Today, the Catholic left is known for dissent. But we can hope for a politics that's both radical and orthodox
We’ve been called “Angry, Churchy Millennials Who Scorn Freedom” and told we must be joking. Our crime? To release a political manifesto which combines socialist ideas with Catholic orthodoxy. But the Tradinista movement, which I’m part of, isn’t as outrageous as some people think.
Everyone today knows that the project of global liberalism is failed, whether they realize it or not. Spiritually, emotionally, and materially: failed. It’s the the common thread between Michel Houllebecq’s novel Soumission, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, Bernie Sanders voters, and the ethnonationalist backlash producing Donald Trump and Brexit. It’s the sensation of a problem without a solution; a hole unfilled; a tension unresolved; an itch you can’t scratch. But everyone knows.
Millennials are especially affected. Promised the American Dream, we are saddled with debt, struggle to find barista jobs in spite of our college degrees, flip through the internet for empty consolation, and live with our parents. Sometimes we watch Netflix. I am one of these millennials.
And the Church has no answers. We’re a Church torn by the confusions of the Second Vatican Council and diminished by the pressures of the Cold War. The first – inadvertently – normalized dissent among American Catholics, while the second, causing deep fear of the common enemy in the Kremlin, drove Catholics right and left into the arms of capital. The result was a widespread embrace of American civic religion – including of unadulterated capitalism – and a significant pluralism within that embrace. On the right, we hear, “mater si, magistra, no!” whenever a papal statement is released that conflicts with comfortable capitalism or that observes the reality of climate change. On the left, dissent from the magisterium on questions of contraception, women’s ordination, and gay rights isn’t just normal: it’s expected. Cafeteria Catholicism is the norm, not the exception.
But in the middle part of the 20th century, the Catholic left was a vital force for social justice, speaking fully from the perspective of orthodox belief. What happened?
It helps to start with the beginnings of the American Catholic left, the first major figure of which was Dorothy Day. Day was a Christian radical in the best sense. A deeply pious woman, Day was a Benedictine oblate whose personal devotion drove incredible action in service of the poor and marginalised. With Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker movement, starting a newspaper and opening houses of hospitality to serve the homeless and hungry of New York City. They lived lives of voluntary poverty, opening houses nationwide, all while engaging in pro-labour activism and exposé journalism. She advocated for distributism, a third-way between communism and capitalism, radically espousing the demands of Catholic social teaching. Day was a committed pacifist, active in the protests against the Vietnam War. But she never departed from Christian orthodoxy, even on sexual issues: she warned against the promiscuity of the 60s, and in the pages of the Catholic Worker – following Cesar Chavez, another prominent contemporary Catholic leftist – compared birth control and abortion to genocide.
Chavez himself, filled with the wisdom of the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, founded what is called today the United Farm Workers in order to support agricultural workers against hostile treatment, poor working conditions, and low wages. Chavez melded his labour activism deeply with his Mexican heritage and his Catholic faith, choosing the Virgin of Guadalupe as his patron and ending a march on Easter Sunday. Fasting and penance were also key to Chavez’s activism. His blend of orthodox Catholic belief and radical social practice is typical of his time – and unthinkable in ours.
Of course, today the Catholic left is known just as much for dissent as they are for their activism against climate change and income inequality. But there is hope. The Church both American and global is growing more diverse, less wealthy, and more traditionally orthodox. It wants a politics of orthodoxy, focused on the poor and the oppressed.
So we have chosen a new way: a new Catholic politics, that joins thick spiritual renewal with a deep criticism of the assumptions of modern life – free love, free markets. In this we do nothing more than follow Pope Francis. We’re compelled to defend traditional orthodoxy and espouse the radical politics in service of the common good we think that Catholic social teaching demands in the 21st Century. And we refuse to settle for a politics that does not defend the whole of the common good, or that denies anyone else’s participation in the common good. We hope you’ll join us.