Set Me Free (From Ideologies) Part 1

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22. Today the picture of development has many overlapping layers. The actors and the causes in both underdevelopment and development are manifold, the faults and the merits are differentiated. This fact should prompt us to liberate ourselves from ideologies, which often oversimplify reality in artificial ways, and it should lead us to examine objectively the full human dimension of the problems.”  Pope Benedict XVI  Caritas in Veritate

I am sick to death of the ideologies that litter the American political landscape- liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, neo-liberal, neo-conservative and on and on.  I can somewhat understand why a non-practicing or non-Catholic would get caught up and lost in the fog of merely human ideas about what is best in the political ordering of society- but real Catholics? Self-proclaimed orthodox Catholics proudly labeling themselves as conservatives or libertarians, or even sometimes liberals or socialists?? I really don’t get that- at all.  For one thing the labels aren’t cut and dried-there are so many flavors of conservative and libertarian and liberal- you have Pat Buchanan conservative, Rudy Guliani conservative, Dick Cheney conservative, Ron Paul conservative/libertarian, Bill Clinton liberal, Ralph Nadar liberal- and then you have the Straussian neo-conservatives, the Michael Moore socialists and a bunch of pragmatists posing as liberals or conservatives- opportunists rather than true believers I suppose.

So what’s my line? Before I became Catholic in my very late 20’s I was a textbook liberal- volunteered for Gary Hart, organized a big protest against Ronald Reagan, went to Georgia to protest the Klan’s hassling of civil rights marchers. I finally reached the spiritual deadend of secular liberalism, prayed for God to let me know if He truly existed, He did. Out-of-the-Blue ,I ran into an old friend- turned me on to Byzantine Catholic Divine Liturgies and Papal Social Encyclicals- “One Social Concerns” was the first one I believe I read- Bam! Dang- one more total spiritual free agent ends up in Mother Church’s arms (not without some later backfires and re-starts- but that’s a whole other story)! OK- so why didn’t I become a comfortable Conservative then or later on? Well, this is key-my reading of the Encyclicals, the worldview expressed in the Encyclicals and pretty much every official social teaching document I have ever read- is not conservative, is not liberal, is not any shortcut ideology that is on the radar in mainstream American media or political establishments. I thought to myself- “Jackpot! This is what I would expect if Jesus Christ was still working behind the scenes guiding His Church- He is still cutting up the establishments- the big power and monied interests- wow!”

I eventually became what I describe as a Pro-Life, FDR-throwback Democrat- a muddle of conservative social issues and more statist government as protector of the common good in the realm of economics and such things. As a candidate I consistently confused people (one local mayor told me privately that I sounded more Catholic than Democrat- I was pleased- he wasn’t)- I spoke out for the unborn, even those who are being frozen in fertility clinics, and I spoke against the Greed principle in corporate America and now the world. I also spoke in favor of public monies for private, religious schools- to pay teacher salaries only- and lost support of the Unions. So, I guess you could say I am conservative, liberal, Green but pro-nuclear energy Green, pro-subsidiarity- I would prefer that the Church develop markets for fair trade within the Catholic realms, and also oversee a non-profit health insurance agency to link up Catholics and people of goodwill who could be organized along diocesan lines, and avoid having to pay for other people’s abortions and contraception- and keep the private insurance sharks away- since they have been gobbling up over a third of my income- I don’t  think that I’m alone in that- having a family with 3 plus children.

