Citizenship is facing an existential crisis. Can political theology help?
This is a hard time to be an American voter. In just a few months, we will go to the polls to select a president. It would be nice to feel excited, or at least a bit hopeful, but that may not be possible. Even if we recognize that participation in the political process is a privilege, sometimes the ballot box feels like a heavy burden.
We are facing not only a health crisis and an economic crisis in the United States but also a crisis of citizenship. The United States is home to more than 300 million individuals today, and we may have almost as many different ideas about what it means to be an American. How can we work toward a better future when we seem to share so little?
Many Catholics feel politically homeless in the present landscape. Both of our major political parties have serious defects, going well beyond matters of policy. For one, it feels as though our political leaders have an inadequate appreciation of human dignity. No matter where one looks on the political spectrum, whole classes of persons seem to be marginalized and dismissed. Our most basic moral commitments seem to be up for debate.
Catholics are not the only people who feel this way. Across our nation, and indeed the whole world, we see a kind of existential crisis emerging, as citizens debate fundamental questions about human nature and the nature of society itself. Thus far, no political movement has proved itself able to address the deep anxieties that haunt us. It is strange, in some ways, that our age should be so demoralized, given that we still enjoy historically high levels of health, wealth and security. Nevertheless, civilization feels suddenly fragile. Our social fabric is fraying. Long-smoldering culture wars are being stoked into a raging bonfire.
Across our nation, and indeed the whole world, we see a kind of existential crisis emerging, as citizens debate fundamental questions about human nature and the nature of society itself.
Three Necessary Societies
The meaning of citizenship has always been a fraught issue for human societies. Catholic social teaching sheds some light on this through its discussion of the “three necessary societies” mentioned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” with further commentary from Pope Pius XI 40 years later. Human beings, Pope Leo told us, belong properly to three different but interrelated societies. The family orders relationships among people who are connected by blood and marriage. The Catholic Church is a society of baptized Christians. Political communities, meanwhile, order temporal affairs, supplying us with a community that is bigger than a family but smaller than the whole human race. Within the civil polity we should be able to enjoy security and the rule of law and have access to schools, hospitals, marketplaces and cultural events.
The three necessary societies correspond to our different needs as human beings. The family provides us with intimate human companions, while the church illuminates the path back to God. Within civil society, justice and the common good are the central concerns. A healthy political order should enable us to live in community with other human beings without exploiting them or neglecting serious needs. Ideally, each one of us should live simultaneously in all three of these spheres, which support and uphold one another without trying to subsume one another’s natural functions.
Historically, citizenship has often been used, quite unapologetically, as a method of protecting privilege.
If we examine civil society alongside family and church, we may notice that the latter two are both ordered around a pre-existing human connection. Families are related by blood, and the faithful by baptism. Polities, by contrast, do not have a single natural commonality that defines them. Because we need a political order, we tend to go looking for the shared interests that might help us to form one, but this takes some initiative.
Different societies may embrace different strategies to address questions of membership. Geography is one obvious component, but that alone is not sufficient to distinguish unique political societies. Why should Russia be so big and Djibouti so small? Why does Ireland grant citizenship to immigrants so readily while Switzerland is far more reluctant? These questions are worked out in the course of history; and in the process of explaining those connections, we inevitably end up examining many other criteria: race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, class, cultural background, place of birth, place of ancestors’ births, etc. Who belongs? Who does not?
Historically, citizenship has often been used, quite unapologetically, as a method of protecting privilege. Naturally, the wealthy and powerful tend to favor social arrangements that preserve their existing advantages. So in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was common to have whole classes of people living within the borders of a particular polity without enjoying the common and ordinary benefits of citizenship. Citizens assumed certain duties, including maintaining the government and assuming high-ranking military posts. They were rewarded with rights and privileges not granted to slaves or the laboring underclass.
Thus, Spartan warriors were served by noncitizen helots, and Athenians by the slaves and noncitizen laborers who remained in Athens at the pleasure of the local government. The Romans offered different grades of citizenship to the inhabitants of their various incorporated territories, with each “grade” enjoying different trade rights and varied levels of access to the political process and justice system. Full Roman citizenship began as a fairly exclusive privilege. Over time it became less so, as political leaders struggled to balance the interests of aristocrats against the demands of the mostly agrarian commoners who served as the soldiers for Rome’s never-ending wars.
Families are related by blood, and the faithful by baptism. Polities, by contrast, do not have a single natural commonality that defines them.
In modern times, we tend to see these “tiered” arrangements as unjust. If all people have intrinsic worth, why should anyone be born into slavery or second-class citizenship? This view, though commonplace today, owes much to Christianity, which upended a pagan world by insisting that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity. As Christianity spread across much of the world, societies under its influence became far less comfortable with political arrangements that explicitly relegated whole classes of people to misery and servitude.
