Recently the editorial staff of Missione Oggi, our mission magazine for Italy, asked me to write an article on the Catholic Church in America after more than a year in the term of President Donald Trump. The clash between the present vision of the government and Catholic social teaching in many areas is cause for concern. I also see the importance of the Church that is attempting to be a seed of reconciliation.
Fr. Carl Chudy, SX
Ayn Rand, Russian born novelist, philosopher and playwright, immigrated to the United States in 1926. Her first novel called The Fountainhead in the 1940’s was one of the few works of fiction Donald Trump liked, and she had a long and deep influence for US conservatives and libertarians until today. The impact of Donald Trump, national populism, and the national religious right one year and half into his term of office as President of the United States may be understood in a long-time clash of the enduring legacy of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, called objectivism, and what we Catholics would name the common good.
Rand, who died in 1982, first expressed her philosophy of objectivism in her novel, The Fountainhead in 1943, and later in her novel, Atlas Shrugged in 1957. Objectivism’s central tenets are that reality exists independently of consciousness, that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism. It is the belief that we exist for our own sake, that the pursuit of our own happiness is the highest moral purpose, that we must not sacrifice ourselves to others, nor sacrifice others to us.
The assumptions behind the policies of Mr. Trump in international relations, immigration, climate change, health care, and many other issues have a history underpinned by objectivism’s “coming out in politics,” going back to the Thatcher-Reagan years, to the great recession of 2007 and the presidency of Barack Obama where the fears of interference of the federal government would reach a fever pitch in the conservative Tea Party, to the present White House administration filled with resolute objectivists seeking to renovate America completely, disillusioned by globalization.
In Catholic social teaching, the human person, made in God’s image, is both a sacred being and a social being. We can only flourish in community. Rights and duties are carried out in community, which includes the community of the family, wider society, and the world. The good of everyone is intimately connected to the good of the wider society. It is the clash of these two worldviews and values that lies in the entrenched dissonances in the halls of power today, not only in Washington, but in Europe and elsewhere.
The Concerns of the US Catholic Bishops
Last year I wrote an article for Missione Oggi at the start of the Trump administration entitled, The US Catholic Church and the Agenda of President Trump. In it, I spoke of the stark contrasts of views in climate change, immigration, international relations, net neutrality, international mining and many other areas that have helped fuel an environment of global isolationism, xenophobia, renewed anti-Semitism and racism, and too many reported incidences of hate crimes around Islamophobia. Fear and paranoia seems to pervade the cultural environment.
So, many of these issues continue to find the Catholic Bishops and the Trump administration at odds as the flurry of public statements of the Catholic Bishops doubled in number from 2016 through 2017. Yet, despite the protests of the bishops and religious men and women, and many grassroots Catholic organizations, there has been an overall inability to cut through the noise of “fake news” that has made civil discourse seemingly impossible. But in the end, Catholic leadership rarely calls out the onerous effects of Mr. Trump’s policies directly.
Two areas the bishops are very much in agreement with the White House are concerning the availability of family services that do not include abortion services and religious liberty issues, which many feel have been encroached upon through more recent progressive policies in such issues as same sex marriage, government mandated insurance coverage of birth control and other issues. That said, this may be partly why they do not more forcefully direct opposition toward the Trump administration, in order not to jeopardize gains seen in life and religious liberty issues thus far.
The Ecumenism of Hate
Last year the Catholic journal, La Civilta Cattolica, sanctioned by the Vatican, published a provocative essay entitled: Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism. The article speaks of a strange form of ecumenism between some Evangelical fundamentalists and Catholic Integralists brought together by the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere. They are defined as value voters to attract an electoral mass. It says: “Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type state.”
Some of these Catholics have banded with a national neo-Christianity of some Evangelicals who are the impetus and drive behind the present government administration’s agenda. Church Militant, an ultra-conservative Catholic think tank reflects this as it created a close analogy between Donald Trump and Emperor Constantine, and between Hillary Clinton and Diocletian. The American elections in this perspective were viewed as a “spiritual war.”
The Contribution to Interfaith and Civil Reconciliation
What we learn in solidarity with the victims of the clash of conflicting forces in American society and globally is a faith-filled response that re-imagines fractured relationships, seeing more than one way we all connect, and that reconciliation becomes the higher option. In fact, from a Catholic point of view, a new paradigm for Christian mission today is the mission of reconciliation.
Is it possible to apply the spirituality of reconciliation to the Christian mission and interfaith commitment in the United States, where presently the more cognizant we are of our diversity, the more divided we become? Can this spirituality shape our strategies of interconnectedness and solidarity across civil, cultural and religious boundaries? The answer is a resounding yes.
Subsequently, Catholic voices have something to offer as we gather with other faith and secular traditions in the project of pluralism. Where diversity is fact, pluralism is achievement. For this diversity to achieve pluralism, interfaith leaders engage people in a manner that accommodates the deeply held identity differences and the inevitable conflicts these differences imply. For Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, the framework for this pluralism lies in three areas:
• Respect for identity and concerns: to respect someone’s concerns does not require you to agree with it or to accept it.
• Relationships between different communities: building relationships with diverse communities is essential. It takes the form of conversation, activity, or other friendly contacts. This engagement understands that full agreement is not possible, but in the interaction and humanization of our perceptions of each other, a genuine concern for the well-being of the other is implied.
• Commitment to the common good: Interfaith leadership here awakens in others to the possibility of a common good and we all have a collective interest to uphold.