U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Catholic Mind Of Rick Santorum

While I’ve been engrossed in other minor matters over the past few days, I’ve been fascinated with the sudden rise of Rick Santorum’s Republican presidential bid over the past few weeks. As a Catholic I’m supposed to be treating Santorum’s campaign with respect because of his pro-life credentials, his general family values, and his espousal of subsidiarity. Although I attend to these issues and more when I evaluate my candidates, as an intellectual historian I also look at their long arc of development—the things that seem to occupy their minds and hearts as well as their public political personae. With that, today I want to meditate on the Catholic mind of Rick Santorum, as well as what one might call the “Romanization of the American culture wars.” As our new contributor LD perceptively quipped at our Facebook page yesterday, “Come for the current events; stay for the history.” Indeed.

One could do worse in analyzing Santorum’s thinking than starting with a primary source: an essay penned by the candidate himself and published on January 20, 2012 (hat-tip to Ethan Schrum for pointing me to this). These two pieces have a lot of meat in them (both containing deeper issues on which to ruminate), but I’m going to stick to Santorum himself today. What follows is an interlinear, but non-exhaustive, breakdown of the ten-paragraph piece (links, bolds, and underlines mine):

In 1977, Peter Berger and the late Richard John Neuhaus published a now-famous essay, “To Empower People,” which argued that “mediating structures” such as family, church, charities, and neighborhood associations are essential for a healthy civil society.* I entirely agree, and as those who have followed my career will know, I attempted to develop these ideas throughout my time in the United States Senate and in my own 2005 book, It Takes a Family. I believe passionately that the family is the basic building block of society, and that in contrast to President Obama’s immense sums of borrowed money being spent on entitlement programs and his undermining of charities and religious liberty, we can and must do far better—here in South Carolina and throughout the country.

Neuhaus is of course famous for many things, not the least for being a confidant of, or at least an inspiration to, President George W. Bush. Here Santorum is trying to go a little deeper—trying to capture something of the spirit Tocqueville observed about American society. The first sentence of this piece, however, has been cribbed from the publisher’s blurb for a collection of essays edited by Michael Novak titled To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (not coincidentally promoted at the American Enterprise Institute’s website). As a post-World War II emigrant intellectual from Austria, Berger is someone who ought to get more attention here at USIH, especially since James Davison Hunter was apparently one of Berger’s students.

My problem with this paragraph is its maxim that “the family is the basic building block of society.” It’s true—as far is it goes—and Catholics return to this principal over and over again, but many treat it as if it’s the end of the story. Even conservatives, especially politicians, who espouse “mediating structures” often de-emphasize those structures in favor of talking about “family values” in the context of the Culture Wars. I agree with Andrew Hartman that this talk is sincere and not merely a Republican political canard. The language captures something fundamental—that it is related to an identity crisis, instigated by own ongoing lack of adjustment to modernity, that underlays so much of the late twentieth-century’s incarnation of the Culture Wars. Even so, the Catholic overlay given by Santorum, as well as by Cathoolic intellectuals, is that we can solve the question of the meaning of America by simply communicating better with our fathers (heavenly and earthly), mothers (ditto), sisters, and brothers. The rhetorical focus is on blood family and our Church-going compatriots rather than our self-made tribes, ethnic groups, and, strangely enough, larger forms of identity that bind together America as a nation. Indeed, if we followed Santorum’s, Neuhaus’s, and Berger’s advice to an extreme, American culture would be more Balkanized and local than it already is—perhaps more than it ever was in the nineteenth century. It’s this anti-globalism that differentiates Santorum from Romney as much as anything. …Returning to the essay…

I am running for President because I believe in practical, constitutional, and limited government that respects the rights of ordinary citizens and makes room for local communities to thrive because real people who know one another support one another. In my tradition we call this the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that whenever possible, reform should happen locally because people closest to the need have the most invested in the solution. From its first day in office my presidency will restrain the overreach of Washington by giving space for civil society institutions like congregations, families, businesses, charities and community organizations to flourish—acknowledging that the kind of solidarity that exists in local communities is far stronger and more effective than taxpayer-funded subsidies from Washington bureaucrats.

