Political Withdrawal, Reconsidered

Scott Walker’s victory in his race to remain governor of Wisconsin this week has put Republicans and political conservatives in a good mood. Conservative Catholics in particular were cheered recently by polls showing that a majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life.” The Supreme Court may overturn in some limited or complete way President Obama’s signature health care plan, which has adopted effectively anti-Catholic elements.

So perhaps not all is lost in the Republic’s political and spiritual life after all. But the real reasons for concern among Catholics – and all who take questions of conscience seriously – lie much deeper than any one election or poll. 

A nation that swings from Bush to Obama, and from casting one party into the wilderness in 2008 to bringing it back in 2010, can be thought of as correcting itself over time. Democracies, especially the United States, are said to do so. Or it can be thought of as weaving between exigencies of the moment with little guiding consensus on the principles that should inform its politics.

So the question remains after the headlines of this week replace the headlines of last week: At what point should people of good conscience begin to consider refusing to participate in the political institutions of their nation? 

Several recent columns in this space have considered that question. Two in particular were striking in their depth, one by Father James Schall and the other by Bob Royal.

In the latter, Royal quotes the distinguished Princeton Professor Robert George, writing sixteen years ago: “People of good will – of whatever religious faith – who are prepared to consider seriously [Pope John Paul II’s] teaching in Evangelium Vitae cannot now avoid asking themselves, soberly and unblinkingly, whether our regime is becoming the democratic ‘tyrant state’ about which he warns.”

These two columns, both provoked by the “Obamacare” mandate for the provision of birth control and that mandate’s violation of fundamental tenets of religious freedom, have reopened the debate, as old as the notion of government itself, of when to participate in political institutions, and when to withdraw.

This is more than a dispute about President Obama’s agenda, as important or ephemeral as that may be. It is much deeper than the momentary ups and downs in wondering what a possible President Romney’s agenda would be or what his prospects in the fall are.

It is a debate about the right course of action for those who have never believed that being a person with a conscience informed by Catholic teaching (or by serious Protestant teaching, or by orthodox Jewish teaching) and being a loyal American presented a conflict, but who sense that such a conflict may now be closer than before.

Several commenters on Father Schall’s column on “Political Withdrawal” talked about not giving up the fight. That misses the point. The question is not whether to fight for the truth, but how best to do so. Are our institutions so reduced in legitimacy, so debased from the intent of the Founders, as to be impossible to support in good conscience? 

If so, participating in such institutions would only perpetuate injustice by perpetuating an irredeemable system. If, on the other hand, the institutions can be steered towards justice by participation, then such is our obligation.

The decision on which of those two courses is right does not depend on the political mood of the day. It depends on a careful weighing of whether a moral consensus still exists in the United States over fundamental questions such as the nature of the human person, the role of the state and its dangers, and the balance of rights and duties. Such a consensus is necessary to have any prospect of prudential policy decisions within a morally supportable order.

Political withdrawal in the sense considered here would not be withdrawing into the desert. It would not mean “giving up” or maintaining silence. It would acknowledge a particular set of circumstances that demands a particular set of responses (which would likely differ in degree and detail with each individual) – a particular withdrawal rather than a general surrender. 

And the question is not new in Christian or broader history. Christ called on St. Matthew to give up his tax collecting and follow him (it always seemed to me especially insightful to have consecrated the Washington Cathedral to St. Matthew). 

Christians faced persecution from Rome. St. Augustine turned from a political career when he converted. Boethius and St. Thomas More dealt with this question until it was resolved for them by the executioner. Examples abound in all times and places, and not just for Christians but for all who face unjust and powerful governments (including, in some times and places, governments supported by Church authorities).

The Church in recent decades has encouraged political participation, and the Catechism describes the place of legitimate temporal authority. But it posits important conditions and caveats. Perhaps most relevant for our moment is the warning, “Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.”

The Catechism goes on to quote Aquinas:

A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.

      I have always favored the idea that it is better to try to serve our governing institutions because, if for no other reason, when good people withdraw, bad people will rule. But the question is now opened more acutely than ever before in American history. This week’s polls will not give us the answer.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.