There has been a tendency for traditional Catholics to hitch their wagons to the Republican Party specifically, and to conservative politics in general. It is demonstrably true that the stated platform of the Republican Party has been more aligned with Catholic teaching on a number of critical issues: abortion, religious liberty, the definition of marriage, euthanasia, school choice, parental notification, etc. And while it is true that some other issues as stated in the Catechism (opposition to the death penalty, immigration reform, care for the poor, etc.) align with Democratic views, most traditional Catholics point out that these issues are either not doctrinally absolute, or are matters about which reasonable people can differ in terms of implementation.
But though it is demonstrably true that the Republican platform hews closely to Catholic teaching on many life and family issues, it is also demonstrably true that there has been an alarming and consistent decline in cultural adherence to Catholic, biblical, and traditional teaching in these matters. And this decline has occurred despite significant periods of Republican ascendency in the past 60 years. There have been many Republican presidents during the years since the cultural revolution of 1968. And there have been periods of significant Republican control of Congress as well, especially since 1994. At best, traditional values held their own during these periods. But it is hard to argue that Republican or conservative majorities reversed the rising tide of abortion and euthanasia, reduced the levels of fornication, diminished the number of divorces, or curtailed support for same-sex unions.
What are we to learn from this? A thoughtful article by Yuval Levin over at First Things offers some insights. I am generally less optimistic than he, but I would like to share what I think are some of his better reflections. The full article is here: A Pessimistic Case for Hope. I have added my own remarks below in red text.
Yuval Levin, who is at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is editor of National Affairs writes,
Ten years ago this fall, it seemed for a moment like social conservatives might be ascendant in our politics. Immediately after the 2004 election, some analysts on the right and left alike said George W. Bush’s reelection signaled a rising tide of “values voters” who would yield an enduring nationwide advantage for Republicans on social issues … Many social conservatives now look wistfully upon that moment and see in the decade that followed … a sorry decline. Both politics and the culture now seem increasingly hostile to social conservatism, and religious believers in the public square are fighting for even minimal tolerance. The tide appears to have turned decisively …
So here is well described the tendency over the past thirty years to seek to advance traditional cultural values through political connections. This is not intrinsically wrong and has many historical precedents. For many decades the Catholic Church unofficially aligned with the Democratic Party in order to advance Catholic social teaching related to civil rights, labor conditions, wages, benefits, etc. As those issues waned and labor unions become powerful (and all too often corrupt), attention shifted to moral issues in the wake of the sexual and cultural revolution.
The “legalization” of abortion in 1973 did not immediately cause a political realignment. But by the early 1980s the parties largely landed on different sides of the issue. Catholics increasingly found allies among Republicans regarding abortion and other family and life issues that were emerging in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision and the 60s revolution.
However, unlike the unofficial “partnership” with the Democratic Party during the heady days of labor victories and the Civil Rights movement, the alliance with Republicans has produced only limited victories and little more than a slowing of the erosion of the values related to family, faith, and life. And thus Levin notes here the general pessimism that pervades traditional ranks today. He continues,
But today’s cultural conservatives exhibit the wrong sort of pessimism about all this. They are too pessimistic about their cultural and political prospects because they are not pessimistic enough about the limits of human nature. A clearer sense of those limits should help us see not only why traditionalism never triumphs in the liberal society but also why progressivism can never suffice …
Ah! Here is an interesting reference to our fallen human condition. At the end of the day, government cannot remedy our fallen tendency to be obtuse, rebellious, greedy, and licentious. It is really more the role of culture and the presence of a strong, prophetic, organized, and effective Church that must, by God’s grace, work to remedy the worst of the ills we face. The notion of a large government role in creating a just society is too easily a form of utopianism.
Perhaps it is true that government, through laws and policies, can reinforce good behavior and punish bad or destructive behavior. But if the culture is really heading south (as it is), that culture will ultimately infect the very government some wish to engage as an ally. Why are there so many wicked, corrupt, and confused leaders in the civic arena? Why are even the better among civic leaders often weak and ineffective in boldly addressing the cultural decline? Why do conservative judges, on whom so many have placed high hopes, so often disappoint? Because, at the end of the day, these are the sorts of leaders (and people) our culture produces: deceived, often unscrupulous, weak, uncertain, ineffective, and easily swayed.
Sadly, the malaise has often reached the Church as well. For while the Church still teaches infallibly on faith and morals, and while her doctrine and Scripture provide a sure light, this guarantee does not extend to all her human leaders, who are also products of a confused, compromised, and darkened culture. Clear and courageous teachers and leaders among the clergy (as well as among parents) are becoming harder and harder to find, and all too often they disappoint.
What then are concerned and traditional Catholics to do? Levin offers the following:
[Traditionalists] should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark … And it means that traditionalists must be committed to the preservation of spaces for private life that are protected from the perverse shortsightedness of politics.
In other words, it means that we are going to have to persist in our fight to keep government out of our families and our Church. Increasingly intrusive government involvement needs to be seen for the danger that it is. Levin continues,
We should be intensely engaged in the struggle for the soul of our society—knowing we can expect no ultimate victory from politics, but also that we are by no means destined to defeat, and that by persisting in the struggle we make room for another generation to rise and thrive and seek to embody the good.
Many years ago, Venerable Fulton Sheen remarked that we have tried every means to change the world but one: holiness. Government cannot save us; only God can save us. And God works through grace and the transformation of world—one soul at a time. It is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth. So, it is time to cover our feet with the Gospel of Truth.
Holiness cannot remain an abstraction. It is time for traditional Catholic men and women to get married and stay married, to have larger families and raise them in the fear of the Lord. It is time to stop being greedy and selling our soul for the trinkets of the world, so that we can’t “afford” children. It’s time to pray and fast. It’s time for Eucharistic Adoration, and the Rosary, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. It’s time to stop fornicating, remaining silent about the sinfulness of homosexual acts, and making light of any form of sinful rebellion. It’s time to dress modestly and live differently, visibly, in a world that has become increasingly coarse, immodest, and cynical. It’s time to heroically care for the poor and not just think the government should do what we ought to do. And we must bring the poor to the gospel, not just attend to their physical needs as yet another social service agency. It’s time for clergy and parents to be more courageous and clear.
It is time to live differently. Our only real hope is holiness; only then can we be real leaven that will raise our culture out of the mess in which we are currently mired.
Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; … [Thus purifying your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart (1 Peter 1:13ff).
Here is a video that celebrates virtue: