Politique d’Abord


Politique d’Abord


Vol. VII No. 9
November 1972

Lest the reader head for his dictionary, let me clarify at once that the title means “politics first.” Then let me qualify the translation by pointing out that politique does not mean to a literate Frenchman exactly what “politics” means to the speakers of Amer-English. But thereby hangs a good part of my tale; so let me postpone further explanation of that point for just a bit.

The aim of this article is to convince American Catholics that if they want to exert any real or lasting influence on their country, they must, without delay, put politics “first.” First before what? Well, before all the programs that are supposed to make the Gospel more relevant and more comprehensible to modern man. First before pastoral and liturgical renewal, then. First, too, before “social action,” charities, hospitals and homes. First before Birthright and everything that goes under the name of “human development.” First, in sum, before everything Catholics do which is commonly supposed to belong to the social and public order.

Prayer, of course, is not commonly supposed to belong to this public order. Neither are Sacraments and “private devotions.” This common supposition is wrong, beyond doubt (for the public life, as Danielou has made clear, includes everything that is not the interior life); but I bring it up as a convenient way of getting into an important distinction. In advocating politics first, I do not say politics before everything, for there are some public realities that are higher than politics. These realities, like invisible grace itself, form an unconditional “first” that must hold primacy over everything in the human and natural order, including politics. Seek “first” the Kingdom of God, said Jesus. But these sublime public realities, such as the Church and her Sacraments, stand above politics precisely because they are formally supernatural. Now the supernatural elevates and perfects the natural, individually and corporately; and since that which perfects is necessarily higher than that which is perfected, it follows that all supernatural things, the public as well as the interior, the visible as well as the Heavenly, enjoy an absolute primacy over all that is natural. I merely insist that within the natural order there is also a hierarchy, and that in this hierarchy politics comes first. But that proposition is the beginning rather than the end of many a complication!

For it is the glory and the headache of Christians that they live in both the natural and supernatural orders. Let me dwell first upon the glory. It is theological and historical. Theologically, of course, it consists in the fact that Catholics enjoy an elevation of their nature, becoming sons of God without ceasing to be men. Historically, the glory is the heritage of Christian politics. What happened is that the opening of the human person to the Divine Persons enabled Catholic men to transcend the closed horizon of classical antiquity.

The ancient world, too, was a world where politics was first, forming indeed the ultimate frame of reference for human concerns. As this ultimate, Greco-Roman politics absorbed the divine and divinized its masters. By refusing sacrifice to Caesar, Catholics proclaimed the dependence of politics upon a more ultimate order—just as by rendering temporal homage to the same Caesar, they confessed the primacy of politics in its own order.

This experience of two orders, in which the one was neither the enemy of the other (as in gnosticism) nor inessential to the other (as in the private mystery cults), made possible a new politics which was an Incarnational politics. It was really a politics, and not just a vision or Weltanschauung, for the Church had already formed a full-scale social policy within herself by the fourth century, a policy which was used immediately to reform the Roman order when Constantine converted. Men who had nothing to offer but a Weltanschauung would have been caught unprepared by such a windfall. Moreover, this politics was really Incarnational, because it presupposed the discovery of the person.

To the ancient Greeks, “person” was only a word for theatre masks. Hypostasis was nothing but a vague synonym for essence or nature. The individual was only a material particularization of the species and as such enjoyed no rights over against the species (whose claims were represented by the community). Vis-á-vis the Polis, therefore, the position of the Greek individual was wholly comparable to that of a modern individual in a totalitarian state. But luckily for him, the ancient individual became the Christian person. Personhood was discovered because the Incarnation presented ancient thinkers with Someone who had two natures: Jesus Christ, true God and true man. It followed that His “someone-ness” had to be different from either nature. Modern literati make fun of the Christological controversies (about which they know virtually nothing), but it was through these controversies that men discovered a new metaphysical reality and called it hypostasis (or in Latin, persona). There was no other way to explain the unity of the one Christ. Thenceforward, person was seen to be a reality distinct from the nature and the matter which he possesses, and the human individual was seen to be more than a particular within the species. So was born the transcendent dignity of the human person.