Two historians, Michael Kazin and Thomas Sugrue, have tackled the issue of subsidiarity in recent pieces about Newt Gingrich, Saul Alinsky, and President Obama. Just last week I referenced those pieces (point #4) at USIH. Gingrich accidentally and indirectly denigrated subsidiarity by trashing Saul Alinsky. Apparently Gingrich was unaware of the Alinsky’s links to one of the great Catholic cosmopolitan thinkers of the twentieth century, Jacques Maritain. Maritain found a way to support both subsidiarity and international human rights, while also respecting personhood and the political process. I don’t foresee Santorum referencing Maritain anytime soon in campaign speeches (despite the former’s enthusiasm for natural law, which as Molly Worthen reminded us does connect with Thomas Aquinas). But at least Santorum has not rhetorically ruled out the connection, the possibility, for liberal Catholics who lean right and may be unhappy with Obama.

Wikipedia offers two entries for subsidiarity—one with a kind of secular bent, and oriented toward European politics, and the other focused on the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity. I linked to the secular one in the excerpt above, but the Catholic one applies as well. Here are the first few lines from the Catholic-oriented entry:

“The principle of subsidiarity was developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning.[2] His work influenced the social teaching of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno and holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.”

The best discussion I’ve seen of Catholic subsidiarity in intellectual history is Jay Corrin’s excellent transnational study, Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (Notre Dame Press, 2002). I first wrote about Corrin’s book here (about two-thirds down the page), and have long had plans for an extended retrospective review. In the post you get a taste—Corrin’s book receives just a summation in a single paragraph. [Two asides: (a) If someone from Notre Dame Press is reading this, get that book out in paperback! (b) On my long-planned review, I have twenty-some note cards filled, front and back, with thoughts on the book.]

Returning to Santorum…

In the last three years, the current President has added more to America’s deficit than the collective total of all prior presidents—and this comes at tremendous cost to our children and grandchildren, and it is not working. Unemployment continues to exceed the promised “8 percent” he told us his whopping $787 billion stimulus package would guarantee. But even more problematically, Mr. Obama’s policies have made far too many of us less resilient, less responsible and less free. Food stamps usage has increased by 41 percent since the President took office. More than 1 in 7 U.S. adults—and an astonishing 1 in every 4 children—today receive food stamps. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program received billions in additional annual spending. Subsidized housing, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) and the numbers of children born out of wedlock—are all up. As a father this breaks my heart. This should not be.

This is, to say the least, a very one-sided definition of freedom. First, it is not the assistance that makes people “less resilient, less responsible and less free.” Indeed, this assertion is inconsistent with existential Christian theology and philosophy which would assert that freedom begins with a state of consciousness about one’s own responsibility for her/his relationship with God. Not that Catholicism has ever been exceedingly friendly to Christian existentialism. Is there, by the way, a historical theological-philosophical study out there of Catholic existentialism, or of Soren Kierkegaard’s influence on Catholic thought? My point here is that there is nothing in Catholic theology, including the principal of subsidiarity, that necessitates an inverse relationship between government assistance and less resilience, responsibility, or freedom. Only Catholic ideologues like Father Coughlin assert this absolutely.

Returning to Santorum’s essay (though the intellectual returns are diminishing)…

I will address this issue of father-absence and family-strengthening head-on, because doing so makes sense both culturally and economically. Today, more than 25 million American children, at least 64% of African Americans and 36% of Hispanics, live in father-absent homes. Research tells us that low-income children without a father at home are five times more likely to remain poor. Children growing up without a dad are 2-3 times as likely to become teen parents and engage in criminal behavior: for these young people, economic realities follow cultural-relational realities, not the other way around. We need courageous fathers; that’s what moms want and America’s children need.

