Who’s Afraid of Political Parties?


With Congressional election season upon us, we’re about to be reminded repeatedly that no political party platform conforms across the board to Catholic teaching.

This is absolutely true, but I confess I judge you if you feel the need to say this, for three reasons.

1) To dispense with a pet peeve: I don’t know where these hordes of my-party-right-or-wrong Republican Catholics in need of rebuke are.

I’ve spent my life in and around politics as a native Washingtonian, the daughter of an advocacy journalist, a pro-life lobbyist, and the wife of a Congressional staffer. I’ve never met anyone with unquestioning loyalty to the GOP.

In conversation, Republicans — including Republican office-holders!–  are more likely to lead with their first principles and only secondarily mention any connection to the party.  “I’m more Conservative (or social conservative or Libertarian) than Republican,” they’ll say. It’s not Democrats, but Republicans, who refer to “The Stupid Party versus The Evil Party” — they’re typically well aware of the GOP’s deficiencies.

2) Usually, the context of the objection that neither party is fully Catholic is an effort to excuse Catholics from voting to uphold the dignity of life.

Yes, the national Democratic party demands its candidates for higher office burn their anti-abortion credentials on the altar of presidential politics (Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Al Gore were all once articulate spokesmen in defense of life); yes, it aggressively campaigns against any limitation on abortion whatsoever; yes, it’s sneaking abortion funding into Obamacare and crushing religious liberty with the HHS mandate. But….  Republicans don’t do enough for the poor. So there! Everyone’s awful, therefore you’re absolved from your responsibility to try to shape a culture that respects the human person.


This is how a political campaign actually works.

That line of argument overlooks the distinction between intrinsic evils which we are obliged to oppose simply and problems which require examination of several factors before judgment can be reached. The latter often admit of more than one morally valid approach and many Catholics have grown too quick to pronounce anathemas over differences of strategy that in no way depart from Catholic doctrine. Moreover, Christianity is neither condescending nor cynical and  “everyone’s awful, nothing can be done” is not a valid Catholic approach to anything. We all feel that way at times, but it’s one thing to mutter it to your spouse in private and another to advocate it as the Catholic view of the public square.

3) Even when offered sincerely, the complaint strikes me as sterile lamentation. Ideological purity might be good for political parties in a parliamentary arrangement, but our winner-take-all political system is deliberately designed to thwart ideologically committed factions, rendering them powerless unless they are able to broaden their appeal to others. In our system, a political party by definition is a coalition of people with disparate interests making common cause for a goal they share. Just how disparate is captured by Rodgers & Hammerstein in Oklahoma!:

“Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.
Cowboys dance with farmer’s daughters,
Farmers dance with the ranchers’ gals.”

Everyone knows how competing land use claims made bitter rivals of cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma Territory. Their shared desire to enter the United States caused them to set those differences aside for a time to achieve that goal. That’s what a political party does: provides a framework for diverse groups to collaborate.

It’s never an interesting question, therefore, whether “the party” respects us or not, or whether some within it view us with distaste. The question is, to what use can we put the party? How can we use its framework to advance our ideas? Right now, in this time, under these circumstances, how can I as a voter or candidate most effectively influence the direction of public policy?

Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi has done yeoman’s work over the years teaching Christians not to fear the film-making industry. Christians should be creators or patrons of the arts more than critics, she insists. She’s also credibly demonstrated that Hollywood has little animus against Christianity as such, but Christians in the arts can be terribly arrogant, assuming they deserve recognition simply for the rightness of their message, but lacking the humility or drive to master the skills and idiom of the craft of film-making. Pious people will turn in sloppy schlock, not even bother to format their scripts to the industry standard, and then grouse they weren’t read because Hollywood hates Christians.

I think there’s a parallel to be drawn with Christians who bemoan our political parties’ lack of catholicity. Too often we whine about lack of respect without ourselves respecting the field of politics and doing the due diligence to master its principles and craft.  “They’re not really with us” is usually a way of saying we haven’t the patience for the slow hard slog of advancing our causes a little at a time and find it easier to disdain our fellow citizens than engage and persuade them.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Rebecca Ryskind Teti lives in Hyattsville, MD with her husband, four kids and a misbehaving beagle. She is Director of Women’s Programs at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center, a frequent speaker on prayer, spirituality and the intersection of faith and culture, and web editor for CatholicDigest.com.

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