The reason why Set Me Free (From Ideologies) is Part 1, is that I am going to be continuing to challenge the notion that there are only a couple of truly Non-Negotiable issues on the political agenda- like abortion and gay marriage- and the rest of the agenda is pretty much all mamby-pamby prudential judgment territory- so go with whatever flow you like -dudes.  Well- no actually- I don’t see it like that. I find that there is a really consistent worldview embedded in our Catholic social doctrine, and I don’t think it is ok to keep dumbing things down and pretending that conservative or liberal or whatever label is big enough to wrap around our entire corpus of Catholic social teachings. I think it is enough to say we are Catholic, we may well belong to a political party, but we aren’t married to a political party like we are to our Church. And our Church hasn’t left us dumb and blind when it comes to sorting through the other big issues of our times- economics, immigration, role of political authorities, war and peace, environment etc.. I happen to believe that all the prudential judgments found in our official Catholic Hierarchical documents- like the Encyclicals, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church- well these judgments are usually pretty awesome. And even if you don’t think that the Popes really get economic theory and practice, the fact is that if the popes -or the bishops for that mattter- write down stuff to develop or flesh out the principles of social teaching- that “stuff” has to be taken deeply into our Catholic-informed consciences- even if you are going to reject the ideas and suggestions offered by our hierarchical leadership.  I was taught in graduate school that what we read in the Encyclicals must be taken in with “Religious Assent”- now this is something that we all need to really look into much more deeply. By religious assent, I’m thinking that we should proceed very, very prudently if one is going to go on record as opposing something the pope or bishop(s) has put forth and put down on paper.  The idea here is that we have our consciences, yes, but there is also something important in the obedience of faith, that may suggest that publicly opposing or belittling the teachings and/or public suggestions and judgments of the hierarchy is a potential cause of scandal when it comes to materials related to doctrines of the Church- the social doctrine is such a thing. And Scripture reminds us that we must be trustworthy on small matters if we are to be trusted on the big things.  This is not about  administrative decisions that are just bad stuff- like bouncing bad priests around parishes or covering up crimes for such- what I’m talking about is Teaching Office material.

As an update- I have recently been bounced from a prominent Catholic Democrats listserve for urging the membership to come into obedience with the Church on the Non-Negotiables, since they have lost credibility in quoting popes on economics et al, when they themselves completely ignore or crudely dismiss the papal teachings on sex and marriage. My advice was finally too much for the leadership of said listserve- it was a respectful parting of ways- though I was very upset that they seemed more intent on reforming the leadership of the Catholic Church than addressing the Big Issues related to American Politics-  I suggested that they were plotting some kind of palace coup in the wake of all the scandals in the news recently. With a few exceptions most of these powerful Liberal Catholics admitted that changing the Church is part of their political goals for American politics- I accused them of being good protestants- and I was bounced soon after- I told them that I would keep offering my two cents until the leadership decided they didn’t want to hear any more from me- at some point I will post what I wrote, but not anything from anyone else- no names, it was a confidential listserve, and I will continue to honor that fact.

I am now in major re-think mode- I am leaning toward becoming an Independent and leaving my lifelong party membership as a Democrat- which began when I was 13 volunteering for Jimmy Carter’s first presidential campaign- on my own initiative against my father’s desires. I have been serving as VP for Florida’s Democrats for Life organization, and I ran in 2006 as a pro-life Democrat in the good fight to try to carve out solid pro-life territory within the Florida Democratic Party.  I have not been very successful, and I am tired of dealing with the automatic stereotypes when I tell someone I am a member of the Democratic party. I would love to form some entity that might be called the “Common Good Party”, but with a fourth little one about to bless our family, I am not finding much time to spare for my politicking. When my oldest children become teens, I will probably re-enter as a candidate to help give them real life citizenship-leadership training.

In conclusion,  I am going to be drawing out more copy on social doctrine-related topics, by putting down the actual words of the Magisterium or Bishops- and allowing those words to go out to the world along with my own thoughts along the lines of applying the ideas of our leaders- just like Pope Benedict’s urging us to get beyond or away from ideologies. Can anyone give me a good reason now to say that they are a proud Conservative or Liberal if indeed they are claiming to be good, orthodox Catholics in the next breath?  One last point, I have seen some comments elsewhere that has put doubts on the authoritative status of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church- I can say that I asked Archbishop Chaput directly if this Compendium was “Authoritative” and he answered that it was. If anyone can find anyone in authority to cast doubt on this important concern, I would love to get word of it around for further discussion. I will be drawing heavily from the Pope’s “Caritas in Veritate” and the Compendium in future articles.  God Bless- Let the Games begin- I want to hear from the proud conservatives that seem to dominate in this American Catholic realm- does the Pope’s words about avoiding ideologies apply to your identification as “conservative” or not?  Christ has given us the true Liberation Theology- liberation from sin, from death, from hopelessness- the video at the start of this blog is a reminder to keep drawing upon Christ and His Church to find the spiritual strength to fight for salvation for ourselves and for a civilization of love for all- which is the goal of our Church’s social doctrine. Good Friday to all.

More to explorer


  1. Just a word of caution on the authority of the Compendium. Even the Compendium itself recognizes that some of what is in it does not partake of infallibility:

    “In studying this Compendium, it is good to keep in mind that the citations of Magisterial texts are taken from documents of differing authority. Alongside council documents and encyclicals there are also papal addresses and documents drafted by offices of the Holy See. As one knows, but it seems to bear repeating, the reader should be aware that different levels of teaching authority are involved.”