Solicitous of that dignity, Catholic men constructed a political order in which power was at the service of authority, authority was loved because it came from God, and the men who loved authority were free in their submission to it. It was an order in which interior life, family life and political life flowed naturally one into another, the same norms holding for all. Political order was thus total but not totalitarian, because it recognized beyond itself the Triune Persons who call every man to a personal infinity. That achievement is what Catholic men did in history, and it is their glory.

Now for the headache. Living in two orders demands an effort at synthesis. We must somehow keep hold of both time and eternity, and we must do this in our heads as well as in our hearts.

Perhaps we are more familiar with the struggle in the heart. Out of diverse loves, each of us must form a personal synthesis (to use R. Panikkar’s term) in which we respond to the call of God, perform our earthly chores, drink the wine of this life, but not so as to forfeit the wine of the next. Now such a personal synthesis is hard to come by. Rarely is it profound enough to be called sanctity. For most of us, it is less a synthesis than a hodge-podge, a thing of weak faith and dubious morals. Our diverse loves become divergent ones. We juggle our two orders, and clumsily we lose one, sometimes both. Perhaps that is why Our Lord said that the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light. The crepuscular children have but one order to cope with. They learn its ropes with a sure knack, head for power and paydirt the way an arrow heads for a target: without the troublesome need to repent. Moreover, their incandescent success disorients us, seeming to outshine the light whose children we are supposed to be. Our heart’s synthesis is always hard-won — and always incomplete without the further synthesis of the head.

Here I am not directly concerned with the dogmatic synthesis of faith and understanding which the Church herself advances and guarantees. I refer rather to the synthesis of dogma and life by which alone Catholics are able to translate orthodoxy into action, insight and creativity. This is something genuinely different from zeal and from sanctity. It is an intellectual grasp, but, unlike mere theological or philosophical competence, it can flower in the most unbookish of heads. It is the vitality with which a man, in whatever circumstances, views his Catholicism not only as a road to Heaven but also as a window on reality. Whether a man is thinker, craftsman, poet or politician, the efficacy of Catholic action and the quality of Catholic culture depend upon the quality of this synthesis; and they collapse when it is faulty.

This precisely is the crucial synthesis which, despite individually brilliant attempts at recovery, has more and more broken down as the public norms and institutions which once sustained it have vanished from the Western world. Nowhere is this collapse of Catholic creativity more acute than in America, where Christendom itself never existed; and in no field is its reconstitution more vital than in politics. For political wisdom, in the order of action, as St. Thomas believed is the key wisdom: it discerns and achieves the common good.

My topic (to return to it) concerns in particular three faulty syntheses, all quite common among American Catholics and all sterile because they fail to recognize the primacy of politics in its own order or the imbrication of politics with the supernatural order. Here is a concise version of the three:

  1. America may have its problems, but right now there is a more important crisis in the Church. Until we have won the battles over catechetics, liturgy, and so forth, we should betray the very primacy of the supernatural if we were to dabble in politics.
  2. America’s present crisis is not one of political structures but of moral values. The duty of Catholics as citizens, therefore, is to participate fully in the present “system” in order to secure the return of those moral norms on which our nation was founded.
  3. America’s political structures are indeed in crisis, needing to be overhauled or replaced. Catholics, therefore, should stop dragging their feet, heighten their political consciousness, and join with the progressive and revolutionary forces that are seeking radical change.

I think it will be conceded that the three positions sketched here pretty well exhaust the commonly discussed possibilities.

The merit of the first position is that it firmly grasps the importance of the supernatural. It understands that the Church of Jesus Christ is absolutely crucial to the future of man. It understands, too, that a Catholic parent has no more immediate and pressing duty than to see that his own children are raised in the Faith. Moreover, this Catholic parent is most often a working man with limited leisure and resources; he must make his impact count, on what is most important. Hence, the first position has the appearance of being an eminently pious and practical one for the vast majority.

