A social historian looking for a defense of the Black Power movement in popular magazines and newspapers of the 1960s would have to do a great deal of digging. Such an inquirer would have an easier time quarrying the pages of Triumph, a little-remembered Catholic periodical started by L. Brent Bozell, a brother-in-law of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review.
In January 1967, the editors of Triumph suggested that Black Power could help to restore “liberty and human dignity to America.” Liberals congratulating themselves over the passage of major civil rights legislation, the magazine argued, were unaware of how they were still “barbarizing” Black people, who rightly understood that human dignity transcended mere legal recognition of their constitutional rights.
The editors would go even further than this. To these decidedly reactionary Roman Catholic laymen — Mr. Bozell had only recently returned with his family from Francisco Franco’s Spain — rioting was an understandable response to the “terror that always haunts men confronted by meaninglessness,” the actions of a people “yearning to make contact with the divine.” For Triumph, Black Power was a rebellion against the “soulless tyranny of secular liberalism,” and its adherents were worthy of praise because “almost alone among our brethren they seem willing to burst violently through the flesh into the realm of the spirit.”
When I began reading through the archives of Triumph several years ago, I found these arguments striking. This was not because they seemed to offer a wholly accurate assessment of the state of American race relations in the late ’60s. (Among other things, many at the magazine ignored the reality that millions of African Americans were quite pleased with the decidedly sublunary consolations of equal protection under the law and held correspondingly unromantic views about rioting.)
What struck me, rather, was that the editors, who also called for unilateral nuclear disarmament and were among the founders of the nascent pro-life movement, were doing something that even now, in a nation of some 65 million Catholics, seems impossibly radical: setting aside the standard ideological divisions of coalition politics in an attempt to apply the full range of the church’s social teaching to the problems of modern life.
It is certainly difficult to imagine anything like the magazine’s defense of the Black Power movement appearing in a conservative Catholic periodical today. Last year, the radio host Gloria Purvis was fired from her position with the Eternal Word Television Network, the largest Catholic broadcasting company in the United States, after suggesting that her co-religionists should be outraged by the death of George Floyd. (Her dismissal would almost certainly have baffled the network’s founder, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, who was inspired by the civil rights movement to start a religious community near Birmingham, Ala., that would appeal to African American women.)
Instead of commentary informed by the official teachings of the Catholic Church, much of what issues from the American Catholic press on the subject of race relations is indistinguishable from the competing perspectives on offer in secular media, with some Catholic liberals uncritically endorsing organizations such as Black Lives Matter, which has called for the displacement of the traditional nuclear family, and some on the right employing casuistry in defense of Mr. Floyd’s murder. This is the case despite the fact that on race and so many other issues, it is clear that distinctly Catholic positions — which is to say, responses formed by papal encyclicals, the lives and writings of the saints, the traditions of academic theology and natural law philosophy — do not line up with the mainstream of either progressive or conservative opinion in this country.
This is why pronouncements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops often appear to those unfamiliar with the church’s social teaching as if they were the work of two very different entities: in favor of looser immigration policies, prudent stewardship of the environment and criminal sentencing reform, yet opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage and divorce. While it is certainly true that the relative weight assigned to each of these issues by individuals within the American episcopate varies, even the most “conservative” and “liberal” bishops are more likely to agree with one another than they are with prominent politicians in either of our two major political parties.
I express these concerns about the integrity of the church’s public witness because I believe that a thoughtfully articulated Catholic politics has a great deal to offer our officially secular republic. After all, ever since St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” was addressed in 1963 to “all men of good will,” the implied audience for Catholic social teaching has extended well beyond the Catholic faithful, not least because the church has always maintained that moral truth is available to all men and women by the light of reason alone.
Today, perhaps more than ever, the church presents a refreshing response to our nation’s enforced ideological bifurcation. Polling suggests that about 75 percent of Americans have moderate to progressive views on economic questions and slightly more than half are socially conservative. The median voter has both of these traits, and there are good reasons to think that it was this unnamed coalition of anti-libertarians who decided the outcomes of the last two presidential elections.
Both of our major political parties attempt to placate voters by triangulating occasionally, tactically co-opting stances from the other side. But the most striking thing about both parties is the wide range of positions they share that are at odds with the enthusiasms of the median voter: a bellicose foreign policy, free trade, social libertinism and the financialization of the economy.
In contrast, the church offers a consistent ethic of solidarity: against pre-emptive war of any kind (which the church tells us cannot be waged in a just manner under modern conditions), against the enrichment of the wealthy in poor and rich nations alike at the expense of the working and middle classes, against the increasingly nebulous claims of academic progressives and activists about the nature of the human person and against the pursuit of maximal shareholder value to the detriment of virtually every other meaningful consideration.
It is not just the wide range of issues addressed by the church’s social teaching that might inform a future large-scale political realignment but also the manner in which it does so. Consider the problem of cooperation among nations. If the events of the last year have revealed anything, it is the importance of what Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, referred to as supranational institutions with “real teeth.” Instead of lionizing the neoliberal banalities of Davos Man, Catholic social teaching articulates a morally inflected defense of internationalism that rejects most of what makes Americans suspicious of it — the obliging attitude toward corporate power, the soft cultural imperialism of liberal nongovernmental organizations — while insisting upon its indispensability for the common good.
The idea that Catholic social teaching can inspire secular politics is not new. The papal encyclicals of the interwar period, which spoke to the anxieties of a world torn between the failures of laissez-faire economics and the growing threat of totalitarianism, were read enthusiastically by Franklin Roosevelt. Today Pope Francis, in keeping with many recent occupants of the Chair of Peter, addresses his writings to “all people of good will” rather than to the Catholic faithful alone as he inveighs against the spoliation of the Amazon region and its Indigenous peoples, wage slavery in Asia, the theft of natural resources in Africa and the replacement of civic life with algorithm-abetted consumerism in the developed world.
We already have a test case for what Catholic social teaching can offer to a population disillusioned by the collapse of a civilization and its supposed ideals: the European political tradition of Christian democracy. More than half a century ago, Christian democracy arose in Europe as a response to the ideologies that had given rise to a global economic depression and two successive world wars. The new postnationalist Europe to which this political movement gave rise — a Europe of robust trade unions and generously subsidized orchestras — was the dream not only of the onetime imperial heir Otto von Hapsburg and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the longtime prefect of the Holy Office, but also of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, the fulfillment of the promise of centuries of European humanism.
Like its predecessor in Europe, a revived Christian democracy in the United States would draw upon official church teaching as well as pilfer from the best of secular culture. A new Catholic politics would “baptize” Bernie Sanders’s health care plan, degrowth economics and bans on single-use plastics while drawing attention to neglected elements of our own political heritage that really are worth preserving, such as the presumption of innocence. Such a politics would also remind us, in ways that transcend politics in the narrow sense, of the value of forgiveness and contrition, as opposed to the self-aggrandizing quasi-therapeutic apologies to which we have become accustomed from public figures.
The prospects for a politics informed by the church’s social teaching will be limited, of course, in the absence of an equally thoughtful Catholic culture, one that allows us to escape what Cardinal Robert Sarah calls the “dictatorship of noise.” A Catholic culture worthy of the name would be a catholic one — which is to say, it would be capacious in spirit. It would model virtues such as gregariousness, intellectual curiosity and munificence. It would offer an unapologetic defense of leisure and innocent entertainment by showing us the innate worthiness of everything from public barbecue grills and minor league baseball to regional theater companies and the miracle of hi-fi recording.
Such a culture would hold up to a world of faddishness those immortal words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Matthew Walther (@matthewwalther) is the editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.
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