Writing during the 2000 election campaign, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne captured a lamentable truth: “Being a Catholic liberal or a Catholic conservative inevitably means having a bad conscience about something.” Little, yet much, has changed in the intervening 16 years. Liberal Catholics—if they have bad conscience—must surely regret the Democratic Party’s increasingly radical position on abortion. And conservative Catholics should be discomfited by the Republican Party’s growing embrace of libertarianism, economic as well as social. Neither party seems to offer an especially adequate home for the complex of commitments of a faithful Catholic.
Perhaps the greatest cause for regret captured in Dionne’s lament is the very notion that there are “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics—and not simply Catholics. Catholics, like most fellow citizens, tend today primarily to identify with one of the parties that have come to define the American political landscape. Catholics generally tend to be as divided into liberal and conservative camps as their non-Catholic brethren. But, to the extent that neither party fully reflects Catholic social teaching, this division means that Catholics are political partisans first, Catholics second. Rather than demanding that one, or both, parties reflect our Catholic commitments, we are prone to fit our commitments into the existing parties, a bit like Procrustes fitting his visitors into his guest-bed—by lopping off limbs or stretching their bodies until he had disfigured them to size.
Arguably, Catholics are more thoroughly catechized by the American political order than by the Church, and as a result, American Catholicism is simply a reflection of the American political disorder, rather than a potential correction to its incoherence. Most Catholics are sufficiently comfortable with the deeply non-Catholic aspects of both parties: whether, for liberals, the pervasive libertarianism in personal morality, especially in sexual matters and confusion over the nature of marriage; or, for conservatives, a pervasive libertarianism in regard to economic matters, particularly a willing acquiescence to the radical inequality and environmental degradation endemic to our economic order. What is worse, most American Catholics seem to regard these political divisions as “natural” and given, rather than—like Pope Francis—seeing the deeper connection between a political order that embraces both abortion and environmental degradation as dual and connected aspects of a “throw-away culture.” Rather than insisting upon a more consistently Catholic party, most Catholics willingly accept our incoherent political divisions and too enthusiastically end up backing one or another party, depending on what they perceive to be the most Christian cause to be defended, or the gravest evil to be opposed.
Thus, for as long as I can remember, I have anathematized a “pox on both your houses” and striven in my teaching and writings to argue for the need for a different political configuration—one that is both pro-life and pro-nature, one that calls for an infusion of moral law in both the personal and economic realms. While I respect arguments against voting by the likes of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, I have generally thought it my civic duty to exercise suffrage, but have generally used my vote to register dissatisfaction with the current political configuration by voting for “none of the above.” Thus, I have escaped “bad conscience.”
However, this coming election season I will not be sitting on the sidelines: I will almost certainly cast my vote for president for a Republican, much as it will cause me deep and profound “bad conscience.” I will be a single issue voter, solely on what I view to be Catholic grounds: I will be voting on behalf of religious liberty, or, to be more accurate, freedom of the Church. That phrase has recently become a topic of intense and heated debate, now being interpreted by the cultural elites as a buzzword for “discrimination” and “bigotry.” But, putting aside the fevered and often willful effort to mislead, at heart “religious liberty” is above all the ability of the Church to be the Church in the world. Will we be able to proclaim the fullness of the Word of Christ in an increasingly hostile, secular world? Will sometimes challenging teachings on sexuality, the sanctity of life, the dignity of the family, the vital role to be played by civil society, the need to limit the degradations of the Market—will the Church be able to proclaim the fullness of these teachings? Will Notre Dame be permitted (will it even have the internal fortitude) to be “the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors,” as Pope Francis encouraged us in 2014?
Sadly, support for, or opposition to religious liberty has become a partisan issue. In 1993, a nearly unanimous Congress and a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, passed and signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” into law. The bill was co-sponsored by, among others, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Ted Kennedy. Today, most Democratic legislators who supported RFRA repudiate it, even claiming that they would not have supported it had they known it would be invoked by Christians! Meanwhile, Republicans at best only waveringly support religious liberty, recently retreating from support of similar state bills—including one in Indiana—when threatened by economic retribution by powerful corporate and moneyed interests. Without forceful Christian voices insisting upon a defense of religious freedom, the cause of religious freedom will likely have no political friends, with baleful effects on Christian institutions. During the last decade we have seen a growing number of instances in which Christian institutions are required by an increasingly aggressive secular government to submit to its demands—for instance, Father Sorin’s college being required by the government to provide abortifacient drugs in spite of the fact that he hoped that Our Lady’s university would be a “force for good in the world.” When powerful government and corporate interests combine to force their will upon the Church, Christians should recall Jesus’s warning: “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first”—and avoid seeking to be loved for the wrong reasons.
Catholics who believe that the Church and its timeless teachings offer a better path than the false choices on offer in our political system must, in the first instance, defend the freedom of the Church and its institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame. If we have any hope of reforming our broken political system to accord more closely to the fullness of Catholic social teaching—including a correction of the misguided positions of the Republican Party—then, first and foremost, the Church itself must be defended. If the Church is itself forced to conform to the permissible standards of the world—including conforming to our deeply incoherent political alignment, particularly its growing libertarianism—we lose the foreseeable possibility for a more fundamental correction to the American order. If the freedom of the Church is diminished, we will face anew a power not unlike the one the Church faced in its earliest days—a hostile empire that demands unstinting fealty to its misguided loves. Our Christian ancestors rather died than submit to Caesar. Will we—mistaking our comfort for freedom—give away the freedom of the Church without a fight?
Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.