I’m not qualified to speak about this point in relation to social science and American intellectual history. I wonder if Santorum is working from research within the conservative tribe, by Charles Murray no less, on the so-called breakdown of the working-class male work ethic over the past 30-40 years? Anyway, it’s clear that Santorum prioritizes culture over economic drivers. It’s a very Catholic way of seeing the world. Santorum sees a conservative-liberal dichotomy: liberals believe that work availability engenders a work ethic, conservatives believe people are the way they are (e.g. working-class whites are now lazy and overprivileged, won’t accept retraining, and jobs hence should be outsourced). But Catholic conservatives like Santorum believe that if we can change the culture, the economy will grow again. Hence conservative Catholics believe that the Culture Wars will literally pay in the long run for America. …Returning to the essay.

As president I will support state and local funding options that strengthen marriage and support for low-income families so that dads are incentivized to support their children and be involved in their lives. I will not attempt to “transform” faith-based and community organizations into bureaucratic arms of the federal government, but will instead look to devolve resources to states, much as I did in 1996 in reforming welfare. And put wind behind the back of great charities like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities which have been discriminated against by liberal courts, regulators, and now the Obama Administration.

So, Santorum doesn’t want to make “faith-based and community organizations into bureaucratic arms of the federal government,” but he’d be happy to make them arms of the state government to recreate America’s Christian “moral establishment” at a more local level? He needs to read David Sehat’s study of what happened when that was the case. Check out the four reviews in our round table on David’s book (here, here, here, and here), as well has his response. …Back to Santorum’s essay.

The Obama Administration only makes it harder for generous Americans to help those in need, even though Obamanomics has resulted in 1 in 6 Americans being in poverty. Obama has proposed limiting deductions for charitable giving, for those Americans who are large givers which United Way estimates could cost charities between more than $4 billion a year, larger than the operating budgets of of the American Cancer Society, World Vision, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Heart Association combined. President Obama has also worked to define “religious employers” in ObamaCare so narrowly that it’s doubtful that Jesus Christ’s ministry would even qualify.

It’s hard to take seriously a paragraph anchored by the incendiary political rhetoric of “Obamanomics” and “Obamacare,” but I’ll give it my own Catholic analysis. Whether one agrees the his reasoning or not, Santorum’s political point about the religious employers-contraception debate must have had political legitimacy because the Obama administration modified their policy. I don’t think it’s wrong to measure that kind of legitimacy in relation to actual actions. There were many religious leaders who feared the long-term implications of religious institutions being forced to deliver health care that conflicted (potentially or really) with moral teachings. The administration therefore gave way (though some Catholic bishops, and probably Santorum, felt the administration’s move is still inadequate).

Beyond that I’ll make only one observation: Isn’t it interesting how Santorum has made our economic and cultural situation dependent on long-range cultural and political problems (i.e. family breakdown and federal overreach), but also largely blamed those same problems on policies enacted over only three years by a Christian president who supports responsible fatherhood (and with one full year, and counting, of those policies refracted by a Republican House and gridlocked Senate)? …Back to the essay.

Moreover, his Administration stopped Catholic Charities from their long-standing partnership with government to help women who are victims of sex trafficking because they do not support abortion, just vulnerable women being abused. Is that caring for the least of these, respecting the free exercise of religion, or is that playing to the extreme left to the detriment of women? Many on the left care more about being politically correct and imposing their agenda than caring for those with HIV or kids that need adopted. They didn’t stop there. They told a positive marriage program to help teenage girls that they could talk about marriage just not abstinence. So marriage is OK just not fidelity.

I’m not qualified to speak on either the Catholic Charities-sex trafficking or teen abstinence program issues. But I can say anecdotally that I’ve not seen any poll numbers that support the notion of raped and abused women being forced to keep the resultant babies. On this point abolitionist pro-lifers, Catholic and otherwise, are strongly at odds with American culture.

