Catholic Philosophy: Does It Automatically Lead to A Reactionary, Conservative Public Square?

Source: Toronto Star

In my last post, I discussed the capitulation of State authority during the Ottawa occupation. The post closed by raising Carl Schmitt’s famous friend-enemy distinction that would result in a new form of state governed by a sovereign dictator. This is clearly a step away from democracy toward what we might call a proto-democracy, along the lines of what Hobbes proposes in the Leviathan. I countered Schmitt’s proposal, without, admittedly, having really sketched out his position, with one of my own: turning to Catholic philosophy to find a way to reinvigorate and renew our communal and political life.

This proposition, on first blush, makes me a little wary of what might be suggested. In our contemporary world, political Christianity or at least inference of Christian values to one’s politics tends to be the bailiwick of reactionary and conservative politicians. Must it be this way?

This is the main challenge with communitarian thought. We Moderns, inheritors of the Enlightenment’s ideals, are skittish when it comes to theories that seem to be rolling back our individual rights in favour of communal rights. We tend to view it as a roll back to a socially conservative time when women and minorities were at best second-class citizens. Or we think of communism’s collectivism—this might be more our capitalist upbringing scaring us more than our inheritance of Enlightenment ideals, but nevertheless it creates the same result.

As Catholics, we are in an interesting bind: our faith calls us to lead a communal life, but our society and our civic culture tells us to lead an individual life, a life that is about me. And so, any call to lead a communal life seems to be a conservative reaction to the hyper-individualism we are witnessing in late Modernity.

Catholic society has largely been a conservative one, especially in terms of morality. Conservatism in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is more the way it is used that can be a bad thing. In the United States, there is an intellectual movement called integralism. It brands itself as a Catholic post-liberal philosophical and political movement. Many of its proposal are rather startling, for any Catholic. Integralism harkens back to the ultramontane movement of the nineteenth century: these groups seek to subordinate temporal power, i.e., the political, to the spiritual.

Basically, they want priests to run the state. Advocates of integralism, such as Adrien Vermeule, Patrick Deneen, and Sohrab Amari, deny that this is what they want. Regardless of what they do indeed or do not want, their positioning of integralism on the right tarnishes Catholic philosophy because it associates in people’s minds the supposed link between Catholicism and Christianity in general with conservative politics (of democratic and anti-democratic varieties).

Up until now, I have painted a somewhat grim picture of Catholic philosophy. For the next half of this post, I want to argue that Catholic philosophy and communitarianism do not automatically equate to reactionary and conservative politics. In fact, if we read the Gospel message closely, we find that the communitarian philosophy of Christ does not fit well with are contemporary understanding of conservatism; rather it fits better on the other end of the spectrum.

Philosophy can take many forms, and for the purposes of this discussion, it might be best to consider how Catholic social thought, a philosophical viewpoint unto itself, is best interpreted as a progressive communitarian philosophy instead of a reactionary one.

We should look first at the ten themes of Catholic social thought. These themes are drawn from papal encyclicals, the first one in the contemporary line of social teaching is Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. They should be the guiding principles for the way that Catholics leas their lives. These themes also cut across the political spectrum, but a reading of most of these show that there is perhaps a bias toward leftist philosophy and politics.

The themes are relevant for our daily lives. We are currently living through many existential crises, notably the climate change crisis. We are called, by Catholic social thought and directly by Pope Francis, to be stewards of the environment. Unfortunately, this is often associated with progressive politics; however, protecting the environment and being good stewards thereof should cut across the political spectrum.

Conservation is a conservative idea; however, the needs of conserving the environment, such as reducing our collective reliance on fossil fuels and transitioning to a green economy, threatens the socio-politico-economic order, i.e., the perverse marriage of (neoliberal) capitalism with Christianity.

Catholic social thought is radical. The demands it makes draw us closer to the poor and marginalised peoples of our society. We are called to live in Christ’s example and serve others. I am reminded again of the Beatitudes, especially Luke’s version: he finishes his version with an admonition of the rich.  He is correct: we should be leading lives that are not materially rich. We need only that which allows us to survive. Here again we find a difference between reactionary conservative Christian philosophy and progressive Christian philosophy: conservatives wrap themselves in the materialism of capitalism whereas progressives recognise that we are called to live minimally material lives, i.e., to consume that which we need.

