Book Review: Tea Party Catholic? Really?

The Crossroad Publishing Company, $24.95

Some of my friends are put off by the title of Samuel Gregg’s recently published book. I’m sympathetic with their discomfort but I do wish that they had actually read the book and not just complained about the title. For that matter, I wish that if they weren’t going to read the whole book they at least read the whole title.

Oh, I’ve not told you the title yet have I? Let’s remedy this.

Tea Party Catholic: the Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing.

Charles Carroll, Signer of the Declaration of ...

Charles Carroll, Signer of the Declaration of Independence (1776), was a member of a Catholic church in Maryland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing that you might want to know is that while Gregg is aware (and I think sympathetic) to the “Tea Party” movement that has emerged in recent years, this is not fundamentally his focus. “Tea Party Catholic” refers to the “sole Roman Catholic signatory” of the American Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton Maryland. In Carroll Gregg finds a man who embodies the distinctively Catholic case for the importance of a limited government and a free economy to human flourishing. Make no mistake, Gregg is not a libertarian or an anarchist arguing for limited government and a free economy as ends in themselves. Rather he sees such limits as serving a more transcendent goal: human flourishing. Or, as Pope Benedict XVI writes in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “integral human development.”

There’s a great deal I can say about the content of Gregg’s argument but let me limit myself to two main points that I think are especially applicable to the situation of the Orthodox Church both here in the US and overseas.

First the book seeks to outline “the distinct contributions that Catholics can bring to the much needed renewal of the movement for economic freedom and limited government.” While the author limits himself to the American situation and his sources (primarily) to contemporary Catholic Social Teaching, his insights are also applicable to the situation of the Orthodox Church in the countries of the former Soviet Union bloc. I’m thinking of Gregg’s systematic articulation of the “deeper and coherent understanding of why freedom really matters, including economic freedom.”

Given the Church experience under Communism and before that under Islam, Orthodox has a long and praiseworthy history of not just enduring but thriving under persecution. Yes there were missteps—some greater, most lesser—but in the main the Church was faithful to her Lord, the Gospel was preached, men and women grew in holiness and God raised up many saints some known, most unknown, in every generation. Given as Tertullian said that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” it isn’t too surprising that persecution and suffering didn’t destroy the Church, it made it in many ways stronger and more faithful to Christ and its own mission.

At the same time, and ironically for the same reasons, the historical situation of the Church has meant that we haven’t had to confront the kind of political issues that faced the Medieval Catholic Church. For better and worse, we didn’t have to deal with the theological controversies of Reformation and Counter-Reformation era, or the philosophical challenges of the Enlightenment. Or at least, we didn’t have to deal with them in the same way as did our Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters. The great irony here is that while the Church has a rich and storied tradition to draw on in the face of persecution, freedom—especially the kind of freedom that has come to characterize an increasingly secular culture—has taken the Church largely by surprise and found us ill-prepared for its challenges.

Looking at the Church here in America it isn’t entirely clear to me that we are successfully negotiating the “blessings of liberty” in this Novus ordo seclorum.  A secular government and society is one thing but secularism, as Schmemann observed, is a Christian heresy and one that tempts us to hold on to our religion even as we forsake the worship of God.  What I think we sometime fail to understand is without a firm grounding in the ascetical and moral tradition the political and economic freedoms afford us in America are potentially corrosive for our faith as Orthodox Christians. Even with this grounding secularism is a constant battle for the hearts and minds of faithful.

In outlining as he does the anthropological and practical foundations—and more importantly, goals—of political and economic freedom, Gregg offers Orthodox Christians a valuable service not only intellectually but pastorally. We are only truly free to the degree that we “choose to act in a virtuous way.” The “more virtuous we become” the freer we are. On this point Gregg once again quotes Benedict XVI, this time on the relationship between the Ten Commandments and what Gregg calls the goal of freedom human flourishing:

God has given us the Commandments to educate us to liberty and genuine love, so that we can be truly happy. They are a sign of the love of God the Father, of his desire to teach us the correct discernment of good and evil, of the true and the false, of the just and the unjust. They are comprehensible to all precisely because they establish the fundamental values in concrete norms and rules, in putting them into practice man can walk on the path of true liberty, which renders him firm in the way that leads him to life and happiness (Gregg’s emphasis).

