As the visit of Pope Francis approaches, many groups are weighing in on what they hope he talks about. Certainly there are many pressing and deadlocked issues on which the pope’s voice might be seen as one above the political fray (although insofar as groups in the political fray try to use his message, that effect is diminished). Issues such as immigration, the environment, economic inequality, and capital punishment are ones where Francis has been outspoken, and all of these are quite alive in the political discourse (if not in really realistic and ambitious policy).
Count me leaning pessimistic. Here’s how I see the problem. Let’s imagine asking a question: on a scale of 1 to 10, how close is current American culture to the overall Catholic vision of the person in society? 1 is completely at odds, 10 is completely in sync. I know the conventional response here: American culture is all over the map, some aspects are close, some are not. Some seem to be moving one way, some another. How can we answer the question “overall”?
The effect of ignoring the “overall” question is to make Catholic social teaching sound like it is simply a set of issue statements. What is the Catholic position on X or Y? Two problems then arise. First, it becomes difficult to make the appropriate distinctions between principles and particular policies. This is true whether an issue is “liberal” or “conservative”—it’s a problem whether we are talking about immigration or same-sex marriage. Second, it becomes difficult to give an account why, by and large, neither of the two parties seem to embrace all the “issue principles” as a group. Parties simply are the vehicles we have in the U.S. by which voters speak and by which candidates rise in the ranks and get nominated. Put in somewhat bleak terms, the difficulty of getting straight on how the principles come together in a larger vision means that the deployment of Catholicism starts looking like a strategy of convenience and simple political manipulation—and again, this can be done from both sides of the partisan divide. And generally speaking, regardless of the side, I don’t think Catholic social teaching gains in credibility if it looks like it simply appears when convenient on a particular issue.
Thus, the “overall” question is really an attempt to get us to dig a bit deeper to get past many years (decades?) of Catholic teaching simply being deployed for partisan purposes. What’s the deeper vision and to what extent are the seeds of such a vision growing or withering in American culture? That question has two poles. The easier pole is saying something about the deeper vision. Whether it’s Benedict or Francis, I think it is pretty easy to say Catholic social thought sees the person as oriented to transcendence (“vertically”) and communitarian (“horizontally”). I mean, that’s just the unity of love of God and neighbor, and the two “parts” are really inseparably intertwined. My interpretation of Catholic social thought would argue for a pretty wide latitude in fleshing out the meanings of “spiritual” and “communitarian” commitments in a pluralistic society, but it would be a problem if (a) these seemed to be eroding, and/or (b) very corrupt versions of them were appearing. (So, for example, nativism or fascism looks communitarian in some ways, but would in fact be a false vision of it.)
What can be said about the “American culture” pole in relation to this vision? This is much harder—after all, any generalizations about “American culture” can almost always be contested, because there are many, diverse “cultures.” But it’s hard for me to deny that the general drift on these is poor. Religious commitment is down overall, with a particularly sharp generational skew, and it is hard to point to either studies or political phenomena that indicate a resurgence of “community.” For evidence of decline appearing in so many places, see here and here. By contrast, the libertarian elements of each party seem more likely to advance.
Now, this last paragraph of generalization is (as I said) super-contestable, and since I am at heart an optimist (the Cubs are going to the playoffs this year), I’d love to be convinced that the vision or spirit is a movin’ better than I am seeing. It would be nice to see Francis, rather than just go after issues, come to speak with America about losing a sense of the spiritual and falling prey to individualism, and call for some conversion on these fronts. This diagnosis and call for conversion is, after all, pervasive in Laudato Si’ as the pope’s diagnosis of the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. Moreover, these themes do speak to the other issues mentioned above (immigration, etc.), and would perhaps allow Catholics to speak about them in a way that appeared more “religious” and less “partisan.” A model example: Archbishop Cupich’s response to the Planned Parenthood videos. He hit all the issues. But he diagnosed the deeper problems, too. I am sure Francis will do that, too. I just hope it gets reported.
And I hope he does not inadvertently bless the New York Mets as he travels through town…
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