The New Religion of Politics

Author: Dr James Hitchcock


Dr James Hitchcock


One of the intriguing things about an age of crisis like this one is the fact that so often what is lost, or lost sight of, is what is in fact very obvious, so obvious that it comes to be taken for granted. Many religious communities have lost their way in the past fifteen years not because of some esoteric or subtle error but because they chose to ignore the obvious.

In the category of the obvious is, first of all, the fact that religious life makes no sense except in the perspective of eternity. This has always been recognized in the Church since the days of the earliest desert monks. Yet after the Second Vatican Council there were many religious (and, more generally, many Catholics) who chose to ignore that reality, who began to act as though their religious commitment was primarily this-worldly. It is not surprising, although apparently it has been to many people, that given this decision to ignore the eternal, religious life rapidly started to unwind, communities to fall apart.

The dominant mood of the post-conciliar Church can be described as one of relaxation, although there is no justification whatever for that idea in the documents of the Council itself. Catholicism has historically been a religion of tension, a tension between this world and the next, between flesh and spirit. It has been a religion which teaches the necessity of striving, of self-discipline, of continual aspiration towards something higher. What many people wrongfully interpreted the Council to be saying was that such striving was no longer necessary. We could live as good citizens of the world, at ease with ourselves and the world around us. We could relax. There was to be a "return to normalcy" in the sense that Warren Harding used that slogan to win the 1920 election—a cessation of idealism, a simple desire to have fun and enjoy life.

This desire for relaxation naturally hit the religious orders with special force, since it was these communities which historically were supposed to demonstrate the demanding way of Christian perfection. Along with this desire for relaxation went something else closely related to it—the determination on the part of many priests and religious that they would no longer be special people, that they would no longer try to live a life of perfection. Some people left the religious life during the post-conciliar crisis because they thought they saw the opportunity to do something more exciting and more meaningful somewhere else. But many more perhaps left because they simply wanted to live a normal life as American society understands the concept of normalcy.

The escape from eternity was an escape from a vision of life which seemed to "distract" Christians from full enjoyment of this life. It was also, in many ways, a turning away from God, not in the complete and deliberate sense but in the sense of a desire to encounter God only in easily manageable ways. Many Christians were now uncomfortable with the blinding light of God and wanted only small flickers of him mediated to themselves through daily experience. Religious life was rejected, or changed beyond all recognition, because of its intensity, because it sought to bring the religious into contact with God in too uncompromising and powerful a way. God could no longer be allowed to dominate one's life but had to be relegated to a properly modest corner of it.

Interestingly, one of the great undiscussed questions in the contemporary Church is again one of the most obvious ones: Do we in fact live with Christ eternally after death, or is death the end? One suspects that far more Catholics have doubts about that question now than would have been the case twenty years ago. Yet it is not talked about. We are led to assume that, of course, all Catholics believe in the afterlife, but let us not distract ourselves from the needs of this life. However, a belief like this, once it is merely taken for granted, is soon in danger of being forgotten completely or treated as though it did not matter.

What we have here is really a massive failure of the imagination, despite the fact that our age talks incessantly about being "imaginative". Many people find it impossible to imagine the prospect of eternity. Their imaginations are impoverished and are restricted to the daily world of their experience.

Naturally this turning away from eternity, this pretence that religious life could continue to be meaningful if understood in exclusively worldly terms, led to disasters in the religious life and in the Church generally. Things began to fall apart because they ceased to make sense.

Accompanying this is what I call the loss of history, that is, the loss of a vital and meaningful sense of one's own past and one's own traditions, to the point where one's own past ceases to make my sense and becomes only a deadening burden, an irrational imposition. The Second Vatican Council urged that the renewal of religious life take place in accordance with the original vision of the founder of each community. Yet I suspect that many communities today would have great difficulty understanding their founder's vision. By the criteria which they have become accustomed to using, the founder would appear to be narrow and fanatical, lacking especially in what is now called social consciousness. Every founder emphasized very strongly the other-worldly goals of religious life.

Finally, we come to the most basic disease of contemporary moral life, the imperial self, the notion that the self alone has the right to define reality, to judge right from wrong, to accept or reject rules and teachings. The Christian notion of conscience has been perverted to make the individual will the sole arbiter of right and wrong. The idea of freedom has been perverted to mean that no person should accept anything "imposed" from the outside. The concept of human "needs" has been fatally confused with the concept of "wants" so that whatever any person desires at a given moment is elevated to the status of a good. There is no need to observe how such a mentality plays havoc with any meaningful kind of religion or morality.

All of these things taken together—the flight from eternity, the return to normalcy, the loss of history, and the imperialism of the self—lead to a condition of confusion, weakness, and disorientation in the Church. The Catholic, and especially the member of a religious community, is left immobile and stranded, incapable of meaningful action because everything has been stripped of meaning. Such people find themselves in desperate need of some guidance, of some impetus that will get them moving again, and as a result they tend to become inordinately dependent on passing fashions. Only when they are carried along by history do they have any sense of direction or purpose. They need continual assurances from their society that they are doing the rightthing, continual clues as to what they are supposed to be doing. They have no genuine self-motivation, no beliefs or principles which are genuinely their own.

