Dr. Stephen Schneck is one of the country’s premier Catholic intellectuals—an advocate for Catholic social teaching in public life, lecturer, writer, and activist. He recently retired as the Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR) at the Catholic University of America, where he was also an award-winning professor in the politics department. In 2015, President Obama appointed Schneck to the White House Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Millennial editor Robert Christian, who was a graduate fellow under Schneck at IPR, recently interviewed him about his experiences as a pro-life Democrat, politics in the Trump Era, their shared work, and other subjects related to Catholicism and politics.
As a pro-life Democrat who believes in the preferential option for the poor, how would you evaluate recent trends in American politics and within the Democratic Party?
The measure of civilization, to my mind, is how the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable among us fare. This is the measure for justice that’s at the heart of the Christian social justice mission. It’s also the criterion for discerning the common good. And, who are the poor? Think about the homeless trans kid panhandling outside the Metro, the disabled single parent on the next block who depends on Medicaid and food stamps, a migrant mother and her child separated and locked up on our southern border, the opioid-addicted former truck driver in Appalachia, and, yes, by poor we must also mean unborn children at risk to be aborted. For Christians, every law, every policy, and every candidacy for public office should be assessed with the question: What does this mean for these poor? That’s putting Catholic teaching’s preference for the poor into practice.
Neither political party looks great from this vantage point. Both parties are currently dominated by elite activists motivated by what seem to me to be exclusionary, fractional interests – at the expense of the common good, and especially at the expense of the poor. Fortunately, there are some exceptions to this generalization on both sides of the aisle. But, the trends and larger picture are worrisome, with sharper and more militant fractional politics and an “us versus them” ethic more akin to Carl Schmitt’s than Christianity’s “all are welcome” worldview. Thank God for the few remaining compassionate conservatives and for pro-life progressives.
How would you assess Donald Trump’s presidency so far? And do you think his approach will define the future of conservatism in the US?
As I mentioned, both political parties are caught up in the divisive logic of an exaggerated “us versus them” identity politics. Trump’s is a particularly crude and odious appeal to Make America “White” Again. Before Trump, conservatism in America was about the rule of law, small government, higher morality, and deference to the time-hallowed norms and tradition, all of which were perceived to constrain or modulate arbitrary power by government and other sources of power in society. Trumpism disdains limits on their president’s power, so much so that the old conservative ideals are at best seen as quaint and more often than not seen as pointy-headed fluff to be ignored. What then does it mean to be conservative now? Frankly, it’s little more than white nationalism. To be sure, the race card was played by fringe elements of the conservative movement in the past. With Trump, though, white nationalism has become the defining heart of conservatism and it’s hard to see how that will change anytime soon.
We’ve both seen pro-life Democrats who abandoned their sincere pro-life commitments to advance their political careers and subsequently increased their influence. We’ve seen pro-life Democrats who switched parties and over time abandoned their commitment to social justice, in favor of faith in an unfettered free market—and some have gone on to become very prominent figures. Why do you remain a pro-life Democrat? What would you say to young people who are pro-life progressives but worried that their views will limit their ability to rise in politics or diminish their ability to make a concrete difference in people’s lives through politics or policy?
Ha! You’re catching me at a moment when I am questioning my place in the Democratic Party. I have long been an ardent supporter of the party because of its commitment to social justice and its suspicion of the undemocratic power of economic and cultural elites. I support it as well for its history of solidarity with the working class. As a Catholic, a mix of social justice, solidarity, and preference for those among us who are least empowered accords with what I understand to be the mission of Christianity in our world below. Being pro-life for me is about that mission. So, of course, I am a Democrat.
Many activist interest groups currently in control of the Democratic Party, however, seem more inclined toward libertarian individualism than toward social justice, solidarity, and a preference for the disempowered. Pro-abortion interest groups like NARAL are examples of that, and these groups have a de facto veto over which candidates are supported or who can rise within the party. So, if a Democratic candidate opposes late-term abortions, then she can forget about support from the DNC, DSCC, DCCC, or even her state’s party organizations.
