Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Paradigms of Papists

One week before the passing of syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran, I went to visit him at the nursing home. He had just been moved to a new facility, and had just refused dialysis and signed a "do not resuscitate" order. Clearly this was a man who knew he was preparing to meet his Maker. And yet, there I found him, in good spirits, eating Afghani take-out food that had been brought by a friend.

I told him of how much my son appreciated his 2002 article entitled "The Reluctant Anarchist." I also told him of something I had read several years ago, how it was possible to cling to a position of social or political import, and be identified as either a "conservative" or a "liberal" at first, then later the opposite, and finally back to where one was identified at the offset, all in the space of a lifetime.

It was only later, of course, that I came across the exact quotation, after a long absence:

If you live long enough, you can start out your life as a liberal and wind up a right-wing reactionary without undergoing any fundamental change of views. That is what happened to H.L. Mencken, who was considered the guru of the freethinking "flaming youth" of the 1920s and early '30s--and later consigned to the fever swamps of "right-wing extremism" for his opposition to the war and his visceral hatred of Roosevelt. The same was true of Albert Jay Nock, and John T. Flynn: their views did not change so much as others' perception of them did. Opposition to war, imperialism, and the centralized state was "left" at the turn of the century and "right" by the 1930s. In the 1960s it was considered "radical"--that is, radical left--to oppose our policy of global intervention, whereas the noninterventionist of today is far more likely to be a conservative Republican or a member of the Reform Party than a liberal Democrat.

And yet, it was on the basis of what I shared that night, that he took my hand and told me: “I'm so glad you told me that.” I am certain I was not being patronized, his having undergone a similar transformation in his own convictions, which occurred at great professional and personal cost. It was in the Summer 2000 issue of a now-defunct journal of opinion entitled Whole Earth (formerly Whole Earth Review), that I discovered a series of essays that, were they to be studied closely, would radically alter my thinking to the core. I have put off the occasion of such study until this critical election year. We have not learned our lesson, as in 2010, the Catholic vote is determined to align itself on man's usual conservative/liberal terms, as though God must invariably be a Republican. Or most certainly a Democrat. Obviously nothing on His own terms, but the ones our political landscape sets for Him.

Is this really how we intend to impress Catholic values upon those in the public square?

Joe passed into eternity just thirty days ago today. As this day would be the occasion of a "Month's Mind" Requiem Mass to mourn his passing, I will pen my own Requiem for Joe here today, and dedicate what is to follow to his memory. May it do justice to the man and his legacy.

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We might ask ourselves, where do the terms “left” and “right” originate with respect to political thinking? Roger Eatwell, Professor of Comparative European Politics at the University of Bath, describes the situation in France in 1789, when, as the French Revolution was in its advent, “... a seating pattern emerged in the new National Assembly in which most of the nobility and clergy could be seen to take up positions on the right, whereas the Third Estate, which demanded a constitution and limitation of the King's power, occupied the left.” And so a paradigm of political orientation emerged, which is with us to the present day. Or is it? Jay Kinney remarks in his Whole Earth guest editorial:

[T]he right has been popularly associated with a conservative, cautionary stance, a certain defense of custom and tradition, and a resistance to idealistic innovation. Conversely, the left, broadly speaking, has been associated with the modern quest to change and improve things, to perfect the social order, and to stoke the coals of the mighty engine of "progress."

Counterposed in this way, the left and right sound more like personal dispositions than ideological camps ...

And yet, despite the appearance of being cast in stone, these "camps" have in fact been subject to significant shifts, not only during the last two centuries, but even within living memory.

By themselves, it could be said that neither conservative nor liberal policies have done justice to a Catholic view of the world. The Marxist and socialist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries fed liberals with new possibilities, and were quite fashionable in their youth, but matured into unmanageable bureaucracies, authoritarian leadership, and arbitrary distribution of wealth, to the point where all incentive at self-improvement was weaned out of the human spirit. Meanwhile, conservatives have aligned themselves with the captains of industry and unfettered free enterprise. While initiative may appear to be encouraged, such virtue is ultimately the realm of the powerful few, as corporations grow and merge to become monopolies or near-monopolies, with the ability to wield undue influence over the political process, often to the detriment of the common man.

