Politics & Policy

The Activist Trap

As Election Day draws near, Benedict's warning to his flock is timely and relevant.

On the Right, groups such as as Priests for Life and Catholic Answers are distributing voter’s guides that urge Catholics to support candidates who stand with the Church in its opposition to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic-stem-cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage — five moral issues that are, according to official Church teaching, non-negotiable and always wrong. The voter’s guides make no recommendations on specific candidates or political parties, but the Priests for Life guide urges voters to consider the principles of the parties as well as the principles of particular candidates. “A pro-abortion party will not normally allow pro-life legislation to come forward, no matter how pro-life the individual lawmakers may be,” the guide says. “Do not just look at whether the candidate is pro-life. Consider whether or not, if he or she wins, the pro-abortion party will come into power.”

On the Left, Catholic leaders are urging religious voters to concentrate on other issues, namely the Iraq War. By focusing their public criticism on the President, they are hoping to make the congressional elections a referendum on Bush that energizes voters hungry for change. A group of Catholic sisters meeting in Milwaukee last month made headlines by publicly rebuking the president for policies “that continue the war in Iraq, that violate human rights along our borders, that intensify poverty, that pollute our earth, and that deny our interdependence with all peoples.” On Aug. 3, the name of death-penalty opponent Sr. Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking appeared on a considerably more pointed statement in the New York Times that called for Bush’s ouster on account of his support for “a narrow and hateful brand of Christian fundamentalism,” torture, “a murderous” war, “a culture of greed, bigotry, intolerance and ignorance,” and attempts to curb abortion. Prejean later distanced herself from that last criticism — which directly contradicts the teachings of her Church — but she made no apologies for the ad’s vitriolic tone and comparison of Bush to Hitler. “I signed the ad because as a follower of the way of Jesus and a U.S. citizen, I cannot stand by passively and silently as I witness my government wage such grievous oppression and violence,” Prejean said in a statement published on her website.

So what does the leader of the Catholic Church think about all of this faith-based political activism? Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope John Paul II before him, has publicly criticized the Bush administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq. But both also have condemned abortion, euthanasia, embryonic-stem-cell research, cloning, and same-sex marriage. And both clearly distinguished between acts that are considered intrinsically evil (such as abortion) and those which must be judged according to circumstances (such as individual military conflicts). As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) wrote to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2004: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. …While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

A war may meet the Church’s just-war criteria or it may not, but much to the chagrin of Catholic pacifists, the act of taking up arms has never been denounced by the Catholic Church as always and everywhere wrong. The same applies to a politician’s refusal to raise the minimum wage, allow unlimited immigration, or repudiate the death penalty in the case of a dangerous criminal who poses a danger to society. Policies and decisions must be evaluated in light of Christian principles, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not give the same unqualified answers to such questions as it does to questions about abortion or euthanasia. As Pope John Paul explained in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

Those comments would seem to resolve the question about which issues Pope Benedict and his predecessor considered most foundational to the creation of a culture of life, and thus, of paramount importance in the political process. Of course, Church teaching clearly exhorts Catholics to work to alleviate poverty, promote peace between nations, and work toward a just society, as Benedict reaffirmed last year in his first encyclical, God Is Love. But Benedict warned Catholic activists against adopting a materialist worldview wedded to the welfare state or to utopian visions of social justice, neither of which can substitute for the authentic, person-to-person charity that is the Church’s direct concern and every Christian’s obligation.

Benedict also distinguished between the role of individual lay people working in the world — who have a “direct duty to work for a just ordering of society” — and the role of the Church itself — which “cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. … She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”

This spiritual energy that transforms cultures and promotes peace concerns Benedict the most, and he has warned his flock — particularly the Church’s most visible representatives — against becoming so immersed in activism that they fail to fulfill their primary vocation of bringing God to the world. On Holy Thursday of this year, he urged priests to be primarily men of prayer rather than activists. The world has plenty of activists, the Pope said, but “the world needs God.” Benedict echoed this theme again last week, when he delivered an address about the “dangers of excessive activity” to an audience outside his Italian vacation home. Citing the words and example of 12th century monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Benedict warned his listeners that constant activism, even in pursuit of a noble cause, can lead to “hardness of heart … suffering for the spirit, loss of intelligence and dispersion of grace.”

The activist trap that Pope Benedict warns against is a common and familiar one: The temptation to align too closely with a particular political party and demonize opponents, to equate one’s personal judgments with the eternal truths of the faith, and to define “the Christian position” on every policy issue, thus losing focus on the few fundamental moral questions where authentic Christian witness is most countercultural and most needed. Lurking beneath those temptations is the one Benedict criticizes most forcefully: The human urge to use social and political activism to distract from our deepest questions, most intimate struggles, and most urgent longings for truth, goodness, beauty — and God.

While Benedict’s admonition against utopian social schemes and a materialist worldview seems particularly relevant to Catholic liberals influenced by Marxist theories, conservatives should also beware becoming coopted by political parties, hardened by ideology, negligent in charity, and hollowed out by incessant activity. In some ways, conservatives may need to hear Benedict’s message more than liberals. Those who believe most fervently in the socially transformative power of personal responsibility and personal conversion and in the existence of universal moral laws cannot expect to change the world through external activity and political victories alone. Their hope must lie in something deeper and more enduring, in the transcendent truths that can only be discovered in silence, solitude, and contemplation. As we leave summer behind and head into another contentious campaign season, Benedict’s advice — that we slow down, be still, and ponder the principles that inspire our activism — could not be more timely.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, an NRO contributor, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Her new television show, Faith & Culture, debuts Sept. 3 on EWTN.

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