Interview with William Cavanaugh

The folks over at Godspy have an excellent interview with William Cavanaugh as first installment in its series of interviews with “innovative and doctrinally orthodox” Catholic theologians. Godspy is a kind of subversive forum where Catholics discuss frankly with each other about where the Catholic Church needs to go in the 21st century.

In this interview, Cavanaugh presents a number of his most important and penetrating insights, which are grounded in his deep love for the church and his unsettledness regarding the current sociopolitical situation in America today. As a theologian schooled in the Reformed tradition, I differ with Cavanaugh regarding his wholehearted affirmation of communio ecclesiology (and the problematic dictum: the eucharist makes the church). I find Henri de Lubac and Stanley Hauerwas to be interesting but often misguided theologians. That said, Cavanaugh is one of my favorite contemporary thinkers; he is one of the few theologians whose works I always await in eager anticipation. Cavanaugh is best as a political theologian, and this interview shows him in top form.

The following is a section of the interview that I find particularly compelling. I have recently been thinking quite a bit about the relation between the church and the state, and I find Cavanaugh’s endorsement of the church as a kind of tertium quid to be right on target.

You’ve written that Catholics should draw on the liturgy to inform how they participate in political life. How does that work?

I gave a talk at Notre Dame last year on the social meaning of the Eucharist. The first thing I said was, “If I tell what the social meaning of the Eucharist is, you have to promise me you won’t stop going to Mass.” The point being, if you reduce the liturgy to a meaning, why keep doing it once you‘ve got the meaning down?

Unfortunately people fall into a “this means that” sort of approach when they’re trying to connect the liturgy to everyday life. Like the Offering means we should give of our gifts, and that kind of thing. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the liturgy as a deeper formation of how we see the world and how we act in the world. It’s also an invitation to see the Church as a body, the Body of Christ, which is a kind of political and public body in the world, not just a private club.

One example might be the way the Body of Christ transcends national boundaries. We should come to see people all over the world as fellow members of the Body. We should understand that this is more determinative than the borders of whatever nation we happen to live in. For us, it’s more determinative that we’re members of the Body of Christ, not citizens of the United States of America. Our primary loyalty is to Christ. All other loyalties are secondary, like our loyalties to the nation we live in and all those other things.

It almost sounds like you’re advocating a kind of Catholic theocracy. Isn’t our loyalty to the Church on the level of faith and morals, and doesn’t the political sphere have its own autonomy, “render unto Caesar” and all that?

No, nothing like a theocracy, if that means Church control of the state. The Church should not seek the means of coercion, and should do penance for seeking it in the past. The only proper sense of “theocracy” is the simple recognition that God rules the world.

I think people misread the “Caesar’s coin” episode in the Gospel as if Jesus were setting up some kind of modern division of labor between God and Caesar. The coin Jesus was looking at, after all, would have borne the inscription “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.” That is, the emperor claimed to be Son of God. Jesus did not wish to divvy the world up between two Gods. “The whole earth is mine,” says the Lord (Ex. 19:5). As Dorothy Day said, “If you give to God what is God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar.”

How can Catholics witness fully to the spirit and letter of the gospel as they should and also be fully involved politically in this two-party country—not just voting but running for office—when it seems that more and more neither Republicans nor Democrats fully reflect Catholic teaching?

I know what you mean. It always reminds me of that scene in The Blues Brothers when they go into Bob’s Country Bunker and the woman says, “We’ve got both kinds of music here: country and western.” We’ve got both kinds of politicians here: Republicans and Democrats. There’s just got to be something more. I think Catholics are really starting to feel this, to feel left out of the process. They just don’t find their values resonating with either party.

But I think this is one of those teachable moments. The Church needs to see itself as a kind of tertium quid. Christians ought to feel that they don’t quite fit in with politics as usual. That realization can be a good thing.

Do you mean that Catholics should come together so there’s finally an authentic “Catholic vote” or are you suggesting they form a third political party?

No, not a voting bloc or a third political party, but an independent presence in the social and political arena. The Church should, for example, decide for itself which wars are unjust, and not defer that decision to the state.

H/T Douglas Knight


Anonymous said…
Great interview (especially what you posted), but unfortunately he gives an inadequate response to a crucial question later on.

"When the necessary information to make a judgment is classified for national security reasons, what choice do we have but to trust our political leaders?"

First he claims that we can't trust the administration to be an impartial judge of the information. Then he claims that moral judgments are not primarily a matter of information, but "sound moral judgment based on moral foundation". The pope is more qualified to make sound moral judgments than the president, hence the church should make the call.

How is applying just war criteria not a matter of information? It seems to me that it is impossible for the church to apply just war criteria to any situation unless it knows the relevant facts. The problem is, most (if not all) of the relevant facts in any given potential war situation are going to be classified. Even if the pope has the moral qualifications to declare a potential war unjust (I'm not denying that the facts may eventually come out, like they have for Iraq), he will always lack the factual qualifications.

It seems impossible to trust the government (not morally qualified) or the pope (not factually qualified).
Danny: You make a good point. But I don't think the church is as factually unqualified as the government is morally unqualified. That said, you're right to point out the dilemma. But if it's a matter of trusting the government vs. trusting the church, I will always pick the church.
Anonymous said…
I agree, in general it seems preferable to be "better safe than sorry" when considering fighting in any war.

Unfortunately things for Catholic soldiers aren't quite so simple. Cavanaugh (disappointingly) doesn't address the fact that there is no such thing as selective conscientious objection in the US military. From the military's point of view, you are either a pacifist who won't fight in any war, or you aren't a pacifist who will fight in (virtually) any war you are ordered to. Soldiers who refuse deployment will be court-martialed and serve serious prison time.

I'm not bringing this point up to dismiss Cavanaugh's point that Catholics should have listened to the pope. Yet in this interview he doesn't seem to understand the implications of what he's asking Catholic soldiers to do (get fired and go to prison on the basis of an underinformed though morally qualified pope's decison).

My question is, should Catholics be serving in a military that explicitly does not allow for selective conscientious objection? Assuming just war theory is legit, they could easily serve in a military that allowed them to listen to the pope's guidance. As it is, Cavanaugh seemingly (he said he's not talking pacifism) would have them swear to obey the orders of the officers appointed above them (presumably including orders of deployment!) and obey the pope when he tells them not to. Maybe they should just be prepared to be court martialed, but that seems tough.