On Politics

At election time, we hear of an “obligation” to vote. This phrase always reminds me of our “right” to choose. Both “to vote” and “to choose” are infinitives. They mean practically nothing until we learn what we are voting for or what we are choosing. Looking at the available alternatives, we sometimes long for an obligation not to vote for this or for a right not to choose that.

The mechanisms of voting and choosing are very imperfect throughout the world. Many elections are, in practice, meaningless. Whenever we see elections decided by 98 percent of an electorate on one side, we can assume that no real election took place. How many votes in, say, Chicago are cast by the dead remains a lively issue.

Eventually, we ask ourselves: How important are politics anyhow? Edmund Burke’s remark is well known: “The only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But evil today, as always, presents itself in the name of what is good and noble. This is why elections are so enigmatic. Tyrants, likewise, especially the ones arising out of democracies, are often attractive men telling us what we want to hear so that they can gain or stay in power.

In  his book on St. Augustine, Herbert Deane reminds us:

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.
The relative importance of things needs to be kept in perspective.

Though Revelation contains a warning about absolute state power, the New Testament was not designed to teach us what we could figure out by ourselves. Politics was one of these latter things.

We sometimes have the impression today that everything is political. Indeed, many believers elevate politics to make it identical with the kingdom of God.

The chief rival to Christianity today, besides Islam, is a secular messianism designed to “liberate” us from religious practices so that we can devote all our attention to politics as our “real” good. Religion, in this view, is what holds us back from perfecting ourselves.

         Coin of the realm: the denarius of Tiberius

The modern state wants to fulfill that proposal of Marsilius of Padua whereby spiritual things have nothing to do with politics. World religions would be assigned a common parliament that would function under the aegis of the state.

Nothing truly transcendent would exist. Religion’s function would be to explain the nobility of the state’s purpose. No conflict of church and state would be possible. And what would the purpose of the state be? Basically, it would be to “take care” of everyone, in life and death, especially the poor.

In classical politics, of course, the purpose of the state was a temporal common good in which people took care of their own affairs. There is something exhilarating about “taking care” of others. It seems so noble.

In a recent talk in Loreto, in Italy, Benedict XVI said: “Grace does not eliminate freedom; on the contrary it creates and sustains it. Faith removes nothing from the human creature, rather it permits his full and final realization.”

The “full and final realization” of politics can only be understood when we acknowledge that politics is not an eschatology. Its divisions are not those of the soul that are worked out in our living and dying.

But again, politics is not nothing. The fact that the New Testament pays little attention to it – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” – means that it has a natural importance that we can grasp with our reason.

Aristotle called politics the highest of the practical sciences. He understood that something higher than politics existed. This transcendent order is what kept politics as politics and not itself a claim to man’s ultimate allegiance.

When politics claim our ultimate attention, when it subordinates religion to the state, it transforms the natural order into its own image. Civil societies, states, are not substantial beings with personal destinies of their own, as each human being is. They are arrangements of order and disorder wherein individual people work out their final destiny.

We can save our souls in the worst regime, and lose them in the best. Our politics do not automatically determine whether we reach or don’t reach everlasting life. Yet what we do and choose in politics also forms us into what we are, into what we make ourselves to be.

The polity exists so that greater and more varied goods can come about through our agency. The last judgment will include our political choices. Grace does not eradicate nature.


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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