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Political Withdrawal? Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Recently, a Catholic healthcare official, when asked about the new Obama plans, remarked that we are now preparing to withdraw altogether from this business as incompatible with our faith.

This assessment of what these plans entail recalled two things in political philosophy. The Epicureans held that the good man had to withdraw from turbulent politics to live a quiet life. Epicurus saw the polity as an impediment to human perfection, not its natural context as in Aristotle.

Secondly, in Herbert Deane’s 1956 book on Augustine, we read: “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.” Such a passage seems shocking to generations of Catholics exhorted to “participate” in politics, as if that is their main task in this or future life.

Augustine considers the same problem: What to do with his promising political career? As a teacher preparing students for rhetoric and law, he trained them for such worthless projects as public affairs, which were dangerous to man in almost every way.

In the famous scene in Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine encounters the Life of Anthony, the African monk. Augustine sees that he must withdraw from involvement in public life. He cites Ponticianus who, in the city of Treves, on reading this Life of Anthon, asked himself:  “What do we hope to gain by all the efforts we make? What are we looking for? What is our purpose in serving the State? Can we hope for anything better at Court than to be the Emperor’s friends?”

Saint Antony of the Desert (251-356)

This “being friends of the Emperor” looms mightily in the reasoning of contemporary Catholics who accept Obama’s thinking about the scope of state power. Suddenly, in the light of a state that now demands of its employees the price of their conscience and reason, such classic withdrawal questions again become pertinent to the well being of our souls.

In Saint Francis of Assisi, Chesterton recalled this same Anthony and the monks of the Egyptian desert. The culture of the late Roman Empire was so distorted and corrupt, Chesterton thought, that one could no longer involve himself in it. The only alternative was to withdraw. In the following centuries, the Christian soul of man would be purified so that it could again see nature and man as God intended.

Various Catholic politicians, clerics, academics, and critics have tried to justify the substance of the Obama move to control the whole public order. It makes sense that withdrawal from politics may be in order. If doctors and nurses must, at the price of professional recognition, participate in abortions and all that goes with it, not to enter such professions at the risk one’s soul becomes rational. If Obama is reelected, such issues will immediately confront most good people, not just Catholics, but primarily them as they are the ones most clearly targeted.

The president apparently thinks that all wealth is produced by the state. The wealth of the citizens, thus, should pass through state hands to be redistributed to the citizens as a benefaction of the state. The state defines “the good” of the citizen in education, welfare, health, and well-being.

The First Amendment no longer functions as a restriction to the state. Religion contributes to the state only in so far as it assists in carrying out state policies. If it claims exemption, it is imposing its values on the freedom of the state to define the good.

No higher law exists by which we define what the state is. In the Catholic view, the current issues of health care, abortion, sterilization, euthanasia, fetal experimentation, and gay marriage are not primarily religious questions. The basic arguments about what these practices imply are from reason.

Catholicism gets into the controversies as one of the last major voices of reason in the public order. Christian revelation is addressed to a reason that is itself intelligible. It does not tell reason what it is, though it does insist that reason be reasonable.

The president seeks to define what constitutes religion. Those Catholics and other religious people who agree with him have implicitly accepted what this state demands of them. Their support basically entails a rejection of that natural reason found in the order of things.

In this context, the victory of the Obama approach to public life means that reasonable and believing Catholics and other citizens will have little choice but to withdraw from the public life of a country that enforces these policies. Such choices, no more and no less, are what is at stake in these controversies.


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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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 21, 2012
If Christians are to be an evangelical presence, a “leaven,” that nurtures efforts in society ordered to the coming of God’s Kingdom, then we cannot rely on arguments drawn from reason alone. Rather, we must insist, in Blondel’s words, that we “find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity.”
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written by James, February 21, 2012
The dreadful thing about Obama's position towards religion is that he insists that we should render to Caesar not only what is Caesar's but also what is God's. Thank the Lord that the bishops have actively and adamantly come out in opposition to the mandate, though--it sometimes feels like this might be the first time they have actually stood together under the banner of the Church in a very long time. It certainly does seem that the Church in America has been experiencing great spiritual growth since secularism has declared war against her.
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written by TomD, February 21, 2012
". . . the Obama approach to public life means that reasonable and believing Catholics and other citizens will have little choice but to withdraw from the public life of a country that enforces these policies."

I have recently been reflecting on this very idea, as I suspect have many other people of faith. I already find myself withdrawing from the culture . . . less television, for example, knowing that active participation in the current culture is increasingly becoming both futile and a distraction.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that rather than devoting time and energy to opposing what cannot be changed, or even influenced, a more positive approach to life beyond the current culture is both more fruitful and more faithful. In this sense, involvement with the current culture has become a barrier to faith.

As Catholics then, are we to "re-ghettoize" ourselves, this time not so much physically as intellectually and faithfully, from the mass culture and from public life? Is separation from public life really a viable option now? How is this issue related to the New Evangelization? Is withdrawal from public life even compatible with the New Evangelization?

Even if we conclude that withdrawal from involvement in the culture and public life is viable, will the state then leave us alone? I think we all know that the answer is "no." Then what?
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written by Achilles, February 21, 2012
TomD, I share you deep concerns. I believe it is not for us to calculate or to even worry about, but to do the work of the vinyard. My family and I cut off cable and watch no tv at all for the last year- now we spend more time together and much more time a church with rcia and youth groups.

We have our kids in parochial school, but it is not too much better than the public schools becuase they too have tried to become "freinds of the empereror." We must not.

I suspect that your concern about evangelization and withdraw go hand in hand in the opposite way. To evangelize, we must withdraw from the concerns of the polity.

Please pray for me.
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written by Pat Smith, February 21, 2012
Extremely poignant observations for thinking Christians and other citizens reflecting on how did it get this way and where to go. The scholarly observations and comments are beyond my neophyte religious training, but as a lifelong Political Science major from Berkeley and a striving Catholic I share the dilemma as expressed. Now in my late 50s with decades spent supporting the public square directly in military, civil service, and teaching fields, I am deeply troubled by the evolution of American politics and entertain the idea of expatriate experiences should Obama be re-elected. I have defaulted to non-political viewing of 1950 westerns for means of escapism despite my lifelong interest and enthusiasm for political issues in the public square. The challenges we face however cannot be met by withdrawal and I believe the evangelic year should be a call echoing "Deus Vult" should the Church decree it. The clashes ahead require some "manning up" if we stand a chance.
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written by Grump, February 21, 2012
Father, it is nigh impossible to "withdraw from public life" in that, like it or not, we are in the world if not of it. Rather than cede moral ground gain over centuries to a temporary tyrant seems to me to be shortsighted. Presidents come and go but nations go on, and Catholics, along with others who value religious liberty, ought not to give up the "good fight." Where there is a conflict between human law and God's, did not Peter said there was no choice but to obey higher authority?

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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, February 21, 2012
I often reflect on the deaths of St, Paul Miki and Companions (feastday February 6th), where the attempt was made to eradicate the Church from Japan. I have reason to reflect on that story now, because the crucifixions have begun again, using words, and mandates, and laws, instead of nails.

Father Schall's thoughts have a great effect on many of us, and this present thought makes much sense to those of us who have beat our heads against an out-of-control culture that is encouraged by a damaged government ethic.

To withdraw, to go underground as the Church did in Japan, may be the only way to avoid the sins that seek to infect us.

May G-d have mercy on this country.
May G-d have mercy on what used to be called "civilization".
May G-d have mercy on us.
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written by Gary Valcour, February 21, 2012
Perhaps we should remember that just because one withdraws from involvement in public life does not mean that public life will withdraw from involvment in your life. In this discussion, I recommend an excellent book by Bishop Charles J. Chaput - Render Unto Caesar.
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written by DS, February 21, 2012
Withdrawal from public life sounds like a noble idea and one that would give us a comforting measure of control over our own salvation. Perhaps some are called to withdrawal, and perhaps it was a natural and viable choice for Augustine, Francis and desert monks, who because of their vocational calling and their commitment to celibacy were already set apart from society. But withdrawal has its own risks for our souls. We would effectively abandon to the government many of those who we claim to champion in Christ's name: the poor, the innocent, the unborn, the frail and elderly, those who do not believe. We would also abandon a core teaching of Vatican II -- i.e., to engage the modern world with hope in order to promote the truth of the Christ's teaching.

