How to be ‘distinctly Catholic’ in a polarised political world

How to be ‘distinctly Catholic’ in a polarised political world Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill ahead of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary February 23, 2024. Photo: OSV News/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
The current political world can be dispiriting but there are ways in which you can affirm both faith and political beliefs, writes Charlie Camosy


Kenneth Craycraft, associate professor of moral theology at Mount St Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati, Ohio, has a new book, Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America, which looks at how faithful Catholics can engage in today’s polarised political climate. He recently spoke with OSV News’ Charlie Camosy about the book and the current political landscape.


Charlie Camosy As the 2024 US general election cycle kicks into a new gear, politics and partisanship take centre stage on our culture. I wonder what’s primarily on your mind right now. Anything faithful Catholics should be avoiding in our current moment?


Kenneth Craycraft My primary concern can be summarised by two closely related problems.

First, I am troubled by the difficulty that we Catholics have in thinking about the moral life in terms that are distinctly Catholic, without being necessarily concerned with how that might play out in the American political arena.

This is not to suggest that I advocate withdrawal from public life. Nor am I suggesting that we Catholics cannot have civic conversations about important moral issues that divide America. But if our moral deliberation starts from a presumption that our positions should be translatable into the idiom of contemporary American political discourse, we tend to shape our thinking accordingly.

Put another way, if we presume that our moral commitments have no real purpose if they do not speak the language of the political culture, we tend to shape that language by that culture. In the process, of course, we tend to compromise the richness of our Catholic moral theological heritage.

For the purpose of recovering a distinctly Catholic moral vocabulary, we should be less concerned than we often are about whether it ‘translates’ into American liberalism. Otherwise, we are compromised from the start, and have difficulty even knowing what our own moral foundations are.

This leads to the second, related, concern. If we succumb to the first temptation, it often leads to defining our moral positions not by the teaching of the Church, but rather by the political platforms of the two major political parties. This can take either of two forms.

In an effort to be relevant to American public life, we actually become completely irrelevant”

In the first, we find ourselves adapting our Catholic witness for the purpose of justifying the policy platform of the partisan commitments to which we primarily identify. So, we might try to round out the edges of the Church’s teaching on important issues related to the dignity of the human person, more as an apology for one of the parties’ platforms than a careful articulation of the Catholic moral position.

The second, more insidious form, is that we actually collapse the Church’s teaching into the partisan position. In this case, we do not attempt merely to justify partisan policies in terms of Catholic theology. Rather, we start with the partisan position, form our moral commitments by them, and then call it Catholic.

These maladies are not confined to one end of the political spectrum. From the left to the right, we Catholics succumb to the same temptations. Thus, in an effort to be relevant to American public life, we actually become completely irrelevant, saying nothing different from the regnant partisan ideologies.


Charlie Camosy Every ‘no’ the Church offers us is part of a broader and more foundational ‘yes’. Can you frame opportunities for faithful Catholics during this election cycle as positive opportunities?


Kenneth Craycraft I believe that the most positive contribution we Catholics can make is to begin to speak Catholic to one another in a public way, such that we can begin to demonstrate a better moral language.

In the book, I am very critical of ‘rights’ language as divisive and therefore corrosive of authentic community. Indeed, I suggest that, as used in American political discourse, ‘rights language’ is not compatible with the Catholic social doctrines of solidarity and common good. Reforming our language around dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity and common good will be a positive contribution to our own moral development and, in turn, to public discourse.

We also should take this election cycle as the opportunity to show that our responsibility to engage in public life, for the sake of the common good, might call us publicly and forcefully to say that neither party’s candidate is morally fit to be president. I believe this would be a very positive position.


Charlie Camosy Especially once we leave Lent and Easter seasons, it might be less easy for Catholics to develop a spiritual set of practices that resist political idolatry. Can you recommend any spiritual practices that can help inculcate the ideas in your book?


Kenneth Craycraft My son is a first-year seminarian in what is now called the ‘propaedeutic’ stage according to the new Programme of Priestly Formation. One of the things I have learned from his experience is the importance of substantive praying and thinking with the Church as spiritual discipline.

I am referring specifically to the Office of Readings and daily prayer. If we are going to re-learn to speak Catholic, as I suggest in the book we must do, there’s no better place to start than the readings and prayers that the universal Church says every day through her priests and religious.

The supernatural society of the Church has primary purchase on our lives”

In addition to teaching us the language of the Church, it is a daily reminder that political life is ordered toward the spiritual life, not vice versa. Indeed, it is a reminder that the supernatural society of the Church has primary purchase on our lives. This does not mean we withdraw from public life. But it might be a way to speak Catholic in public in a way that is more consistent with the witness of the Gospel.


Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.