Some version of “political Catholicism” has made the pages of the Opinion section of the New York Times.
Unlike “political Islam,” also known as “Islam,” political Catholicism, which author Matthew Walther just calls Catholicism, could help the United States have a conscience and “inspire secular politics.” At least, that’s his claim.
The author takes his inspiration from the work of Catholic activists who worked for a Catholic magazine in the 1960s. He describes:
“What struck me, rather, was that the editors, who also called for unilateral nuclear disarmament and were among the founders of the nascent pro-life movement, were doing something that even now, in a nation of some 65 million Catholics, seems impossibly radical: setting aside the standard ideological divisions of coalition politics in an attempt to apply the full range of the church’s social teaching to the problems of modern life.”
To Muslims, this should not sound “impossibly radical.” Applying religion to politics is not only obvious, it is impossibly hard not to do so. What happens if one figures out a way to separate them is what Walther via his 1960s brothers describes as: The “‘soulless tyranny of secular liberalism.’” Indeed, that’s pretty much where we’re at now.
Why Catholicism Ultimately Is Not Helpful
The current state of the United States, with its increasingly tyrannical left whose authoritarian rulings are often based more on whims than logic and reason, weakens Walther’s plea. Why offer a society with a smattering of the Church’s teachings and apply them at random to secular life? Because of how fascist secular life has become, no one can guarantee these social teachings won’t just morph into Catholic LGBTQ rights authoritarianism.
Perhaps aside from giving readers a shock if the title were “Why America should be Catholic,” the other reason for only offering inspiration to secular life is this: Basic Christian and Catholic doctrine is illogical and unreasonable, and when Christianity ruled, corruption and oppression were rife.
The Trinity, transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that after the priest performs a special ritual on the bread and wine for communion it becomes the actual body and blood of Christ, which the parishioners then consume), baptizing newly born babies to remove the sins of others from them, virtually outlawing divorce (with minor exceptions, in which you must have the marriage annulled), imposed celibacy on the clergy, going to a priest to expose your sins and be forgiven (and having children start to do this alone with a priest when they are around 8 years-old) — all of this defies reason.
While the Church has run societies before, their governance was largely to their own benefit (in the Middle Ages their rule was often simply part of the feudal system, in which they held positions of power), with corrupt clergy taking advantage of the population.
Here’s some examples of the type of corruption present in Catholic, or rather, Western, history:
“The Church’s teachings on purgatory – an afterlife realm between heaven and hell where souls remained trapped until they had paid for their sins – generated enormous wealth for various clergy who sold writs known as indulgences, promising a shorter stay in purgatory for a price. Relics were another source of income, and it was common for unscrupulous clerics to sell fake splinters of Christ’s cross, a saint’s finger or toe, a vial of water from the Holy Land, or any number of objects, which would allegedly bring luck or ward off misfortune.”
Maybe the memory, however distant, of the corrupt and tyrannical nature of the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe is one reason why so many in the West—particularly in parts of Europe—embrace secularism. All Europeans need to do is go to one of the many fortresses or castles and hear about which peasant revolt took place there to recall that the Church was part of the system that oppressed the local people.
It is unfortunate that many in the West have wholly written off religion, seeing it as a source of oppression, a kind of power wielded in the name of God but actually for an illogical set of beliefs. They can’t understand that; how could they?
It is even more unfortunate that some of them can recognize the logic in Islam but are not open to it in part because it is ‘too foreign’ to them, and while they’re not particularly married to Christian doctrine, it’s hard to let go of what you were brought up in. I’m basically describing what I’ve heard from some ‘areligious Christians.’
In choosing to sort of half-heartedly celebrate Christmas (which has so much of its roots in paganism and is almost certainly not when Jesus’s birthday was, peace be upon him) and attend mass on Easter (one of the most important holidays in the liturgical year), they move toward some sort of partial religion, one that works well in the US’s version of democracy with the politicians who want to get elected in it. It also helps to solve the problem of value differences between different groups of people because the values can shift and become relative to contexts and who’s in power. Value differences and the big questions that come with that were not solvable through “freedom of religion.”
But, it makes the problem of identifying objective truths bigger, to the extent that some people in the country are unable to say someone is male or female.
Walther’s article will speak to those who are happy to mix and match (especially when it helps campaigns and approval ratings) and turn religion into pure culture, although the irony is that it seems Walther is actually dedicated to Catholic doctrine.
