The Catholic Thing
On Politics Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 16 October 2012

At election time, we hear of an “obligation” to vote. This phrase always reminds me of our “right” to choose. Both “to vote” and “to choose” are infinitives. They mean practically nothing until we learn what we are voting for or what we are choosing. Looking at the available alternatives, we sometimes long for an obligation not to vote for this or for a right not to choose that.

The mechanisms of voting and choosing are very imperfect throughout the world. Many elections are, in practice, meaningless. Whenever we see elections decided by 98 percent of an electorate on one side, we can assume that no real election took place. How many votes in, say, Chicago are cast by the dead remains a lively issue.

Eventually, we ask ourselves: How important are politics anyhow? Edmund Burke’s remark is well known: “The only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But evil today, as always, presents itself in the name of what is good and noble. This is why elections are so enigmatic. Tyrants, likewise, especially the ones arising out of democracies, are often attractive men telling us what we want to hear so that they can gain or stay in power.

In  his book on St. Augustine, Herbert Deane reminds us:

Nowhere in the Gospels or in the Apostolic teachings is it ever suggested that Christians have any obligation to participate in the operation of the political system or that the activities of the state have any real relevance to the conduct of members of the Church or to their overriding concern – salvation and participation in the kingdom of God.
The relative importance of things needs to be kept in perspective.

Though Revelation contains a warning about absolute state power, the New Testament was not designed to teach us what we could figure out by ourselves. Politics was one of these latter things.

We sometimes have the impression today that everything is political. Indeed, many believers elevate politics to make it identical with the kingdom of God.

The chief rival to Christianity today, besides Islam, is a secular messianism designed to “liberate” us from religious practices so that we can devote all our attention to politics as our “real” good. Religion, in this view, is what holds us back from perfecting ourselves.

         Coin of the realm: the denarius of Tiberius

The modern state wants to fulfill that proposal of Marsilius of Padua whereby spiritual things have nothing to do with politics. World religions would be assigned a common parliament that would function under the aegis of the state.

Nothing truly transcendent would exist. Religion’s function would be to explain the nobility of the state’s purpose. No conflict of church and state would be possible. And what would the purpose of the state be? Basically, it would be to “take care” of everyone, in life and death, especially the poor.

In classical politics, of course, the purpose of the state was a temporal common good in which people took care of their own affairs. There is something exhilarating about “taking care” of others. It seems so noble.

In a recent talk in Loreto, in Italy, Benedict XVI said: “Grace does not eliminate freedom; on the contrary it creates and sustains it. Faith removes nothing from the human creature, rather it permits his full and final realization.”

The “full and final realization” of politics can only be understood when we acknowledge that politics is not an eschatology. Its divisions are not those of the soul that are worked out in our living and dying.

But again, politics is not nothing. The fact that the New Testament pays little attention to it – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” – means that it has a natural importance that we can grasp with our reason.

Aristotle called politics the highest of the practical sciences. He understood that something higher than politics existed. This transcendent order is what kept politics as politics and not itself a claim to man’s ultimate allegiance.

When politics claim our ultimate attention, when it subordinates religion to the state, it transforms the natural order into its own image. Civil societies, states, are not substantial beings with personal destinies of their own, as each human being is. They are arrangements of order and disorder wherein individual people work out their final destiny.

We can save our souls in the worst regime, and lose them in the best. Our politics do not automatically determine whether we reach or don’t reach everlasting life. Yet what we do and choose in politics also forms us into what we are, into what we make ourselves to be.

The polity exists so that greater and more varied goods can come about through our agency. The last judgment will include our political choices. Grace does not eradicate nature.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, October 16, 2012
Dear father,
Thanks for a beatiful reminder..
written by Da, October 16, 2012
The glorification of the State and the exceeding importance of sports -- the arena -- in our times surely remind us of the late Roman Empire. One wishes the clergy were more actively preaching that we rely first of all upon God and then upon family for the provision of our temporal needs and wants, rather than look to the State as the guarantor not of peace but of a modicum of material well-being. The glorification of the President to almost demi-god status, as though he were a Savior from whatever mess the previous Savior created, points to the deterioration of religion properly understood -- and, may I say, the suborning of the faithful to the political order. "Put not your trust in rulers..."
written by Grump, October 16, 2012
Unfortunately, father, we are in a double bind, or Morton's Fork. We have only two "choices" and neither is desirable. Why is it in America, which touts "democracy," that we have only two major political parties when we have myriad choices when it comes to virtually any other product?
I wonder what de Tocqueville would say about "democracy" in America now?

written by Other Joe, October 16, 2012
Dear Grump, be careful what you wish for.
written by Grump, October 16, 2012
@Other Joe. Only things I wish for are truth, peace and justice. What are you referring to?
written by Sue, October 16, 2012
Google "mitt romney signing romneycare video fanueil hall" to see Mitt preening right along with Teddy Kennedy about his socialized medicine lockdown in Massachusetts. Ask the parents in "Mass Resistance" what a Marxist dictocrat police state Mass. became when Romney ordered gay marriage to be implemented. Inquire about the 50 dollar copay abortions. In fact, google "prolife profiles mitt romney" to get a huge whiff of the real Romney.

Google "Mitt Romney holds fundraiser with manufacturer of the Morning After Pill". But hey, at least he's not Obama. At least our Catholic conscience is clear.
written by Graham Combs, October 16, 2012
Fr. Schall cites the Gospel's silence on politics. But St. Paul was certainly not silent on the faithful who "go to law" to resolve every problem and dispute. And that is exactly what the Church in America is doing in response to the HHS mandate. And sadly this is not an episcopal precedent. Politics and law can no longer be relied upon in America. Half a million mostly Catholic Mexicans will flood the streets of LA for immigration reform, but where are they on Obamacare, and a far far more important issue, same-sex marriage. The latter's victory will mean a government intrusion into the heart of privacy and intimacy in American life. The power will be enormous and all encompassing. As was marital and familial intrusion in slavery and under National Socialism and Communism. It wasn't so long ago that women and children were being enslaved and bought and sold in South Sudan. And General "Chinese" Gordon had already outlawed slavery there once before.

The only recourse left is civil disobedience which I believe St. Thomas Aquinas recognized as legitimate.

In his insightful talk on the diabolical (and the devil), Blessed Fulton J. Sheen warned of the politicization of theology and the trials the Church would face in the next 100 years. He was speaking in the 1960s.

Peace and Justice? We are fighting for our very survival as Catholics.
written by Jack,CT, October 16, 2012
The Debate:
Romney was steller and honest!
written by Arkanabar, October 17, 2012
@Graham Combs, St. Paul's admonitions were to people who took their brothers in Christ to court for everything. And he's right to do so; common law really is common, and the vast majority of disputes need not ever reach courts of law, which is why most of them are settled. The ones that do reach a verdict tend to be very strange fringe cases.

But that doesn't apply to the HHS mandate, in which the guns of government are aimed at every Catholic who does not purchase for others gravely evil contraceptive and abortionist services. In what reality may we regard the HHS as our brothers in Christ's body, the Church? Does not the first amendment to the constitution effectively forbid them from so being?
written by leonard, October 17, 2012
Grump has an interesting point - why do we only have two choices in politics when we our social order not provides choices in so many other realms. I think it is our nature to concentrate and collect power - we - I mean Americans - were given a political system that was supposed to protect us from this. We used to have states (nominally fifty in number) but now we really only have one.

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