A Radical Catholic Reviews Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis

The 2016 US Presidential campaign has included a semantic battle over the proper terminology to use when discussing members of ISIS and other violent extremists who share their totalitarian aspirations. Some Republican candidates believe the best term is “Radical Islam.” This terminology is problematic for a variety of reasons, but particularly because of its lack of clarity and the incorrect insinuation that being radical requires violence and brutality. It does not. The recent book Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis demonstrates this perfectly.

This aversion to the term ‘radical’ among candidates like Ted Cruz is not surprising. Many of these candidates embrace a watered-down, bourgeois form of Christianity that pales in comparison to authentic devotion to the way of Christ. Christianity calls for a countercultural presence. Those who are immersed in (and inseparable from) the mainstream culture are unlikely to embrace the radicalism of Christianity. And this may explain why they view radicalism so negatively.

Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis features essays from Catholics on both the left and the right. The diagnosis of problems facing contemporary American culture is the strongest feature of the book. Those who believe in Catholic social teaching cannot help but be disturbed by the flaws in our economic system, the dysfunction in American politics, and the poisonous discourse that makes achieving the common good even more difficult. And serious Catholics are also aware that the Catholic vision is not entirely compatible with the American project (or, more specifically, the classical liberalism that many see as the philosophy that shapes American values).

The ideas about how we might build stronger communities and live more fulfilling, joyful personal lives are also very valuable. And some of the authors are correct to note that the politicization of everything can act as an obstacle to such betterment and that genuine reform must begin on the personal level. A number of the essays provide avenues for living counterculturally without embracing a culture war mindset.

At the same time, the prescient critiques of the brokenness of our current political and economic systems sometimes slip into cynicism and an anti-state mentality that offers no real alternative but resignation to widespread injustice. The reality is that a radical Catholic cannot live in an oasis of bliss as grave injustice swirls around them, engulfing all those not lucky enough to belong to a special community that has separated itself not only from a broken culture but also a commitment to the common good. Such withdrawal only strengthens the grip of individualism and libertarianism on the instruments needed to protect the common good. A localist mindset that ignores our membership in broader communities leads to de facto libertarianism, and this widespread libertarianism in the US acts as a serious obstacle to both domestic and global justice.

The finest essay in the book is “Unlimited: The Cult of the Self” by Michael Stafford, which addresses the radical individualism that is far too prevalent in our culture. Stafford highlights the false understanding of the human person commonly held in our society and its consequences: relativism, nihilism, materialism, utilitarianism, the misunderstanding of liberty as license, and the supremacy of choice and autonomy in the hierarchy of values. The products of these mindsets are seen in abortion, the decline of the family, growing economic inequality, and climate change. It shatters our capacity to experience authentic relationships of communion. Stafford highlights the presence of these values among those who admire Ayn Rand on the right and those who celebrate the sexual revolution on the left. The essay gets at the heart of the libertarian plague that has infected both American liberals and conservatives. Stafford calls for the revitalization of communities and personal lives shaped by a commitment to virtue.

Tony Annett’s essay, “Toward the New Economy of Inclusion,” is also essential reading. Annett highlights the consequences of a growing market mentality and the way it corrodes our values and undermines solidarity. He writes about the costs on economic inequality: health problems, shorter lives, more violence and drug use, and more. He also offers a positive, comprehensive vision for upending this injustice, an important contribution to the book. He rightly notes the essential role the government must play in reining in the market so that it serves the common good. And he grounds his argument in a commitment to human flourishing and the relational nature of persons, rejecting utilitarianism and autonomous individualism. It is a positive alternative to Catholic free market enthusiasts who embrace a market morality that is rooted in foundational beliefs about the human person that cannot be reconciled with Catholic teaching.

The weakest element in the book is the absence of an authentic global vision, which is particularly problematic for Catholics, given the centrality of the global common good in Catholic social thought. Global poverty and environmental degradation should be immensely important for a radical Catholic that cares about the global common good and believes in the preferential option for the poor. Yet the focus is almost entirely on personal, local, and domestic (American) matters, ignoring things like integral human development, the protection of basic human rights around the world, and the duties Americans have to the poor and vulnerable living in other countries.

For some authors, this is because global politics and international relations fall outside of their areas of expertise—a wise reason not to write on these subjects—or because it is beyond the purview of the subject on which they were writing. For others, this is likely the product of their great affinity for pacifism, which is legitimately radical and, of course, has a rich tradition in the Church. For non-pacifists, however, the unwillingness of consistent pacifists to allow the state to use force, even in self-defense (to the point where a police force might be considered immoral because it necessarily involves coercion and force), cannot be reconciled with the state’s responsibilities as they are understood in contemporary Catholic social teaching—to its own citizens, to the people of states that have been attacked by aggressors, or to victims of genocide or other crimes against humanity. When nonviolent resistance is ineffective, all they can offer these vulnerable people who are crying out for help and protection is the cross. It is a radical approach (if one lives it out personally instead of just imposing it on others in far more vulnerable situations), but it is hard to reconcile with a commitment to promoting and protecting the human rights and human dignity of all members of our one human family. Even still, committed pacifists or hardcore anti-interventionists might still have discussed the need to address global issues unrelated to military intervention or the use of force.

Among certain authors we see small hints of parochialism that are even more strongly featured in their other writings and on social media (even though they attempt to inoculate themselves from such charges by preempting such accusations). This type of mentality is neither radical nor Catholic. Indifference to mass atrocities is not radical. Praising the realpolitik of foreign dictators is radical, but only because it is radically immoral. Valuing Christian lives more than Muslim lives is entirely antithetical to the Catholic worldview. Ignoring the grave responsibilities of the United States, as the world’s leading power, to promote justice and authentic peace when its role is indispensable is also not radical. When critiquing current US foreign policy, it is essential to offer a positive alternative rather than to cynically call for withdrawal and isolation. The entire country entered a non-interventionist mood following the disastrous incompetence of the George W. Bush’s administration. This is understandable, but replacing the need for heightened caution and prudence with an anti-interventionist intransigence that mirrors the isolationists of the 1930s and 1940s (with similar praise for vile autocrats) is not. It is a reactionary rather than a radical approach. Luckily, very little of this exists in the actual text of the book (to the credit of the editor). However, the absence of a genuine global vision remains the most serious flaw in an otherwise worthwhile set of essays.