Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Catholicism and populism

Some days I read articles that catch my interest haphazardly and then notice a theme running through them. Today was one of those days. I started reading an article at the National Review site and then clicked on a "recommended" link that came up at the bottom of the page. The paragraph that struck me was this one:
“Populism,” Jeff wrote,“is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people.”
The article is by Matthew Continetti and "Jeff" refers to the late Jeffrey Bell.

 A little later I was reading a piece about Flannery O'Connor and I was struck by this quote,
“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic,” O’Connor said. She added that these religions are “full of unconscious pride that leads to all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments.”
And, just a few moments ago, I came across an article in First Things that included these paragraphs,
Human happiness depends not on maximizing individual rights and liberty, important as both are, but on ensuring complementarity among persons—achieved by a lengthy and sometimes arduous process. We conceive of that process as culminating in a shape, and as similar to the folding of a flat sheet of paper into three dimensions. Thus, this essay’s guiding metaphor is of a folding process that shapes us into persons who “fit with,” mutually support, and depend on one another.
We argue that this folding process can take place only in hierarchy; markets cannot direct it. When markets encroach on hierarchies and reallocate resources away from them, society suffers. When hierarchies are properly protected and empowered, society flourishes.

I think we can see here the split that currently haunts both conservatism in general and Catholic conservatism.

To return to the NR piece about Jeffrey Bell,
The reluctance of Republican leaders to take up social conservatism, formulate an economic policy that addressed the monetary roots of stagnation, and forthrightly advocate the doctrine of morality in foreign policy bothered Jeff, even if it did not surprise him. 
If you'd started there, you'd think that conservative Catholics would be a good match with populists.  The first point, social conservatism, and the last, a forthright declaration of morality in foreign policy, are both natural fits for conservative Catholics. And these have been rallying points for Catholics and, for example, evangelicals in the past few years. But there is also a tension and it's a big one. Conservative Catholics have very little "optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives." It can look like Catholic social conservatism is compatible with the American ideal for a while but, inevitably, conservative Catholics will fail to go to wall for the cause because it isn't their cause. They're elitists.

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