Political Withdrawal?

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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