Recall that major thought movements like Humanism and the Enlightenment were in many ways responses to the grip and illogical, oppressive ways of the Church. Reason was to prevail; we don’t need religion to teach us morals. The same goes for the French Revolution and the country’s move towards secularism. While monarchical France may have had slightly more freedom from the Church then other places in Europe, the Church’s land ownership and overall power was still very much felt by those wanting revolution.
Consider this description of western Europe’s response to monarchical rule, which was supported by Christian institutions (though it’s important to recall that at this point, the British had already switched from the Catholic Church to the Church of England):
“…Many Enlightenment thinkers…proposed that France reform its institutions along British lines, but others sought to get to the very roots of things, which is what being ‘radical’ means. What the British called ‘the rights of Englishmen’ the French radicals set out to improve upon by invoking ‘the rights of all mankind.’ Where British liberalism meant oligarchical rule by taxpayers, French radicalism would mean democratic rule by all male citizens, displaying (even imposing) the republican ideals of Athens and Rome: a worship of reason, virtue, liberty, equality, and fraternity. And where the British practiced a certain tolerance and reconciled their freedom with an established Christian church, the French revolutionaries explicitly repudiated the Christian tradition and replaced it with a secular, civic cult. The excesses and contradictions of the French Republic of Virtue need no elaboration. But it must not be forgotten that the methods of military and financial mobilization employed by the French Republic (and later by Napoleon) were so shockingly successful that Britain, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire had no choice but to copy French techniques or perish. In fact, the demonstration of what democratic government à la française could achieve in war was so compelling that even after Waterloo no part of the Western world could afford to neglect it. Taking the common people into active partnership with government and catering to social elites became, quite simply, an imperative of success and even survival in the competition among sovereign powers.”
Even with all that liberty, much of the world still suffered at the hands of the free.
Going All In
For Walther’s plea to manifest into reality in the 21st century US in a significant way, he’d need to either reverse the effects of the French Revolution and humanist and enlightenment ideas on Western society, or he’d need to demonstrate that the teachings of the Catholic Church in their entirety are necessary to embrace.
People would need to be convinced of all of those illogical points of Catholic doctrine, the ones that caused breaks from the Church before, and the one that is causing them to have so many “cafeteria Catholics” who prefer to take what they like and leave the rest. Choosing what suits one from an entire body of doctrine does not a religion make.
If he can’t go all in, then who’s to be convinced? A brief skim of the comments section of his article will give you the answer (not many).
There’s only one religion that is wholly logical, provides an entire system of life, and therefore can be fully embraced. We can’t write about it like that in the New York Times though.
When reflecting upon teaching “Western Civilization” curricula, McNeill described how it was in the 1930s and 1940s in the US, emphasizing that an effort was made to demonstrate the battle between religion and secularism, between faith and reason:
“The curriculum was based upon a systematic polarity between reason and faith—’St.’ Socrates versus St. Paul-and the notion that truth was an evolving, discovered thing rather than a fixed, dogmatic certainty laid down once for all in the Bible or church doctrine. The effect of this on young people was to give them a sense of emancipation from old religious identities, often ethnically transmitted, a sense of common citizenship and participation in a community of reason, a belief in careers open to talent, and a faith in a truth susceptible to enlargement and improvement generation after generation.”
It looks like the conflict he speaks of is coming to a close in society at-large. For Muslims, it only demonstrates once again that Christianity cannot offer tangible solutions for running a society; only a selection of a few ideas.
Though what Christianity has also done is cause many to understand religion in general as something to be feared. How many times have you heard someone in the West tell you something like they don’t like “organized religion” and instead have come up with their own set of beliefs and have decided love is the answer? You nod and move on. That’s considered rational now.
The recent abortion discussion is an excellent example how religion is seen as irrational. That many peoples’ opinion on abortion are informed by their religion is unacceptable to a significant portion of the population. Or rather, what’s unacceptable to them is that this opinion informs how they vote.
This is the fatal flaw in the American “promise.” While one can arguably live much more freely in the US than in Europe, religious people cannot truly practice their religion there. Non-religious people will say that they can’t truly practice their secularism, but the latter’s argument is fading away.
It looks like what America does need, they’re most hesitant to open up to, at least for now. And Allah knows best.
- McNeill, William H., “What We Mean by the West,” Orbis 41, no. 4 (1997), 519. ↑
- McNeill, William H., “What We Mean by the West,” Orbis 41, no. 4 (1997), 520. ↑