I was the best advocate for private sector charitable activity and giving incentives in Congress for many years, taking on those who wanted to restrict freedom and civil society, and successfully passing several provisions into law that enabled the donation of food to the hungry, good equipment to volunteer firefighter companies, and large IRA contributions to faith-based groups, education, and other charitable groups. I will continue to be an advocate for the little platoons of faithful servants who help their neighbors all around our country.

Now for the big finish…

It is time to stop rewarding bad behavior via government handouts that have unintended consequences, and to instead respect hard work, family, and local civil society institutions (like the hundreds of congregations, private hospitals, and grassroots community organizations throughout South Carolina) that make our country truly great. When the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited our land 200 years ago, he said that our political associations “form only a detail in the immense picture that the sum of associations presents here”—and that those associations are “essential for defending liberty from State tyranny.”

Saturday’s primary election is an opportunity to send a clear message to the current president that freedom is back. We do not want a European-style welfare state; we want freedom to be neighbors to our neighbors. We want the federal government to focus on keeping us free and standing for our values and interests around the world. With your help, I will defend our country, restrain federal spending, restore the honor of marriage and family, while respecting civil society which forges local solutions to the challenges we face in America.

Line one from the first paragraph above is a standard talking point of the post-1960s New Right. It is also one of the three points from Albert O. Hirschman’s 1991 book, The Rhetoric of Reaction: the perversity thesis. In a nutshell, the helpful hand of the mid-century welfare state only results in a decrease in the real welfare of the recipient via spiritual degradation. I don’t get the pivot here to Tocqueville beyond the association already made above to subsidiarity. It is an anachronistic association in that Tocqueville was unaware of how voluntary associations would work in a post-industrial, globalized industrial-financial state.

I don’t mean to say that references to Tocqueville in 2012 are useless, but rather that they have to be done carefully. And that care must also be used in relation to romantic medieval visions of village subsidiarity that dominated the thinking of late nineteenth-century thinkers like Chesterton, Belloc, and others who influenced early twentieth-century American Catholicism. – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Aside from the problem of consistency in politics — second only to authenticity as a red herring — what strikes me most about this discussion is the concept of subsidiarity. Wouldn’t a competent subsidiary analysis of contemporary issues have to acknowledge that global capitalism, transnational corporations, instant communication, and shared resource issues are at the forefront of many of our current challenges, and need to be addressed at the level of maximum coordination and authority?

  2. @Anon: Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out. My attribution of Santorum’s “Catholic mind” is more about the aspirations of his followers, and perhaps his own beliefs about himself, than any actual consistent correspondence with the Catholic faith in all its history and breadth.

    @Jonathan & All: Subsidiarity is an infinitely difficult concept for Republicans in the face of transnational capitalism. It’s a value, an ethic, that fits traditional moral conservatism, not business-corporate conservatism. Subsidiarity works for Wendell Berry fans and the “place.limits.liberty” crowd who blog at Front Porch Republic. But I don’t see how its going to cut it in a world with ESL, immigration, expensive defense technology, world entertainment, an expanded human rights consciousness, etc. I’m not promoter of unregulated economic globalization, but I also can’t deny the reality of electronic communications, terrorism, and cultural diversity.

    While’s you’re over at John Fea’s blog reading the piece on Berry, check out his reflections on the Worthen’s Santorum article. – TL

  3. Wendell Berry, of course: reminds me of some of the agrarian nationalists in Japan’s Imperial era who believed that cosmopolitanism and industrialism were at the heart of the ills of modernity, and the rural collective of the traditional village (ignoring the social hierarchies and market orientation of same) were the soul of Japanese character to which they should be returning. (which also kind of reminds me of Nazi “Blood and Soil” ruralism)

  4. We realize of course that Mr. Gehring’s org, “Faith in Life” is one of those with few actual members but a bushel full of cash from the George Soros circle of prog-left activism.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/why-is-atheist-george-soros-giving-money-to-a-faith-project/

    This is not to say Mr. Gehring’s not capable of truth, but we must realize that generating such stuff is his livelihood, and not exactly like the work of a Tim Lacy, who is beholden to no one in calling ’em like he sees them.

