Towards a Catholic Left

For the past few years the Catholic alliance with the Right has usually been accepted as a political given. It has been accepted by a majority of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In fact, it is common now to assume that if one is a Catholic then one must necessarily be right-wing or center-right. Only within recent years has this perception started to change. Why is this the case? No one would deny that there might have been a need for a strategic alliance with the Right in the past. But we must recognize that there are many disparities between the American conservative tradition and the Catholic tradition of political theory. I have criticized the Catholic alliance with the American-Protestant Right in the past; and I would like to restate and add to that criticism. Any Catholic politics must work towards structuring a positive political set of demands and to work out possible alternatives and courses of action.

The first issue that should be dealt with is that of social values. The main one being abortion. It is important to preface this with the fact I believe that any Catholic political movement must not compromise on this issue; nonetheless, I would like to put forward some suggestions on how to adequately frame the question of abortion within a coherent set of political demands.

How is this to be done? While we should not abandon the traditional focus on personhood, we must seek to create a new discourse that will allow for common ground with regard to abortion – without abandoning the vision of a society without abortion. We must seek to reformulate our principles and to put forward the question of abortion as a social and an economic question. As Catholics, this reframing must make central not only the question of personhood, but also the question of what economic conditions create the necessity for abortion. We must recognize that abortion has a class dynamic to it. Thus, this reformulation must make a connection between the culture of death produced by capitalism; capitalism’s instrumental and utilitarian logic and the ways in which abortion is a symptom of those things. This would include a move towards abolishing the economic and cultural preconditions for it.

Secondly, for any coherent political organization to function, that organization must ask itself: who are our friends? Who are our enemies? These questions are necessary ones, for it is impossible to function in the political realm without delineating between friend and enemy. After this analysis, we might discover that our traditional enemies may have become potential allies, and vice versa. Nonetheless, at this stage, one finds that both the left and right are insufficient to some extent. Should we then leave the realm of politics and engage in a form of non-political activity? No! Even more, we should not go the route of fascism, a route that is being taken by many Catholics and certain parties in Europe. We must not seek to try go “beyond left and right.” On the contrary, we must use this insufficiency as a way to forge a new politics.

Nonetheless, as stated above, this “new politics” would not be a “fusion” of left and right values. Not only because such a thing usually turns into a form of fascism, but also because it is, in some sense, impossible and undesirable. We must take a stand in the political sphere. It is impossible to be truly neutral. We must lose our fear of being “partisan.”

Where then does that leave us? Should we, as Catholics, side with the Right due to one issue (abortion) or, should we side with the left? Or, should we side with neither, as some Catholics seem to believe? If we are to side with the Right, then should we just learn to live with the fact that, in the public eye, abortion seems to be our only issue? Are we, as Catholics, as a political and religious group, single-issue voters? Should our politics only consist of being anti-abortion? I think not. While it is true that abortion is an important and central issue, we must remember that there are others issues that cannot be brushed aside.

With this in mind, I would argue that a critical alliance with the left on issues except abortion is a useful course of action. Not only because it will help us gain cultural and political hegemony, but also because many left-wing issues (such as anti-neoliberalism, deportations, refugees, racism, and so on) seem to intersect with Catholic Social Thought. Let us not forget that Catholic politics has historically been extremely varied. Such as movements and individuals like Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker movement, the Plowshares Movement, Philip Berrigan, Peter De Mott, and so on.

What then, would this “new politics” consist of? Firstly, this new form of politics must recognize what Pope Paul VI in his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens calls the “ambiguity of every social ideology”. That is to say, we must not put stock in any one sociological theory (such as, for example, Marxism). At the same time, we must utilize (and criticize) the many different political and sociological theories (including Marxism). This “ambiguity of every social ideology” does not imply that we should adopt an unprincipled and anti-foundational approach to politics. Only that we should refuse to let our politics to be tied to any one form of secular political theory. We must first and foremost utilize the tradition of the Church. We must remain loyal to the Church (yet avoid ultramontanism), in addition to remaining orthodox in doctrinal matters. At the same time, we should work to avoid letting this “new politics” become assimilated and lose its distinctly Catholic identity. Nonetheless, this new politics should also utilize the traditions of both the secular and religious left.

Who or what, then, are our enemies? What must we oppose? We must oppose what Pope Paul VI calls (paraphrasing Pope Pius XI) the “international imperialism of money”; economic liberalism/neoliberalism (which one can rightly call capitalism), racism (systemic and individual), and any form of fascism or crypto-fascism. We must also then oppose all forms of liberalism in practice and its “erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity” (Octogesima adveniens) This does not mean an opposition to individual autonomy per se, only an opposition to the type of autonomy which allows for the “right” to exploit, the “right” to oppress, the “right” to be racist, the “right” to blaspheme, the “right” to support fascism, the “right” to pay an unjust wage, the “right” to expropriate value from the worker, and so on. It is precisely in this sense that we are opposed to the notion of liberalism. We must contrast this regime of liberalism with a regime of virtue and the common good.

Similarly, with regards to the current rise of crypto-fascist (and sometimes outright fascist) nationalism in Europe and in America, we must oppose what Pope Pius XI terms the “pagan worship of the State” (in his Non abbiamo bisogno.) It is important to note however, with regards to the national question, that we should not attack those who wish to break free from the shackles of imperialism or colonialism/settler colonialism. We must repeat the words of Pope Leo XII who states in his encyclical Libertas: “Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power. Nor does she blame those who wish to assign to the State the power of self-government, and to its citizens the greatest possible measure of prosperity.”

Finally, if the last few months have taught us anything, it is that if any political movement wants to succeed, it must be populist to some extent. A new form of Catholic politics must simultaneously maintain a distinctly Catholic identity while at the same time must also be able to create coalitions with other groups. It must be able to coherently articulate its demands, and it must be able to do so using a language that is able to unite many diverse groups and identities. At the same time, this politics must rest on a concrete class basis. It is simply impossible to create a coherent politics based upon a union of “all classes”. Politics is by its nature necessarily antagonistic and partisan. As Catholics, we must not shy away from taking sides and we must abandon the false veneer of neutrality in the realm of social conflicts.

Anthony Fisher, formerly Albrecht Bastian, is a freelance writer.


2 thoughts on “Towards a Catholic Left

  1. Facts.
    Want to echo the comment about the ASP. We need more and louder voices from the left to balance out the timid moderation advocated by some in the party/by Christian democracy in general.


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