Against the Grain

Some people play hardball politics. I play oddball politics. I can't help it. I'm Catholic.

Am conservative or liberal? I am ardently prolife. I oppose artificial contraception. I believe in private property. I think parents have the principle responsibility for the education of their children. I am suspicious of Big Government. I reject the idea of ordaining women. I think the Church's teachings--all of them and not just the bits I like--are the teaching of Jesus Christ. I abhor the banishment of serious religious belief from the public square and the usurpation of democracy by the judiciary. I think we are in a major culture war and that the forces of darkness have overwhelming control of the manufacturing machinery of culture in their possession of the television, movie, and music industries. So I must be a Neanderthal right-winger, right?

I'm not so sure. What sort of conservative am I to reject the death penalty? Why am I just as suspicious of Big Business as of Big Government? Why do I not think that my (guarded) support for the second amendment necessarily means that anybody needs an assault rifle or that the Constitution is about the right to keep and bear field artillery? Why am I as skeptical of Rush Limbaugh's optimism about individualism as I am of Ralph Nader's pessimism about corporations and yer garden variety liberal's messianic view of the State? What am I anyway?

I suppose, I repeat, that I'm a Catholic more than an ideologue. It seems to me that Catholic faith never fits well into political molds and that terms like "conservative" and "liberal" therefore don't work very well.

Here's my theory of why: American culture tends to be divided between those who place the individual (including that legal fiction of an individual called the corporation) at the center of human society versus those who place the State there. For those on the Left, the tendency is to always look to the State as the Answer. For those on the Right, the tendency is to look to the individual (or to the corporation).

But both ends of the spectrum are blind to two things. First, they don't see that, in reality, neither the individual nor the corporation nor the State are the center of society. Rather, as the Church teaches again and again, the family is. For we are made in the image of God and God, being a Trinity, is a kind of family himself. So the human person can only be understood as being in relationship to a family (even if he is single or a monk in the desert).

Secondly, neither liberal or conservative ideologies see another important fact: original sin. Both sides are, of course, quite ready to see the other as the locus of evil in the universe. But neither side is very ready to see that statism, corporatism, and individualism are all, in their own ways, mortal enemies of the family. Worship of state opposes the family by taking from its resources and its dignity, worship of the corporation opposes the family by appealing to all our materialistic impulses despite the good of the family, and individualism opposes the family by pitting "me, my truth, my needs, my pleasures" against the love that binds the family together.

And so, I foolishly remain Catholic in a world swept by the gusts of received political wisdom and cling to the old, unpopular, thoroughly Catholic vision of the family at the center of my social and political thought. Insofar as an ideology helps the family and helps it be the domestic church, I'm for it. Insofar as it attacks the family, I'm agin' it. Ideologues tend to think this is hopelessly utopian and impractical social theory in the dot.com era. But I still think the folly of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea