Catholics and politics

His excellency Bishop Robert McElroy (Aux. D. San Francisco) reportedly addressed “a diverse group of political players … [gathered] at Georgetown University to discuss the moral implications of partisanship”:

McElroy noted that the founders were deeply suspicious of partisanship, or what they called “faction.” They thought parties were necessarily divisive and there is no shortage of echoes of those early American criticisms today. Gridlock is everywhere, and it is attitudinal as well as structural. “Party pressure can distort legislators’ perception of the common good,” [he] said.
. . . .
He urged Catholics to risk becoming “insurgents within their own parties,” challenging party orthodoxy when it conflicts with Catholic social teaching, leavening public discussion, and reminding all political actors that “the moral end of politics is the achievement of the common good in society.”

McElroy articulated six principles to help Catholics estimate the proper sense of values in assessing political partisanship:

  • First, parties are called to reflect broad participation in the political process, and this must take precedence over electoral advantage. One thinks of the voter-suppression efforts in some states, all justified by the false claims of widespread voter fraud.
  • Second, political culture must recognize the role of conscience for legislators, and this must trump party loyalty.
  • Third, McElroy called on politicians to examine structures that create gridlock.
  • The fourth item on McElroy’s list was vital: There is “great social peril in the fact that our party structures track with racial and ethnic divisions.”
  • His fifth principle was that parties must find ways to avoid being dominated by money, a theme that came up later in the night with the panel of political participants.
  • Finally, the bishop closed on an upbeat note, urging both parties to bring their noble history to a new generation of voters. 1

I have written several times about the intersection of Catholicism and politics. 2 I have also written about the relationship between politics in the superficial sense and the deeper psychological structures that undergird them. 3 In this post, I will offer three pieces of context, and some brief comments on Bp. McElroy’s observations.


First, a party is a barycenter; it is what lies at the center of a dance of people and ideas who are like-minded on one or more issues that join them around common axes, even though they may be diverse in their other views. Just as the barycenter exists because of the people and the ideas, however, and is in that sense their slave, the people and the ideas orbit the barycenter, and are in that sense its captive. And because a party is a system, it is subject to the pressures and tendencies common to systems. 4 In particular, parties develop inertias and programs that, as a kind of social contract, person A feels (or should feel) bound to support even if they do not feel strongly about it, because persons B, C, and n, who do feel strongly about it, reciprocally offer support for the items that are important to person A even though they in turn don’t feel strongly about that. These kinds of reciprocal, tacit, cross-factional arrangements are what make and bind together viable political parties.

Second, this logrolling/social-contract character is like, but distinct from, partisanship. Partisanship, in the sense of “following the party line” rather than “doing what’s right,” is a chimera; it is reflected by the quote of then-Senator John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.” 5 That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s rhetoric not reality. Democrats don’t support the Democratic answer because it’s the Democratic answer any more than Republicans support the Republican answer because it’s the Republican answer. We all support the answers that we support because we think they’re the right answers; the reason that we’re divided into Democrats and Republicans is precisely because we disagree on what the right answer is! Attempts to take the politics out of politics are always driven aground by their basic failure to understand the origin and nature of political division.

Third, it’s important to note that political views and policy opinions tend to rest on deep political dispositions. Not long ago, a piece was written urging that we ought to be Catholics before we are “liberals” or “conservatives.” I saw the sense that the author was going for, which was “we should be Catholics first and republicans and democrats second,” which is, like Kennedy’s line, more sentimental than useful, but it struck me that in a deeper sense, that’s like saying that we ought to be Catholics before we are introverts or extroverts, or that we ought to be Catholics before we are blue-eyed or brown-eyed. The foundational psychologies that make us conservatives or liberals at the conscious, political level can just as well be labeled conserservative and liberal, and we can’t be anything before those things. They are the apparatus upon which our perception of the world and everything in it rest, and you can no more have views on religion apart from them than you can have views on color apart from being color-blind vel non. I am a Catholic in large part because I am a conservative—not on the crass political level and because the Catholic Church agrees with my agenda (it doesn’t, as McElroy’s comments demonstrate), but rather in the sense that tradition and continuity are important to me at a visceral level, and so, having realized that the Catholic Church traced its roots all the way back to that fateful day in Cæsaria Phillipi, that really loaded the dice as I tried to figure out, having become a Christian, which Christian sect’s truth claims were correct. 6 It seems highly improbable that a conservative would be attracted to the idea that we should abandon a tradition of some 1500 years and instead synthesize a new version of the tradition based upon a free-wheeling inquiry into what is touted as its foundational text.


