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Catholicism: Not Ideology Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Thursday, 05 May 2011

Someone recently accused me of being a “Catholic ideologue” in a political discussion. My opponent was dumbfounded when I told him his claim was an “oxymoron.” Ideologies, by their very nature, are not only incompatible with Church teachings, but as philosopher Kenneth Minogue put it, “repudiate man’s dependence on God and incorporate divinity in man himself.”

Ideology is a much-abused word. Many who bandy about this term are under the mistaken notion that ideology is synonymous with strongly holding to philosophical or theological truths. On the contrary, ideology is, instead, an intellectual system of ideas or rigid abstract formulas mixed with scientific jargon and some empirical facts that claims knowledge about reaching perfection in the temporal order. 

Catholics should never let themselves be called  ideologues. Ideologues attempt, according to Eric Voegelin, “to mold reality into a scheme consistent with a posited or assumed idea.” Proponents are convinced that when the tenets of one’s ideological world-view are properly administered by messianic-elites, society will be transformed into a harmonious secular paradise – in other words, heaven on earth.

Short of the Second Coming, Catholics have – and should have – nothing to do with that.

Ideologies are the progeny of the Age of Enlightenment whose founders worshipped at the altar of progress and were certain that mankind was determined to grow better every day and eventually reach human perfection due to advances in science and technology.

Belief in the inevitability of progress had origins in certain Christian heresies, but got a boost from Cartesian philosophy. René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of rationalism and geometry, sought a foolproof method for absolute certainty in all matters by simply applying pure mathematical reasoning without appealing to religious, traditional, or historical experiences.

       To pursue this methodology, the Enlightenment crowd had to eliminate what they perceived as the leading impediment to progress – the Roman Catholic Church. These intellectuals, observed Christopher Dawson, “viewed religion and above all Christianity – as the dark power which is ever clogging and dragging back the human spirit on its path towards progress and happiness. They saw in the development of the historical religions an unrelieved tale of deception and cruelty.”
Napoleon got it right. (Painting by Paul Laroche, 1845)

Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) is responsible, perhaps more than anyone else, for deliberately setting what he called ideology against the Church with the goal of making man, not God, the measure of all things. For him, ideology was a branch of zoology, and because he viewed man as nothing more than an animal (not a person endowed with a soul) he believed that we could establish an ethical system without revelation or ecclesiastical authority but solely on the basis of brute feeling. Destutt de Tracy’s followers called themselves Ideologues and supported Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799.

Napoleon quickly tired of their pseudo-scientific creed, and concluded “ideologues” were hopelessly misguided intellectuals who had no grasp of the reality of civil order. “All the misfortunes,” he said, “that our beautiful France has been experiencing have to be ascribed to ‘ideology,’ to that cloudy metaphysics which goes ingeniously seeking first causes and would ground legislation of the peoples upon them instead of adapting laws to what we know of the human heart and the lessons of history. Such errors could only lead to a regime of men of blood and have in fact done so.”

Napoleon got it right. No matter the type of ideology (Rousseauism, Marxism, Anarchism, Nationalism, Nazism, Maoism, Castroism, even Bin Ladenism) they claim to have absolute analytical creeds that supersede practical experience. All ideologues reject societal norms, values, traditions, and folkways as obstructions in the quest for absolute power. And they are committed to stamping out the Church because it preaches that terrestrial paradise can only come from God at the end of time, not us.

Ideologues plot revolutions to redeem the “deluded,” “oppressed,” and “exploited” masses. Violence, terrorism, assassination are all considered appropriate, even rational, methods to eliminate hostile opponents and to polarize the masses.

Frustrated, narcissistic intellectuals who believe they are entitled to political power and privilege are attracted to ideological movements because they envision themselves as the high-priests who will enforce the commandments and interpret the catechism of the new religion. This, though they too, are often victims of such systems. 

