Growing up Protestant and Republican in Kansas, I began life as a political conservative. But when I was in college, John F. Kennedy changed that. He and Pope John XXIII opened the door to the Catholic Church for me, and for most of my adult life I considered myself a Catholic political liberal. I am still very much a Catholic, but my political leanings have changed again. I no longer consider myself a liberal—or a conservative.
When the U.S. bishops issued their peace pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace,” in 1983, I found great comfort in it. Having been born into an old Mennonite family, I no longer felt I was a traitor to our centuries-long tradition of absolute nonviolence. I began writing about the pastoral for the archdiocesan newspaper in Washington, D.C., and that eventually grew into a syndicated series of weekly columns entitled “Making Peace,” published nationally over the next eight years.
The columns were an experiment, and an honest one, since I had no idea how the process would turn out. My mentor and colleague John Howard Yoder looked over my shoulder from the University of Notre Dame theology department, commenting frequently, asking whether the absolute nonviolence we had both inherited from our Amish and Mennonite ancestors could be reconciled with the newly articulated Catholic position. Also judging the columns each week were dozens of diocesan editors who would decide whether to run them. And looking over their shoulders were millions of Catholics who had served in the military and whose family members had also served.
Somehow, that seemingly impossible set of challenges was met for several years. And it might have gone on indefinitely had it not been for a trip to the Soviet Union. A large delegation organized by the National Council of Churches visited churches in the Soviet Union in 1985, and I joined the group as a journalist. At the time nearly everyone, liberal and conservative alike, believed the churches in nations under Communist control had all been closed. But it soon became obvious that the churches in Russia had emerged from persecution damaged but not destroyed. I reported only a small portion of what we saw, but even that was disturbing to many readers. A former C.I.A. officer who read one of the columns sent a letter to The Washington Times warning its readers that I was “a paid disinformation agent of the K.G.B.”
Three years later I helped organize a group of U.S. Catholics for a visit to Catholic churches in the Soviet Union. That trip ended in Poland, where one Saturday afternoon we visited the church in Nowa Huta near Kraków, constructed when Cardinal Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, was its bishop. It is a stunning theological statement in concrete. We asked a parishioner preparing his great church for Mass how it could have been built in a new city planned by Communists, and he looked at me with astonishment. To him the answer was obvious. “We told them we wouldn’t work if they didn’t build us a church,” he said.
The next year the Berlin Wall came down, and Poland became free. When that happened it became clear that many of the things we had taken for granted during the cold war had been based on myth, not reality. The consensus position in the liberal community had been that the Soviet Empire was here to stay, and the most we could hope for was to get along with it. We regarded the conservative position—that Communism was a great evil that had to be defeated—as blindly militaristic and almost certain to produce a nuclear holocaust. But neither did the evidence support those who believed the Reagan military buildup had caused the empire’s collapse. Their critique of the liberal position—that we had been prepared to let Eastern Europe endure an endless unjust occupation so the West could enjoy a false peace—did, however, gain new credibility.
The evidence since 1989 indicates it was Solidarity that brought down the Soviet empire, and that it did so with very little support from the West—left or right.
What was it that had so completely blinded us to what was actually happening in the Soviet Union? Why hadn’t we supported Solidarity and similar movements throughout the Soviet Empire when we had the chance? What were we thinking? It has become increasingly clear to me that what got in our way was a commitment to ideology, shared with equal fervor across the political spectrum. The left and the right obviously had different ideologies, but we all believed that some single idea would produce solutions to these problems, even before we knew precisely what the problems were.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on peace also had a major political impact, almost certainly helping to end the cold war. It was a significant use of hierarchical power, possible because both Cardinal John Krol and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—one widely regarded as a conservative and the other as a liberal—joined in supporting the effort. The U.S. Catholic bishops no longer have the political influence they had in 1983. And they will not regain it until they are able to advocate positions that Catholics on both the left and the right can support. U.S. Catholics themselves are currently in danger of becoming as politically divided as the nation. Both liberals and conservatives were wrong about the cold war, and those of us who aligned ourselves with either side are now embarrassed. What reason do we have to believe the positions now being taken by either the secular right or the secular left will embarrass us less 20 or 30 years in the future?
A Faith-Based Option?
There are three options open to us, not just two—left, right and Catholic. The options offered by both the left and the right are based on ideology. The Catholic option is based on realism—the careful and patient discovery of facts and the search for policies based on both facts and on the Catholic imperative to preserve and enhance the common good. Catholic and centrist are not the same; we do not achieve the common good by splitting the difference between competing ideologies. We achieve the common good by finding and advocating solutions to the real problems of real people living in the real world.
Despite a widely expressed desire to end the partisan gridlock that now paralyzes American politics, it stubbornly continues and grows. And despite the U.S. Catholic bishops’ regular pleas for a new politics based on human rights and the common good, Catholics have been unable to offer a national alternative to the political warfare now taking place. Instead, we have contributed to it. Both those bishops who have openly identified with the political right and those who disagree but have remained silent have equally contributed to a widely held public perception that the Catholic hierarchy has joined the right-versus-left battle on the conservative side.
Rather than becoming a moderating force in the civil war of ideas now taking place, we have allowed the secular political establishment to set the agenda for political debate within the Catholic Church itself. One does not have to be a theologian to see the defects in that development, nor a political expert to see where it will lead. What is the alternative? What are politically active Catholics to do when our real choice is between reality and ideology, not between conservative and liberal?
After a lifetime of struggling with these issues, I am convinced the greatest contribution U.S. Catholics can make is to organize coalitions of citizens—both Catholic and non-Catholic, conservative and liberal—to develop nonideological solutions to our major political problems and then to advocate them effectively. Elected officials have attempted to do this in recent years but have routinely failed because they are completely dependent on the system they seek to reform. Sick people are seldom able to heal themselves; the same is true for sick political systems.
We have two major political successes to guide us—the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Poland’s Solidarity movement of the 1980s. In both cases great armies of citizens banded together to produce seemingly impossible changes. Both formed around a nucleus of deep Christian faith, in one case Protestant and in the other Catholic. They were two of the most successful and defining political events of the 20th century, but they represent an unfinished revolution.
A few hours before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he told a younger colleague, “In our next campaign we have to institutionalize nonviolence and take it international.” After Solidarity’s victory in Poland, Pope John Paul II began urging the international Catholic community to create a new “civilization of love.”
Neither of these great dreams will become a reality unless we form new political institutions able to provide alternatives to the current right-versus-left ideological conflict. What form these new institutions will take is unknowable at this point, but it is almost certain they will emerge. American democracy will not survive unless we find new post-ideological ways to conduct our political affairs.
Regardless of how we Catholic voters choose to exert our political power in the future, it seems clear we must do something more than choose between the unsatisfactory options offered us by the existing political parties. It is hardly consistent with the Catholic tradition to let those who do not share our values set our political agenda. It is even less Catholic to stand on the sidelines criticizing what others do, especially when we offer no alternatives. Democracy thrives on new ideas. Let us offer some.