As much as it pains me to say so, what Ross Douthat writes in his column today at the New York Times about the diminishing influence of Catholics in the public square is all too true. Though they would certainly deny it, the Democratic Party has abandoned Jesus Christ for the philosophy of Karl Marx while, though they would also certainly deny it, the Republican Party has abandoned Jesus Christ for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
If this era is now passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it’s partially because institutional Christianity is weaker over all than a generation ago, and partially because Catholicism’s leaders have done their part, and then some, to hasten that de-Christianization. Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion. The present pope has too often been scapegoated for the sex abuse crisis, but America’s bishops have if anything gotten off too easily, and even now seem insufficiently chastened for their sins.
Few may recognize that the failures in the institutional Catholic Church led ultimately to the Tea Party and Occupy movements, but it should be obvious to anyone who understands human nature. Over a billion people worldwide identify as Catholic. Here in America, one in five people identify as Catholic. People naturally put their trust in leaders and in the institutions that are staffed with those leaders. When (1) the institutional aspect of the Catholic Church failed, and (2) it became clear that our educational institutions are run, in large part, by radicals, and (3) it became common knowledge that our political parties are run by the almighty dollar, people had no institutions left that they deemed worthy of trust. The Tea Party and Occupy movements arose in defiance of both parties and in defiance of each other, with the Tea Party movement having a love affair with Ayn Rand and the Occupy movement having a love affair with Karl Marx.
If I were to have my way, this transition from Church to leaderless (anarchist) movements based on Randian and Marxist philosophy respectively, would be what our Catholic history books reflect prominently about this time in our journey as a Church. One need not know who Karl Marx was to adopt his theories, which are in opposition to Catholic thought, and one need not know who Ayn Rand was to adopt her theories, which are in opposition to Catholic thought. The problem is not so much Karl Marx and Ayn Rand as it is with the philosophies they formulated which are embraced by people who look for solutions to the world’s problems apart from the solutions offered by Jesus Christ – love God and love thy neighbor. Had they looked for a philosopher who wasn’t Christian, they’d have all been better off looking to the pagans Aristotle and Plato, but resentment has sent them to Marx and Rand, instead. So the history books should say, though I doubt many will.
Leaderless anarchy never lasts for long, though, and both of these movements have diminished significantly as this reality of human nature, that people will always seek leaders and institutions for themselves, has taken hold. Naturally, we will look to leaders to speak for us in organizations and parties, to obtain power over “the enemy.” To a person of faith, the enemy is Satan, not other people. To the faithless, the enemy is manifest in opposing organizations and parties. Hence, the failure of the insitutional Catholic Church, and the failure of those charged with preserving the integrity of our educational institutions and political parties, has led to more polarization and more resentment and hatred in America.
Douthat goes on, in his column:
The recent turn away from Catholic ideas has also been furthered by a political class that never particularly cared for them in the first place. Even in a more unchurched America, a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal. But our elites seem mostly relieved to stop paying lip service to the Catholic synthesis: professional Republicans are more libertarian than their constituents, professional Democrats are more secular than their party’s rank-and-file, and professional centrists get their encyclicals from Michael Bloomberg rather than the Vatican.
This is true, but it is not so much the fault of the “elites” as it is of the people who continue to put their faith in them and to remain loyal to them to the end – an end that is decidedly bitter. Just as many Catholics, myself included, were afraid to speak against bishops who had done wrong because outside the Church (writ large) are the fires of hell, so, too, the unchurched fear speaking against their leaders when they see the alternative — the far opposition — as being much worse than they are. Again, it is human nature to act this way, and we must remember that it is only God who can enable us to rise above it. Without God, there is always an enemy somewhere who is another human being. With God, we are all His children.
Douthat does not put much hope in the idea that the election of a new pope will change things much.
Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.
But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.
I have a great deal of love and respect for Pope Benedict XVI. He has far surpassed my expectations for him, since his election in 2005, and I would not have preferred anyone else to be pope in his stead. Having said that, it seems clear to me that the task ahead is for all Catholics, including the new pope, not apart from him. Whether the next pope can change the world as we saw with the fall of the Soviet Union will certainly depend on whether there is another Lech Walesa in politics to help lead the way. We need a good pope, and we need good people to join with him to bring humanity together under God. This will be my prayer. I hope that you will all join with me in it.