CHRISTIANITY/ Life in the ‘Kingdom of Whatever’ (1)
The Life of Martin Luther and the Heroes of the Reformation
The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.
I don’t know what Professor MacIntyre did this year. For my part, along with my brother bishops in Pennsylvania, I believe it’s important to vote in every election day. A well-formed Catholic conscience can choose wisely between the candidates. And this year, vital issues are at stake.
Still, elections are tough times for serious Catholics. If we believe in the encyclical tradition—from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate—then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”
Any committed Christian might be tempted to despair. But the truth is that it’s always been this way. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “here we have no abiding city” (Heb 13:14). Augustine admired certain pagan Roman virtues, but he wrote the City of God to remind us that we’re Christians first, worldly citizens second. We need to learn—sometimes painfully—to let our faith chasten our partisan appetites.
In the United States, our political tensions flow from our cultural problems. Exceptions clearly exist, but today our culture routinely places rights over duties, individual fulfillment over community, and doubt over belief. In effect, the glue that now holds us together is our right to go mall-crawling and buy more junk. It’s hard to live a life of virtue when all around us, in the mass media and even in the lives of colleagues and neighbors, discipline, restraint, and self-sacrifice seem irrelevant.
Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian, seeks to show how we got this way in his recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. His answers are surprising, and for some readers, controversial. But his book is also important—and in its explanatory power, brilliant.
Gregory argues that today’s relativism and cult of the consumer—what he ironically calls “the goods life”—have roots that run centuries deep. He wastes no time on nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. But he does show with riveting clarity that in the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers unintentionally set in motion certain ideas that eventually enabled today’s radical self-centeredness.