Here’s a great follow-up to that last post: an interview with TAC editor Dan McCarthy about how his Catholicism affects his approach to politics and public life. I suppose it makes me look like a horrible suck-up, but there really is a lot to think about in this piece. Here’s a small but telling bit:
Readers deserve fair warning: today I am not a very observant Catholic. To hear the media tell it, Catholicism has only two categories, devout and dissident. Actually there are a lot of people who fall into neither set.
He’s right about that, and that’s something that I, once a highly observant, highly politicized, Catholic took a long time to see. A few years ago, in what would be my final couple of years as a Catholic, I noticed that the only Catholics who had a real sense of the battles going on within the Church, and the stakes, were the fairly small number of engaged progressives and engaged orthodox Catholics. The great majority of people didn’t know and didn’t particularly care to know. It was like the Iraq War, in which all the fighting is done by a professionalized elite, while the majority of the population on whose behalf the fighting takes place, ostensibly, sat back unawares. Now, I would have argued then, and I would probably argue to a less forceful degree today, that they ought to have known. But I would have been better off myself if I had learned from them. Instead of seeing the great majority of Catholics as sitters on the sidelines, it would have given me a more educated and indeed healthier perspective on the faith if I had disengaged to a certain extent from its political side (and by “political,” I’m talking about Church politics, not secular politics), and tried to understand the experience of Catholicism as it is actually lived, not chiefly as how it deviates from the Theory. That’s not to say the Theory is unimportant; clearly it is. But it is to say that there is, in the minds of activist intellectual Catholics of both the left and the right, a kind of commitment to abstraction that can distort one’s vision. True, the disengaged Catholic may be faulted for not being as concerned or involved with the great struggles of our time within the Church, but the engaged Catholic can often fall into pridefulness over this. Besides, as Dan indicates, one doesn’t have to be a Catholic engaged in Church matters to have one’s Catholicism profoundly affect one’s engagement in other areas of life. That is a useful lesson to learn.
Another important point from the interview comes when Brad Birzer asks Dan about which public Catholics he admires, and why. Dan begins like this:
There there’s been a tragic diminution in the distinctly Catholic sensibility in American public life. I’ll speak here about my own areas of professional concern, politics and journalism. A little over a generation ago there were enclaves of Catholic thinking within liberalism and conservatism — certainly the conservative movement once had an influential Catholic component. Now there are enclaves of partisan liberalism and conservatism within Catholicism. On the right, a political ecumenism has been pursued in the name of fighting the culture war, and while it may be necessary in some degree, it has politicized and protestantized many Catholic conservatives. (There’s a wonderful book by Patrick Allitt, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America: 1950-1985, that gives a sense of how things used to be.)
There are still Catholic public figures and organizations, but they tend to be either less engaged with the mainstream than before or else so much more engaged as to be almost totally assimilated. The mainstream itself is both more aggressively Protestant and more aggressively secular than in the past, and Catholics reacting against one side often fall into the arms of the other.
That’s a pretty great insight. If you’re a Catholic, and you never find yourself dissenting from the views of the editorial page of The New York Times, there’s something you aren’t getting about your faith. Likewise, if you, as a Catholic, never find yourself dissenting from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, you are missing something. It’s so hard, though, to find much practical guidance for how to think in an authentically Catholic way about contemporary issues. The parishes, in my experience, are pretty useless. Homilies tend towards Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — though interestingly, in their study of American churchgoing (not just Catholic churchgoing), Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that there were more politicized pulpits on the left than on the right. And, as Dan says, so many of the magazines and institutions that could offer a distinctively Catholic point of view have surrendered that, for various reasons.
Though I am no longer a Catholic, my Catholicism dramatically shaped my own politics, and made me the kind of conservative I became. I found in time that I couldn’t accept the GOP gospel on economic matters, because it contrasted so sharply with what I believed to be true from my study of the Church’s teachings. Nor could I view the natural world (that is, the environment) as most of my fellow conservatives did, because the sharp divide between the soul and the body was something that is simply not supported in Catholic teaching. Though I am an Orthodox Christian now, that theological shift affected nothing in terms of my political and cultural thinking. In terms of thinking about public life, there is not much difference between the modes of thinking prescribed by the Roman church, and the modes of thinking prescribed by the Orthodox church. At least I have not found that to be so, on a practical level. Perhaps I have a lot to learn.
Anyway, please do read the entire interview. Daniel talks about the threat to authentic Catholicism posed by the “Brave New World” consumerist ethos, and about how the Catholic (and, I should say, the Orthodox) idea of cosmos — that there is a complex but orderly hierarchy to existence — can serve as a natural corrective to our imprudent and illiberal politics. I really do think that to read this short interview, and to know that a man who thinks like this is editing an actual magazine that one can buy, will bring subscribers to TAC. Hope so.