Adherence to ideology: the tie that blinds

The 2011 legislative session is finally drawing to a close.

Many were surprised by the inability of legislative leaders and the governor to reach a compromise agreement be­fore a shutdown occurred. When the two parties did finally produce a budget framework, neither side was pleased with an outcome that few believe represents the beginning of a long-term solution to the state’s fiscal woes.

The inability to compromise, however, was not based so much on stubbornness or sheer partisanship as it was on adherence to ideological principle.

On one level it is refreshing to see politicians stake out principled positions and stick to them. But on another level, an almost slavish adherence to ideology in politics can and does inflict harm to the very people public officials claim to serve. And it was ideology that marked the 2011 legislative session.

‘The Catholic mind’

An ideology typically involves building an intellectual system around a particular idea or truth, but to the exclusion of other ideas or information.

It is a lot like a theological heresy.  In many cases, an ideology represents an “ideal” system whose adherents are often, you might say, religiously devoted to it.

By contrast, what the Jesuit philosopher James V. Schall calls “the Catholic mind” is a radical intellectual openness to “all that is.”  It recognizes that truth and reality are not so much ours to create but instead are gifts to be received. We flourish as human beings only when we conform our actions to the truths around us, which we must first have the humility to recognize and receive.

We should not be surprised, then, that in our post-Christian Western world — marked by the increasing rejection and disintegration of Catholic tradition — ideological devotion to particular truths or ideas is the hallmark of our politics, even among Catholics.

For many Catholics of the “baby-boom” generation, the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty were defining issues.

Thus, their “hunger and thirst for righteousness” compelled them to support the Democratic Party. But when faced with the evidence that there are active attempts being made in the courts and in the Legislature to redefine the bedrock social institution of marriage, some of those same people turn a blind eye and write off protecting marriage as a “Republican issue.”

Or worse, they may embrace a false ideology of civil rights that upholds people’s ability to do what they want instead of what they ought.

Conversely, many younger Catholics — as well as elderly Catholics of the Greatest Generation — were shaped by opposition to communism and the culture wars, thus causing them to be more sympathetic to Republicans. When some of these Catholics are confronted with the reality of increasing poverty and declining economic opportunity, they tend to minimize the problems or try to explain them away through the lens of the faux-capitalist dogma that animates much of GOP politics today.

Asserting that government can and should prudentially step in when necessary to help alleviate the effects of poverty and build a ladder out of it are seen as dangerous endorsements of the Demo­crats and will, in the end, endanger liberties and ultimately thwart the pro-life movement, among other things.

Catholic first

What marks these two understandable perspectives is people’s well-meaning isolation of certain truths to the exclusion of all others.

In contrast to a Catholic worldview that aims to integrate all truth wherever it is found, we are left with a choice between partisan agendas that are at best gravely incomplete answers to a set of comprehensive problems and at worst the cobbling together of various special interests.

Certainly, the political realities of today often require us to make an informed judgment about which party or candidate constitutes the greater good (or, more accurately, the lesser evil).
But what does not bode well for our church are the number of us who are quick to identify as Republicans or Democrats instead of, simply, Catholics.

Fortunately, there is a remedy to the slavery of ideology if we are humble enough to open our mind and will to receive it: Catholic social teaching.

‘Leaven for the world’

CST is a true philosophy of society. The ethical framework it proposes to both sustain and reconstruct the public order is the fruit of thousands of years of intelligent, prayerful reflection.

It can hardly be contested that had the West embraced the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in his social encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (1891), the world would have been spared much of the destruction and loss of life caused by the ideological battles of the 20th century.

Rather than taking our political cues from a party platform because we are deeply devoted to a few of its planks, we should be attentive to the collective wisdom of the church.

If we have the heart to receive Catholic teaching and let it form our politics, then the church will truly provide a leaven for the world that will not only re-orient the political landscape, but also offer the opportunity for real political solutions that safeguard human dignity, the family and the common good.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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