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William O'NeillNovember 18, 2021
A protester outside the Department of Education headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York City demonstrates on Oct. 4, against the mandate that teachers and staff must be vaccinated against Covid-19. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

Now we are engaged in a great uncivil war. Politics quickly succumbs to the polemics of rage and recrimination—so much so that reconciling our differences seems a fool’s errand. Every age, of course, has its divisions. But today we differ over the very meaning of our differences: a stolen election, an insurrection, a big lie. Can unity still be forged of such diversity? Our answer will go far to determine whether our republican experiment endures.

In defending the place of Catholics in U.S. civil life, John Courtney Murray, S.J., in an article in America (10/3/1956), emphasized the singular contributions of the Catholic moral tradition in fostering a “reasonable disposition to argue our many disagreements in an intelligent and temperate fashion.” Citizens will surely differ, but can we still argue our many disagreements reasonably, in an intelligent and temperate fashion? There are, I will argue, three stumbling blocks to saying “yes,” and they are closely related. First, meaning is unmoored from truth; second, rights are converted to interests; and third, civil religion becomes sectarian.

St. Ignatius Loyola recognized a critical social truth: Our differences make sense only against the backdrop of deep agreement.

Meaning and truth

St. Ignatius Loyola recognized at the very beginning of his Spiritual Exercises a critical social truth: Our differences make sense only against the backdrop of deep agreement. His Presupposition urges us to place the best, most favorable interpretation upon our opponent’s position. For if we are to differ intelligently and temperately, we must first share a great deal in common. Think of games we play, like chess or soccer: We may disagree about the wisdom of a gambit or whether a yellow or red card was deserved. But we cannot blithely change the rules or “grammar” of the game; one cannot be given a red card for a failed gambit in chess.

Today, though, claims and counter-claims are made as if they were vindicated by the mere vehemence of their assertion. There is, we might say, a willing suspension of belief—that is, a belief that can be vindicated or verified “in an intelligent and temperate fashion.” What remains is the shell or simulacrum of belief. For veritable “post-truthers,” as for Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, a word “means just what I choose it to mean.” For others, truth becomes the proprietary interest of my group.

But for neither is there “a reasonable disposition to argue our many disagreements.” Politics becomes performance, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment: the self-vindicating exercise of grievance, rage or indignation. And ressentiment is useful—giving credence to Machiavelli’s epigram that those who desire to deceive will always find those who desire to be deceived. Perhaps we even take a perverse comfort in our bad faith, thinking that Machiavelli’s is the only game in town.

Our political ecology is thus degraded; arguments over beliefs give way to a spurious political purity. On each side of our great political divide, there are those who like their heroes neat, dismissing or “cancelling” the political tropes, stories and symbols that once served to unite us as a polity. Ambrose Bierce described a saint as a “sinner, revised and edited”; so too, there is much in our political history that we would like to subject to revision and editing. Yet for all our original sins of slavery and racism, there were also original blessings of prophetic resistance. Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln remain icons of our common history—our better angels, forgotten at our peril.

But today, we are busy forgetting. The rich, shared background so necessary to a political culture is steadily eroded so that for many what remains is the narrow, self-righteous politics of ressentiment.

Politics becomes performance, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment: the self-vindicating exercise of grievance, rage or indignation.

Rights and interests

Increasingly, the politics of ressentiment is expressed in the idiom of individual rights. But just as political meaning is unmoored from truth, so rights are divested of duties or responsibilities. My freedom is limited only by the negative liberties of others. Claims thus become convertible to interests, and interests are unassailable: my liberty to refuse a mask or vaccination, my liberty to bear a gun, my liberty to procure an abortion.

All of these claims can be argued in an intelligent and temperate fashion. What I wish to underscore is that for many partisans, both red and blue, there is simply nothing to argue. Indeed, we trade in the currency of outrage, not argument, having lost the very “reasonable disposition” that makes civil discourse possible. Some, to be sure, bear the greater guilt—Team Trump certainly deserved a red card for ignoring the rules by which we “argue our many differences” about voter fraud, immigration and more. But the loss of civil discourse affects us all, threatening our republican experiment.

The church is charged in Scripture with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18); here in our political climate, it has a role to play. For Murray, the church was open to the world, firm in its conviction that real-life politics were subject to natural law, and that reason was vested in citizens to realize a temporal common good. The Catholic Church was thus also “catholic”—in the Greek sense of universal. American Catholics could accept the particular tropes, stories and symbols of American political culture inasmuch as they realized a greater universal good. The temporal, political order was legitimate because it was not ultimate. But as the rich heritage of Catholic social teaching reminds us, the political order was bound by truth.

Perhaps we even take a perverse comfort in our bad faith, thinking that Machiavelli’s is the only game in town.

Deriving from our creation in the very image of God, our dignity as agents binds us in solidarity. In Catholic social teaching, rights thus look not only to negative liberties, but to all the necessary conditions or capabilities of exercising agency. Rights imply correlative duties—to respect liberties, yes, but no less to ensure that no child is hungry, lacking health care or education and more.

In Catholic social teaching, human rights are viewed integrally and comprehensively. Those rights necessary for exercising agency (welfare, civil liberties and security) are basic and interdependent, so that threatening one imperils all. (Private property, conversely, was deemed an instrumental right, a means of realizing more basic rights and hence subject to the exigencies of the common good.) And duties entail not only forbearance—non-interference in others’ life plans—but performance. Securing basic human rights depends upon recognizing positive social duties of protection and provision. Even our most “negative liberties,” like freedom of religion, assembly or speech, depend upon such fitting institutional guarantees.

In short, for Catholic social teaching, our rights talk is ordered to a political common good, a public order that ensures the basic well-being of all. And it was this common good, guaranteeing the rights of all and especially the most vulnerable among us, that formed the backdrop or grammar of our politics—our vocation of public argument and discourse. But now we are a house divided by the this-worldly tokens of ressentiment.

In short, for Catholic social teaching, our rights talk is ordered to a political common good, a public order that ensures the basic well-being of all.

Church and sect: the example of abortion

Religious leaders, too, have fallen captive to this degraded political culture by uncritically talking of rights while neglecting the background conditions of mutual respect and recognition that make rights talk possible. For some Christians, bearing arms becomes a godly right—a Second Amendment to the Beatitudes. But the issue of legal abortion becomes the true testing ground for pursuing our political common good. Many evangelicals and Catholics alike have condemned abortion in sectarian terms by invoking a biblical or ecclesial positivism; yet opposing abortion is not one sectarian interest among others, however important that interest may be. Opposing abortion is not a sectarian shibboleth, marking “true” Catholics, but an expression of a catholic faith in dignity and rights.

Opposition to abortion will be argued “intelligently and temperately” only if we have recourse to a rich sense of the common good guaranteeing the basic rights of all, especially the most vulnerable. But in playing the language game of interests, in privileging abortion as our “paramount” interest over forced migration, global hunger, systemic racism and gender bias, ecological devastation and more, we risk betraying this very catholic/Catholic heritage. For it is precisely in upholding the rights of all those whose equal dignity and rights are unequally threatened (and here we must always think of women, minorities and children) that we make our strongest case against abortion.

Finally, we are catholic because we are Catholic, because we are convicted of a truth that transcends even as it subsumes all temporal truths. Our “ministry of reconciliation” is not a fool’s errand. Ressentiment is not the final word; we are more than the sum of our grievances. In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis invites us to imagine otherwise. “It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women,” he writes.

No one can face life in isolation, Pope Francis notes. We all need a community that supports and helps us and allows us to “dream together.” For that reason, he writes, “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 8).

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