This is not to say that Christian societies have been consistently just. As Americans, we can hardly forget how Christian citizens of our own nation pulled spurious justifications for slavery from the Bible itself. Even where Christian slavery has existed, though, it has generated deep controversy and a moral angst that ancient pagans, in general, may not have felt.
If all people have intrinsic worth, why should anyone be born into slavery or second-class citizenship?
This might seem like a strange claim to make about a nation that once held nearly four million people in involuntary servitude. Of the first dozen American presidents, only the Adamses (both John and John Quincy) refused on principle to hold slaves. More than 300 people were enslaved at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, while Thomas Jefferson had an extended sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he legally owned. Can we really believe, given this record, that our nation’s founders felt deep qualms about the practice of slavery?
The historical record strongly indicates that they did. In some cases this position was reached only gradually after a period of deliberation. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, held slaves in his early life, but in his later years became more and more convinced that slavery was radically in tension with the fledgling nation’s foundational principles. He wrote and published several abolitionist missives, and he petitioned the first Congress to find a way to abolish the abhorrent practice as speedily as possible.
Washington piously declared that “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do” to see slavery abolished. This did not prevent him from pursuing his own escaped slaves with some zeal. Jefferson referred to slavery as a “hideous blot” on the soul of the nation, but he bought and sold slaves throughout his life and freed only seven (two of whom were his own sons). No adequate excuse can be given for the man who literally penned the words, “All men are created equal.”
Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Jefferson, Washington and other influential men of our founding era are especially guilty because they did clearly know better than to perpetuate such a terrible evil. Still, the lip service they paid to the necessity of (eventual) abolition demonstrates that they understood the moral implications of human enslavement in a way the Spartans did not. Their words made clear, even when their actions did not, that they did truly understand that all humans have intrinsic worth.
The lip service the Founding Fathers paid to the necessity of (eventual) abolition demonstrates that they understood the moral implications of human enslavement.
The American Experiment
Given our unique political history, it should come as no surprise that American Catholics rarely feel much nostalgia for the confessional state—a polity with an official established religion determined by the monarch or established in the state constitution. And it is truly a blessing in many ways to have a Catholic culture that has never relied on official state sanction to fulfill its function. But one strength of the confessional state was that it helped to define citizenship in a robust and meaningful way. Christian rulers were tasked with preserving the culture, customs and institutions that enabled their citizens to live for God. Some took these responsibilities quite seriously, while others exploited their power for personal gain. Despite its many shortcomings, however, the confessional state enjoyed the benefit of a sturdy framework within which civic life had a shape and a well-defined purpose.
For modern societies, that shared sense of purpose is more elusive, and this can become a serious problem when social challenges need to be addressed. Whether the issue at hand is the relief of poverty, dignified labor, family formation, education, health care or social justice more broadly, the conversation must be rooted in some shared understanding of who we are as a nation. Without that shared identity and purpose, there is no effective way to work for shared goals.
Civil society remains, as in Pope Leo’s time, a necessary society. Indeed, as familial and religious bonds weaken, we find ourselves demanding more and more from our political communities. The challenges of citizenship are particularly hard for us as Christians because we must still hold firmly to our conviction that all people, regardless of birth or circumstance, have intrinsic worth. At the same time, we must recognize the need for real social membership, which implies a significant set of both rights and obligations. This is an enormously challenging problem, one that neither of our political parties has yet been able to resolve.
Given our unique political history, it should come as no surprise that American Catholics rarely feel much nostalgia for the confessional state.
We Hold These Truths
Faced with new questions about citizenship, Catholics might benefit from a renewed look at the work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., the great political theorist whose ideas influenced the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. Originally published in 1960, Father Murray’s most famous work is We Hold These Truths, a collection of essays on Catholic philosophy and American political life. Although the book was widely celebrated, it is oddly underappreciated today. Few thinkers have grasped as keenly as Father Murray did the challenges of being faithfully Catholic in a pluralist society. He understood the grief that many European Catholics felt over the disappearance of the confessional state, which truly was, in some senses, a loss.
Despite that, he firmly maintained that there was a deep harmony between the Catholic tradition and the political experiment of the United States. He wanted American Catholics to affirm the best elements of our older political tradition, in hopes of inspiring and edifying our fellow citizens. By drawing our compatriots’ attention to the truths that we collectively hold, we might help them to unite around a shared identity that is both distinctive and humane.
John Courtney Murray, S.J., wanted American Catholics to affirm the best elements of our older political tradition, in hopes of inspiring and edifying our fellow citizens.
What are those truths? First and most important, Father Murray saw the American experiment as grounded in a shared understanding that we are “one nation under God.” This phrase may cause some to bristle today, but it need not be understood in an explicitly biblical sense. What is crucial about the founders’ vision is the frank acknowledgement that the state is not the sole or ultimate authority in every area of life. It is not the only necessary society.
