The Catholic University of America
Feb 19 2010

Is It Time for a Catholic Tea Party?

Posted by Stephen Schneck at 6:52 PM
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This week in Washington at the annual convention for the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), one the topics to be considered is whether “It is Time for a Catholic Tea Party?”  Several  Catholic political activists have promoted such an idea in recent weeks, following the proposal by the former Bush administration Catholic liaison, Deal Hudson.
The Tea Party movement in general, of course, is motivated against the nationalizing of governance and against what is perceived to be a top-down imposition of authority from Washington repressing individual liberty.  Tea Partiers have rich historical resources to draw from in the literature of American federalism to support their cause.  Might these same sentiments and resources be marshaled by faithful Catholics against their own hierarchical authority, its bureaucracy, and its impositions on individual liberty?  The calls for such a Catholic Tea Party—aimed at the American bishops and their organizations such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—seem to have generated quite a following.
The Tea Party movement offers political scholars a fascinating opportunity to revisit the populist dynamic that roils American politics in every generation or so.  Touchstones for comparison might be the Jacksonian “revolution” that overturned the more classical republicanism of the American framing, the dissolution of the Whig Party by anti-Washington outrage in 1850s, the paradigmatic populist movement of the 1880s and 90s that stormed against the collusion of Washington and big business, and the so-called “conservative” revolt against the Great Society in the late 1960s and 70s.
Commonalities among such revolts are readily apparent.  In class terms, adherents belong to an alienated segment of the largest class.  Sociologically, adherents overwhelmingly belong to the dominant cultural group.  In each of the historical cases, the objects of outrage are two-fold: an elite that is ostensibly corrupt and an emerging power in the underclass.  Not to put too fine a point on it, then, populist rage is inspired by the perception of being repressed from above and threatened from below.
Perhaps the dynamics of change within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States have created an environment that is ripe for similar perceptions.
An unprecedented wave of immigration is challenging the status quo Church experience for many Catholics in the pews.  Liturgies are changing to accommodate the new immigrants.  Old white ethnic churches are being closed throughout the country, while new programs and efforts for immigrants are receiving special hierarchical support and attention.  Middle class parishes are encouraged from the pulpit to support the many initiatives aimed at the new immigrant populations.   Moreover, looking at the Church’s long-range demographics, it’s no wonder that the American bishops increasingly emphasize the needs of America’s immigrant Catholics.  Here, then, is the perceived threat from “below” element of the formula for populist movements.  Concern among many white, middle class Catholics about the Church’s response to the new wave of immigration has been evident and growing for some time.
Populism’s other element, though, that of a perceived overweening and corrupt elite, has not been well-articulated in a way that resonates with Catholics in the pews—or, at least it has not until now.  Traditional and especially conservative Roman Catholics are hard-pressed to object to the hierarchical nature of Church authority.  Pope and bishops are canonical and magisterial authorities on matters of faith and morals.  In Church teachings, even a basic American ideal such as individual liberty (arguably the core ideal of the Tea Party movement), must be understood in a much more nuanced and complicated fashion that also recognizes the a priori common good, communion in the mystical body of Christ, and an appreciation that liberty is not properly a “freedom from” but a freedom directed toward salvation.  And, howevermuch the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity might be massaged  by some to support the appropriateness of the local rather than the hierarchical, it could never be construed to contradict ecclesial authority.
Given such complications, where then do the Catholic Tea Partiers find their bogeyman elite to complete the formula for populist rebellion?  What might Catholic populists use for a stand-in for the “evils” of Washington and President Obama?  Well, this is still too recent a phenomenon to be sure how or if it will play out at all, but the approving reaction to Deal Hudson’s piece is telling.  Apparently, the Catholic Tea Partiers find their purported corruption in the bishops’ response to the pedophilia scandal and find their purported bureaucratic elite in the bishops’ USCCB.
Whether or not a Catholic Tea Party movement has any legs is uncertain.  Unlike their colleagues at Sarah Palin rallies who have two hundred years of anti-Washington sentiment as part of their historical subconscious, Catholic Tea Partiers have little in the way of precedent to inform their thinking—assuming the language of the Reformation remains beyond the pale.   Indeed, so far, the phenomenon seems limited by American partisan politics: a GOP Catholic phenomenon, as it were.  The blogs advancing the Catholic Tea Party idea deride Obama at least as much as they deride the bishops or the USCCB.  But, as its discussion at one of Washington’s most prominent political action committees this week indicates, tensions within the American Catholic Church are likely to continue along the fault lines that Hudson and his fellow Catholic Tea Partiers have identified.


Scott Montgomery

Scott Montgomery wrote on 03/17/10 11:14 AM

Yes, we need a Catholic Tea Party. I want to see if we can recognize each other anymore. Stephen is right, Obama and the USCCB are derided equally, and I'm not sure that either are appropriate targets. Today, Catholic teaching is the only ideology anymore that does not fit into either Conservative or Liberal political beliefs exclusively, but that doesn't stop some people from trying.

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