What’s a pro-life Democrat to do? First, I think today’s pro-life message must be presented as something much more encompassing and more integral than opposition to abortion. To be pro-life is to promote care for creation like the Green New Deal, comprehensive healthcare like Medicare for All, justice for immigrants, an economy for the 90%, ending the death penalty, a living wage, and so on. Second, I think being a pro-life Democrat requires directly challenging the libertarian ideology of groups like NARAL by reminding Democrats that their party historically is the party of solidarity, social justice, and a preference for the least empowered. Finally, it can only help to remind the party that alienating pro-life voters only narrows the range of Americans who would vote for its candidates – and, pro-life Democrats and independents are over-represented in states and districts that saw voters switch from Obama to Trump in 2016.
You have a background in the study of personalism. How has it shaped Catholic social teaching? What is its relevance for today?
What I like about a personalist theology is that it presents faith as seeing the face of God in real people as we encounter them in their real lives. Personalism rejects formalisms that present faith largely as rules for judgment or as principles to know. Indeed, I love the humility of personalism. The self is decentered and humbled in openness and hope for a glimpse of God’s face in our encounter with and service to others.
If you were to set up a reading list for those interested in Catholic social teaching and the philosophy behind it (for beginners, those at an intermediate level, and those who are more advanced), what would that reading list look like? Who are the essential authors to read to truly grasp the nature of the Catholic political worldview?
I’m not good at listing books, but off the top of my head… Jacques Maritain’s The Person and Common Good, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, encyclicals like Caritas in veritate, Sollicitudo rei socialis, Laudato si’, Emmanuel Mounier’s Personalism, Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. A deeper dive would include selected works by Paul Ricouer, Hans Georg Gadamer, Max Scheler, Charles Taylor, and the like. I’m sure I’m stupidly forgetting many obvious important works. Also don’t forget novels, like Albert Camus’ The Plague or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
Pope Francis has emphasized taking on the throwaway culture, going to the margins, and being a poor church for the poor. How would you assess the impact of this agenda on the Church in the US and global Catholicism?
Pope Francis calls us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, by which I mean bringing good news to the poor, reaching out with open arms to those on the margins, and humbly looking to discern the face of God in genuine encounter with those who have been objectified or “thrown away” by the faceless processes and structural evils of our world. This profound call, were it broadly heard within the Church, would be transformative. The agenda that His Holiness has pursued, both in the world and institutionally within the Church, reflect his call to live such a faith – and I am personally inspired by his efforts.
The impact of his efforts is obvious and welcome. Yet, those efforts have also met passive and now frequently active resistance. Not too surprisingly, this opposition to Pope Francis aligns with interests that are privileged by the processes and structures of the status quo. Let’s be clear; Pope Francis is not changing the message of the Church. Pope St. John Paul II also called us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, for example, with a very similar theology of encounter with real personhood. Francis, however, is positioning that theology to address a broader range of structures in the world and within the Church itself.
You have been outspoken about the rise in extremism. We see it in the US, Europe, and even in the US Church with the rise of alt-Catholics. You have suggested that the pope should address this pestilence in his next encyclical. Why do you think this should be a top priority—and what would you hope to hear from the pope on the subject in an encyclical?
Rome has been slow to recognize that the ideology of the new ethnic nationalism movements is heretically corrosive to faith. These alt-movements, to one degree or another, are all about the myth of purity for a race or nation. It’s all-too-apparent how powerful the appeal has been for some Christian populations in Europe and the United States that feel beleaguered and alienated by accelerating social and cultural change. In Catholic circles now, some leaders of these groups even claim theological legitimacy by asserting that they are defending the faith. To make matters worse, the ideology can easily hijack elements of those theologies that advocate a defensive approach to the modern world.
