The Catholic Thing
The Present American Polity Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The most dangerous political exercise is accurately to describe a deviant regime’s constitutional form, especially if it is one’s own. Aristotle outlined differing regimes in his Politics. Most existing regimes, however, consider themselves to be the “best” regime. If they do not, radical change is needed to establish it. A new model is proposed.

Most politicians, especially dangerous ones, claim to bring about a more perfect regime. Aristotle warned that they often ended with a worse regime than the one they abolished. “Righting all wrongs” becomes the political movement’s inspiration. Such, however, is a divine burden, not a political one. In pursuing it, we lose both the divine and the political.

One senses that radical, momentous changes occur daily among us. We try to describe them. Forces not easily observed seem to direct our regime to a new configuration. America is classically described as a republican government limited by a written constitution and a natural law. This understanding no longer holds.

In the new dispensation, we are not the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave.” We are the cause of domestic and foreign ills. We need to acknowledge our sins before the world. Our new leader gladly takes up this noble task.

“Democracy” has replaced “republic.” The republic was a mixed-regime, with separation of powers, checks and balances, designed to guarantee responsible rule by limiting the ignoble or tyrannical tendencies of any one branch of government or of the people themselves.

Federalism was designed to leave most important government activities as local as possible. Our states and often our cities themselves compare with many nation-states. Our “neighbor” is usually not “next-door.”

We are now a “democracy” in the classic sense; that is, a regime of “liberty” now redefined to remove any distinction between good or evil in how we live. Our laws reflecting life, family, and human integrity begin to enforce their new definitions established by positive law.

Our democratic rule is based on theoretic relativism. Truth or order is its principal antagonist. If we admit truth, we deny liberty. The resultant moral chaos is acknowledged. But we do not address the cause and the consequences remain. They require a new politics of “care” for the whole society.

But this “care” cannot be personal. It is non-preferential, egalitarian, same-for-all. Government is its best administrator. If people do whatever they want, they often must be “taken care of.” They are primarily victims of themselves and of old “structures.” They need someone to do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Everyone needs equal access to what anyone else has. The “natural” distinctions caused by differing talents, wills to work, habits, and virtue are unjust. They cause the poor to be poor. Human nature needs some change.

We become more of a one-party, central command system. The state is “all-caring.” We are not the best judges of our own good. Our model is not ourselves and our wretched traditions. The president does not speak of American standards being good for the world, but of (selective) world standards being “good” for us. We should imitate the world and apologize to it. Our “uniqueness” has caused most of the wars and unbalances in the world.

Looking over his initiatives, Victor Davis Hanson remarked that, on balance, the president is “neither a pragmatist, as he insisted, nor even a liberal, as charged. Rather he is a statist. The president believes that a select group of affluent, highly educated technocrats…supported by a phalanx of whiz-kids fresh out of blue-chip universities with little or no experience in the market place, can direct our lives for better than we can ourselves.” The people have lost their grip. They need to be guided, taken care of for the common good.

Out of democracy’s chaos, Plato said, will arise a “leader.” Such a “leader,” Fouard Ajami writes, is familiar: “(The president’s) politics of charisma was reminiscent of the Third World.” He was familiar to Aristotle too.

So taxes are designed that wealth be redistributed. Everyone deserves about the same things in pay, health-care, education, and vacations. Anything else is unjust. We will make it happen. All will be cared for.

The fatal steps along this path were taken freely by a free people. They forgot that freedom not based in truth is license.

In Sermon 7 of Subjects of the Day, Newman wrote: “The world has many sins, but its peculiar offence is that of daring to reason contrary to God’s Word and will. It puts wrong aims before itself, and acts towards them. It goes wrong as if on principle, and prefers its own way of viewing things to God’s way.” A better description of the present direction of our polity is difficult to find. We go wrong “on principle.”

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (23)Add Comment
Is it too late?
written by Ars artium, September 17, 2009
Father Schall gives expression to the intuitions and thoughts of many. Does he think that damage is irreversible? Is it too late?
Little Red Book
written by Richard A, September 17, 2009
I encountered yesterday an ad on a website, showing a pair of digitally-rendered women walking confidently towards the viewer, with the caption, "Obama wants women to finish college." The first thing I thought of was Mao's Little Red Book. If the supreme leader wants, we should do it.
Loaves & Fishes from Man
written by Leonard_K, September 17, 2009
Schall tells us we go wrong, not asking what is truth but rather acting as if it did not matter. He argues against the recent glib impulse to care for us all at no cost; "...not a dime" -- proceeding implausibly through the mere exercise of a man's will.
The New Regime
written by Willie, September 17, 2009
Great insight into today's stealthy usurpation of a once great republic based on truth and Natural Law. Are we now ruled by an elite who have jettisoned the Natural Law in favor of positive law? Truth is irrelevant so we are now seeing creeping chaos in our society. Pray God we don't have another “Reign of Terror, Third Reich or Workers Paradise" to again make us realize the value of truth. The present "Change you can believe in," by way of the new regime may be the change that does us in!
written by Darlene Mann, September 17, 2009
Fr. Schall, you outline for us what is wrong. How, at this point, do we do what is right? Can you give us an outline for that?
The Sum of Our Desires
written by Watcher, September 17, 2009
Sadly, it is too late. The evidence is that more than half the country voted away their freedom, knowing (but not realizing) what was involved. It happened because morality has been defined away and this has been accepted by most people. No mere assertion, it is obvious that good is now defined by narrow political interests with no higher authority and that includes the Constitution. It would take a miracle to restore communal values built on a higher authority. The rot has gone on for too long.
Good is Evil,war is peace
written by Fr Tim, September 17, 2009
We are living under an authoritarian elite. Actually more like an oligarchy. We have propaganda tsars and anti-supernaturalism as a presuposition in most peoples minds.
I agree with what has been said, the Republic is gone. Anyone not willing to face that is living in an illusion. So... WHAT DO WE DO?
written by Wil, September 17, 2009
I agree that there are problems with the present administration, & that it is particularly deficient in the moral department (its lack of respect for natural law)... but how is that different than the preceding administrations?

