The Catholic Thing
Politics, Culture, Church Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U. S. Senator and a Catholic, once wrote in a letter to a supporter: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Now, it is reasonable to say that the success of a society has something to do with its culture, but this is an altogether overblown, indeed ideological, vision of the role of politics. Even supposing that liberals are exclusively concerned about progress in freedom and conservatives with the preservation of values – the cookie-cutter media analysis – this way of looking at things does not lead to a more substantial grasp of the situation.

The human project is large and complicated. We all know that. In the words of Vatican II, “it is generally the function of the [laypersons’] well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment.” This is the foundation, the large-souled individual informed by Christian faith. And that way of looking at things reveals Moynihan’s first misconception. Instead of envisioning society as depending on the paternalism of the elite over those judged incapable of appreciating what’s for their own good, Catholicism rather throws down the gauntlet to the whole Church.

This is not some kind of quixotic quest, but rather a sign of practical respect for what each person has received, participation in Jesus Christ. The Church’s approach recognizes a deep reality: that each individual “renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions.” (Vatican II, again.)

Moynihan’s agnostic idea of culture eviscerates the conception of the human being, and human society, as dependent on God and spoken to by God, who is active within society. Augustine’s City of God says that: “Just men command not by the love of domineering, but by the service of counsel.” The Catholic social vision does not propose domineering but rather recognizes the way that everyone can participate in the service of counsel that weaves a culture together from the inside.

       Daniel Patrick Moynihan: His elitism eviscerates Catholic conceptions of humanity.

Looking at society from the point of view of individual institutions, Catholicism teaches, for example, that “for public authority, it is not its function to determine the character of the civilization, but rather to establish the conditions and to use the means which are capable of fostering the life of culture among all.” (Vatican II) This was not a shot in the dark on the part of the Council Fathers, but rather is based on a proper understanding of society through the principle of subsidiarity.

So public authority does not have the responsibility of “saving” the culture. Christ has already done that. (This is culture writ large in all of its social, economic, political, artistic, and historical dimensions.) Marxism here meets its match, just as the cultural left in the West repeatedly meets its match as well. Totalitarianism of any stripe does not establish the true human picture, even as it tries to press its claim.

The sad consequences of such a claim are of course legion, worst in the great anti-human movements of the last century, yet still apparent in the reaching for total control of U.S. society. The true total picture, on the other hand, the Catholica, is that: “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.” (Vatican II again!)

The doctrine of enumerated powers in the U.S. Constitution codifies principles that should short-circuit – if they are allowed to operate – any move to a totalitarian government. Is it not possible and even desirable that all of the other institutions be allowed to find their places and roles in society instead of being displaced by politics? In the United States, constitutional institutions are established in relations that serve as checks and balances. But even regarding unofficial institutions, Vatican II itself noted: “In our era, for various reasons, reciprocal ties and mutual dependencies increase day by day and give rise to a variety of associations and organizations, both public and private.”

The sheer complexity of the human being in society demands a corresponding complex of organizations and institutions that allow human beings to “come to a true and full humanity.”(Vatican II) As prominent as the modern state has become and as fascinated as the media are with government, perhaps because of their own longing for power in society, there is in fact a whole network of institutions that together safeguard and promote human culture. Government is only one of them, and far from the most important.

Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Titus, February 16, 2011
Is it perhaps the case that Moynihan's principal error lies not merely in the belief that governance is necessary for the little people, but that "politics" is precisely the sort of governance we need? Governance, after all, is necessary, and there is plenty of precedent in Catholic thought and history for the role of the state in directing society in its journey towards Christ as the "goal of history." But since the seventeenth century, we in the Anglo-Saxon world have adopted (and have subsequently managed, sadly, to inflict on much of the rest of the world), a procedurally positivist view of governance that has proven incapable of maintaining any clear conception of its proper role in promoting the common good and directing civil society towards Christ. The chief operative element of our system, of course, is "politics": the constant cycle of campaigning, pandering, and maneuvering by public officials that our ever-increasing mania for the franchise necessitates.

The left has actively promoted the idea that not only will government help all the people better than they or their social (religious, cultural, civic) institutions could do themselves, but that it is precisely the mechanical procedures of "politics" that will yield the benefits. So we are incessantly reminded that "access," "awareness," and above all "voting" and "electing" will yield all the benefits that any group of people could ever need. If the world simply has enough voting, and enough of all the political accessories of voting, everyone will be happy. The result is some kind of procedural immanentism.

Regardless of the precise contours of Moynihan's error, it is a well-articulated and compelling article.
written by peterbrown, February 16, 2011
With all respect Father Bevil, I’m not sure I follow how you are interpreting Moynihan. Moynihan was not attempting to exalt elites over individual persons. Nor was he arguing that government was the most important institution of all. At least, that is not a necessary inference from what he said. He was attempting to capture the paradox that neither culture nor politics alone can determine the direction of a society.
Is he wrong? Pro-lifers believe in trying to change laws to protect the unborn (politics) so that they might influence the culture. They want, in other words, to use save society from the scourge of abortion by changing both laws and culture. Yet they have discovered that it is harder than they thought to change the laws because paradoxically they have not have as much influence as they would have liked over the culture. Politics and culture here include elites but really get at how individuals live (and vote!). Politics is not a code word for “government by elites”; it is an expression of the fact that human beings are social beings existing in relation to one another. Persuading the elites on the high court and state legislatures is not enough, in other words. You have to persuade people as well to change behaviors and attitudes.
And as for Augustine…yes what you say is true-- in the City of God. But in the City of Man, Augustine was perfectly happy to have Roman authority (politics?) come and suppress the Donatists, thereby saving the culture of his church from their baleful influence. I don’t think Moynihan’s aphorism was totally off here either.
What am I missing?
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, February 16, 2011
You are saying that there is a case for politics. I am saying that there is a case for other institutions being allowed their space too.
written by Michael PS, February 22, 2011
As to the role of politics, in curbing the power of élites, we should recall the wise warning of Père Henri-Dominique Lacordaire OP about the dangers of freedom:
"Between the weak and the strong, between the rich and the poor, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free."

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