At times, the polity must demand our obedience, and in extreme cases we may even be required to give our lives for it. But we can also have serious obligations to God, family, tradition or the truth itself. A tyrannical state will try to stamp out these other allegiances in an effort to arrogate all power to itself. Here in the United States, we have a long tradition of respecting the seriousness of these other obligations, allowing our citizens the freedom to discharge them honorably. This allows us to live “under God,” whether or not our neighbors actively believe in God.
Americans also believe in the principle of consent. “The people are governed because they consent to be governed,” Father Murray writes. “And in a true sense they consent to be governed because they govern themselves.”
At times, the polity must demand our obedience, and in extreme cases we may even be required to give our lives for it. But we can also have serious obligations to God, family, tradition or the truth itself.
Freedom and Human Dignity
As inhabitants of a nation born in revolution, Americans have always valued freedom very highly, but we are not always in agreement about what freedom means. Father Murray sees this disagreement itself as an ongoing element of the American conversation, with potentially instructive consequences. Correctly understood, freedom must be more than just the right to do and say whatever we please. But this empty, libertarian view of freedom as an absence of constraint has been present in American thought from its earliest days.
We can see its influence in the work of our founding fathers, which is why Father Murray famously argued that they “built better than they knew” in framing and ratifying a constitution that ultimately looked beyond the rationalist ideals that motivated the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Our founders were somewhat tempted to place humanity above God, but in the end their English and Christian sensibilities won the day. They produced a document that was restrained, practical, pious and properly submissive to realities higher than themselves.
As the fruit of that accomplishment, U.S. citizens across the centuries have enjoyed a freedom that encompasses much more than 10,000 television channels or 50 pizza toppings. We have been free for the pursuit of wisdom and beauty. We are free to give loving service to family and community. We have been free for virtue and free for God.
It is always a struggle to draw out the better angels in our political sphere. We have succeeded in the past. It may be possible to do so again.
Obviously there are glaring exceptions. We cannot forget the horrors of slavery, the plight of the unborn, atrocities like the My Lai massacre or the suffering endured by indigenous people along the Trail of Tears. But despite these hypocrisies, our commitment to ordered freedom is an authentic part of our tradition. This is why Catholics have been able to live and thrive as a minority here in a way that seemed incredible to European Catholics in previous centuries.
Beyond our commitment to freedom, Father Murray believed, Americans across the centuries have shared a commitment to human dignity that is ultimately rooted in natural law. Even as we acknowledge those times when we have fallen short in that commitment, we should not allow them to define us as a people. As fallen human beings, our founders made serious mistakes, but as inheritors of a Christian heritage, they still understood implicitly that it was obligatory to respect and value all members of society. Catholics are not just able to affirm those truths; we can also help our compatriots make sense of them by drawing on our own tradition.
In the chaos of our present political moment, Father Murray’s prescription may sound too good to be useful. Do Americans still hold the truths that he articulates? Can we, even today, unite around shared commitments to freedom, human dignity and truth? This is difficult to say, but at least we should note that Father Murray himself was not blinded by optimism. In 1960, he found this question difficult, and it certainly has not become easier over the past half-century. As we survey our raging culture wars, we might reasonably wonder whether Americans are still willing to allow one another sufficient freedom to discharge our sacred obligations. Populists left and right seem disturbingly attracted to authoritarian models of government, seemingly oblivious to the ample historical evidence that an unrestrained state can quickly become the enemy of all people of conscience.
Meanwhile, as we watch the unfolding debates over abortion, immigration and health care, we may seriously doubt whether our nation can still come together around a shared commitment to human dignity. Father Murray’s synthesis of Catholic and American principles was brilliant and inspiring, but unless it enjoys some level of civic support, it cannot solve our crisis of citizenship.
At least Father Murray may help us to understand that our present struggles are not really new. As he frankly acknowledged, our founding fathers themselves flirted with the same Enlightenment ideologies that led the French Jacobins to reject divine sovereignty in favor of boundless human autonomy. Those demons are still with us, and across our nation’s history we have seen them surface and resurface in different guises: greed, intolerance, tribalism and callous indifference. Thus far, our society has endured. There is never any guarantee that we are fit for the next set of challenges, but at least we might draw some solace from the realization that it is always a struggle to draw out the better angels in our political sphere. We have succeeded in the past. It may be possible to do so again.
Looking over our civil conflicts with a more generous eye, we can find evidence that Americans still recognize these foundational truths. We argue about our relative obligations to immigrants, the poor, the elderly and the unborn, but no one seriously suggests that any of these groups are simply worthless or appropriate objects of unbridled scorn. We quibble about the limits of free trade, appropriate family policy and the correct response to racism and sexual harassment. But Americans do still seem to agree that racism and harassment are bad, that opportunity is good and that we want all of our citizens to come together around common goals.
If we can rearticulate Father Murray’s truths in terms that our compatriots recognize, perhaps Catholics can help their fellow Americans realize that we are, in fact, one people.