I find it strange that Obama & his initiatives excite so much ire from my fellow conservatives who were silent at the statist abuses under former Pres. Bush. One wonders if they see Obama's statism so starkly b/c its form is less favorable to their private interests?
institutionalized insanity
written by Achilles, September 17, 2009
I agree with Willie- Fr. Schall knocks it out of the park again. It is like Chesterton said, we are sawing away the branch of the tree on which we are sitting. Cut of from the Great Western Tradition all we have left is the will, our will, and the triumph of radical individualism is the demise of US.
written by David, September 17, 2009
I won't address the substance of Fr. Schall's remarks because there is much with which I agree. But I am shocked by the tone of this and Professor Arkes' recent column. There is an increasingly coarse and personalized tone to the columns that demonizes/de-humanizes the President and is not consistent with Catholic teaching: Gadium et Spes, the Book of James about the power of the tongue, St. Paul's teachings on the attributes of Christian love, to name a few. Where is Christ in these words?
Our glorious past
written by Tom in NC, September 18, 2009
While I agree with Fr. Schall about us becoming wards of a nanny state, I think he implies a loss of "our glorious past". I've been digesting Andrew Bacevich's Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, and it's a bracing rejoinder against holding an uncritical triumphalist view of our place in the world. In this, I agree with Wil's question below about Bush; Bacevich (a colleague of Pat Buchanan) is consistent enough to argue with Reaganism, at least in military terms.
written by John McCarthy, September 18, 2009
I agree with Fr. Tim and Darlene. We need Fr. Schall to keep writing on this theme and to begin suggesting solutions...
written by Austin Ruse, September 18, 2009
Arguments about tone spring from a strain in our public discourse that is prissy. Arguing from tone as a way of diverting and even stopping debate is a new and PRISSY strain in American political discourse. I suspect that it is a pernicious strain of the campus speech codes.
Run!! It
written by David, September 18, 2009
Mr. Ruse, Your acute aversion to pernicious prissiness (in capital letters, no less!) is duly noted. My argument is that tone indeed matters, for two reasons. First, the constant need to demonize/de-humanize the President suggests that the underlying arguments can't stand on their own. Second, Catholics should follow Christ and the teachings of the Church as guides to comportment in the public square. This week, Fr. Schall and Prof. Arkes fell short of this standard.
written by Liz, September 18, 2009
Willie, wake up and smell the coffee. You are too old to be so naive. Truth can sometimes hit one like a 2x4. Now, get over it, take a deep breath and relax. This is an outstanding article. More people need to speak out.
Schall's Folly
written by mespo727272, September 18, 2009
"The world has many sins, but its peculiar offence is that of daring to reason contrary to God’s Word and will."

At one time that meant reasoning that the Sun did not revolve around the Earth, it was the other way 'round. It also meant reasoning that slavery was a moral wrong despite the Bible's specific approval of the institution. We reason around priests and Bible stories all the time, and that indeed is our salvation from the Dark Ages that Newman would have us repeat.
written by Ron, September 18, 2009
Dangerous is an important word in Fr Schall's essay. Nostalgia for a past that was rosy if you were the right color, belonged to the right Church, and were born on the right side of the ocean is a dangerous preoccupation.
written by snotly, September 18, 2009
No one is good but God. Why should anyone put faith in the world? Come ON! Wake up! If it's run by people it's corrupt. That should be simple enough for all of us to figure out. Black, White, Democrat Republican, all are flawed. A christian is best when he loves and forgives everyone and puts distance from their own personal advancement or a political agenda.
To Liz
written by Willie, September 18, 2009
Liz-As I sit smelling my coffee, actually drinking it, I am a bit perplexed. I thought I was supportive of Father Schall's article. Perhaps there is another Willie running around somewhere.
Better Angels
written by Mike, September 18, 2009
Fr. Shall's reference to "dangerous poiliticians" seems to glance over Lincoln's call for a more "perfect union". Are we suggesting that social progress is detrimental to democratic health? I hope not.
written by breatnac, September 22, 2009
Lincoln's "more perfect union", was, in fact, the restitution of America's republican institutions.

The danger of abandoning those same republican principles is the essence of Father Schall's argument.
Critical Mass
written by stosh, September 23, 2009
I believe critical mass has been met and there is no reversing the situation. It will just take a few election cycles for the language and policies this administration is pushing to take hold. Van Jones is a good example with this Green Jobs organizations and talk of public private partnerships that used to reserved for Third World UN projects.
written by Mark, November 24, 2009
Painful to watch a Holy Cross grad--Chris Matthews--go on and on berating his guest and not being able to stay on subject. Not painful for the Bishop but for Matthews himself. Too bad Schall was not mandatory reading for the Kennedy clan and their waterboys. How is that Matthews and Kennedy can speak against the Church's teachings but the Church cannot speak for itself?
Strauss warned us of this often. Moral relativism and postivism are our controling principles. Morals have no seat at dinner.

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