Righteousness Exalts a Nation

Karl Marx thought of culture as the superstructure of economics. He was, of course, mistaken. I think, though, that we can use his observation in a different, and helpful, manner. Politics is the superstructure of culture. A good political order follows from a virtuous foundation in the lives of the people. (Proverbs 14:34, 29:18).

As the American Founders understood, we cannot reasonably expect “good politics” (which is the wedding of justice with power) unless there is a strong moral sense in the people. The Catechism puts it succinctly: “The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. . . .Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.” (#2105) A Catholic theory of politics is simply stated: We do not wish to control the apparatus of the State, but we must invariably and insistently speak truth to power.

There’s a reason that the First Commandment comes first. Abjure God, and we abjure sound teaching. (Psalms 111:10) The Church has the overarching duty of anamnesis – of constantly reminding us of supernatural reality. Deference to that reality is the hallmark of the good political order.

In Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II wrote that “only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social existence.” The defense of that absolute truth must begin with real education – with learned, orthodox, and engaging professors at genuinely Catholic institutions. We know that good education is not itself sufficient to ensure a life of virtue; but without it, virtue is lost and with it the prospect of a good political order. We get the institutions, the representatives in Congress, and the political prospects we deserve.

Pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII

Our politics is often deranged because so is our education. Therein lies the root of the crisis: we cannot have good politics until we have wise and virtuous citizens, and the Church must be instrumental in producing them. After four years of learning at a Catholic college, the graduate ought to be able to call what is good, good; and what is evil, evil. Fail in that regard and very little else truly matters.

One of the great questions of political science is: Who will guard the guardians? With equal urgency we must ask, Who will catechize the catechists? Our education and formation are too often rooted in the poisoned soil of the profane culture around us. We have heard lies so often that we have difficulty in hearing the still, small voice of Truth.

In 1959, St. John XXIII saw the emerging problem: “All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth – and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself.”

This “contempt for truth” has only worsened in the past half-century, and it has wormed its way into the minds of too many who are charged with speaking with and for the Church and of teaching wisely and well. With the ignorant teaching the ignorant, how are we to do what Pope Leo XIII called us to in his efforts to develop modern Catholic social teaching: The Church, he said, must “make strong endeavor that the power of the Gospel may pervade the law and institutions of the nations.”

When we reform our “Catholic” institutions, we may, please God, then be able to hold our self-proclaimed Catholic politicians to account. (cf. Wisdom 6:8) With restored Catholic education, we may begin to build a culture which can spawn a good and even noble political order. Such a political order, at the behest of its citizens, calls good, good; it calls evil, evil.

Marx, indeed, was wrong, for politics emerges, not from high finance, but, rather, from the womb of what we cherish – or of what we reject; of what we hold sacred – or of what we substitute for the sacred. We will not have moral politics until we have a culture in which the good, the true, and the beautiful are known, defended, instilled.

“Catholic education” will be a chimera until our students hear the truth that will set them free. When we truly educate, we form consciences. We will then be developing citizens who can render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

We will then know what freedom truly is (cf. Evangelium Vitae #96) – and we may, with restored purpose, pray that it will long reign in the land that we love.

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.

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