Citizens Yet Strangers

Published May 22, 2024

The Catholic Thing

As I’ve noted here in the past, Georges Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest and Under Satan’s Sun, isone of my favorite writers.  The reasons are simple.  He was profoundly Catholic.  He had a keen sense of irony.  And he was relentlessly candid.  Honesty matters, and Bernanos never avoided it, because nothing good comes from evading or minimizing uncomfortable truths.

Candor marked all of his final works.  Among them is an essay written in the aftermath of World War II  (and collected here) titled “Why Freedom?”  In it, he  argued that “An inhuman civilization is, obviously, one that is based on a false or incomplete definition of man.”  And that, said Bernanos, was exactly what he saw taking shape.

Thanks to modern technologies and their power to shape thought, appetites, and opinion, modern man was creating a civilization “in the image of a prodigiously diminished and shrunken man, a man no longer made in the image of God, but in the image of a speculator – that is to say, of a man reduced to two states, both equally miserable, of consumer and taxpayer.”

The result would inevitably be a crippled sense of our humanity and the need “above all to re-spiritualize man.”

Bernanos wrote those words through the lens of his native French culture nearly eighty years ago.  They’re even more urgently relevant today in an American culture soaked in technological addictions that promise freedom, but too often bear fruit in a “diminished and shrunken” concept of man.

Americans have a genius for toolmaking and practical innovation rooted in our Protestant (Calvinist) and Enlightenment founding.  We have a similar genius for dismissing the past and its wisdom.  We define ourselves as a novus ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages” – words stamped on the Great Seal of the United States.

But what does any of the above mean today for American Catholics?  That’s the question at the heart of Kenneth Craycraft’s excellent new book Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America.  Craycraft is a lawyer and Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Cincinnati’s Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology.  His command of both the law and Catholic beliefs gives him a uniquely valuable perspective on the American character. . .and how Catholics can (and can’t) faithfully engage it.

Craycraft has a clear, lean style, and like Bernanos, he starts with some unvarnished facts:  “Catholics in the United States today are liberal Protestants before we are anything else.  To form our moral lives as Catholics is a constant battle to overcome the liberal Protestantism that we began to consume with our mother’s milk.”  As a result, he argues, our political party affiliation can often be irrelevant because our culture is permeated by a false anthropology, an idea of humanity absent the image of God.

For Craycraft, “This anthropology is characterized by at least two elements: (1) radical personal autonomy and (2) an absolute commitment to individualism characterized by the language of ‘individual rights’ as the basic moral foundation (or indeed, for some, the only measure of moral action).”

The issues that divide America’s right and left may have real substance, but the vocabulary of the debates is shaped by a closed system of classically liberal thought.  In effect, “we speak a common language of liberalism with partisan accents.”  Thus,

Many of us American Catholics are liberals before we are Catholic. . .we subscribe to and practice the moral and political language of liberalism as the foundation and structure of our religious, moral, and political lives.  Specific Catholic moral teachings may fill some gaps, but these doctrines are subordinate, and thus answerable, to our own autonomous consciences.  We have learned the language of [classical] liberalism while forgetting the language of Catholicism.

The goal of his book, Craycraft notes, “is to challenge all of us to recover a Catholic moral language through what are sometimes called the ‘four pillars’ of Catholic social doctrine: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.”

And this leads to the book’s central argument, wherein Craycraft argues:

Christians can live under a wide variety of cultural and political systems, but this entails resistance to identification with any [specific] philosophies, narratives, and intellectual justifications.  This includes identification with any particular political theory or unqualified allegiance to any particular regime. . . .Christians may obey the law and even engage in broader civic life, but the rationale for this participation is found not in the principles – or the languages – of the regime, but rather in a distinct Christian dialect.

One of the appeals of Citizens Yet Strangers is its simplicity – simplicity in the best and most effective sense.  Craycraft makes his case in concise, methodical steps geared persuasively to a broad Catholic readership.  The quotations I’ve used so far in this column all come from the book’s Introduction and first chapter (“We Are All Liberal Protestants”).  But these merely set the stage; they’re the preamble to a much richer discussion in his subsequent chapters on our nature as social beings; the substance of Catholic social doctrine; the role and importance of the family; the dignity of work; the urgency of economic justice; and political life as a vocation of “civic friendship and Christian discipleship.”

“As I come to the end of this book,” Craycraft writes:

I suggest that we take a step back to consider both the demands of the doctrines of our faith and the competing demands of American citizenship.  Perhaps the demands can be reconciled.  And by no means am I suggesting categorically that they cannot. . . .But we [must] not take the moral theories of the American founding as theological principles but as pragmatically workable propositions for living peaceable lives in a pluralist political culture.  If we conceive of it this way, we can be America’s good civic friends, but God’s faithful servants first.

As we enter yet another bitterly contentious election season, no advice could be wiser.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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