But the appearance is only that. For the woes of poor and simple Catholics will not be assuaged by blindness about the public and political nature of the attack that is being waged against them, nor by blindness about the real nature of the holy things they seek first and foremost to safeguard.

For above all, the supernatural cannot be closeted. It cannot be preserved in isolation from public life, as though the latter could be left to go to Hell (as we say) in a hand-basket without dragging precisely the poor and simple along with it. In fact, the whole idea of “holding the line” in the Church while ignoring secular developments is a rich man’s idea. It takes cash to put children in “safe” schools, become one’s own theologian, erect private chapels, or subsidize “tridentine” priests. Those who think seriously about the plight of “average” Catholics will be compelled to think along other lines — lines that lead straight to politics.

For I deny that the present ecclesiastical crisis is independent of the present political crisis. I deny, therefore, that either is separately remediable. It may seem startling to allege that the mess in the Church is political in origin, but I think I can indicate that this is so.

Talk to some “far out” priests or sisters. Almost invariably, at least in this country, you find the same pattern. They will not deny a precise point of doctrine. The more you try to trap them in a contradiction between their own slogans and the dogma of the Church, the more evasive and “inclusive” they become. Their answer is always that their position “includes” yours, whereas yours is too narrow to include theirs. In short, they are not conscious heretics and frankly have no interest in being heretics. Their slogans, deviations and novelties do not proceed from meditation on a false premise so much as from hatred of ordinary Catholics. The problem with our priests and religious is not that they are heterodox (much less heterosexual) but that they are alienated from their parents!

Bear with me a moment. Isn’t it true that priests and sisters who abandon their vocations or the Church do not, like real heretics, set up their own apostolates or churches? Don’t they rather head for politics? Wasn’t the sore point of Humanae Vitae its opposition to approved secular and political values? Isn’t the most uncomfortable thing in a liberal Catholic’s life today his opposition to abortion, which he still feels is wrong, whereas everybody he admires and agrees with about everything else thinks that abortion is a sensible social necessity? Have you ever met a liberal Catholic who wasn’t convinced that Dietrich Bonnhoeffer and Martin Luther King were vastly better Christians than his own bead-praying parents and relatives? Make no mistake about it: the key to dissident Catholicism is its image of what a Christian is like, and this image in turn is determined by political sympathy, not theology. The whole aim of the new catechetics, the folksy liturgy and the partisan sermons is not to produce heretics but to produce Catholics who will think, react and behave like Bill Coffin and Benjamin Spock—that is, like the images liberals have of themselves. It is narcissism moralized and dogmatized!

Please do not misunderstand me. I have no wish to deny that there is heresy in the American Church and that this heresy must be stopped. But I do insist that the heresy is a symptom and not a cause. It is a symptom of a politics which, in its assumptions and implications, cannot long co-exist with Catholic orthodoxy. Eventually the one must drive out the other. In fact, the primacy of politics in the so-called ecclesiastical crisis is so obvious that most of us have never stopped to think about it. Why was the political dialectic of “conservative” v. “liberal” almost instinctively applied to polarized theological positions? Why do the parameters of active, political liberalism and Catholic dissidence coincide so perfectly that the isolated exceptions, the truly orthodox liberals, like James Hitchcock, strike us as proving the rule?

I deny, therefore, that there will ever be an end to the unrest in the Church until dissident Catholics are disabused of their politics. Then only will the younger clergy take a second look at the average parishioner and decide that perhaps she is not the enemy. (And if she is not the enemy, then perhaps her religion is not so bad!)

But what will disabuse these people? I submit that the answer cannot be a mere insistence on the fundamentals of orthodoxy. The Catholic liberals of the ’40s and ’50s had those fundamentals, and they became dissidents anyway. The trouble with position one is that it has already failed! Let us move on, then, to position two.

