31 August, 2022
Professor Matthew Ogilvie
Recently, a friend involved in politics spoke about an unpleasant situation. I shared my advice, which I thought would be midway between Machiavelli and Mother Teresa. My friend’s face lit up in amazement. He said that he ‘was given the exact same advice in the same words by [a former government minister who is Catholic]!’ Then he asked, ‘What is it with you Catholics and politics?’
My friend had highlighted something important. There is a Catholic way of thinking and acting, and it shows. I would also argue that being Catholic makes us suited to politics in a democratic society. Before I give my reasons, I need to clarify that this does not mean that we are better than others or that we have been successful or even virtuous in politics. I only mean to argue that our intellectual and religious tradition make Catholics suited to politics in a democratic society.
The most important part of that tradition is our anthropology, which goes back to Biblical times. In What is the West? (2006, 29), Philippe Nemo points out that, before the Jewish people received God’s revelation, the ancient Near Eastern pagans saw the world in relation to the gods as a never-ending cycle of fate, misery, and inevitable suffering. This fatalistic view of the gods, humanity, and the world absolved people of responsibility toward suffering.
However, the Jews discovered the one God of love, and, as Nemo puts it, introduced us to the Biblical ethic of compassion. They rejected the inevitability of evil and suffering. They instead embraced a worldview in which, with God’s help, we could work against evil and eliminate suffering in the world which was to come. In that tradition, at the Sermon on the Mount, Christ charged his followers with taking responsibility for suffering, even when it is not caused by them (Nemo 2006, 30).
In the Jewish-Catholic tradition, then, political involvement is in our ‘religious DNA.’ But how do we do that? We might contrast the Catholic faith with others. There are faiths that we may call ‘misanthropic.’ They range from extreme forms of Islam, such as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to radical Calvinism, which we see in North American Biblical fundamentalism. Faiths like those see humanity and culture as corrupt and in need of ‘conquest’ by their respective faiths. At the other religious extreme, ‘left wing’ or ‘progressive’ faiths are so naïve about human nature that they fail to see the flaws in the human condition. They then accommodate their faith to the prevailing society and end up having no positive influence at all.
Between these extremes, Catholics have a realist anthropology. In addition, as Pope Paul VI told the United Nations, the Church is an ‘expert in humanity.’ We affirm the created dignity of human nature, but we are also realistic about the fallen human condition. We also know that we are called to be co-creators with God. That is, we have the mission of making this world better, with the grace of God.
In that way, Catholics are different to people of other faiths who oppose grace and nature, who see political activity as conquest of culture, and who ultimately seek some sort of theocratic regime. Catholics on the other hand, hold that grace builds upon nature. That makes our way of thinking suited to democratic politics. That is, instead of being anti-human, we have a vision of recovering, renewing, and raising up society from the inside.
Another way of putting this is that misanthropic faiths seek to change the political landscape from the outside by imposing their religious will on others. Catholicism, on the other hand, has the expertise and tradition that can help build the political landscape from the inside – standing in solidarity with our neighbours and seeking the betterment of our society while respecting people’s freedoms.
Matthew Ogilvie is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He has a longstanding research interest in religiously motivated extremism and terrorism. In 2008 Professor Ogilvie was made an academic fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which enabled him to travel to Israel to study counter-terrorism. He has taught a university course on ‘Religion and Terrorism’. He has made presentations on the topic to civilian and military audiences. He serves on the Defence and Foreign Affairs policy review subcommittee of the WA Liberal Party and is also deputy chair of its Education Policy Review subcommittee.