From the time of Pope Leo's great social encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, to the warnings of Popes Pius XI and XII concerning the rise of both fascism and communism, and finally, to the admonishments of Pope John Paul II with respect to the consumerist excesses of capitalism, the Church has warned of potential errors of either way of thinking. Can either "conservative Catholics" or "liberal Catholics" in America, one to the exclusion of the other, really lay claim to a Catholic orthopraxis?

In this issue of Whole Earth, we discover not only the shifting sands of political orientation as they are aligned with the left versus the right, but the prospect of a universal paradigm, one that transcends the usual boundaries of left versus right.

Spiritual perspectives that view all people, regardless of their material or political status, as interrelated souls, are one example. Environmental concerns that see the preservation of the planet's biodiversity and ecological health as crucial to our survival are another. And political perspectives that champion ostensibly universal principles, such as freedom, peace, or human rights, are still another. Each of these meta-perspectives is represented in this issue.

We had asked ourselves about a convergence of views last Sunday.

Is it possible, then, that two political ideologues, ostensibly diametrically opposed, could be so diametrically opposed, and becoming ever more so, until they met elsewhere, at what was not a line of thought, but was instead a circle?

One way in which his has been attempted is in a political phenomenon known as the “Third Way” (, which claims to be a "progressive alternative to worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism." A review of positions, especially on certain social issues, betrays it as another middle-of-the-road ideology repackaged as something radical, except that there is little that is radical in being non-committal -- in other words, the middle. What is the "common ground," for example, on abortion? Do you believe that an unborn child is a human life, or not? "Yes, but" or "yes, except when" cannot forge common ground, for there is no ground underneath. It either is, or it is not.And if it truly is what some people reduce to the euphemism of "choice," then there is no middle ground there, either. Picking and choosing a "liberal" position here, and a "conservative" position there, and so on, is not a new paradigm either, not when you simply borrow from old ones to create a patchwork of deal-making. The result is like one definition of a camel; "a horse designed by a committee."

Political conservatives like to tell us they're in favor of free markets. How free is a market when a manufacturer of cheap goods, made for peanuts overseas, is large enough in size to dominate that market, and squeeze out the small manufacturer of a quality product? The same Popes who denounced socialist worker movements also called, in the case of Pope Leo, for a living wage. Do captains of industry who profess to be "good Catholics," and who win photo ops with bishops, truly believe this? Is this reflected in their labor practices, or their lobbying efforts in Washington? A few exert control over the many, and they call that "freedom"?

Political liberals tell us they're against large corporations and totalitarian governments oppressing the poor. Let them come to Arlington County, Virginia, where property taxes are skyrocketing, the entire Board of Supervisors belongs to the Democratic Party, and there are fewer places left for the poor to live, as low- to moderate-income housing continues to be torn down, even in a depressed economy, to make way for "luxury apartments." Is this the base of support for the supposed "party of compassion"? Show them a third and even fourth generation of people who remain dependent on government assistance, with little incentive for fathers to remain committed to their families, leaving children without the influence of a father.

We remember Dorothy Day as a woman who defied the usual political labels. It is commonly believed that she was a "leftist," in light of her earlier associations with socialist worker movements, but it was not for want of attempting otherwise. Attempts to established agrarian worker colonies failed miserably, no doubt because not all of her followers (some perhaps, but obviously not enough) went through the same spiritual journey as herself. This is seen today in the lack of unity of orthopraxis in many Catholic Worker houses today, some of whom barely warrant the label of "Catholic." Day was an advocate of traditional liturgical and devotional practices, and was an outspoken opponent of abortion. But her antiwar protests tended to overshadow this, hence the "leftist" associations.

In fact, as Bill Kauffman writes in his Whole Earth article entitled "The Way of Love: Dorothy Day and the American Right":

National Review, dreadnought of postwar American conservatism, occasionally aimed its scattershot at Day. Founder William F. Buckley, Jr. referred casually to "the grotesqueries that go into making up the Catholic Worker movement"; of Miss Day, he chided "the slovenly, reckless, intellectually chaotic, anti-Catholic doctrines of this goodhearted woman--who, did she have her way in shaping national policy, would test the promise of Christ Himself, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us."