“Ideology,” wrote Eric Voegelin, “is existence in rebellion against God and man. . .the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of Israelite order. . the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato.” While the ideological formulas may vary, the ends are the same: domination. Since ideological formulas are absolute, no dissent is tolerated. For ideologues the party line is the only line – the total line. The ideologue, as totalitarian, rationalizes any means to achieve his earthly paradise; the result, as the rest of us know from sad experience, has been a living hell.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Christopher Wendt, May 05, 2011
Thank you for the clarity on the word ideology. I cringe when I hear it used uncritically. I first learned its meaning when I studied under Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer at Notre Dame in the early '90s. It helped me to discern various schools of thought that were often erroneously called "philosophy".
written by Jacob R, May 05, 2011
Wonderful article! I've never had someone properly explain the difference to me!
written by Achilles, May 05, 2011
Excellent! The public schools and universities are propagators of ideology, especially the universities. Complete a course of public education and it is likely that a grasp of ideology is permanently jeopardized. Go Gauchos!
written by jsmitty, May 05, 2011
I'm sorry but I think there is a danger here of Catholics either on the right or the left in conflating faith with ideology--that this piece is ignoring. Many ideologies have sprung up within the Catholic Church as a response to some of the Enlightenment trends discussed in the article. Notice how for left-wing Catholics the faith is largely a call to social and governmental action on behalf of the poor whereas for right-wing Catholics faith becomes mainly a mandate to quash dissent and reduce theology to apologetics on behalf of the Church. The faith ends up becoming a surrogate for the person's ideological ends.
written by Louise, May 08, 2011
"I'm sorry but I think there is a danger here of Catholics either on the right or the left in conflating faith with ideology"

"Right" "left" are political descriptions and apply only to political issues. They are often applied incorrectly to religious points of view, and only the person who applies them thus has conflated religion and ideology.

A Catholic who lives his life as Christ would have him live it, who follows all the rules laid down for his salvation, and believes all that the Church teaches because the Church, as the Body of Christ, can neither deceive nor be deceived, is a faithful Catholic. Labels such as right or left, conservative or liberal play any part in the matter.
written by Graham Combs, May 08, 2011
George Marlin reminds me once again why law school was a hell of moral numbness and intellectual vacuity. Ideology is the enemy of the Church, but also of rule of law, the education of children, art, music, literature. It politicizes everything including the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Yes, too many in the Church have been seduced by it. I was heartened to read this week that the Holy Father has so publically acknowledged the growing destruction of religious freedom throughout the world. Ideology and yet another version of the New Man/New Woman are the reasons why.

Again, thanks for another enlightening essay from Catholic Thing...
written by Imrahil, August 28, 2014
The position might deserve longer treatment but in short:

Given the usual meaning of the word "ideology" and stripping it of its use as term of abuse, ideology simply means a world-view. It simply means thinking something over, forming a consistent theory.

And thus, "Catholic ideologue" is not an oxymoron. It is a pleaonasm.

One cannot be non-ideologic, in fact (sheer pragmatism is an ideology), but the Catholic at any rate, who serves the Truth and who knows both that God is greater than our thinking (and by implication, in his creation too there may some things we may not yet understand) but also that God is giving us a hand (so to speak) (and by implication or still analogy, that we may at any time understand something we have not hitherto understood), to the Catholic who has dogmas, Church teachings, the Summa theologica, and so on, to the Catholic who at the summit of his own Faith worships a mystery which seems to be revealed not so much for eternal salvation or blessings on Earth, practical matters, but for the very fun of knowing it (I mean of course the Trinity; we wouldn't have needed to know *how* salvation worked),

the Catholic will, yes, be careful with his theories, ready to correct and, if he isn't quite sure, careful to apply them, in humility, and the like,

but he will go on making theories, and, in fact, the idea "leave me alone with theories! praxis is all that matters" will be quite foreign to his mind.

And in fact it is a weakness of the political right that it is un-ideological, but it is unnecessary. Some had thought that ideologies are all Left, and thus bad, and ideologies themselves are bad and dangerous. But that is not true; it is not ideologies, but it is *false* ideologies, that are bad and dangerous.

Not to have any is a weekness, though, even practically, because as we hunger for bread and thirst for water, so our mind hungers also for a theory, and so might fall for false ones if those who stand on the right side do not set up ones of their own.

And besides, why having a theory is good, see "Wanted: an unpractical Man" by G. K. Chesterton.

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