Adhering to Catholic philosophy, especially if we focus on Catholic social teaching, is a radical way to live. I know that I fall short on attaining its high bar, but the more we all strive toward leading a life centred on the other and on a shared common good, the easier it will become for us all to lead a life in accordance with Catholic social teaching.

Luke Gilmore is an Alumnus of Campion College, the University of Regina., and is a political scientist..

  • Elia Cuomo
    Posted at 04:56h, 31 March Reply

    It’s not only Luke in the Beatitudes – really Jesús’ Words, should we forget – but he continues this concept in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Finding fault with communitarian living is looking at our faith as just a story and not and actual Call to Action by Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, not just some liberal we can easily dismiss. My problem with conservatives is that they attack Pope Francis for his so-called liberal policies because they are afraid to attack the Person he really represents here on earth, Jesus.
    I appreciate your writing and wished I could do as well. Thank you so much.

  • Dallas McQuarrie
    Posted at 05:17h, 31 March Reply

    If one examines Catholic social teaching, it is very hard, if not impossible, to say Catholicism proclaims a reactionary, conservative message in the public square, or anywhere else for that matter. Indeed, such an assertion is a gross distortion of Catholic teaching. I would suggest the Church’s teachings proclaim a message that is the opposite reactionary conservatism, and quite radical in today’s context.
    For example, it was John Paul II who wrote (Evangelium Vitae, 1996) that “whoever attacks human life attacks God’s very self … whatever “insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions … as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit – all these things and others of their kind are infamies indeed. They poison human society – they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.”
    St. John Paul II also wrote (Centesimus Annus, 1991) “the social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all a basis and motivation for action. There are needs and common goals that cannot be satisfied by the market system … It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land!”
    Or consider what John Paul II’s Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) that says “One must denounce the economic, financial, and social mechanisms and structures that are manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit at the expense of the poor.”
    There’s more one could say on John Paul, but to establish consistency, let us go all the way back to Pope Pius XI -in 1931 (Quadragesimo Anno) who declared that “The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching ..The concentration of power and might… is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors produces.. which lets only the strongest survive … and this is often the same as saying, those who fight most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.”
    One can also find strong condemnations of the philosophies of ‘reactionary conservatism’ in Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961), Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio 1967), and in Church teaching back to the very beginning, namely, the teachings of Christ in the gospels which call us to feed the hungry, care for the sick, welcome refugees and immigrants, etc., (see Matthew 25:31-46).
    Today Pope Francis carries on the proud tradition of a church which proclaims and struggles for justice in the midst of reactionary conservatism which is, in fact, the very antithesis of Catholicism. Francis has written “Today everything comes under the laws of competition … where the powerful feed upon the powerless. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power (Evangelii Gaudium, 2013)”
    A look at the record indicates the claim that Catholicism calls for a reactionary, conservative stance in the public square is crude fiction perpetrated by those who proclaim a gospel authored by themselves to justify the greed and rapacious nature of today’s economy. As Pope Francis has written of modern free market economics “The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life. Today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills” ((Evangelii Gaudium, 2013)
    All of this puts the lie to any claim that that Catholicism takes a reactionary, conservative stance. It also shows that the first task of evangelism in North America today is re-evangelizing those who proclaim such apostasies within the Church itself.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 07:43h, 31 March Reply

    Thank you Luke!

  • Karen Arthurs
    Posted at 09:51h, 31 March Reply

    Thanks for your post Luke. It is an interesting and valuable discussion. Understanding the various terminolgy of the different disciplines is fodder for the mighty and meaningless for the lowly trying to put food on the family table, even if there may only be one at the table.

  • Richard Grover
    Posted at 12:36h, 31 March Reply

    Thanks for more information on how Christians should act, Luke. Going back to what Jesus and his followers said/wrote is always important.St. Luke is not only the author of one of the four gospels….he also wrote the Act of the Apostles which explains how the followers of Jesus continued the teaching of Jesus after he ” was taken up to heaven.” Acts 1:2. St.Luke thoroughly explains how these first Christians behaved economically: “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything he had, as everything was held in common…..None of their members was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them , and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need.” Acts 4:32-35.
    How should Christians interpret this today ??

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