In the last few days, Speaker of the House John Boehner has come under fire from college professors at Catholic University in Washington DC and other schools, since his invitation to give a commencement address there. The group of professors, now numbering in the seventies, started a petition to bar Boehner from appearing, claiming his recent spearheading of budget-cutting efforts and entitlement-slashing to be antithetical to Catholic beliefs, specifically the Christian responsibility of charity and almsgiving.
This issue uncovered what is, for me as a Catholic and a conservative myself, a very important question. In his groundbreaking book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis predicted that a fully Christian world would function similarly to a socialist utopia. Given the teachings of Christ, and the emphasis they contain on giving to the poor, this claim seems difficult to question. In the era of American big government, it appears that Catholic leaders have taken the leap of assigning government the responsibility of safeguarding this particular Catholic value – in short, through its support of welfare and entitlement programs, the church has institutionalized this element of spirituality in government. In the petition, even signed by five professors from Boehner’s alma mater, Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, the distinction between government and individual responsibility for charity to the poor seems nonexistent. At one point, the letter reads: “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.” It becomes clear that the Catholic professors who signed this letter see no difference between the role of the individual to promote Christian values, and that of the state to do so.
As early as Machiavelli, we see the acknowledgement of a difference between the morality that a politician must exercise in office for the betterment of society, and the morality that he uses in his personal interactions with other people. The simple meaning of this idea is that government is not interchangeable with individuals. Similarly, one cannot expect to be able to centralize or sequester all individual responsibilities in government. This idea fights against the opposite conception, as in Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the very function of government is to create an artificial man, in whom all men who were formerly individuals are contained. The sensibilities of this collective man replace the individual sensibilities of each man. Through history, Machiavelli’s idea has won: our American constitution attests to this. While the responsibilities of individual men are extensive and diverse, those of government extend barely beyond the boundaries of preserving order, defending the nation, and providing a vehicle for individuals (who are clearly distinct from the state) to change it.
After noticing that we clearly live in a nation that recognizes this distinction, I began to perceive that the agenda of the Catholic Church on many fiscal issues flew in the face of my understanding of American ideas. It seemed to me as though the Church was using government to blur the distinction between the individual and the collectivity. Then, the question is raised whether the two forces, the American conception of limited government, and the Catholic one of generosity, truly pull in opposite directions. I believe they do not. I believe that this projection by the Catholic authorities of individual spirituality onto government is a faulty one.
We go back to C.S. Lewis’ conclusion that Earth would exist like a socialist utopia if it were completely Christian. Would this utopia come about, though, through government coercion and the confiscation of our property? This seems doubtful. In Jesus’ command to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, the concept of charity (a spiritual pillar) clearly falls under the category of rendering to God. In a deeply spiritual religion that emphasizes personal belief as the key to salvation, it seems unlikely that we would grow in faith by having one of the main Christian tenets forced upon us by other men without believing. Rather, the utopian earth Lewis predicted would come about through widespread faith and widespread selflessness, leading in turn to widespread generosity.
The suggestion made in the letter to Speaker Boehner is an extremely bleak one: it seems to imply that one of the ultimate ends of Christian life is making sure that everyone has material comfort here on Earth. However, as the life of Christ, whose suffering Christians believe to be vital to his identity as the savior, would attest, material well-being is never necessary to love God and be a true good Christian. The message of generosity, beyond its material implications, exists as a demonstration of a Christian’s turning away from the self and toward God – it is a gesture of love both for the divine and one’s fellow man. Therefore it is clear that Christian generosity is just as much, if not more, about the giver as about the recipient. What implications does this have for the compatibility of Christian ideas with government munificence? The answer seems clear: generosity is worthless as a spiritual concept if it is not done out of the free will of a generous individual (an excellent post on American Thinker by Timothy Birdnow makes this point). The centralization of Christianity at a level above the individual, and aloof of his free will, is useless. While championing a faith defined by its emphasis on belief, these Catholic professors are instead focusing on creating an infrastructure that will force non-Christians into doing Christian acts. Taking the emphasis away from spirituality seems to desire the ends of Christianity without accepting the means. Liberals (in this case Catholic liberals) are once again putting the cart before the horse.
It is natural and even required of a truly religious person to prioritize their faith above their politics. In my mind, though, being both Catholic and conservative, the two beliefs are highly compatible. Conservatism gives me and all other Christians the freedom to perform works of Christianity by our own free will, the vehicle by which they gain meaning and purpose. I believe that it is not the function of the government to give me an ultimatum to practice my faith. As secular liberals who promote the same entitlement programs love to say, church and state must indeed be kept unquestionably separate here. Timothy Rutten put it very well in his op-ed in the L.A. Times, where he said that “church and state are separate in America not simply through constitutional tradition but because the tradition recognizes that politics and religion are distinct aspects of human experience.” In order for faith to be truly meaningful, it needs to be a conclusion that we all come to on our own.
I have other arguments, of course, to question entitlement programs in a non-religious context. On the debates over our current budget and the role of government in helping the poor, religion (and particularly mine) should be left completely out of it. I hope that Speaker Boehner stands strong and realizes these important distinctions. There is nothing contradictory for a Catholic about conservatism and faith.