Is Obama Thinking Like a Catholic?

Vice President-elect Joe Biden liked to say that his Catholicism created an entire culture that shaped his views on public policy as well as private and personal obligations. Biden is just old enough to remember the Catholic ghetto in which whole neighborhoods were called by the name of the local Catholic parish. The Catholic press was filled not only with news about Catholic matters but advertisements for Catholic social events, Catholic undertakers, Catholic vacation destinations. In the early 60s, when Biden was finishing college, 70 percent of Catholic children in Philadelphia still attended parochial schools. The consumer culture was just beginning to put its hideous, materialistic id into most Catholics’ identity.

We are far removed from that world. Yet, the vestiges of that culture still motivate Biden and, if yesterday’s news conference is any indication, some of it has begun to rub off on President-elect Obama. During the Q-and-A after he announced his economic team, Obama repeatedly demonstrated a certain intellectual disposition that is classically Catholic: the "Both-And."


One of the most basic divisions in the intellectual life of the sixteenth century was the Catholic insistence on this "Both-And" approach to theology while the great Protestant reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Cramner – set out their theological challenge invoking "Either-Or" distinctions. The Reformation theologians insisted that it was grace, not nature, that perfected the human soul, that it was Scripture only, and not Tradition, that guaranteed the authenticity of the Church, and that it was faith, not works, which achieved salvation. The only counter-example I can think of was Luther’s famous observation that a Christian was "simul justus et peccator," at the same time justified yet still a sinner. (And, if Luther had written only that thought, it would be enough to guarantee his status as a theologian of orginality and genius.)

Catholic theology, on the other hand, tries to see past the apparent differences to a common source. So, grace perfects nature in Catholic ethics, Scripture and Tradition both flow from the same font of revelation, and faith and works must go hand-in-hand.

The press are all reformers: Their questions are designed to force a choice, a distinction. But, whether the topic was tax cuts or the Big Three automakers, Obama insisted on this "Both-And" approach. The point of repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was both an effort at social justice and a requirement of fiscal discipline as Obama tries to keep the budget from getting too out of whack, even while he plows ahead with his tax cuts for the middle class which, again, serve both to strike a more just balance in society and as an economic stimulus. The Big Three need to be saved and they need to be saved in such a way that turns the industry toward more environmentally friendly vehicles. And, the stimulus package also must serve two masters: "Not only do I want this stimulus package to deal with the immediate crisis, I want it also to lay the groundwork for long-term, sustained economic growth." If Bellarmine had been an economist…

I know, I know: I can hear the abortion-only brigade getting up from their fainting spell and angrily arguing against any linkage of the President-elect with the Catholic Church, still less with one of its leading intellectual saints, Robert Bellarmine. But, friends, cool down your laptops. Obama is not going to be received into the Catholic Church anytime soon. I know that. You know that. Most importantly, he knows it. That is not the point. The point is that a fundamental intellectual disposition that has served Catholic theology well through the years seems to have found its way into this man’s head, and the reason is probably similar. The "Both-And" has long allowed the Church to focus on maintaining unity within the Church, even at the expense of nifty theological innovations. One of Obama’s strongest selling points, especially to unaffiliated and other swing voters, was his repeated call to move beyond the partisan nastiness and find common ground. After eight years in which George W. Bush has channeled that strange mixture of humility and ferocity that is at the heart of orthodox Calvinism, Obama’s pursuit of "Both-And" common ground, even when it is a little fuzzy, is a welcome tonic for a nation that has never been as divided as the political class would have you think it is.



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