What does "withdrawal from public life" mean anyway for 21st century Christians, especially those with families or engaged with locally diverse communities? Should we not vote? Not run for office? Take our children out of public school? Not pay taxes? Engage in civil disobedience? Not serve in the military? Encourage the six Catholic Supreme Court justices and Catholic members of Congress to resign en masse? Live like the Amish and shun anyone who is different from us? Ignore the gay couple who moved in next door?

Living daily with hope, and engaging publically and faithfully in the ugliness of public life, is the cross that Christ invites us to bear in the 21st century. We can bear this cross without becoming "friends of the emperor." It is the same cross that faithful Catholics bore in Nazi Germany and communist Eastern Europe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, is a shining example of a 20th century Christian who consciously chose to reject his own withdrawal from public life in Germany in order to challenge a despotic regime and to bear witness to the truth.

I'm glad Fr. Schall invoked Augustine for another reason: his intercession is traditionally sought for the alleviation of sore eyes. My own eyes have been sore recently reading these columns, not so much because of the righteous anger directed toward the President and his policies, but because of the increasing absence of the virtue of hope, and specifically of any mention in recent days of the name and person of Jesus Christ by the various columnists.
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written by Tony Esolen, February 21, 2012
I find myself of two minds when I consider this problem. I've been telling my students in a jocular way that there are more important things than politics, like playing with the dog, for instance. "Politics" in that sentence means, alas, "paying attention to national partisan politics," rather than "acting for the common good in one's neighborhood." There is quite a lot of the former in the USA, and quite little of the latter; and that situation is not happenstance. I half believe that involvement in the mass phenomena -- I hesitate to use the word "culture," which implies a very great deal that is missing now, most important among them piety and memory -- is itself compromising. So the withdrawal from television may be a withdrawal INTO culture. But as I say, I am uneasy about all of this. I want Christians not to feed the Leviathan; but I also want them to slay the Leviathan, and that implies attack: the "gates of Hell" need to be battered in.
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written by Stanley, February 21, 2012
I am a "bad" Catholic...in terms of my participation in the faith...and I love Fr. Schall and all the regulars here...but the arguments made by Obama/Administration/Media are too weak for us to give up. This may sound strange - it was important for Obama to get rid of Glenn Beck. Since then, they have won a lot of public relation battles. But all it takes is one person to say the right things to get his turned around. (Yes, I know Glenn Beck had his faults too).
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written by Howard Kainz, February 21, 2012
This sounds too much like a call for retreat or surrender, when the grunts fighting against overwhelming odds are looking for encouraging words to give them hope of victory.
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written by Achilles, February 21, 2012
Brothers and sisters, a withdrawal from investiture in public life or from contribution to the polity as Fr. Schall presents it is not an abandonment of our moral duty, it is the furthering of it. To put our efforts into evangelizing our Catholic brothers and sisters who are more confused about the “proper order of things” than we are is our duty. It is a much stronger commitment to the common good than is our interest in partisan politics. It is the more difficult path and the much louder statement than the fantasy of reforming the polity (as if such power is at our disposal). 4 more years of Obama and we may reach a point of no return akin to Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps today we are more like Nineveh.

