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The Shire and the City Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 16 April 2012

Many people today seek what Tolkien called The Shire, the kind of face-to-face communities, close to nature, simple and transparent in activity, that played a central part in Western history until quite recently and continue today in various places around the globe – even, despite large losses, in odd corners of the West.

At the same time, we value what might be called the City, the more extensive human network – now global – that, among other effects, makes our lives more secure and richer in many ways. Even in Tolkien, the Shire is not self-sufficient and much of Lord of the Rings is occupied with the global struggle between good and evil, fought precisely to establish the larger order that will supplement and safeguard places like the Shire.

In several respects, this social situation reflects an intellectual one that has remained unresolved since the eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment, the idea of a universal civilisation arose, primarily in France, in a way that it had not earlier, not the balance between city and shire you see in ancient and medieval thought, but a kind of empire of reason.

The reaction to that hubris of a certain kind of reason, a narrow rationality as we now clearly see, set in early. Romantic notions of Kultur, of small groups and traditional values, initially in Germany, sought to bring something humane back into the world that the allegedly humane universal rationalism had left out.

We’ve gone back and forth from one to the other, at different periods, ever since. It’s demanding to pursue both at once, in the right ways, and therefore it’s a constant temptation to give up on the properly universal or particular to make life easier and simpler. The whole history of recent times could be rewritten with reference to these two temptations.

T. S. Eliot, like Tolkien, knew that there were not only these two dimensions, but a struggle between good and evil going on in both realms, which we would also like to forget: “O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart; for the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” He continued:

If humility and purity be not in the heart, they are not in the home; and if they are not in the home, they are not in the City.

The man who has builded during the day would return to his hearth at nightfall: to be blessed with the gift of silence, and doze before he sleeps.

But we are encompassed with snakes and dogs: therefore some must labour, and others must hold the spears.

Which brings us to a practical point. With the departure of Rick Santorum from the Republican field, the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney will now begin in earnest. I have lived in Washington for thirty years. (What I did to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment, I do not know, but I’m no longer any threat to society and could be released back into the community.) Anyone who has lived long in the Capital – and does not succumb to sheer partisanship – learns to discount the PR that portrays election campaigns as matters of life and death.

But I think this year is different. There are two distinct visions of the future in play. They are not matters on which much compromise is possible. Either America continues on its current course – a path already coming to an ugly end in Europe – or it tries something new based on our old tradition of American liberty.

There’s no simple going back to the practices of a previous age. As Peter Brown argued in this space on Saturday, even those of us who value subsidiarity and markets, and who believe the growth of central governments everywhere are threatening civil and religious liberty and simple humanity, have to create new institutions to assure the survival of the fully human. For the moment, they do not yet exist.

Some Catholics have recently suggested that the Church is starting to turn into something like a political action committee and that we would do better to return to more purely “religious” activity. That may be possible for some Christian bodies and even certain Catholic individuals, but it cannot be the stance of the Catholic Church as a whole.

The Catholic Church believes that it has been called on by God to evangelize the whole world, and part of that mission is to be engaged in every dimension of society – as is appropriate for a universal Church. Politics, properly understood, deals with how we are to live together, and that means ethical questions and, therefore, religion cannot be left out of any well ordered state.    

Some secular observers argue that the Church should mind its own business until it gets its own house in order. This is simply a false proposition. To put it in individual terms, imagine forbidding people from speaking out until they’re perfect themselves. That simply means conscientious, but imperfect people – which is to say, everyone of good will – would never speak or act at all. The “snakes and dogs,” scamps and scalawags, and worse, are quite ready to fill the vacuum so produced.

A real Catholic has no choice but to step into the midst of all these complexities, which is what The Catholic Thing will be doing over the rest of this election year. We will keep the “pure” religious vision very much in the forefront of our thought because it’s the most powerful way in which we offer an alternative to a culture rushing headlong into it knows not what.

The late Catholic novelist Walker Percy wrote that our whole culture is like Wile E. Coyote in the old “Roadrunner” cartoons: he goes flying off a cliff in heedless pursuit and his legs continue to pump frantically, not knowing that there is nothing solid underneath him anymore.

As the American bishops have had to point out lately, Catholics need to be engaged in the public realm, for the freedom and good of the Church, to be sure, now that immediate threats to religious liberty face us. But we must also be active for the good of the public square itself, which lurches from one failed nostrum to another without the kind of stability and wisdom that might bring it order and peace.

