The Knights of Columbus is a group familiar to most readers of The Catholic Thing. I suppose there’s no Catholic organization more well known throughout the world, and this has been true for a century.
But more recently, under the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, the organization has become more than a visible charity; it’s a leading voice in the public square, especially in debates about religious liberty and the threats thereto.
I’m sure Mr. Anderson’s predecessors – most recently Virgil C. Dechant and John W. McDevitt – were superb leaders. Yet I don’t recall (I’m not a Knight) ever having seen or heard of either man, whereas in our current national discussion about the collisions of faith and culture and politics, Carl Anderson is, as they say, a key player.
We’ve had occasion here to review two of his recent books, Beyond a House Divided  and Our Lady of Guadalupe  (with Fr. Eduardo Chavez), and now comes a new and quite pointedly political Kindle e-book (available for download tomorrow at $2.99): Proclaim Liberty: Notes on the Next Great Awakening in America . As his subtitle suggests, Mr. Anderson finds reasons for sober optimism in a time of lurid cynicism.
Mr. Anderson’s argument is rock-solid: America is founded on the belief that our most fundamental rights come from God, not from government, but this premise is not currently in vogue in Washington, where the dominant view reflects the so-called Cuomo Doctrine: tolerant of immorality, although allegedly opposed to it – a line of attack on Catholic teaching frequently reinforced by many “Catholic” politicians. No need to name names or cite issues here.
Yet research has convinced Mr. Anderson that most Americans actually embrace the substance of Catholic social teaching, and, less convincingly in my view, that we have a chance to cool the fevered public debate through civility, charity, commitment, and cooperation.
Now, in a sense I agree: we would make more political progress and, perhaps, achieve a more Catholic resolution on social issues were the polity persuaded of the primacy of Christian virtue – of love especially. But that’s post hoc ergo propter hoc. And as Mr. Anderson himself observes, lots of Catholics (and many others) have come to “regard the ‘Cuomo Doctrine’ as a kind of truce in the culture wars.”
Mr. Anderson takes the long view, rather in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “there is absolutely no inevitability, so long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” – and change it. But given how entrenched both sides are on life issues, willingness truly seems far off if not farfetched. Voters vote narrow self-interest, to which politicians pander.
I suppose change will begin only when a leader emerges who embodies what Mr. Anderson advocates. In fact, I wish Carl Anderson would run for president.
In the meantime, our politics is about power, not principle.
Forgive me for quoting the familiar passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More disputes the assertion of his future son-in-law, Will Roper, that the devil is loose in England and every law should be felled to stop him. Roper hates injustice. But More, the future martyr and saint, will have none of that:
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down . . . do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
I think of this whenever somebody justifies the current administration’s refusal to enforce a law or see demonstrated its willingness to bypass Congress in pursuit of its own notions about justice. And make no mistake: every regime, democratic or totalitarian, believes it seeks justice. There are fundamental differences, of course, but whether a ruling elite murders its opponents or offers them due process, the elite always believes it’s acting for the best; for the long-term good of the people.
One of the reasons for political hostility in America is the utilitarian willingness of “both sides” to seek specific ends without regard to moral or legal means: warrantless wiretaps; immigration policy via fiat. What neither side seems willing to recognize is how this extra-legal embrace of government power (and the ever-growing legal expansion too) cuts both ways. Power inevitably passes from one party to the other, which is to say, if you are a Democrat, you’ve ginned up broad-ranging Federal authority only to put it into the hands of Republicans. And vice versa.
Are we really so myopic as to believe our “enemies” will never regain power? Has the pendulum stopped?
In the immoral pursuit of moral imperatives, both sides have forged powerful weapons that in the hands of enemies are turned against them.
Carl Anderson is a fan of A Man for All Seasons and an admirer of St. Thomas More, and in the end he recommends a More-like restraint in the public square. More disagreed with but did not dispute Henry VIII’s secular authority and died, “His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Were American Catholics to restrain from voting, which – pace the USCCB – Anderson suggests is a legitimate means of peaceful protest when both candidates’ positions are morally deficient, would we really be imitating More’s example? Anderson asks: What “candidate or political party could withstand the loss of millions of Catholic voters?”
Good question, but I fear the answer.
I hope Carl Anderson’s sanguinity prevails and my gloominess collapses. It might if he’d run for president.