The reasons for ‘partisanship’

Complaints that Washington-is-broken, which seem to have new intensity in recent years, often go hand-in-hand with laments about “partisanship” in politics. And, to be sure, there are reasons to be concerned about the functionality of our political system and its ability to address and solve some very serious problems. The present, sad condition of much of Europe, where a breakdown of (Christian) democratic culture seems to be leading inexorably to a breakdown of democratic politics and the substitution of government by technocratic elites (currently being previewed in Italy), is a cautionary tale for Americans.

“Partisanship” that concedes no possible rectitude or good will to the other party is obviously problematic; so is the self-righteousness and bullheadedness that help explain congressional gridlock. Yet there are at least two other reasons for what is often deplored as “partisanship,” and those reasons are worth pondering in the summer before a national election.

One reason why governing is hard at the federal level is that the Framers deliberately designed our constitutional structure to make serious national decision-making difficult: meaning that serious decisions had to be rooted in a broad consensus. That’s why we have the separation of powers, two houses of Congress, and the requirement of super-majorities for constitutional amendments. The tough calls are supposed to be made on the basis of deep, broad and carefully considered agreement.

The other reason is even more obvious, but it’s rarely stated: 21st-century American society is deeply divided on certain basic issues. That divide reflects a serious rift in the moral-cultural fabric of our democracy.

The abortion issue comes readily to mind. Pro-“choice” America is all-in for abortion-on-demand. It resists every possible restriction on the abortion license, even those regulations on the abortion industry that protect women’s health, because it fears that one hard tug on one loose thread will unravel the entire legal structure created since Roe v. Wade. That is why there is so little common ground on the question of abortion: while pro-lifers are, in the main, willing to work in steps to dismantle the Roe-defined abortion license—much as the classic civil rights movement worked incrementally to dismantle legal segregation—the pro-“choice” forces refuse to concede an inch of ground, fearing that any concession will lose them the entire battle. And if that means that your local Planned Parenthood clinic is subject to less legal and medical regulation than your local McDonald’s, so be it.

There are other, deeper reasons for this form of pro-“choice” hyper-partisanship, however. Our public culture is deeply confused about the moral life and about the relationship between virtue and happiness. Happiness, for many Americans, is a matter of willfulness, not a matter of living in ways that we know are, objectively, worthy of human beings. Indeed, the very idea of “objective” moral truth is one that Americans seem uncomfortable defending today. Something may be “true for me,” but not “true for you.” And pushing beyond that kind of radical subjectivism is too often deplored as “judgmental.”

Yet there are serious confusions-within-confusions on this front in the American culture war, a struggle that’s at the root of our many contemporary political divisions. As moral philosopher Janet Smith has long argued, if you think Americans don’t believe in moral absolutes, just light up a cigarette, cigar or pipe in the non-smoking section of a restaurant. Or try parking in the “Handicapped” spot at your local supermarket without the appropriate license plate. Americans believe in moral absolutes, all right; some of us just don’t know how to justify them—which is to say, make sense of them.

In a mess like this, the Church’s primary task is not to endorse policies or candidates. It’s to do its best, through preaching and catechesis, to rebuild a national moral consensus based on the moral truths inscribed in us by “Nature, and Nature’s God” (as Mr. Jefferson once put it). That consensus is the cultural pre-requisite to a politics in which differences are engaged with respect, and serious problems get addressed and solved.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.