Given these considerations, I am skeptical of the enterprise of separating politics from politics and beliefs from beliefs. That brings us to a point where we may comment on McElroy’s observations.

McElroy assumes that voter ID laws are about partisan advantage and may reasonably be termed “voter-suppression efforts.” He thinks that the only justification proffered for them is the “false” claim of “widespread voter fraud.” He is wrong on every particular. Voter ID laws can indeed be justified on the basis of concerns about voter fraud, and those concerns that are not false but well-documented and frequent. They may well have partisan advantage. But what motivates those laws, and what would justify them even if one could not document fraud—which means that the existence vel non of fraud is irrelevant—is the state’s interest in ensuring the integrity of the ballot and thus the public’s confidence in the ballot.

McElroy professes his adherence to the notion of “broad participation in the political process.” I disagree. I think that the optimal situation is that everyone is well-informed and everyone votes; I do not think that the next-best alternative is “everyone votes, regardless of ability, desire, or knowledge.” I do not believe in making it easier to vote; to the contrary, I think it has been made entirely too easy. We will get a better quality of participation if we increase the voting age to 21, eliminate same-day registration, and return to the traditional one-day voting with narrow exceptions for those who can document their physical absence or inability to reach the polls on that day.

McElroy thinks that legislators must be free to follow their conscience—free, that is, of the baneful influence of the party whip. If this analysis has any bite, it is in those situations where person A (recalling the setup in my first note above) is not simply uninterested in person B’s agenda, but considers it gravely wrong. That is surely what Washington envisioned when his Farewell Address says warns of partisans who

“organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

In those situations, yes, by all means, it is partisanship to ignore one’s conscience. But in practice, I think that happens only rarely, because again, parties are aggregations of like-minded people, and because conscious political views are rooted in fundamental psychologies, like-minded people tend to (big shock) think alike. And, indeed, to think that their plans are common counsels and mutual interest. 

(Concededly, the GOP is an unusual case, because it comprises both liberals and conservatives, even if our liberals are apt to call themselves “libertarians,” and do not understand the intellectual provenance of their own views. In that kind of party, it may well happen (as happened with the revelations of the NSA program—operation Insight or whatever it was called—that person A truly and profoundly disagrees with person B. 7)

McElroy has some nerve quoting the founders (specifically, James Madison in Federalist 10) on faction and then “call[ing] on politicians to examine structures that create gridlock.” The founders designed our Constitution to be gridlocked. (And did so over Madison’s objections, mind you: Our Constitution is not Madison’s “Virginia Plan.”) McElroy doesn’t understand this; his comments presuppose that the purpose of the federal legislative process is to legislate; it is not. It is to not legislate. The system is designed precisely to make legislating slow and difficult, to set up dams and canals that route the passions of the moment and the inevitable floods of stupid legislative ideas through long journeys during which time they may be cleaned and cooled. Gridlock is a feature, not a bug. Congress is not designed to pass legislation but to stop bad legislation, and “bad” is a very subjective idea.

I agree with McElroy’s that it is unhealthy that “our party structures track with racial and ethnic divisions,” and I look forward to his constructive criticism of the black and latino communities for the way that they treat black and latino conservatives. McElroy should ask Clarence Thomas about this.


  1. Michael Sean Winters, Catholics need to risk being political party insurgents, The National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2014, (last visited June 10, 2014).
  2. In re the firearms debate II, 4 MPA __ (2014); In re the firearms debate, 3 MPA __ (2013); Episcopal competence and the public policy nexus, redux, 2 MPA 46 (2012); Episcopal competence and silence, 2 MPA 4; Catholic social teaching and public policy, 1 MPA 151 (2012); Is it time for a Catholic political party?, 1 MPA 43.
  3. The NSA programs, 3 MPA __ (2013); The day after, 2 MPA 223 (2012).
  4. See generally John Gall, Systemantics (1975).
  5. (citing Speech at Loyola College Alumni Banquet, Baltimore, MD, Feb. 18, 1958, Senate Files, box 899, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.).
  6. See The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA __; __, 2 MPA 1.
  7. Refer to my post on the NSA programs.