealing Obama's birth control mandate? What if engaging with the political system as it currently is actually creates more problems in the long run than it solves? For instance, civil disobedience may not work, because it will be hard for protesters to goad the federal government into using just enough violence to gain the support of the masses, but not too much violence so as not to suffer considerable loss of human life. Moreover, mustering mass support for her position may entangle the Church in dubious alliances that she may later come to regret. And, to go one step further, even considering armed resistance against the US military is just ludicrous.

Does that mean that American Catholics should abandon the fight? No! There remains open to them another option: the reactionary stance toward politics. For the reactionary, neither civil disobedience nor military resistance is capable of restoring a sane political order. Early on, some reactionaries, most notably the French reactionaries in the Vendée, took up arms against the revolution. But, by now there is no hope of restoring the old order. Indeed, it is not clear what the best one could hope for in the current situation is. The name of "reactionary" is an unfortunate relic of an earlier age, but at least it does connect the modern reactionary to his spiritual forbears.

The modern reactionary can best be compared to an exile who knows he cannot undo his banishment, no matter how passionately he still cares for and loves the homeland that has rejected him. The reactionary may appear to have withdrawn from the contemporary world, but in reality, he has taken up an even fiercer battle on a higher plane: the reactionary's paramount concern is intellectual resistance. He looks on contemporary politics with nothing but disdain, but not out of apathy--though cynicism is certainly a temptation--but out of a concern to keep his soul unpolluted, so that he can devote himself to intellectual resistance.

Intellectual resistance is more demanding than military resistance. As the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila said, "To think against is more difficult than to act against" (source). Armed resistance certainly requires courage, but the soldier has an immediate enemy who could destroy him at any moment, which helps him remain vigilant. Intellectual resistance, on the other hand, consists of transforming a culture, without the fear of death to spur us onward. Moreover, the reactionary does not wage an empty war of words in newspapers, on TV, or on blogs. It is a battle for souls. It is a war in which we must convert, ourselves first and then others.

For the reactionary, therefore, the fight against evil is itself a grace from God. (See Donoso Cortes for a classic expression of this attitude.) Connected to the reactionary's view of combat as grace is the realization that he is not guaranteed victory in history. The reactionary does not require the worldly triumph of the Church as a condition of his hope in Christ. Instead, he views history (in Tolkien's words) as a "long defeat". His calling is to be a witness to the eternal values present in history, even if being a witness requires becoming a martyr. For this the reactionary is often derided as a pessimist, but if he is a pessimist, he is a peculiarly hopeful type of pessimist.

A reactionary, then, does not consider all participation in politics futile, but understands its limits and admits how difficult it will be to restore first principles in society and politics. But, how does one live as an "internal exile" in one's country, hoping to save it yet knowing that's not really possible? And yet, one lives for the future. The reactionary sows seed that will sprout in the future, perhaps only in eternity.

Besides having to keep his hope alive, the greatest difficulty for a reactionary is that he is an exile, a lonely figure, cut off from politics. How can he reconcile his isolated existence--which he has freely chosen--with man's social and political nature? Life as a reactionary is not an ideal, just as life as an exile is not an ideal. But, no matter how much inward reserve he maintains, the reactionary must act within a community, even if it is only a few loved ones.

But, what does all this talk of the reactionary mean for Catholics in America right now? Soon after the official announcement of the mandate, Bill Donohue predicted there would be fighting in the streets. But, that won't happen. President Obama and his supporters are too smart to provoke an open uprising, and they do not want to give the pro-life movement anything comparable to Roe v. Wade to serve as a focus of discontent. They see that final victory is in sight, and so they are willing to let the pro-life movement linger for a while, because it is a more sure death. They know that if they keep up enough pressure, but do not get too heavy-handed, most people will knuckle under. In the original Kulturkampf, Bismarck threw Catholic bishops in jail and banned Jesuits from the country; Obama will not repeat those mistakes. He will not allow Archbishop Chaput or Archbishop Dolan to be compared to Bishop Matthias Eberhard, much less to Cardinal von Galen. No nuns will be carted off to the guillotine, like the martyrs of Compiègne.

American Catholics should by all means work within the ordinary political process and use civil disobedience to oppose President Obama's contraception mandate. But, there is no guarantee that American Catholics will enjoy any success. Indeed, after Catholics are forced to pay for contraception, it is nearly certain that the federal government will impose a requirement to pay for abortions; this will play out in the same way that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close down after they refuse to place children in homosexual households. We Catholics will be exiles in our own country. The task of a reactionary Catholic, then, will be to figure out how to hand on the faith in an age of persecution, how to prepare an underground spiritual and intellectual resistance, to convert hearts and minds. We will need to wait and be patient. Above all, we will need to take Cardinal von Galen's words to heart: "Become hard! Remain firm!"
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