Friday, October 10, 2008

Patience, Compromise, and Prudence

When people pretentiously preen about how they don't have time for politics they often try to place themselves on the mantle of thoughtful nobility by coming across as too smart to waste their time on such pursuits. They try to create the impression that such matters are beneath them and that they are wisely floating above it all, looking down and shaking their heads in bemused contempt at anyone foolish enough not to join them on their elevated plane of thought.

The reality of course is usually quite different. The real reasons that most people choose to not develop, hold, or express their views on politics is that they're either ignorant or afraid. It's hard to invest the time and mental energy to understand the issues and even harder when coming down on one side or the other means that other people will disagree with you.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput nails this apathetic attitude in Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life:

Whatever we choose to call the present moment, some things seem plain. We have oceans of information, but personal isolation has grown. So has an ugly spirit of irony that, in the words of Jedediah Purdy, "tends to discourage civic involvement of any sort. From local school boards to congressional campaigns, politics means taking public stands, throwing in one's lot with a standard bearer, and constantly risking being caught out as a hypocrite, a sucker, or a naive minority of one." In other words, for too many of us, it seems safer to be a smug coward than somebody with a spine who might lose.

Chaput goes on in this valuable book to argue that for Catholics (and really for all Christians), this cynical detachment is not an option. He refutes the notion that the Church should not have a voice in politics. In fact, he argues that it has a moral obligation to make its voice heard.

Among other things, he also provides a nice analysis of what went wrong with the Catholic Church in America post-Vatican II (it wasn't the content of what came out the Council as much as they way it was misrepresented and misunderstand). And he unravels the "seamless garment" argument that pro-choice Catholics like to cloak themselves in to justify their views.

Some of my favorite nuggets include his views on public dissent within the church:

At the same time, we should remember that honest private decisions--the kind that come from hard self-examination--are very different from the organized, premeditated, public rejection of Catholic belief by persons who use their Catholic identity to attack what the Catholic faith holds true.

On legislating morality:

All law, on issues from jaywalking to homicide, is rooted in morality because it codifies what we ought to do.

On apathy among American Catholics:

American Catholics face none of the direct persecution that so many Christians around the world routinely endure. We might be more alive if we did. Instead, we're weighed down by distraction, indifference, and comfort; by all the moral narcotics that come with an open and materially abundant society.

On the role of Catholic social doctrine:

We can never let Catholic social doctrine become an end in itself. The Catholic faith is much more than just another public philosophy or useful set of social programs. The church is not an association of social workers. She is a community of believers and disciples. In fact, the church's social service has no meaning outside her Christ-centered faith.

Somebody tell Joe Biden.

On not being afraid of ruffling secular feathers:

The words of Ignatius of Antioch, the early bishop and martyr, are worth remembering. He said, "Our task is not one of producing persuasive propaganda. Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.

On withholding Communion:

When the church withholds Communion from any person, she does so to protect the integrity of the Sacrament, defend the faith of her people, and call the individual to conversion.

Chaput has a chapter devoted to Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians. While I had a passing familiarity with More, I never fully appreciated how much his life is a guide to dealing with the conflict between faith and civic duty:

Thus in the words of More's biographer Gerard Wegemer, More advocated "respect for all laws, even unjust ones. In the face of an unjust law, More advised waiting for a 'place and time convenient' to advocate change." Patience, compromise, and prudence were More's familiar friends. But in the face of serious evil, he knew their limits.

"Render Unto Caesar" is an important and timely work that merits a read from those interested in understanding the role that religious beliefs should play in politics.

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