The merit of this second position, which seems to be that of most American bishops and of the laymen who are called conservatives, is that it grasps the need to play some social role if we are to defend our vital interests. It understands that for a Catholic, politics is controlled by certain moral norms. Hence, we may not run out and become Communists. Christian witness is incompatible with terrorism and with gunpoint methods of redistributing the wealth. Moreover, the second position seems to have the advantage of practicality, in that it proposes to work with what is, rather than first dreaming up what ought to be. There is, however, a very deep ambiguity in this position, whose result in practice is either one of two things. Either our social-political role ceases to be Catholic (that is, it becomes non-sectarian, seeks the consensus of all “men of good will,” declares Catholic faith “irrelevant” to its moral and political stances, etc.), or else it ceases to be political (steering strictly clear of partisan stands, and so confining itself essentially to the sort of charitable and community work that used to be done by the National Catholic Welfare Conference). In other words, it is either denied in practice that the Church has a unique social teaching, or else it is asserted that the Church has such a teaching but denied that Catholics ought to have, therefore, here and now, one politics.

The very idea that Catholics ought to have one politics strikes the traditionally attuned American ear as a monstrously sour note. It sounds rather like saying that all Catholics ought to be forced to buy Buicks. The problem is that “politics” has become trivialized semantically in the anglophone world, a development which was probably inevitable, given the fact that most English-speaking countries have what are called “stable” governments, wherein the great questions of political order are never discussed. “Politics” to an Anglo-Saxon ear means peripheral questions, like “Whom shall we send to Congress?” and “Shall we raise the property tax by 2% or 2.8%?” This is the reason why I chose the French title for this essay rather than the translation. For politique means vastly more than ordinary, day-to-day “politics.” It means “the political order.” When Maurras, then, raised the slogan politique d’abord, he was not advocating that we make like the great Irish mayors of Boston! He was saying that the political order is the key of all other social questions. Create a proper government, he said, and all the labor problems, economic problems, pornography problems, will fall into place. (Not go away, but fall into place, which means, become subjected to the political and social leverage of those forces and institutions which can gradually cure them.) This is the advice that American Catholics have never been willing to heed, thinking either that our form of government was perfect, or that it was imprudent to involve the Church in trying to change it, or that the good we wanted to do, the public presence we wanted to create, could be accomplished without reference to political power. We are living today amidst the sad ruins of all those American assumptions.

To state the matter in precise form, it is an error to pretend that one can create a public situation through means that try to prescind from politics. Certainly our enemies never overlook this rule. What is more intensely political in strategy and execution than the pro-abortion movement, despite the rhetoric about being non-partisan? Being non-partisan means only that your cause is so powerful politically that neither party dares to let the other have a monopoly of your support. Why are not a whole series of Catholic causes in the same enviable position? Why do both parties dare to ignore us, as they toy with abortion, fund Planned Parenthood, design counter-value military policies, charge taxes for a worthless public “education”? Only because historically we have not put politics first!

But what kind of politics should come first? That is the question whose relevance is understood by position three. The merit of this position is that it sees the need to go to the roots. It has outgrown, in some measure, the Whig superstition that all we need are more virtuous citizens. It understands that we need institutions that will support men in their struggle for a better life. It understands, too, that the old American games are up; that whether we like it or not, a new order is being fashioned in this country. Finally, this position understands that Catholics cannot remain indifferent to this new order.

The great problem with the position (and it is an enormous problem) is that it is trapped in the worst of America’s assumptions, with the result that its analysis of the political order is disastrously wrong. Rather than calling upon the Catholic political achievement as an analytical tool, it calls upon the shop-worn slogans of the revolution. Moreover, the practitioners of this position, the Novaks and the Berrigans, have a way of amalgamating supernatural terms, like “salvation,” into political terms, like “liberation,” putting politics indeed first, but at the cost of merging the two orders.

