Often, when religion and politics come up in conversation, people want to ask how a Catholic can be conservative — or how a Catholic can be liberal. We have plenty of both in our community, to the everlasting frustration of just about everyone. Normally this doesn’t come up too often, but with the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, the fight over the HHS mandate, and the standoff over entitlement reform, the last year or so has brought the question more into the center of the public square.
That’s why I was surprised to see Ross Douthat postulate that “the Catholic moment” had passed in American politics. Ross is not wrong in the context he used, although I think he’s off about the cause:
Perhaps not coincidentally, the mid-2000s were the last time the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism — enjoyed real influence in U.S. politics. At the time of John Paul’s death, the Republican Party’s agenda was still stamped by George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which offered a right-of-center approach to Catholic ideas about social justice. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was looking for ways to woo the “values voters” (many of them Catholic) who had just helped Bush win re-election, and prominent Democrats were calling for a friendlier attitude toward religion and a bigger tent on social issues.
That was a long eight years ago. Since then, the sex abuse scandals that shadowed John Paul’s last years have become the defining story of his successor’s papacy, and the unexpected abdication of Benedict XVI has only confirmed the narrative of a church in disarray. His predecessor was buried amid reverent coverage from secular outlets, but the current pope can expect a send-off marked by sourness and shrugs.
The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.
The abuse scandals were a much bigger and more acute story during John Paul II’s papacy, so I don’t think that’s the real driving issue. Matt Lewis got closer to the truth in his response the next day:
So why did this happen?
As I have noted, even as conservatives were winning elections, they were losing the culture. Is it any surprise that conservatism itself would eventually evolve to mirror a society that is rapidly becoming more secular and less traditional? The Overton Window is moving — and it’s dragging conservatives along behind.
This is, no doubt, the most significant factor.
I think that’s part of it, but why is that happening? Why over the last eight years, as Douthat astutely observed? The collapse of the economy in 2008 and the poor response to it has driven two impulses in American politics at the extremes: on one hand, a total mistrust of the government, and on the other, a total mistrust of private-sector institutions. The scandals in the Catholic Church also undermined the trust in that institution, but that damage was done before 2005.
In this environment, Aquinas has a tough time making his case for building just societies. Compounding that lack of trust is the fact that no one in the government seems to want to tell the truth about what the costs and limits of those efforts truly are. In my column for The Week, I argue that the problem isn’t really Aquinas v Rand, but the same problem Diogenes had in finding an honest man:
Society does not necessarily mean government, although it doesn’t exclude it either. It certainly didn’t mean “government” in Aquinas’ time. The Christian church pioneered hospitals, outreach to the poor, and education for the masses long before governments decided to enter into those industries, even after they became industries. Ironically, these days government has mostly gotten in the way of Catholic attempts to provide a just society through individual and group action, by threatening their existence with mandates that force the Church and its organizations to choose between faithful adherence to their doctrine and outreach to the poor and homeless.
However, a couple of key elements are also necessary in this paradigm: responsibility and sustainability. The problem facing the American welfare system and the European nanny states is that they are designed with neither in mind. Their fiscal structure pays more in benefits than it receives, a very basic form of irresponsibility and unsustainability. That forces these systems to borrow massively against future production, which in essence means that these social systems pay benefits with someone else’s money — the children or grandchildren to come. One could consider that theft, or at the least taxation without representation.
It’s not difficult to argue that neither of the two philosophers would endorse such a system. After all, even St. Thomas Aquinas did math.
Oddly it was Howard Dean who spoke the actual truth, in an interview with Scott Rasmussen earlier this week:
“This is the fundamental problem in American politics,” Dean said. “Somebody has to tell the middle class that either your taxes are going up or your programs are going to get cut, or else we’re going to go into financial oblivion.”
So who in today’s political class wants to tell the middle class this very obvious truth? “No one,” Dean replies, and he’s right. This takes the reform argument entirely out of the equation, which brings us back to Douthat and Lewis on the “Catholic center” and just society. We have no voices in the current political arena, Catholic or otherwise, explaining that we can have programs that take care of the truly needy, which would require many more to sacrifice a little more — either in eschewing ever-expanding benefits, or in taxes — while ensuring sustainability and stability without taking money from our grandchildren to pay for our policies.
Essentially, we want to eat our cake and have it too, and we don’t like hearing about the impossibility and irresponsibility of this position. If we have a political class with a Diogenes problem, though, whose fault is that? Matt responded to me earlier this morning:
How does Morrissey’s argument jibe with my cultural criticism?
Spending our children and grandchildren’s inheritance is a moral issue. Knowingly failing to tackle our nation’s most dire challenges — the debt, entitlement and tax reform, etc. — is a moral crisis. Allowing the social safety net to become unsustainable is a moral failing. …
But blaming the politicians is facile. You can’t blame people you only tell you what you really want to hear (that you can have your cake — and eat it, too.)
Political courage is admirable, but we generally don’t reward the truth-tellers. We generally don’t reward those who tell us “the emperor has no clothes on.”
Indeed. The fundamental problem isn’t actually that our politicians aren’t telling us the truth. It’s that we’re not telling ourselves the truth and acknowledging that those things which cannot be sustained won’t be.