For several decades now, Catholic thinkers influenced by the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar have been arguing that beauty can be a window into the true and the good. Postmodernity affirms “your truth” and “my truth” but is profoundly nervous about “the truth.” Postmoderns break out in hives at the claim that the good is embedded in reality, not inside my head. Yet a profound encounter with the beautiful in art, architecture, music, or literature can make even the deepest skeptic and the most assiduous relativist consider the possibility that some things simply are, well, true and good. That Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Fra Angelico’s Annunciation are beautiful, and that the chord these beautiful things touch in us is noble, isn’t a matter of my opinion or your opinion; it’s just true, just as the experience of true beauty is undeniably good.
This same dynamic works in reverse, for the ugly often illuminates what is base and ignoble. If a sane person didn’t know anything else about Communism and its effects on the lives of individuals and communities, a first encounter with the crudity, the sheer unloveliness, of socialist-realist architecture or painting would set off alarm bells: Something is seriously wrong here.
The ignoble and the base come in many forms. Two episodes of profound ugliness in the endgame of the 2012 campaign shed light on the character of some of those who would lead us for the next four years, and those who design their campaigns.
The vice president of the United States, for example, is not just a man whose natural exuberance makes him prone to gaffes. He is a national embarrassment, and from the point of view of his fellow Catholics he is an ecclesial embarrassment. Biden’s moral incoherence during the VP debate was a disservice to both church and state. For he not only misrepresented the sources of Catholic teaching on the inalienable right to life by suggesting that this conviction was some sort of weird Catholic hocus-pocus; he also distorted the public-policy debate by claiming that moral judgments could not be “imposed” on a pluralistic society (a nonsensical claim that is flatly contradicted by his defense of Obamacare).
Worse, Biden either lied or exhibited grotesque misunderstanding of the policy of the administration of which he is the putative second-in-command — and he surely boggled Paul Ryan’s mind (and the mind of any Catholic who has been paying attention for the past ten months) — when he claimed that the HHS “contraceptive mandate” did not require Catholic institutions to include coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs in the health-care benefits they provide their employees. The next morning, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying flatly that the vice president was wrong — a point underscored the previous night by Congressman Ryan, who quite rightly asked the clueless (or mendacious) Biden why he thought more than 40 Catholic institutions and employers were suing the administration over the HHS mandate.
But the worst was yet to come. At a recent memorial service for former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., the vice president of the United States, in what the elder Woods described as “an extremely loud and boisterous voice,” asked Woods’s grieving father, Charles, “Did your son always have balls the size of cue balls?” Yet another gaffe, the latest in the administration’s post-Benghazi thrashing? No. Ugliness, of the sort that illustrates the truth about a man’s character, or lack thereof.
At about the same time that Biden, who is a heartbeat from the Oval Office and whom the president proposes to keep there, was setting a lowest-of-the-low benchmark for personal boorishness, the Obama campaign unrolled a TV ad that might have been scripted by Larry Flynt. In it, Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s smutty Girls, offers advice to seemingly innocent young women and other onlookers. The 26-year-old star, who has the look and mannerisms of a 13-year-old, channels her inner Lolita and coos the following:
Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy. It should be with a guy . . . who really cares about and understands women.
A guy who cares about whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control. The consequences are huge. You want to do it with a guy who brought the troops out of Iraq. You don’t want a guy who says ‘Oh, hey, I’m at the library studying,’ when he’s really out not signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Or who thinks that gay people should never have beautiful, complicated weddings of the kind we see on Bravo or TLC all the time . . .
Think about how you want to spend those four years. In college-age time, that’s 150 years. Also, it’s super uncool to be out and about and someone says, ‘Did you vote?’ and ‘No, I didn’t vote, I wasn’t ready.’ My first time voting was amazing. It was this line in the sand. Before I was a girl. Now I was a woman. I went to the polling station and pulled back the curtain. I voted for Barack Obama.
Voting as analogy to recreational sex underwritten financially by tax dollars: That’s what the Obama campaign imagines to be a winning strategy in fighting what it is pleased to call the “War against Women.” Showcasing Sandra Fluke at the Democratic National Convention was not, as the Marxists used to say, an accident: This is an administration that seems to imagine that America is a nation of Sandra Flukes (and their gigolos), and that this is a Good Thing.
Even attempting to parse this kind of vulgarity seems demeaning, although it’s clear enough that the administration is committed to an ideology of lifestyle libertinism that it is eager to “impose on a pluralistic society” (as the vice president would not put it). So let’s just say that the Lolita ad is ugly, coarse, breathtakingly stupid, and profoundly anti-woman — which tells us something about the character of the people who create and authorize such ads, even as it further clarifies their vision of the American future.
Beauty is a window into what is true and good and life-giving. Ugliness helps us understand what is base, ignoble, and dehumanizing. That’s worth keeping in mind when entering the voting booth.
The Nonexistent “Catholic Vote”
The polling in recent weeks confirms what close observers of the U.S. Catholic scene have known for decades: There is no such thing as “the Catholic vote.” Rather, Catholics tend to vote like other non-black or non-Hispanic Christians: Frequent churchgoers skew heavily Republican; rare churchgoers skew heavily Democratic; and the scale slides steadily between those two poles, such that the more you go to church, the more you incline Republican. In that sense, at least, Catholics have become thoroughly Americanized.