In this tendency, the radical Catholics are only imitating the fundamental process of post-Catholic Europe. If, as I have said above, it was the achievement of Catholic politics to break through the closed horizon of Greco-Roman naturalism, it has been the constant drift of modernity to seal that horizon once again. The supernatural has disappeared as an order of being that is politically significant. With that disappearance has gone all serious understanding of the person, a word which survives today as a politically neutral synonym of “individual,” which the real person attempts to hide in “privacy.” The result is that people still feel that the individual is somehow priceless, but they cannot remember why. And of course there are countries where people have given up trying to remember and have put each other to good use as mulch for tomorrow’s utopia.

We have been accustomed to think that the Land of the Free represents an alternative to that sort of totalitarianism, but once again we have been deceived. I will not repeat here the long and delicate critique which this magazine has made of the American system, but I should like to advance one or two considerations which have just recently come to my attention through the help of Reinhardt Koselleck. He is the author of a book called Kritik und Krise (Bonn, 1961), which we need desperately to have put into English. It is a book about the period between the wars of religion and the French Revolution, otherwise known as the age of absolutism.

Koselleck shows that royal absolutism arises as an attempt to solve the problem of Church and state in a world where there is no longer one Church and where people are tired of shedding blood in the effort to get one. The attempt is to set the state above the conflict of religions as an arbiter. Politics, the sphere of the sovereign, thus becomes an order above religion and morality, which are reduced to the private state. Man as man is likewise privatized, having political significance only as a “subject.” Change the last word to “citizen,” and you have the basic scheme of the American order.

The opponents of absolutism were the men of the Enlightenment, who represent precisely the attempt to resubject politics to morality — specifically, to the new middle-class morality which had grown up as the sphere of the private citizen over against the amoral state. Bourgeois morality was the secular expression of privatized religion. In American terms, it is George McGovern.

Koselleck gives us an invaluable structure for understanding a certain dialectic that has been endemic in American history. Whenever we shift from a period of political quiescence to one of political ferment, the shift is accomplished in the name of a moral crusade. The crusaders claim to stand for a “new politics,” which is really supposed to be a kind of non-politics, in that it is supposed to bring to public life the admirable qualities of private life, the sphere that is uncorrupted by the uses of power. The fact that this trick never works merely allows the dialectic to go on in an ever more exacerbated confrontation between “immoral” politicians and “concerned” citizens, a syndrome which Michael Novak also has noticed. The history of the Enlightenment, read in the light of some very contemporary American developments, allows us to foresee, I think, the end of American history as we have known it. Sooner or later, the new politics of morality will become sufficiently devastating in its critique of the old order (and sufficiently ruthless in the means it uses — the rationalization of violence is already commonplace among us!) to overthrow that order. The new state will be fully armed with moral pretension, and just as in the French Revolution, the distinction between private and public will be abolished. America will be at the starting point of European totalitarianism.

Structurally speaking, America shares with all post-Catholic states the mistake of trying to put the state above religion and to substitute the distinction between public and private for that between political and supernatural. Privatized and secularized morality will not rest until it dethrones the state that pretends to be above it and puts itself in the posture of primacy that belongs to the supernatural. Then, as in ancient totalitarianism, the political order absorbs the divine and divinizes its masters, though now through the medium of ideology rather than mythology.

If American Catholics wish to escape the consequences of revolutionary totalitarianism, they must without delay put politics first! And it is Catholics who must do this. They alone have a tradition which transcends the fatal American dialectic. They alone can be expected to understand that the dialectic must be rejected in its first move, the attempt to put the state above religious differences, a move which is precisely the central and burning issue of political order today, however little it is recognized as such. We have at our throats a state which cannot be restrained because it is constitutionally incapable of agreeing to Catholic morality (and there is no other morality that is clear enough to do any good!). And tomorrow we may have at our throats a state which absorbs everything in the name of a new and monstrous morality. The time is short, and America’s need for a confessional politics is desperate. The success of that politics would make everything else fall into place: abortion, drugs, pornography, ecology, nuclear arms, economic justice — even Catholic dissidence. Give those who are crying for justice a Catholic vision, a Catholic synthesis, a Catholic alternative to threadbare radicalism, and the American Church will quickly rediscover its unity and mission.

For every reason and for God’s sake: politique d’abord!

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