Two Different Cities

For an American Catholic, it can be gratifying when U.S. policy converges with cherished goals espoused by the Church. Those occasions can bring together our love for two of the crucial institutions in our lives. But it can be disheartening when U.S. policy seems to contradict Church teaching, because our loyalties seem driven apart.

In the Bush administration, the convergence came in one instance with increased aid to Africa. President Bush more than doubled economic and humanitarian aid to the continent from around $10 billion in 2000 to $23 billion in 2006. The Vatican welcomed this largesse. Bush’s actions were an example of the Catholic principle of solidarity, a principle defined in the Catechism less by what it is than what it is not. It has to do with the virtue of justice, and with what we owe one another in our shared pilgrimage in this life. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon often noted the complementarity between the United States, which with combined government and private aid programs is the world’s largest aid donor, and the Vatican, the world’s largest dispenser of aid. The Bush administration converged with the Vatican as well in its promotion of human rights and its public support for a “two-state solution” in the Middle East with both Israel and a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace.

But on Iraq, the divergence between Bush and the Vatican was sharp. Many in the Church hierarchy argued that the war was of doubtful legitimacy and that the human cost trumped both the possible threat from Iraq and the violence of the tyranny there. Pope John Paul II opposed the war. These disagreements did not prevent Bush from developing a close relationship with Pope Benedict XVI during their several meetings, but they affected the relationship between the United States and the Vatican dramatically.

President Obama has his own points of convergence with the Vatican. His emphasis on nuclear disarmament is in accord with Church teaching. His chosen method of negotiating with all, including Iran and North Korea, is another point of convergence with the Church’s own emphasis on dialogue, as are his efforts to advance peace between Israel and the Arabs. Dialogue, though, is a means rather than an end. It remains to be seen whether this means will lead to real disarmament and peace. Much evidence suggests not.

The key point of divergence between Obama and the Vatican comes in Obama’s support for abortion and birth control, both at home and abroad, as well as on related issues of biomedical research. In their first meeting, Pope Benedict XVI gently attempted to steer Obama by providing him with documents explaining Church teaching in these domains, and the Holy See’s statement after the meeting was blunt about the importance of the issue. There seems to have been little effect.

The Church, with no special claims of expertise in areas such as economics or military affairs, is usually wary of proposing particular policy approaches to temporal problems, tending instead to propose principles grounded in human dignity and leaving the world’s leaders to sort out how to implement those principles.

This approach was evident in the pope’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, where Benedict identified both the potential benefits and the possible drawbacks of, for example, a market economy. The pope chose throughout the letter to emphasize the principle of integral human development, or development of the individual person with a moral foundation in God’s love. With that foundation, many varying policy approaches can conform to the truth, the veritas, of Church teaching. Without it, none can.

Ultimately, the Church hopes for the arrival of the City of God. Here it diverges from many earthly governments, which seek instead to propagate a perfect City of Man, without God. And herein will be found the greatest divergence of the Obama administration from Church teaching. Obama is undertaking a significant expansion of state power, a large government run by experts who tell the republic what to do. The redistributivist goals of such a policy may appeal to many Catholics on grounds of solidarity, and a state apparatus truly guided by the principles of Caritas in Veritate might produce just policies. But the theoretical reasons why the contemporary expansion of bureaucracy will lead mainly to the empowerment of government, rather than the extension of individual human dignity, are well explained in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic After Virtue (though MacIntyre may well differ with me on the wisdom of specific policies).

For historical perspective, we can turn to Europe. The welfare states there began after World War II under the leadership of capable, morally forceful Christian Democrats – Robert Schuman in France, Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Alcide de Gasperi in Italy. Protestant Christianity played a similar role in more northern climes. Even with those roots, these states have deteriorated into hostility towards Christian teaching, reluctant even to acknowledge their Christian history.

Obama begins from a very different perspective, a secular approach grounded exclusively in expert analysis that has no space for forms of reason beyond empirical and material measurement. But it does leave space for “feelings” and intuition based mainly on diversity of ethnic and economic categories of people. Beyond distorting reason, it is an approach that excises the first half of the “faith and reason” dynamic that Pope Benedict XVI has described as crucial for Europe and the West to recall. It is an approach to a City of Man that may find some common ground with several goals in Catholic teaching, but that over time will prove entirely divergent from the basic truths necessary to advance the City of God on earth.

There are more than policy differences here and more than just the differences between two imperfect political parties. Rather, we have to be clear that, whatever coincidence of aims, there are in play here two fundamentally different visions of human life and society.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.