Where some marginal, but not inconsequential, difference along this scale might show itself on November 6 is among those less-than-regular Catholic Mass–goers who might normally incline Democratic but who in this instance will react against “my Church” getting muscled by the administration (as in the HHS mandate) and will thus vote Republican. That this could make a considerable difference is illustrated by the 2004 election in Ohio, where several hundred thousand angry Evangelicals registered to vote in order to cast a ballot against gay marriage and, while they were at it, voted for George W. Bush — decisions that explain, in retrospect, why we are not living at the end of the second John Kerry administration. Might Catholics who are unhappy over the administration’s ham-handedness with the Catholic Church make the difference in Ohio? Wisconsin? Other battleground states?
They will if they’ve been paying attention. There is little room for doubt, now, that a continued Obama administration — however agenda-free it might otherwise seem at the end of October 2012 — would be the most aggressively secular in American history. With Obamacare set in concrete, the current “HHS mandate” battle (which the Church may well win in the courts, thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) would almost certainly be a preview of distractions to come as the administration used the incredibly loose language of the Affordable Care Act to “mandate” any number of other “services” that would jeopardize the integrity of Catholic institutions and the consciences of private-sector Catholic employers. Obama Supreme Court nominees would certainly take a gimlet-eyed view of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, further whittling away the free space in American civil society for religious communities and their institutions. Those same Obama Supreme Court nominees could lock in a pro–Roe v. Wade Court majority for the next quarter-century, thus dealing a severe legal blow to the pro-life cause. And does anyone seriously believe that an administration that runs the Lolita ad would do anything but accelerate the toxification of American culture?
Catholics who are still pondering their presidential vote will have heard, endlessly, that no political party fully embodies the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. That is certainly true. And it is also largely irrelevant. For the choice in 2012 is not between two parties that, in relative degrees, inadequately embody the Catholic vision of the free and virtuous society. The choice is between a party that inadequately embodies that vision and a party that holds that vision in contempt, as it has made clear in everything from the “HHS mandate” through the Charlotte convention votes against God to the Lolita ad. Catholics who do not like their Church, or their vote, or themselves to be held in contempt could make the decisive difference in 2012 — not so much as a “Catholic vote” bloc, but as a community of American citizens determined to restore the decencies to public life and American culture.
A Changed Catholicism
Whatever happens on November 6, though, the Catholic Church in America has been changed, likely in irreversible ways, by the experience of this campaign year.
A critical mass of U.S. bishops now understands the challenge of this cultural moment, and these bishops are prepared to exercise their pastoral office in the prophetic way that the challenge of the culture requires.
The utter incoherence of the Pelosi/Biden/Sebelius form of Catholicism has created a situation that those prophetic bishops will not likely fail to address. For while it is true that the Catholic Church is big enough for Paul Ryan and Joe Biden (and Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius), it is also true, and far more urgently true from a pastoral point of view, that there are different pews within Big Church Catholicism. Many of those in the more distant pews are grievously uncatechized, which causes them to lead lives of spiritual and moral incoherence. That situation will not be tolerated indefinitely.
As the Catholic Church once became the lead Christian community in intellectually formulating the pro-life position, it has now become the lead church in articulating, through the arts of public reason, the defense of America’s first freedom, religious liberty. In both of these exercises, Catholics have found common cause with evangelical Protestants; and in the religious-freedom battle (and the battle to defend marriage rightly understood), Catholics have found new allies among Mormons. And as the Catholic-Evangelical alliance in the American culture war led unexpectedly to new and rich theological exchanges, so, it may be expected, will the partnership in battle alongside Latter-day Saints. The ecumenical landscape in the 21st century will thus look nothing like the ecumenical landscape when the Second Vatican Council opened 50 years ago.
“Progressive” Catholicism in America once claimed the Church’s Vatican II defense of religious freedom as its proudest accomplishment — as well it might. Yet that, too, has changed. The abandonment of the religious-freedom issue by far too much of the Catholic Left in 2012 was a further indicator of what Francis Cardinal George announced years ago: the death of liberal Catholicism from what had become, in the post–Vatican II decades, its spiraling intellectual implausibility.
Should the Republican ticket prevail, Vice President Paul Ryan will be the new face of public Catholicism in America, and a bracing new debate will unfold about embodying the principles of Catholic social doctrine in American public policy, and in joint work by the public and private sectors, to empower the poor, reform health care and education, and build a cultural and legal architecture of life. This debate will set the intellectual pace for the Catholic Church throughout the Western world.
Should the Democratic ticket prevail, the Catholic Church in the United States will be compelled to confront the federal government as it has never done before in the history of the Republic. The Church will do that to defend its own. But it will also do that for the sake of American constitutionalism. For what prickly John Adams once facetiously referred to as “Grandmother Church” has, in 2012, become the lead church in the defense of the constitutional order for which Adams and his contemporaries argued, fought, and bled.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.