    Also Catholic Social teaching as you point out, does not fit any particular political position. Fortunately, CST also notes that it does not propose any particular political solutions. That is in fact left to the prudential judgment of the laity (yes it is up to the use of prudence – the practical application of moral norm to a specific problems.) Thus CST also notes that Catholics in good faith can disagree on particular solutions. To say otherwise is in fact to act contrary to Catholic Social Teaching itself.
    Now it seems you are not doing so but you do head near the shoals of Ultramontanism (as some other Catholic blogs do) by thinking that by reading the Compendium you will come up with a specific solutions. You won’t. Specific moral principles to apply – yes. Particular solutions that all are called to adhere to as good Catholics – no.
    I agree that one has to avoid ideologies that reduce the truth to sound bites. But there is a distinction between ideologies and ideas. Long, hard, cold thought out ideas that have internal coherence and which can provide specific political solutions. These ideas which form from the understanding of history, politics etc. have internal validity as expressions of human reason and if solidly based are a valid means of approaching problems of the world today. Even you admit to some with your FDR approach. This is okay.
    Its okay to have internally consistent ideas that propose solutions to political problems as long as one is open to new understanding as the study of history, politics, etc. develop. Even the Church (in one of JPII’s social encyclicals which is lost on me now) admits this much. That some of what is in CST is based on current understanding of history, economics etc. and can develop as these disciplines and as human understanding itself develops (see my first admonition above about differing degrees of authority.)
    So the bottom line is, I don’t have a problems with Conservative/Liberal etc. But let all come forth with solid, reasoned arguments and not the raw emotionalism that Charity in Truty decries. Let the best current understanding of social problems be presented with solid economic, historical etc. understanding. Then let Catholic laypersons with solid ideas (and not ideologies) make solid, prudential decisions.

  2. Appreciate the insights Phillip- I suppose my goal is not to replace a brother/sister’s ideology with another one- but to get every serious Catholic who makes a big show of being a out and proud “conservative” or “liberal” and so forth- to think again- not to convert to another ideology, but to just leave off the self-labeling when saying you are Catholic- a Christian disciple- should suffice. I recall cringing at Sen. Brownback after receiving Father Pavone’s personal endorsement for President, going around saying that he was the “true Conservative”. Is that a good public witness for Christ, given that Christ is giving us a social doctrine that doesn’t lend itself easily to ideological adherences? Personally, I don’t see how an honest reading of all the social doctrine materials can lead me to voluntarily accept the imprisonment of any merely political ideology. I have tendencies toward the FDR Democratic party mold, but I recognize the fallibility of such to address all issues for all time- I won’t suggest that it wasn’t surprising that so much of the Catholic Church faithful were inclined to the FDR-Dem party – even in the Hierarchy- given the connections people were seeing between the social teachings and the political visions offered at the time. Of course times change, and appeals to FDR are not what I am much concerned with.

    I believe we are living in a bit of a new Barbarian Age- more subtle than before, very high-tech, but also very deadly to bodies and souls- I see the Barbarian movement in the establishment Left and Right- with abortion killing millions and a serious lack of global solidarity leading to unnecessary military conflicts and unjust economic situations. America is part of the problem and part of the solution- I’m focused on getting my nation to get out of the business of being part of the problem.

    As for the Compendium- I realize that differing levels of teaching authority are in play- but the fact that they are now given new circulation in the Compendium which is a concise rendering of the entire corpus of our social doctrine should be cause for new appreciation for all of it’s contents. At minimum what is in there must be taken deeply into our developing consciences- to say that only the most explicit detail of a particular principle of social teaching is worth reading would be a major error in prudential judgment. I figure if the Magisterium or Church leader puts something down on paper for our consumption, we should attempt to take time to consume it, let it work through our minds and imaginations, so that when we set about proposing specifics on major issues, or vision statements- we will have the benefit of all of the Church’s vast wisdom. I think that too many Catholics abuse the notion of prudential judgment to simply short-circuit the papal words that don’t mix well with their chosen ideological adherences- I’m not making a personal accusation to you Phillip or anyone in particular- but I am suspicious of everyone who clings too closely to something like what Brownback said “I am the true Conservative” I’m very suspicious of true believers in political ideologies.

  3. Thanks for your reply. Will respond more fully after Easter. Quick reply is that I appreciate and look forward to your insights also.

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