We do not ask you often for your help in the work of The Catholic Thing. But we appeal to you to do your part in this crucial year. Our Senior Editor Brad Miner tells me that TCT readership is double what it was last year. We want the number of readers of The Catholic Thing to double again – or even triple – by this time next year. Can you help us by forwarding to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it the names and emails of people who should be reading TCT everyday? We’re starting a new email delivery service shortly.

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by will manley, April 16, 2012
A couple of thoughts. First, engagement in public policy always disappoints. As Reagan said government is not the solution; it's the problem. The Church will only get burned if it persists in insisting in playing in the rough and tumble world of the political arena. Second, in terms of evangelization, non Christians invariably turn against the Church and religion when the Church brings its preaching voice into the political arena. Who was it who said that evangelization is a full time job and sometimes we use words? Third, what the non religious world is looking for from the Catholic Church are clear signs that it is getting its own house in order. All of the scandals have made our involvement in the political arena especially in the area of contraception, sexual morality, and natural law loom hypocritical and even laughable. The Roman Catholic Church is a treasure. It is our only hope for influencing a pre apocalyptic world to move toward a path of repentance, but it sacrifices its potential to do this when it becomes one more tainted political action committee. Thank you for allowing me to put forth what clearly is an against the wind point of view in this blog, which I felt was stronger when it dealt critically with the debilitating liberal trends within the Church rather than now when it feels somehow that that's not enough and that it must take on the whole world. Good luck. I think you are making a mistake.
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written by Dave, April 16, 2012
Between Dr. Royal's article and Will Manley's response, we are off to a good start! Dr. Royals, I want this year to be different, too; but I think it will not be, not when George Soros said at Davos that there's no real difference between Obama and Romney. And how could there be, when Romneycare was the model for Obamacare [and if people want to see what Obamacare will really cost, in terms of the ruin it will cause, look to the current state of healthcare in MA, where Romney runs from far behind]. Rick Santorum can yet play an important role: he made linkages between the economy, morality, and family that no other candidate dared to make. His candidacy was fatally flawed, however, as he confuses spontaneity with sincerity and preparation with compromise and guile, so while his now more-famous statements contained something germ of good ideas, had they been carefully developed and skillfully presented in the public forum, clumsy execution made him look like a piker and caused those who were with him in spirit to cringe and those who might have looked at him to run to Romney -- or worse, back to Obama. You don't just wing it into the White House, and a serious look at both Catholic and political histories shows that provisionality never works for the long haul: skilled execution of well-developed plans is what brings success and social change. All that said, his ability to pull in the right wing may be of value to Romney; and his messages, if not his messaging, may cause people to think more deeply than might otherwise be the cause -- though of that last proposition I am none too certain, given people's tendency to vote reactively and out of self-interest.

Mr. Manley, while I am pessimistic about Sen. Santorum's role in the current campaign, I am not ready to renounce the duty of Catholics to participate in civic life, including politics, most especially when the bishops of the Church, including our Holy Father, are calling for Catholics to engage. Will the Church get burned? Hard to say: but it falls to the laity, not to "the Church," to engage in politics. Maybe the problem is that the hierarchy has been all too political and all too reliant upon the public purse to fund works of mercy that should rightly be paid by the faithful and not by the Federal Government. A little more independence would have preserved the value of the hierarchy's moral witness. The same point on the laity rather than "the Church" (read: the hierarchy) to your second point: "the Church's" job is to enunciate the principles, and the job of the Catholic laity is to find ways to enunciate those principles in public policy that truly fosters the common good, including the rights of non-Catholics. As to your third point, sorry, but it's a red herring and I would simply refer you back to Dr. Royals' observation on the matter in his article above. Fourth, the real problem with the Church's witness on human sexuality is that she hasn't been offering it: had the bishops, clergy and teaching religious of the pre-Vatican II Church accepted and taught Casti Connubi, Humanae Vitae would not have been necessary. As things now stand, they teach neither document, and so Catholic laity in the immense majority of cases, if the polls are to be believed, blithely ignore the documents.

