Mr. Walther is the editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.
image above: Vartika Sharma
WN: Cogently presented and inspiring. Amen!
When I began reading through the archives of Triumph several years ago, I found these arguments striking. This was not because they seemed to offer a wholly accurate assessment of the state of American race relations in the late ’60s. (Among other things, many at the magazine ignored the reality that millions of African Americans were quite pleased with the decidedly sublunary consolations of equal protection under the law and held correspondingly unromantic views about rioting.)
What struck me, rather, was that the editors, who also called for unilateral nuclear disarmament and were among the founders of the nascent anti-abortion movement, were doing something that even now, in a nation of some 65 million Catholics, seems impossibly radical: setting aside the standard ideological divisions of coalition politics in an attempt to apply the full range of the church’s social teaching to the problems of modern life.
It is certainly difficult to imagine anything like the magazine’s defense of the Black Power movement appearing in a conservative Catholic periodical today. Last year, the radio host Gloria Purvis was fired from her position with the Eternal Word Television Network, the largest Catholic broadcasting company in the United States, after suggesting that her co-religionists should be outraged by the death of George Floyd. (Her dismissal would almost certainly have baffled the network’s founder, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, who was inspired by the civil rights movement to start a religious community near Birmingham, Ala., that would appeal to African American women.)
Instead of commentary informed by the official teachings of the Catholic Church, much of what issues from the American Catholic press on the subject of race relations is indistinguishable from the competing perspectives on offer in secular media, with some Catholic liberals uncritically endorsing organizations such as Black Lives Matter, which has called for the displacement of the traditional nuclear family, and some on the right employing casuistry in defense of Mr. Floyd’s murder. This is the case despite the fact that on race and so many other issues, it is clear that distinctly Catholic positions — which is to say, responses formed by papal encyclicals, the lives and writings of the saints, the traditions of academic theology and natural law philosophy — do not line up with the mainstream of either progressive or conservative opinion in this country.
In contrast, the church offers a consistent ethic of solidarity: against pre-emptive war of any kind (which the church tells us cannot be waged in a just manner under modern conditions), against the enrichment of the wealthy in poor and rich nations alike at the expense of the working and middle classes, against the increasingly nebulous claims of academic progressives and activists about the nature of the human person and against the pursuit of maximal shareholder value to the detriment of virtually every other meaningful consideration.
It is not just the wide range of issues addressed by the church’s social teaching that might inform a future large-scale political realignment but also the manner in which it does so. Consider the problem of cooperation among nations. If the events of the last year have revealed anything, it is the importance of what Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, referred to as supranational institutions with “real teeth.” Instead of lionizing the neoliberal banalities of Davos Man, Catholic social teaching articulates a morally inflected defense of internationalism that rejects most of what makes Americans suspicious of it — the obliging attitude toward corporate power, the soft cultural imperialism of liberal nongovernmental organizations — while insisting upon its indispensability for the common good.
The idea that Catholic social teaching can inspire secular politics is not new. The papal encyclicals of the interwar period, which spoke to the anxieties of a world torn between the failures of laissez-faire economics and the growing threat of totalitarianism, were read enthusiastically by Franklin Roosevelt. Today Pope Francis, in keeping with many recent occupants of the Chair of Peter, addresses his writings to “all people of good will” rather than to the Catholic faithful alone as he inveighs against the spoliation of the Amazon region and its Indigenous peoples, wage slavery in Asia, the theft of natural resources in Africa and the replacement of civic life with algorithm-abetted consumerism in the developed world.
We already have a test case for what Catholic social teaching can offer to a population disillusioned by the collapse of a civilization and its supposed ideals: the European political tradition of Christian democracy. More than half a century ago, Christian democracy arose in Europe as a response to the ideologies that had given rise to a global economic depression and two successive world wars. The new postnationalist Europe to which this political movement gave rise — a Europe of robust trade unions and generously subsidized orchestras — was the dream not only of the onetime imperial heir Otto von Hapsburg and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the longtime prefect of the Holy Office, but also of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, the fulfillment of the promise of centuries of European humanism.
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