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The Catholic Left

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, find below the sub of an article of mine that appeared this weekend.

The Left is not the enemy of the Catholic Church
Catholic commentators should be careful not to demonise those on the Left, says Michael Merrick

They do not flow quite so easily as they once used to, the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Left’. These terms used to fit snugly together, accurately describing the political inclinations of swathes of the Catholic community, but have been slowly rent apart: from cliché to contradiction within less than two decades.

The separation hardly came out of the blue. Following years of implicit and explicit attack endured during New Labour’s reign, one could naturally understand the Catholic commentariat snuggling up to the Conservatives, the latest swing of the pendulum toward whichever political party would ease the relentless pressure being placed upon the faithful.  The foot needed taking from the throat and if the Conservatives brought with them the promise of breathing space, then all well and good.

Yet the fallout between the Catholic community and the left has taken on air of permanence of late, just as the bonds have taken root between the Catholic community and the political Right. For what has become increasingly obvious is that, for a good number of well-informed and genuinely astute individuals, being an orthodox Catholic and being on ‘the Left’ is largely incompatible.

It is the language that shapes the intellectual landscape which lets us see most clearly the direction of travel. For many, ‘the Left’ is a phrase emblematic of those habits of thought and action that stand aggressively against the truths upheld by the Catholic Church. Respected commentators with whom many a faithful Catholic would find common ground, including certain luminaries of this parish, are perfectly happy to attribute a host of ideological idiocies to this phenomenon. Everything from liturgical vandalism to hug-a-heretic liberalism is attributed to that dark and not-so-distant force known as ‘the Left’.

Apart from being untrue (in itself a fairly fatal flaw in the analysis) the impression is given that the promulgators of such myths prefer cartoon caricature to blood and guts reality, even at the cost of flinging mud at those they ought to be standing alongside.

The notion that Left-wing thought is inimical to orthodox Catholic thinking is simply not one that is shared by a great many of those sitting in the pews throughout the country. To engage with the legacies left to us by our forefathers in faith, indeed by the very weave of social history and our unique place in it, while proclaiming that ‘the Left’ is an enemy, in whatever sense, of the faith and the Catholic community: this tale, as much as any other, presents itself as a hermeneutic of rupture.

After all, the faith that inclines an individual to stand in defence of the family, of the unborn, of the truths and values of the faithful community, is precisely the same faith that similarly compels some to stand on the Left-wing of the political spectrum, arguing that all these things are relentlessly assaulted by the political orthodoxies of the Right. This was as true historically, with sophisticated Catholic critiques of capitalism, as it remains now, as more than a few in the Labour Party continue to demonstrate. To use ‘the Left’ as shorthand for dissent is to ignore this crucial aspect: for many, their political and economic critiques are manifestations of their fidelity, not obstacles to it.

This is not to embrace what the professional, political Left has too often become. One can readily admit that social liberalism has fractured our communities every bit as much as its market-based twin, and mourn the role of the Labour Party in pursuing that creed (though one could point out that this ideological oeuvre has always been a hobby of the already empowered, existent within all three political parties). Indeed, for the Left the story is not as uniform as its cultured despisers would have it. Peter Hitchens’s distinction between the social and moral conservatism of the Left’s working class, and the ‘let-it-all-hang-out liberals’ comprised largely of the Oxbridge elite, is apposite.

Yet, in confining discussion to the moral free-marketeers of the New Left, one tells only half a story. For while the Catholic view of the family and the unborn (for example) are rightly defended from upon the rock-solid walls of Church teaching, we must be careful not to forget that other teachings have equal call on our thought and action. Church teaching interlinks and interweaves, most compellingly when offered as a coherent, holistic vision. Its impact is neutered the moment it is balkanised for political expediency. To use the encyclicals most symbolic of the impulses of which we speak, Humanae Vitae presents itself most powerfully when read with Rerum Novarum, not in isolation from it.

This gets at the nub of it. The phenomenon alluded to by those who would wash their hands of ‘the Left’ is not a political party or tradition, to be pinned to one end of an increasingly redundant political spectrum. It is much more elusive than that, forever moving because ultimately loyal to nothing but itself. As John Milbank has argued, the feigned confrontation of Left and Right is nothing but shadow play:­ in truth they are allies, each pursuing only the liberalism that drives them.

This demands that we employ a little more nuance in interpreting the socio-political landscape. The truth is that that which the Church holds to be good and true can exist on the Left, has existed on the Left, and continues to exist among significant portions of the Left, as becomes obvious once one zooms out from the unrepresentative outpourings of media-savvy progressive activists and cosmopolitan liberals ill at ease with their own tradition. Indeed, there are few expressions of Church social and moral teaching not readily identifiable within the traditions of the Left, both historically and philosophically, a truth inexplicably forgotten though increasingly rediscovered.

As such, painting ‘the Left’ as the bogeyman that assaults a Catholic vision of the good life is not just simplistic but genuinely dangerous, since it feeds into that culture war narrative that is so pernicious to the wholeness of Church teaching precisely because its tidy-minded simplicity, while so very alluring, is also so very wrong.

Not that I try to claim Catholicism for the Left, or indeed the Left for Catholicism. To do so would be to contradict my whole purpose in writing this article.

But it is to offer a warning that those who would slip so cosily into the arms of the Conservatives as a reaction against ‘the Left’ ought to be careful: that which you run toward is much the same as that which you run from. The intellectual and political tides that swept away any influence among the professional Left (although not the cultural Left) are the same tides currently weaving their way through the professional Right.

In other words, the revolution of the New Left is the revolution of the New Right. And both need Truth spoken to them.

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