Those who are faithful to the traditions of the past are often accused of being insecure, of "clinging" to the past because they cannot face the instability of the present. The truth of the matter is that in a culture like our own, fidelity to the traditions of the past can only be a source of insecurity, since nothing is more certain in modern life than the fact that those who are faithful to past traditions will ultimately see those traditions and the values they embody assaulted and undermined. The only true psychological security now comes from having [no] fixed beliefs, of being able to move with the times, of easily adapting to every cultural change. This was what the book Future Shock—sopopular both in religious and secular circles—was all about.

Here we find the root of the contemporary religious preoccupation with politics. It is not, as it is so often asserted, that today's religious are somehow more compassionate, more attuned to human needs, than those of the past. The immensely impressive network of charities operated by religious over the years belie this contention. Rather, for many contemporary religious, politics is the last frontier of certitude, the secular movement which most effectively provides them with a sense of purpose and direction.

Politics is also the last frontier of dogma. Those Catholics who, faced with a question of sexual morality, insist that we have no final answers, that right and wrong differ according to circumstances, that human intention counts for more than the law, are not likely to take the same attitude with regard to, for example, the California grape strike. Those Catholics who tell us that on dogmatic questions we must eschew absolute certitude and admit our fallibility are likely to be those who are completely certain on such contemporary social issues as the Panama Canal treaty and the future of Rhodesia.

The point here is not whether these people are right or wrong in their political opinions but their strange double standard whereby in religion they preach humility, deference and self-doubt, while in politics they allow themselves the luxury of dogmatic certainty, aggressiveness, even arrogance.

There is no ecumenism in contemporary politics. We do not hear about opponents and proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporters and critics of the California grape strike, pacifists and those who favour greater military preparedness sitting down with one another and undertaking to "dialogue" in a spirit of goodwill and mutual trust. We do not. hear of them attempting to reformulate their own beliefs in such a way as to make them more acceptable to the other side. Rather the contrary. To do so is commonly regarded as treason to the cause. Compromise is thought of as morally tainted. Rigorous and unbending purity of belief is admired.

Such political dogmatism—we might almost say political fanaticism—is not new. What is rather new is the eagerness with which so many Catholics, and especially so many priests and religious, have embraced it. Their eagerness is a token, I am afraid, of their religious bankruptcy, of the fact that there is a large empty space inside, once filled by their desire to serve God, which now needs to be filled by secular causes. (It is impossible not to wonder, for example, what is holding certain communities of women together other than their shared feminist ideology. They appear to have no common rule, style of life, spirituality, or work).

We can assume, I think, that those who entered religious life in the past were among the most intense, zealous, and dedicated young people in the Church. The abandonment of religious life in its classic forms has left many of these people floundering, bereft of vision and purpose in. life, yet desperately in need of one. On the contemporary scene political causes alone seem capable of providing this lost sense of' total dedication.

Much of this new religiosity of politics centres on the ordinary forms of democratic electoral politics. By a strange process which Catholics have not understood, once politics is declared to be independent of religion, that is, totally secular, it is soon deified, that is, rendered sacred. It is no exaggeration to say that for many contemporary Christians political activity—walking picket lines, making speeches, drafting platforms, campaigning on behalf of favoured candidates—has taken on a sacred meaning, has become in effect a new liturgy, far more meaningful than the old liturgy. It became a cliché, but a true one, in the late 1960's to say that one never discovered that certain people were members of religious orders until someone organized a demonstration and they could appear in full habits, garments which were otherwise left in the closet, on the grounds that they were distractions from the needs of modern life.

There is also a more sinister aspect or this new religion of politics, which is the admiration which many avant-garde Catholics show towards totalitarian regimes, especially Mao Tse-Tung's China and Fidel Castro's Cuba. This support is especially strange, given the almost obsessive concern with personal freedom which most of these same people manifest with regard to American society and the Catholic Church.

Consider the descriptions of contemporary China which have been purveyed to the West by numerous visitors in recent years. It is, we are told, a place of almost obsessive physical cleanliness, without litter. Public morals are extremely high, with no prostitution or drunkenness. The people all wear very simple, austere, and uniform clothes; there is no regard for fashion or personal adornment. At regular intervals during the day people come en masse to centres where they are catechized in the doctrines of Chairman Mao and instructed in what is the "correct" position to take on all public questions. To reinforce this unanimity of opinion, wall slogans constantly proclaim the stated truth and exhort the faithful to greater efforts on behalf of the cause. Most striking is the fact that the Chinese people, apparently have no desire to express themselves in an individualistic way, to pursue goals of personal fulfilment. They are content merely to serve as they are needed, in whatever capacity their society requires of them.

It takes no great imagination to realize that the spirit which is operative here (probably. exaggerated by Westerners eager to see China as a Utopia) is similar in many respects to the spirit which used to be characteristic of religious communities before the "reforms" of the post-conciliar era. Why, then, has there been this obsessive demand for "freedom" and personal autonomy among many western religious, while some of these same people look to distant totalitarian states for inspiration?