And so, he concludes, “Life, liberty, and the path to happiness,” the founding anthropological values of the American Experiment, “are thus for the Catholic [and Orthodox] inseparable.” Making this argument in a distinctively Orthodox key is an essential part of the American Church’s vocation and our gift to the larger Orthodox Church.

This brings me to the second point that Gregg makes that is applicable to Orthodox Christians in America.

In the section titled “Catholic and American, American and Catholic,” he offers a series of brief reflections on different aspects of the Catholic Christian vocation as a member of “A Patriotic Minority.”

Patriotism is he says a much misunderstood and maligned virtue. And yet it is important that Christians love our country. This must certainly be a chaste love but, he says quoting Pope Leo XII, “natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to defend the country in which we had birth, and in which we were brought up, so that every good citizen hesitates not to face death for his native land.”

This command to love, and even at times love heroically, is an often overlooked command that binds not just native born citizens but those who immigrate to a new country.  Unfortunately for some Orthodox Christians at least, this love is noticeably absent. I’m referring here not primarily to recent (or not so recent) Orthodox immigrants as much as I am those who (cradle or convert) see in the Orthodox Church an opportunity to step out of American society. I’m not referring here to Jesus’ command that we be “in the world but not of it” (see John 17:14–19 and Romans 12:2) but rather to those who use the tradition of the Church as an excuse to reject those “values and institutions that are distinctly American” which Gregg so ably explains and defends.

Such a rejection, even when it is justified by an appeal to the Gospel, is simply a failure “to love the patrimony that has been attained and protected for us by previous generations” of Americans. While there is no doubt many reasons for this failure, a central one is the confusion of patriotism with nationalism, the latter being a “perversion” of the former and is instead the invocation of “national interest to rationalize selfish, irrational, or immoral ends.” Quoting the moral theologian Germain Grisez, Gregg argues that “such ideological distortions do not negate the truth that, just as individuals have a personal vocation, so nations, like other communities, have a proper mission.” This idea that deeply and profoundly resonant not only with fathers such as Justin Martyr but also is at the heart of the evangelical and missionary work of men such as St Herman of Alaska.

For the American Orthodox Christian, patriotism, “the love of the true good of one’s country” is the core of the Church vocation relative to the larger culture. We cannot evangelize, as I’ve said before, those we don’t know, but we don’t truly know those we don’t love. Additionally, American Orthodox Christians can’t makes a lasting contribution to the Church in the Middle East, Greece, Eastern Europe or Russia if we don’t love those true and lasting goods that inform the American Experiment at its best. This doesn’t mean we are called to export American democracy. But we can, and should, witness to how our own experiences in a secular democracy have helped and hindered our own commitment to the Gospel of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. No matter where we were born, no matter what our ethnic heritage, our personal and ecclesial vocations as Orthodox Christians here in America can only be fulfilled as “Orthodox and American, American and Orthodox.” But this requires, if I may repeat myself, that are we not only faithful Orthodox Christians but patriotic Americans.

On these last two words, on this smallest part of our calling as Orthodox Christians in America, Gregg has offered us a great service. He has not only explained and defended an orthodox Catholic (and so, catholic Orthodox) vision of the American Experiment, he has also more importantly  laid out the moral limits beyond which freedom becomes slavery and liberty license.

So, if you have the inclination, do take a look at Samuel Gregg’s Tea Party Catholic: the Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. It is of value not only to Catholics and Americans but to Orthodox Christian who wish to take serious the work of the Church here in America.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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