As the election season heats up, I’ve found myself reading more and more Catholic commentary online. In part this has to do with the fact that some of my friends from graduate school are now regularly blogging at Catholic Moral Theology (Jana Bennett, David Cloutier, Dana Dillon and I all overlapped at Duke, and John Berkman was also a visiting professor while I was there).
But my interest in Catholic reflection on American political realities is more substantive that biographical, for I am growing ever more appreciative of the ways in which Catholic Social Teaching practically demands that its serious adherents “fight the powers,” as it were.
The powers I have in mind are in the first instance the Pauline ones—the ones that John Howard Yoder, following Hendrikus Berkhof, persuasively unpacks and relates to contemporary social ills in chapter 8 of The Politics of Jesus. Yoder sees in the life and work of Jesus an unmasking of the rebelliousness of the powers of the world—powers that we cannot live with but that we also cannot live without. The powers, originally created to serve us, would have us instead serve them. Rather than serve the limited and live-giving purpose for which they were created, the powers (which would include governing authorities but also structures of power and phenomena like race, class, and gender) set themselves up as the final source of truth and life and would have us be subject to them and them alone. Jesus, in freely submitting to the powers’ rebellious and murderous authority, actually wins by “losing” to them. He triumphs over the powers by exposing their pretension to being genuinely truthful and genuinely powerful authorities. In crucifying the innocent and righteous man Jesus, the powers betray the actual weakness of their self-serving rebellious efforts to replace God’s rule and justice with their own. The cross exposes how the powers rule—by artificially dividing and conquering, establishing and maintaining a grip on their subjects’ loyalty by sequestering or even killing alternative sources of power, especially sources more truly uniting and life-giving than their own.
Election season is as good a time as any to notice the ways in which this Pauline analysis of the powers continues to be regrettably relevant to the world in which we live. Few things are more depressing for one who seeks to live into the reality of the freedom of the cross than the fact that in America we can now, with some accuracy, speak of blue Christianity and red Christianity. The rebellious powers that would have us follow their disobedient and divisive rule are doing a fine job exerting influence across the contemporary ecclesial landscape. We have “progressive” Christians and “conservative” Christians, “pro-choice” Christians and “pro-life” Christians, “reconciling” Christians and “pro-family” Christians, as if the primary identity of “Christian” is simply not enough. At the end of the day, what really seems to matter to many Christians is whether they’ll vote Republican or Democrat, whether they’re conservative or liberal. (Of course, these same divisive powers have held sway over American Christianity when it comes to race for just about ever, though it’s relevant to note here that many Catholic dioceses achieve levels of racial diversity that has long eluded Protestant congregations, perhaps especially mainline ones.)
Of course, I’m not the first to notice any of this. Yoder glossed the Pauline categories in the way he did precisely to set up a contemporary reading and application, and there are many Christians who lament the partisan takeover of the American Christian mind. I’ve simply been impressed recently with the many ways in which this cultural captivity to the divisive rule of the powers is being consistently and ably combatted by Catholics committed to following the tradition of social teaching in their church in all of its depth and complexity. This is by no means to say that the Catholic Church in the United States is not under the same assault—and to some degree the same dominion—of the divisive rule of the powers (just read around a bit at some of the links I provide to see how lively the debate is about Paul Ryan, the bishops, etc.). But I appreciate the ways in which the international character of Catholicism and the growing body of papal encyclicals that combine to provide resources for resistance.
Perhaps at some other time I’ll reflect on the ways in which Yoder’s work on the powers is or is not compatible with the natural law tradition embedded within CST, but for now I’d simply like to direct interested readers to the Catholic Moral Theology site in general, and these recent pieces in particular:
Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter is also an important contributor to the resistance. He blogs at Distinctly Catholic.
And a recently created Facebook group for Catholic Social Thought, Politics, and the Public Square has created some good conversation along these lines.