Life, Liberty and Mercy: One Catholic’s Contribution to American Political Discourse

Cardinal Timothy Dolan chose “Let Freedom Ring!” as the title of his recent talk before the John Carroll Society in Washington, DC. And it now appears to be the rallying cry for faithful Catholics seeking to engage the upcoming presidential election with something more than fear and trembling.  Earlier at the Democratic National Convention, Cardinal Dolan heroically linked the procedural principle of liberty to the more substantive issue of life, but President Obama’s HHS mandate has had the (intended? unintended?) effect of moving liberty ahead of life—that is, abortion—as the main religious issue of the campaign.  This will undoubtedly ease the conscience of Catholics who intend to vote for Mitt Romney—he is much more trustworthy on liberty than life.  More troubling for pro-life Catholic consciences should be the honest recognition that for the last forty years or so, the Republican Party has consistently placed liberty before life.  From Reagan to Bush II, Republican presidents have moved heaven and earth to confront threats to liberty at home (the New Deal/Great Society welfare state) and abroad (Soviet communism), yet have remained comparatively timid on life issues. Decades of Republican rule have shown no significant decrease in the annual number of abortions, while these same years have seen the rise of a new threat to the culture of life, gay marriage.  Advocates of gay marriage draw on a language of liberty shared by advocates of abortion and opponents of tax hikes:  liberty is liberty, whether we are talking about sex or money, and the government has no right to restrict liberty provided individuals do not use their liberty to harm others.

Cardinal Dolan and the Catholic Church clearly have a different understanding of life and liberty than the average American voter, who seems somewhat uncomfortably resigned to the current abortion regime and somewhat more comfortably willing to accept gay marriage.  Catholic invocation of life and liberty persistently obscures this difference by conflating Catholic moral/social/spiritual principles with the Enlightenment deism of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  Those Enlightenment words may provide a point of contact with the Catholic tradition, but they do not provide a common ground.  To illuminate Catholic distinctiveness, we need to use different words.  In another place and time, concepts such as “social justice” or “the common good” would have the potential to move political discourse in a more Catholic direction, yet in our place and time the terms are hopelessly compromised by their long association with Catholic support for welfare state liberalism.  In order for these terms—and yes, life and liberty—to have clear Catholic meaning again, we need a word capable of shaking up contemporary categories of the right and the left. To accomplish such a shake up, I modestly propose the word “mercy.”

In proposing the word mercy, I proudly draw on the work of the great, and largely forgotten, American Catholic thinker, L. Brent Bozell.  Now more than ever, American Catholics, especially those who identify themselves as political conservatives, need to read deeply in Bozell’s essays.  A speech writer for Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, Bozell was one of the most significant architects of early postwar American intellectual conservatism. By the late 1960s, however, he had come to reject political conservatism as complicit in the social revolution of the time by virtue of its commitment to a libertarian understanding of freedom as freedom from constraint.  All Catholic supporters of Ron Paul should read Bozell’s classic 1962 National Review essay, “Freedom or Virtue?, before getting into bed with libertarians.  Bozell suffered for his Catholicism.  His former allies gradually deserted him.  In 1975, his journal Triumph folded. Having lost his most consistent point of contact with the wider world of ideas, Bozell spent the next two decades publishing intermittently in small Catholic journals as he battled his own personal demon of bipolar disorder.  The essays he published in his moments of clarity challenged the Catholics of his time—and should continue to challenge Catholics in our own time—to put their Catholicism first in their public as well as private lives.  In a 1985 essay for The Wanderer, he proposed a Catholic politics that he dubbed “the politics of mercy.”

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Consider the year, 1985.  Ronald Reagan was president.  For many conservative Catholics today, this was the golden age of “morning in America.”  Not so for Bozell.  He held America to the standards of a very different world leader, John Paul II.  Shortly before Reagan evoked the image of America as “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon of liberty to the world, John Paul issued his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, which “called upon Catholics, and others, to adopt a missionary zeal in trying to alleviate man-made suffering in the world.”  For Bozell, John Paul “appeared to be identifying mercy as the supreme public mission of the Catholic Church.”  Conservative Catholics today tend to see John Paul and Ronald Reagan as the super-hero team up that brought down Soviet communism.  Bozell remained a hard-line anticommunist into the 1980s; in this essay, he actually criticizes Reagan for failing to intervene sufficiently to turn back the communist tide in Latin America.  He sees this, however, not as a failure to defend freedom and democracy (and of course, private property), but as a failure to exercise mercy.  Writing as Reagan was set to begin his second term, Bozell thought it imperative for American Catholics “to ask how, or whether, their temporal leader, as well as they themselves, [had] responded to this urgent mandate from their spiritual leader.”  That is, even as Bozell supported the general American fight against communism, he held that fight to a Catholic standard few Americans, including American Catholics, were willing to accept.

Why reject mercy?  In Bozell’s reading of John Paul, a true politics of mercy would call into question some of the fundamental entitlements of the American way of life.  In the encyclical, John Paul calls the West to judgment, warning of the “dangers produced by a materialistic society which—in spite of ‘humanistic’ declarations—accepts the primacy of things over persons.” John Paul sees in Western materialism “a gigantic remorse [sic] caused by the fact that, side by side with wealthy and surfeited people and societies, living in plenty and ruled by consumerism and pleasure, the same human family contains individuals and groups that are suffering from hunger….” Bozell is less generous than John Paul:  “Let’s face it: the more accurate word for describing the attitude of even the most sensitive of the world’s well-to-do is ‘embarassed.’ Or ‘uneasy.’  This is because they … have failed to recognize the decisive bearing of Christian revelation on world politics.  The Pope can talk about mercy as an obligation—the dominant obligation—of every country’s foreign policies because that is the way God made the world.”  Taken out of context, this could easily appear to be a liberal brief for foreign aid or distributive social justice.  Yet for Bozell, John Paul’s use of the language of mercy draws the whole range of issues conventionally associated with “social justice” into a deeper Gospel context.  Jesus fed the hungry; he also suffered and died for our sins.  Both were acts of mercy that we are called to imitate today, in our public as well as private life.

The last time a president asked us to sacrifice—Jimmy Carter’s infamous sweater speech—he was laughed out of office.  As Daniel Rodgers has pointed out in his recent book Age of Fracture, Reagan inspired Americans by reassuring them that they no longer had to sacrifice, much less suffer, for it was “morning in America.”  Both parties today speak of tough choices, but Paul Ryan and President Obama both justify the very different sacrifices they propose as instrumental means to returning America to the very consumer paradise condemned by John Paul and, more recently, Pope Benedict.  Consumerism is not a soft, fuzzy, cultural issue.  It is a brass tacks economic necessity that has driven our economy at least since World War II.   Both parties promise social justice—for Democrats, through the state, for Republicans, through the market—understood as the democratic expansion of consumerism to an ever wider range of the population.  Perhaps the current economic collapse is God’s way of asking us to reconsider how we have been living.  We have been called not simply to help the poor, but in a very real, material way, to be poor.  Perhaps we are being called to a politics of mercy.


  • Christopher Shannon

    Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

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