The grotesqueries he does not bother to itemize; nor does Buckley explain just what was "anti-Catholic" about a woman who told a friend, "The hierarchy permits a priest to say Mass in our chapel. They have given us the most precious thing of all--the Blessed Sacrament. If the Chancery ordered me to stop publishing The Catholic Worker tomorrow, I would."

Besides, if she were a liberal, she would have been sympathetic with the New Deal, right? Well, she wasn't, as she could see early on that such entitlement programs could lead men away from self-reliance (and the freedom that accompanies it), and towards long-term dependency on the state.

Again, Kauffman writes:

On numberless occasions Dorothy Day called herself a Distributist. Thus her gripe with the New Deal: "Security for the worker, not ownership," was its false promise; she despaired in 1945 that "Catholics throughout the country are again accepting `the lesser of two evils'.... They fail to see the body of Catholic social teaching of such men as Fr. Vincent McNabb, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc, Eric Gill and other Distributists ... and lose all sight of The Little Way."

Dorothy Day kept to the little way, and that is why we honor her. She understood that if small is not always beautiful, at least it is always human.

Wouldn't that make her more "conservative" than Bill Buckley? Or are we so afraid to defy conventional thinking when shown the evidence to the contrary? But this challenges our sense of alignment, our very comfort zone. We are surprised at the prospect, even in light of the evidence, that the Catholic Worker movement of the 1930s would have the same objections to the New Deal as conservative bankers and corporate bosses of the same era. No, it was easier to dismiss Dorothy Day herself as a "communist," even though her view of the world was less authoritarian, less exploitative, than theirs.

Or is the evidence what drives our allegiances in the first place?

At least in the 1930s, there was a shift of paradigm in the making, if only in terms of America's involvement in the war. It was mostly political and social conservatives who pursued an isolationist policy, and mostly progressives and New Dealers who embraced aiding Great Britain, and later fighting alongside them. In the Cold War that followed, the shift had settled, and political thought was polarized once again. From then on, if you believed the use of the atomic bomb on innocent civilians was morally wrong, then you were a communist, therefore a leftist.

I am reminded of when I heard Joe Sobran speak nearly a decade ago. He said that “most people, when they hear an idea, do not ask themselves, ‘IIs this true, and should I believe it,’ but rather, ‘What kind of company will this put me in if I do believe it?’” He went on to assure his audience that this was what he wanted in life from the company he would keep. It mattered less to him that he would not be invited to certain parties of those who might agree with him on at least some things, or those with whom he shared some sort of cultural mind-set. It mattered more to him that others accepted him on his own terms, outside the box though they may be. At least they would be friends he could count on.

As Catholics, we are called to turn against the tide. We are not promised "unity" or "inclusiveness." We are promised the Cross. Why wouldn't this affect the way we want to see the world outside the church doorstep, unless our faith was only something to be contained therein? (It only makes sense for this to be easier when you are wealthy, than when you are not.)

As this nation goes to the polls, more than one-fifth of the American population -- those who identify themselves as "Catholic" -- may be divided once again, in the face of an opportunity to make history for the better. They will give up this opportunity, not because they do not want "liberty and justice for all," nor because they do not want a better world for their children. They will simply worry about what others may think of them -- people who won't even see the choice they make once they pull the curtain shut.

As civil rights organizer Julius Lester writes in his Whole Earth piece entitled "Beyond Ideology":

I am not radical or conservative because I do not see an essential difference between the two positions, despite appearances. Both are political worldviews that divide the world into an Us against a Them. Radicals and conservatives merely disagree on who is the Them.

These disunited voters, either group of which presume to claim "the Catholic vote," will prove once again that Joe Sobran's lament was well-founded. Once they embrace the Truth for themselves, and begin to think outside their respective little boxes, it will be a Truth that sets them free, and our friend Joe can rest a bit more easily.

If only we could do so on time for this election year.

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