It goes without saying that the ideology is diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospels. But, we’re past the time where it’s enough for His Holiness to point to the parable of the Good Samaritan or to contrast preference for the nation or race with the Church’s teaching of preference for the poor. This extremist ideology is winning converts among Catholics, even among the clergy. The Church needs a thoroughgoing examination of the ideology’s errors that can only be done in something like an encyclical, making it clear that no Catholic can subscribe to these dangerous ideas or endorse those who do.
At the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, the Erroneous Autonomy event series on libertarianism seemed to me to be one of the Institute’s most vital efforts and accomplishments. Would you agree with that, and are there other events that stand out to you as particularly noteworthy and valuable?
Our critical examination of libertarianism within the context of Catholic teachings in the Erroneous Autonomy series changed minds. Hosting that series is the most important thing the Institute ever did. It’s our legacy, Robert.
Some on the Catholic left seem unwilling to consider the importance of subsidiarity. But you have taken the time to clarify the concept at a time when many intentionally distort it to weaken the federal social safety net or advance similar objectives. How should we understand subsidiarity? And at a time when democratic norms are collapsing, union membership is at low levels, and radical individualism remains ascendant, can the concept offer anything unique and helpful to those who care about the common good?
Subsidiarity is about the prudential organization of solidarity for the common good. It cannot be conceived apart from its role within solidarity or its end in the common good. It’s just wrong to imagine it as federalism. Most appalling are those who portray it as a version of competitive individualism. Moreover, subsidiarity is not properly understood if it is only seen as a limit on the power of the state. Subsidiarity is an organizing of solidarity to disrupt hierarchical concentrations of power. A workers’ union is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of faceless economic forces. A Latino cultural club is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of mass society. Even within the Church, think about how subsidiarity challenges the hierarchical power of clericalism.
You mention individualism. We’re all aware how the economic market, modern technologies, and a prevalent morality and politics that radicalizes the value of individual choice all work to isolate each of us from a sense of belonging to something beyond the self. Far from empowering us as rugged individuals, that isolation leaves us alone against the overweening forces of the economy, technology, society, and the state. Subsidiarity is about the empowering of little communities around us that, on one hand, lend greater capacity to resist the many mass forces of modern life and, on the other hand, help us find our place and responsibilities in light of the common good of all.
Some anti-Vatican II “trads” in the US have endorsed a revival of integralism and declared that Catholiclism and liberal democracy are incompatible (while often showing a great affinity for 20th century dictators or kings from centuries ago). How would you respond to such claims? Is there a distinction that can be drawn between democracy, liberal democracy, and philosophical liberalism—or are they too intertwined? What would the authentic participation the Church has endorsed, particularly in recent papacies, look like in the 21st century in a country like the United States or Hungary?
Democracy is difficult to reconcile with our faith only in political forms that eschew solidarity and the common good. The “trads” are right to notice this, but they err by adopting a top-down integralism as a remedy. Our mission in this world, as Christians, must always begin with preference for the “bottom,” not the top. Political authority should begin with those Christ in Matthew 25 calls “the least” among us. For this reason, it’s clear to me that only democracy conforms with the spirit of the Gospels.
Liberalism, by which I mean a polity organized around individual liberty and rights, is a much more complex topic for consideration vis-à-vis Catholic moral and social teachings. The liberal understanding of individual rights and liberties is utterly integral with many of history’s greatest achievements for the human spirit. I admire and endorse the work of historians and philosophers who have labored to highlight the origin in and continuing dependency of liberal political philosophy on Christian theology. I am also inspired by the philosophers who are rethinking liberalism in regard to responsibilities beyond the self that is being done in light of common good concerns such as climate change and social justice. All that said, while Christianity must always recognize that rights and liberty are critical components of a just political order, I have not in my own mind resolved how flexible the term “liberalism” can be. Not sure about the best label…. As Christians we must humble our “self.”