The answer to this question has already been implied—many of those Catholics who have so eagerly embraced "reform" now experience that aching spiritual void left by the jettisoning of so much of what they held to be sacred. Admiration for regimes like that of China is a form of nostalgia, a yearning for what has been lost, not projected into the past, as nostalgia usually is, but into a utopian present and future.

This admiration for totalitarianism also shows once again how the new political awareness is for many Catholics a substitute religion. They will tolerate, and even embrace, in the name of a more perfect social order, conditions and ideas which they have already rejected in the Church itself. In politics they are prepared to surrender their personal freedom, their autonomy, in the name of a higher good. They deem it a privilege to be asked to give themselves totally to the cause, even as they are condemning such dedication in religion.

The appeal of this kind of fanatical politics to decadent Westerners will probably remain a permanent feature of our cultural life. For example, a Maryknoll priest living in Hong Kong writes regretfully of the "materialism" of that Western outpost and looks longingly across the straits to China, where everyone is good. He quotes Henry Kissinger, "The Chinese still have a Weltanschauung (a world view) while the rest ofus have lost our way".

There can be no doubt that Christianity at the present time is engaged in an intense struggle with certain messianic political movements for the souls of people throughout the world, and that one significant and disturbing aspect of that struggle is that many Christians are not even aware that it is going on. Some in fact are serving the enemy without even realizing it. As Christianity recedes as a powerful and compelling system of belief, ever more fanatical kinds of political orthodoxy will move in to fill the void. Christians are constantly being offered counterfeits of faith, which many accept because they have nothing better.

There is now so little specifically Christian heroism in the world, so little martyrdom, so few visible saints. Hence the hearts of young people in particular are not stirred up to aspire to the heroic path of sanctity which in times past was responsible for countless number of good Christian lives and dedicated service to the Church. In their rush to become just as worldly as everyone else, consecrated religious in particular have ceased trying to convey to children, at a very sensitive time in their lives, the possibility of living an extraordinary, even a heroic life.

The appeal of political religion is not difficult to understand. For many the prospect of an earthly utopia is far more vivid than the prospect of eternal life. The invitation to join in creating such a utopia is also very flattering—why waste time on humble tasks like teaching children or nursing the sick when one can aspire to nothing less than recreating the world? In this context the "distraction" of other-worldliness, the danger that people will once again think seriously about the prospect of eternity, has to be opposed untiringly.

It is also not difficult to understand why the humble tasks traditionally associated with religious life might have little appeal in comparison with the grandiose prospects which the new political religion holds out. There is, however, one very practical point which should be borne in mind—humble tasks like teaching and nursing do accomplish something, however limited it may be. To give oneself to the great scheme of remaking the world is to court the possibility that one's work will come to nothing that the whole enterprise will turn out, as has so often been the case in the past, to be an empty adventure.

It is quite extraordinary how little authentic Christian prophecy there is in the political realm today, despite all the talk about it. For the most part what passes as prophecy is merely Christians echoing, and usually echoing rather badly, what has already been said, and said better, by other people. Many Christians try to prove the "relevance" of their faith by showing secularists that they believe the same things the secularists believe. The only thing they succeed in doing, however, is confirming the secularists' opinion that Christianity truly is irrelevant and need not be taken seriously.

Abortion is an instructive instance since it is the one crucial point at which authentic Catholic witness at present clashes with so much of received secular wisdom, and it is shocking and disheartening to see how so many Catholics, and even many religious, seem quite prepared to surrender on the abortion question in the interests of "more important" political goals.

Given the religion of politics which is so pervasive at present, there is a growing tendency on the part of many Catholics to allow the state to take the lead on moral questions, so that once the state has decided to permit and even encourage abortions it becomes "divisive" to question this policy.

In fact we are faced with the prospect, by the end of this century of most private charitable institutions—schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.—being taken over by the state, mainly through financial pressure, leaving religion without any effective social expression. We will be allowed to believe our strange doctrines, but we will be prevented from giving them effective public expression.

In the end it may well turn out that, paradoxically, it is precisely the humble tasks—teaching children and young people in schools that are genuinely Catholic, creating medical environments which likewise manifest the true spirit of Christ—that will be effective in transforming the world. Those who join in the great utopian political adventures may find that they merely end by supporting the final triumph of a militant secularism, while those who have taken the pains to keep alive and nourish genuinely Christian institutions will be those who have provided a place for truth and freedom to dwell.

The history of the Church shows that, from time to time, God does confront his people with new tasks. New religious communities are formed to perform these tasks, or existing communities are altered to meet new needs. We cannot say that in our own day religious are bound solely by those apostolates they have carried on in the past or that they cannot and should not change.

What we can insist, however, is that tasks which are so basic and so firmly rooted in the life of the Church be not cavalierly thrown away as of no importance. And above all we can insist that Christians who go into the world, genuinely go for the sake of saving it, that they go as true ambassadors of Christ.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 September 1978, page 6

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