I think Professor Esolen has it just right. A withdrawal from “partisan politics” and into the common good of the neighborhood is just the thing to do. Add to that an attack on the Leviathan and we are fighting the good fight. The Dideche says “let the alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom you give.” A shift from the anonymous charity to love of neighbor is the withdrawal we need.
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written by Alex Winogradoff, February 21, 2012
Agree with Howard. No time to retreat we need to rally the believers and we need to have our theologians, priests and Bishops take the lead to form a strong united Catholic front. Other religions and constitutional-purists will be fighting the battle on other fronts. We can not and should not disengage, as mentioned earlier, we cannot hide or think we will be safe in a cocoon. God is on our side, this is the ultimate battle Pope Leo XIII was speaking about, Lepanto revisited.
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written by Manfred, February 21, 2012
"...Our parents did not come to these shores to help build America's cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights. In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same. Our Children and granchildren deserve nothing less."
Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan,Archbishop of New York
February 9, 2012
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written by Walt, February 21, 2012
"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." Our Catholic Church must make a decision if this is the argument the leadership carries itself forward with. The majority of revenue that Catholic dioceses recevies comes from the federal government which comes from tax paying Americans of all creeds. Without these funds, the Church would be faced with widespread closures and the inability to offer crucial services. The realities of the health care bill do not put practicing Catholics in a position to choose between faith and employement, hyperbole has driven the discussion away from the facts. I know the tax connotations of the Matthew passage but I have also always taken it to mean that it is our responsibility to play our role in a larger society including its government. Catholics have nothing to gain from politcal withdrawal, in this world or any other.
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written by Scott Quinn, February 21, 2012
This is a great discussion, but I think one point is being missed, namely, that by participating in a political democracy by voting and running for office, you are conferring legitimacy not only of the type of government but also the decisions which flow from the government's policies. That's obvious stuff.

But when a government turns on its citizens like Obama has done, it makes no sense to engage with it. Power does not listen to reason. It grows like a tumor until something can choke its oxygen supply. The "oxygen" of voting just keeps alive a system that we know is against us.
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written by Walter, February 21, 2012
(I am a different contributor from "Walt" above.)

Fr. Schall asks the wrong question. If President Obama is re-elected, it will not be without significant support from Catholic voters. That is a mathematical fact.

Therefore, under such a scenario, the question is not about whether the faithful should withdraw from public life. Rather, the question is profoundly focused on the Church itself: what do the bishops say and do if Catholics - after listening to a well-publicized Church effort and considering the well-being of their souls - give Obama 54% of their vote on November 6, 2012 as they did in 2008?
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written by Brian English, February 21, 2012
I don't think we have to worry too much about when it will become necessary to withdraw from society, because if we don't defeat this current power grab, we are going to end up getting kicked out of society anyway. Keep fighting and see what happens.
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written by Ann , February 21, 2012
This reminds me a bit of Flannery O'Connor's remark that the Christian artist is both of this world and an exile from it. I was watching the "Catholicism" series at my church the other day and it was the first time I felt really happy in weeks. I've been so angry about politics, drawn into the culture which is so sick. It made me think that I was concentrating on the wrong things when the great life of faith is what matters.
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written by Ray Hunkins, February 21, 2012
"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never - - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - - never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense"

"We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."
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written by Manfred, February 21, 2012
Serious readers may wish to review the Decree against Communism (1949) in Italy which resulted in the largest number of excommunications probably in Church history. Membership in the Italian Communist Pary was condemned. Pius XII insisted that Italian Catholics do all in their power, including the voting booth, in order to drive this threat from Italy. Parallels to what is occurring in this country are obvious.
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written by Tom, February 22, 2012
Who is John Galt?
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 22, 2012
To Walt re: "The majority of revenue that Catholic dioceses recevies comes from the federal government..."

Walt - if that is the case sir, then you have just explained what's gone wrong with the Church in America...if what you say is the case, then The Church has made a Faustian bargain, and the devil has now come to collect.

I suggest that, if what you say is true, then the answer is simple, stop taking money from people who oppose the kingship and law of Christ.
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written by Charles Molineaux, February 22, 2012
But see Christifideles Laici !
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written by Bob Allen, February 22, 2012
Who is going to withdraw, as if we were hermits? The only option is to disobey. We cannot render unto Caesar what is not his.
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written by Dylan , February 23, 2012
I, for one, find my intellect a bit lacking compared to St. Augustine. Who am I to say he wasn't right? My goodness, he launched the great Middle Ages with his withdraw.
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written by Steve Newark, February 24, 2012
More to the point is the fact that by withdrawing from a persecuting enemy, a more true and opposite culture will continue and must continue....through a type of forced guerrilla activity. It will happen organized and actuated by "The Church Militant". Simbolized by say, something as simple as the motivations depicted in the famous film Ben-Hur.
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written by Steve Newark, February 24, 2012
The answer is guerrilla activities...in professing our faith what other means exists
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written by Wanda, February 24, 2012
Excellent article. I suggest a strategic withdrawl to "seek first the Kingdom of God..." so that we might fight another day.

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