So how do your three points get you to say that the Roman Catholic Church is a treasure. She is, of course; but your assertion does not follow from all you had previously written and so looks like nothing more than wishful thinking. Let the bishops do their job: let them preach and teach the fulness of the faith, and please, oh please God, let them censure the faithless who teach in contradiction to it. Let the faithful do our job: hierarchy and laity living out the Gospel in the concrete circumstances of our lives. Let the lay faithful do our job, in the public square, battling, as everyone else does, for our view of things to be reflected in the ordering of politics, business, and every other secular realm. Will we be laughed at and scorned initially? Yes: so what? It was human respects that got us into this mess in the first place, and only a rejection of human respects will get us out.
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written by Jim O'Connor, April 16, 2012
In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God gives Soloman the answer to the inevitable problem of the Jews faithlessness and wickedness: "...If my people, who are called by my name will turn from their wicked ways, seek my face and pray, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." The problem is those called by God's name, we (Christians not pagan Americans) who are being wicked. We need to follow God's prescription for forgiveness and the healing of our land. As I have written in letters to our Cardinals and Bishops in the past, we need a truly urgent call from our clergy, a call to repentance, prayer and fasting to save us from destruction. We also need to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world which is Mr. Royal's point. Unfortunately, the USCCB seems to be caught up in the D.C. partisanship and go nattering on about matters for which they have no competence such as agricultural policy. Cardinal Dolan should close the USCCB office on the north side of town and move it to Wheeling West Virginia/Steubenville, Ohio. There are a few vacate foundry buildings with a nice view of the Ohio river there that they could get for a cheap price.
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written by Robert Royal, April 16, 2012
Will, I take your overall point. Indeed, I endorse it. But from the beginning, TCT has been engaged in "public" Catholicism, as has the Church. And it cannot be otherwise if we're going to be faithful to the mission with which we've been entrusted.

Many public questions are prudential judgments and as such are better left in the hands of civil authorities. The Church after Vatican II often went astray thinking it had some special insight into such detailed matters, which it does not.

But some public questions are not so debatable. Some are so crucial that if the Church is silent the very stones would cry out.

You might read the current situation the other way. A Church preoccupied with its own sins and seemingly without a voice when its own liberty and that of other believers is at stake is not much of a witness at all. Is the Church not supposed to be involved as a Church in calling for the protection of the unborn, the ill, the elderly, the marginalized? The protection of marriage?

To some inside the Church and outside of it, this would amount to a very truncated vision and a very lukewarm witness.
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written by Grump, April 16, 2012
In the quadrennial sham known as the election of a president, it's yet another choice between tweedledee and tweedledum. Unless Mr. Etch-A-Sketch erases his past, the differences between the two principal candidates will be a matter of style over substance. Obamacare and its little ancestor, Romneycare, are much the same in making government the overseer of health matters. Perhaps, holding my nose, I may vote for Mitt but only if I'm persuaded that there's really something to that magic underwear.
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written by Jacob, April 16, 2012
Trying to start a dialogue and team up with secularists is like joining forces with Satan. It's simply not possible to convince them to give up their wickedness. Every time we try we end up more wicked ourselves and bitter at our own coreligionists.
Of course we can't all withdraw from the world but we also can't continue to pretend that these people want a future that is mutually beneficial for us all--no matter how much Christian compassion we show them they want us marginalized or preferably gone.
Keep engaging with and challenging them, of course! Just don't pretend they won't stab you in the back if the end justifies the mean, which for them it always does.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 16, 2012
A fine article! I especially like the focus on balance between global and local - something that could be termed "glocal." In any case, the Church has a long history of attempting to balance its universal mission with its particular instantiation in various communities - a history that it should perhaps bring to the forefront in its efforts to communicate with broader society.

The particular always stands before the universal, in my opinion - that is, the individual, local communities are prior to the more abstract (but still important) global or universal community - but I like the idea of a symbiotic relationship.

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written by WSquared, April 17, 2012
"A Church preoccupied with its own sins and seemingly without a voice when its own liberty and that of other believers is at stake is not much of a witness at all."

Bravo, Mr. Royal. For, this is also true of ourselves on an individual level: it is one thing for us to acknowledge that we are sinful, as we should. But how many times have our priests in Confession or our spiritual directors also told us, equally importantly, that to fixate on and be preoccupied with our own sinfulness is to forget God's mercy and is therefore its own form of pride?

Mr. Manley, I concur that the Roman Catholic Church is a treasure. But she is a treasure not because she is pristine, but because she can, through her Sacraments and Divine mission, turn sinners into saints. One of the most effective ways in which we witness to the Truth of Catholic teaching is how Christ, through the Church, heals His Body on the macro and micro levels. Witnessing to the Truth in and out of season is part of the process of the Church being purified and her "getting her house in order." Because what is at issue here is the order actually at stake, else "getting her house in order" is absolutely meaningless.

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