Ode to Rick

For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).

This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.

This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.

And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.

So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.

True that Rick.

But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.

And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.

New Italian Perspectives on American Political Catholicism

A certain profile of Public Catholicism has been on full show in America this past month. The show, so far, has included the strong opposition of the US Bishops to the White House’s decisions on contraceptives, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign and, to some extent, the deliberations among Catholics of the Supreme Court over Obama’s health care policy.  Santorum’s comments on President Kennedy’s speech about religion and the public sphere were especially revealing and fueled several weeks of national conversation about the contemporary role of religion in politics. It has been a fascinating discussion and brought into light important shifts in the direction of American political Catholicism.

I just want to add some comparative perspective to this debate by noting that a similar national conversation is happening right now in Italy. There are important historical and political differences to political Catholicism in either country, of course. Just to name one, abortion is much less politicized in Italy than the United States, while “family welfare” policy is much more so. However, I believe that further, careful reflection on the structure of these two national debates could give us a richer understanding of the possibilities and risks in store for public Catholicism in certain post-secular environments.

Let me start with this word, “post-secularism,” and just say that what I want to get out of the term is an important sense of change in the religious fortunes of institutional religion in the United States and Italy. The Catholic Church, in both countries, has come to a realization that they have survived the period of “Great Secularization” in the West and remain in a position of social and political strength. Among the G8 countries, if we look at the World Values Surveys (WVS), the United States and Italy are the only two to broach 30% regularly practicing religiosity (World Gallup Poll figures put self-reported regular religious practice in 2011 for both countries at 47%, although that seems to be a stretch). Germany, the only country that comes close, boasts less than 15% on the WVS surveys of late. Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Russia slink down after that.

So what about political Catholicism in Italy today? In the 1990s, what caught the eye of most political scientists was the collapse of the Christian Democrats in Italy, thanks to corruption, scandals and overreach.  And yet, in the midst of the wider destruction of the Italian political system which followed, the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic party) proved to be one of the most popular institutions left in Italy and was generally looked to for a source of political stability. This has proved to be the case once again today. Following the collapse of Berlusconi’s government and an impending economic crisis in Italy last fall, the Italian Catholic Church proposed that the time had come once again for Catholic politicians and organizations to step into the fray. To some extent, they got what they wanted: Italy’s “technocratic” government is also a heavily Catholic government and includes Prime Minister Monti, himself a devoted Catholic, and several other major Catholic figures in Italy with close ties to Catholic movements. Italy’s new Minister for International Cooperation and Integration, for example, is Andrea Riccardi, founder of the lay Catholic movement of the community of Sant’Egidio. Riccardi, perhaps more than any other Catholic in today’s government, has become a lightning rod in the media for the debate over Italian political Catholicism.

There are rumors that a new Christian Democratic party will arise from the ashes following the end of the technocratic government’s term. Yet, even if these rumors turn out to be true, it is doubtful that such a party could include the whole Catholic world in any way that resembles that of the old Christian Democrats. Instead, what looks to be happening is the development of a new form of political connection between Catholic movements and organizations, on the one hand, and the national public sphere, on the other. In this respect, the Italian situation looks very similar to that in the United States, a country that has always been allergic to any organized form of a Christian Democratic party.

The lay movements here are key. In both countries, powerful individuals, who are supported by the clergy, and whose identity, politics and charisma were forged in the intensely associative life of a lay Catholic movement, have  taken on political roles of leadership and acknowledged their religious sources and values in the process.

Some sort of parallel can be drawn between this and  the experience of Catholic Action in the first part of the last century, which produced a Christian Democratic political elite that ran governments in many post-war Catholic countries. Catholic Action was also deeply associative and activist, but one thing that has changed is that there is no longer one Catholic movement and no longer one (mass) Catholic party. Jacques Maritain, it should be noted, and many of the writers of Vatican II documents, foresaw this shift as inevitable and even, prophetically, thought that it could be understood in the right light as a rich, growing experience.

That might yet be the case, but for the moment, a growing political polarization has accompanied this pluralism of public Catholicisms in Italy and the United States. Splits, which can often be personified by naming certain movements, are raking Catholic communities over the coals. In the old days in Italy, the Christian Democratic party became masters of compromise and inter-ideological synthesis, and when that didn’t work, the Church helped cajole individuals of all stripes to stay together.  This is no longer the case. Catholic Workers, Charismatics and Traditionalists (the biggest Catholic movement without a name, Scott Appleby has claimed) have not often seen eye-to-eye politically in the States; nor have Communion and Liberation, the Neocatecumens or Sant’Egidio in Italy. The presence of Santorum and Riccardi bring these divisions to the light even as they showcase the possibilities for future, public Catholicisms.

So there’s got to be a better way of navigating this pluralism.  Putnam and Campbell have made a strong case that one of the gifts religion can offer to modern democracies is in the creation of thick, “horizontal” bonds of social trust among  citizens, even in Catholic societies like Italy. In other words, the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood, a point deeply ingrained in the spirits of many early Christian Democrats.  Compromise marks democratic politics, even religious politics, and has often been accused of sapping the moral strength of religious political movements. But new political Catholicism, in the plural, might make a run for brotherhood by distinguishing themselves in the pursuit of the politics of compromise in a different key. We might call it the pursuit of the politics of reconciliation. Over the last 25 years, Catholic leaders have built up substantive skills as political peacemakers in civil war contexts by preaching political forgiveness. Could those skills be applied to everyday domestic politics, too?