The Moral Content of Politics

Monday, October 20, AD 2008

Amy Welborn had a post the other day making a very important point, summing up much of what I’ve been thinking but not successfully putting into words for much of the interminable lead-up to this election. Amy asks:

[I]s Catholic politico-talk, particularly in the present moment, as most of us are engaging in it, taking place essentially on the level of vague assertions, associations and concepts? And – are we avoiding and ignoring the way that government and political processes actually work?

She singles out two particular areas in which Catholic bloggers have often imbued politics with too much weight, and thus divorced it from what it is.

First, voting: A vote is simply a tool to an end. It is not an endorsement of all the positions of the candidate one votes for, nor does it mean that one believes that this is the best imaginable candidate and is “deserving” of the office. Rather, it simply means that of the people on the ballot for that given election, this is the person one thinks it would be best to see win. Second, the political state is an entity with limited power:

Can we read St. Augustine, please? City of God and City of Man and all that?

It seems to me that some of our conversations about political life in Catholic circles ask far more from government than it is able to give (I’ll touch on this more in a later post, as well – probably several. It is a core issue, I think.), not only because of the proper scope of government but because of the limitations and VAGARIES of political, social and economic life. I do think conversations about health care are a perfect example of this, but I do want to do a separate post on this, so you might want to save your specifics for later.

I don’t want to suggest cynicism or hopelessness. I’m also not definitely suggesting that the law, for example, is useless or pointless in shaping our lives and choices. That’s just silly. I’m just sort of groping for a way towards a more realistic engagement between the way politics and government actually works and the way that we talk about it as Catholics, citizens of both Cities, at the moment.

One of her commenters, Liam, also makes what I think is a very important point:

The problem is that much Church teaching still indirectly assumes the idea of the single-willed sovereign in the political organism. And that notion simply doesn’t obtain in modern representative democracy with a panoply of checks and balances that are precisely designed to frustrate the application of any single will to political effectiveness. Someday, the Church may catch up on this, but it has only done so at the surface and at the level of very general goals.

One thing that may have to evolve is our understanding of the conditions for grave sin. We have a long-standing teaching about consent that still implies a single actor capable of having sufficient knowledge. In representative government, there are many actors, partial knowledge, and consent cannot necessarily be presumed to omissions because the array of consequences of omissions are too numerous to take into account. I do wonder if there are any serious moral theologians out there who are considering this aspect of the problem.

I think one of the ways that we got into this impasse is that over the last thirty years pro-life Catholics have worked hard to emphasize how important a vote is. We developed the language of voting for a pro-choice politician being a “formal co-operation with evil”, and we argued whether it was a “direct co-operation” or a “remote co-operation”. While not wanting to undermine the gravity of the abortion issue, I think that some may have tried to imbue the act of voting with rather more significance than it actually has. At the end of the day, we’re simply answering a rather imperfect multiple choice question: Which of the following would you like to see fill Office XYZ. We shouldn’t take it lightly, but we shouldn’t give it more credit than it deserves either. (And we should keep in mind that the person we vote for both retains free will and has every incentive to lie to us.)

The point about the limits of government is also well taken. Government action will never “end abortion” — though it should without question outlaw it. Nor will it end poverty. Or racism. Or war. Or indeed any of the evils which as human being we choose to inflict upon ourselves and others. Most certainly, government can achieve some very legitimate goods, but those goods are limited because human society is not itself perfectible. And thus, attempts to perfect society invariably backfire in nasty sorts of ways.


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