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Rudy's Catholic authoritarianism

In a recent New Republic article, "Authority Figure," John Judis traces Giuliani's bully  law-and-order character back "to his childhood in New York and to his enrollment for 16 years in Catholic schools." It is a worthy endeavor, but in the end, Judis seems (to me) to link a caricature of Catholic teaching to a caricature of a Catholic politician. At Catholic schools, Judis writes,

"...Giuliani was exposed to a specifically Catholic (as opposed to Protestant-individualist) view of the relationship between authority and liberty--one that dates from Aquinas's Christian Aristotelianism, was spelled out in Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical on the Nature of Human Liberty, and still enjoys currency today, even in the wake of Vatican II. Catholic thinkers do not see liberty as an end in itself, but as a means-a "natural endowment"--by which to achieve the common good. For that to happen, individuals have to be encouraged to use their liberty well; and that is where authority comes into play. Authority, embodied by law and the state, encourages--at times, forces--free individuals to contribute to the common good. Or, to put it in Aristotelian terms: Authority--by creating a just order--encourages liberty over license."

Judis then notes in a sidelong way that Giuliani has repudiated much of Catholic teaching--not to mention his rather un-Catholic behavior toward his wives and children--but continues:

"But his exposure to Catholic and classical political thought clearly had a lasting impact on him. At a forum on crime in March 1994, sponsored by the New York Post, Giuliani voiced views on liberty and authority that seemed to flow from these teachings. He criticized liberals for seeing only "the oppressive side of authority." "What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be," he said. "Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do." Asked in the question period to explain what he meant, Giuliani said, "Authority protects freedom. Freedom can become anarchy." Norman Siegel, the then-executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said afterward that he was "floored" by Giuliani's definition of liberty and authority. But anyone who studied philosophy at a Catholic college would not have been surprised by Giuliani's words....SNIP...Just as the danger of Protestant individualism is that it can be used to rationalize plutocracy, the danger of Catholic communitarianism is that it can be used to rationalize a slide toward authoritarianism. Giuliani's ideas on liberty and authority were integral to his assault on crime in New York, but they also may have encouraged a penchant for using power to curtail freedom."

I don't want to go all Donohue on this, but trying to chalk up Rudy's obtuse and obstreperous approach to governing to the inculcation of some abstract Catholic authoritarianism seems like a stretch--if not an excuse. It also smacks of the old view that Catholics could not think for themselves, and prefer to walk in lockstep to orders from Rome (or any authrority figure) on what to say or do or think.

Maybe I'm being melodramatic. Calling John McGreevy. Is Rudy just being a good Catholic schoolboy?

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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"Is Rudy just being a good Catholic schoolboy?" I think the article is indeed a caricature and doesn't seem to be to be in accord with Catholic political thought as it has been expressed in recent history.I am thinking particularly of the Canadian experience particularly how Catholicism shaped Trudeau. (there are other examples such as the co-operative and Antigonish movements). Trudeau rarely discussed it but it is clear that he was formed by Benedictine and other spiritual traditions (I forget at the moment the particular influences). Certainly Michale Higgnins can chime in if he is reading as he has written articles on the subject.The larger point is that Catholic spirituality has rarely been a monolothic entity, consequently there will be nuances in terms of its existential expression in the political realm.For example, while I certainly agree that Catholic spirituality as a whole can be set apart from certain strains of Protestant individualism that have exerted a strong influence on the culture of the USA, its communitarian character has taken diverse forms and I don't buy the authoritarian arguement as particularly "Catholic". It may be influenced by nineteenth and early twentieth century Jesuit interpretation but I wouldn't say that is necessarily "Catholic". It certainly isn't monastic.If I recall correctly weren't the leadership of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (the Cardenal's) influenced by monasticism giving a different spin to political organization."Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do." That statement does not strike me as particularly Catholic - and not in accord with my reading of Mounier.

David:I've sat through hundreds of Giuliani news conferences, so I've had a lot of time to consider how his not-yet-Vatican II Catholic school education shaped him. I think it did, to a great extent. As I listened to him speak, I often speculated on which lessons he was absent for in catechism class. But it struck me that there were others he was clearly present for. He must have had some very persuasive teachers to get him to say something so impolitic years later as "freedom is about authority." As Newsday reporter Dan Janison noted in a groundbreaking article in the late 1990s, this quote matched up poorly with his losses in a long series of lawsuits involving violations of the First Amendment. My own schooling was mostly just after Vatican II, so I always thought freedom was "just another word for nothing left to lose." I'll leave it to others to say which is the better theology.Cheers.Cheers.

Rudy is definitely pre-Vatican II and more like the present restorationists. Except for his marriages and pro choice stance. Today in parishes there is sharing of authority and the old style Father knows best attitude. The sharing is the positive side of the clergy shortage. Yet there are certainly lay dictators emerging also. The human factor. Officials have long misinterpreted the authority of Jesus which the gospels speak of. Jesus walked the talk and that is where his authority came from. His most prominent utterance on this was authority from humility, by serving all, not in superficial appearance but in action. Rudy was write in insisting on lawful authority in New York but slided into excesses that were appalling.

Interesting observations Paul. I agree that Rudy could quote the principal in good Baltimore Catechism style, and freedom is not absolute (even if conscience is). But his interpretation and application of it seemed just this side of a Latin American caudillo. As was often pointed out to me by exasperated Justice & Peace officials during the Duvalier era in Haiti, the Tonton Macoutes were all the product of Catholic schools. I suppose for the purposes of this discussion we must keep his personal behavior out of bounds--though that's giving Rudy a big advantage. He just seems to harness certain Catholic principals to his own agenda. Tehn again, as you say, there is the Kumbaya Katholic alternative...!

Rudy may have internalized his lessons at Catholic school, but Judis overreaches in his descriptions of "Catholic thought," and I'm a bit surprised that this thread doesn't have more comments.

Yes, it was a ridiculous article. The most damaging forms of anti-Catholicism are not the overt types, but the more subtle, pseudo-intellectual analyses of the type that one sees in this piece. His idea of "Catholic education" and "Catholic theology" is not only misguided but deeply offensive. While the rest of Judis's writing, which I regularly enjoy in TNR, is informed by his wideranging intellect and broad reading, this one seems informed by a few conversations with a few disgruntled former Catholic school students.

A ridiculous article indeed, or so it seems, but not alone. Another website I'm on for historians reminded me of an April article by Robin Toner in the NY Times, making much of the fact that 5 of the Nine Men in Black down there in Washington are Catholics, and all were appointed by conservative Republicans. The fear, of course, is abortion; it's unlikely that Toner or anyone else would connect the Catholicism of these 5 justices with the Court's obvious unhappiness on the way executions are carried out (if not, unfortunately, with execution itself).

Sorry for the delay, David. I agree with you, James Martin and others that blaming Guiliani's authoritarian streak on Catholicism is crude. (How would Judis explain Garry Wills? John Kerry?) That said, see a fine new book by Joshua Zeitz from the University of North Carolina press that argues that the retreat from liberalism in the late 1960s, in New York City in particular, was led by white Catholics with some Jewish intellectuals moving in their wake.

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