    Mr. Gehring may call his article “The Catholic case against Santorum” but “Catholic” in this case means the Catholicism approved by George Soros.

    First, we must completely ignore abortion, which the Roman church in no uncertain terms views as the greatest socio-political evil on earth at this time.

    Second, we must cherry-pick Catholic attitudes on social policy and hammer them into the Democrat-left policy prescriptions.

    Third, we must pretend that everything said by a bishop or council of bishops or even dicta from the Pope carries the same weight as ex cathedra pronouncements on faith and morals, which is the only actual claim of infallibility Roman Catholicism makes for itself and the Pope.

    Dr. Lacy, I caution taking gentlepersons such as Mr. Gehring [or Juan Cole, along these lines] as authorative in their understanding of how the Roman church works.

    Benedict, in his definitive 2009 CARITAS IN VERITATE

    The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”

    Period. One can argue Catholic attitudes in support of one’s policy prescriptions, but cannot claim them as authoritative, because the Church herself does not.

    The rest is hackery, of the sort men such as Mr. Gehring dispense [I presume] for a living. Danger, Will Robinson.

    [I followed you over here from yr reply to me @ John Fea’s blog, Tim. As for the perversion of Aquinas and Maritain and natural law into what is the UN Declaration of Rights regime now in 2012, I hope to pick that up some other time. It’s a necessary inquiry. Cheers.]

  5. Dear Tom,

    While it is always interesting to trace the funding behind various institutions, it is not always easy to draw a straight line from the beliefs of those funding and the writings of those funded. It depends not only on the money itself, but how much money is involved (such that those funded _feel_ a pressure to conform) and what kind of relationship the “philanthropist” has with the institutions (i.e. how close are they). It’s one thing to note that the Koch Brothers/Family supports the activities of Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, and another to hear Walker fawning over the words of someone he thought was part of the Koch family during a prank call. And think about Henry Ford and the Ford Foundation. So let’s not assume Gehring is a mouthpiece for George Soros until we have some kind of firm proof. That aside, your guilt-by-association in relation to Gehring is why I stuck to analyzing a primary source in this USIH post.

    Returning to Santorum and branching out to a report* on a Santorum speech, what do you make of this story published by *People for the American Way*? *Yes, technically it’s a secondary source, but let’s pretend Santorum said what is in the report.

    Let me summarize it for you: Academia has been corrupted by The Devil, and that has resulted in the corruption of the Protestant church, American culture, and American politics. Academia is so powerful that The Devil attacked it _before_ the Protestant church.

    What does that ordering tell you about the Catholic mind of Rick Santorum? – TL

    • Robert: Thanks for the story. I’ll check it out. …The cynic, of course, will home in on this line: “The Catholic leaders — many of them associated with progressive and Democratic causes…”

      For the conservative cynic, the reading and thinking stop there. Even so, I’m glad to know this happened. – TL

    • Tim, I allowed that Gehring’s essay could be truth; it’s not below the belt to point out that he’s a professional Catholic lefty—anti-GOP polemic is on the menu more than even-handed analysis. The non-Catholic reader is cautioned that this “Catholic” view may be a bit jaundiced, is all.

      As for the Devil and Rick Santorum, it’s difficult to penetrate just how literal this devil-talk is. I don’t favor it, but the Pope uses it, so Santorum is not out of bounds. He should also get points for his historical accuracy in recognizing America’s specifically Protestant heritage, a nuance you don’t expect from someone painted as brutish as Santorum is. [And uncharitably interpreted by the People for the America way writer, BTW.]

      Frankly, Rick Santorum’s a little too religious for my taste in presidents too*, but my original objection was to Gehring’s attempt to paint Santorum’s Catholic sensibilities as inauthentic. It’s not necessarily so.

      *BHO’s recent politicization of the annual prayer breakfast gives me great pause as well, however.

      Respectfully submitted.

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