This is the first in a series of interviews with innovative—and doctrinally orthodox—Catholic theologians.
We're sure some people would be surprised to learn that there are Catholic thinkers doing original, even radical, theology who aren't embarassed by Church authority or teachings. But they shouldn't be. In fact, not only are these thinkers orthodox in their beliefs, they're actually getting their radical ideas from within Catholic tradition—from sources like the Church Fathers. And rather than subverting the Church, these new ideas instead are aimed directly at the most entrenched secular interests—like money, sex and power. It's a refreshing change.
Few theologians have been more radically orthodox in explaining the "death of God" in modern societies than Dr. William T. Cavanaugh, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Consumerism, corporate power, the nation-state, war, torture—Cavanaugh has brought a radical Catholic vision, and a deeply traditional understanding of the Eucharist, to bear on these contemporary issues, with writing that's sharp and relevant, and reminiscent of the great Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day.
For many, Cavanaugh's critique of modern lifestyles and institutions might seem too sweeping, too distant from the realities of everyday existence. But there's no question that he's getting at the root causes of the persistent unhappiness that pervades western industrial societies, and the puzzling irrelevance of Christianity to contemporary life and culture.
- the Editors
GODSPY: What do you think best characterizes the essence of your thought?
Cavanaugh: What I’m trying to do is make connections between Sunday on the one hand and Monday through Friday on the other. In other words, to make connections between Church life—especially the Eucharist—and everyday life. I want to bridge the gap that shouldn’t be there but is.
How are you trying to bridge the gap?
I reflect on mundane things like consumerism, politics, that sort of stuff, all through the lens of liturgy. That’s my main preoccupation.
Where would you place yourself and your approach to theology? Do you identify with or belong to any one school of thought in the Church?
I’m especially in sympathy with the so-called , people like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and their fellow travelers like Hans Urs von Balthasar. I appreciate most the way they try to address social problems and ecclesial problems with réssourcement, the recovery of the Church Fathers and the Eucharist as sources for doing theology and developing social thought.
Our primary loyalty is to Christ. All other loyalties are secondary…
Why do we need to go back to the Church Fathers, men who lived over 1,500 years ago, for theology and developing social thought in the modern and post-modern era?
Read Robert Wilken’s recent book . It’s a great exposition of the fruitfulness of patristic thought. These are thinkers who are not burdened by many of the dichotomies that we face. For them there is no split between academics and spiritual life, knowledge and wisdom, liturgy and ethics, the sacred and the mundane.
Who influenced you most as a theologian?
De Lubac is probably the biggest influence. After him, the recent recovery of Augustine’s theology has been a strong influence. I think Thomas Aquinas is great, but he’s not all there is to the tradition of Catholic social thought. Dorothy Day has been a big influence on me as well. I’ve been involved with the Catholic Worker here quite a bit. I suppose the most direct influence is Stanley Hauerwas because he was my teacher at Duke University when I was an undergrad.
What was the most important thing you learned from de Lubac? Augustine? Dorothy Day?
From de Lubac, it’s the idea that the Eucharist makes the Church, not vice-versa. From Augustine, it’s the idea that evil has no being, that there is nothing inevitable or natural about violence. From Dorothy Day it is the idea that social problems are not solved by bureaucracy, but by treating each individual person as an embodiment of Christ.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from Hauerwas?
The most important thing I learned from Stanley is the sense that the Church is important and Christians ought to think of themselves as Christians first and Americans second.
What’s your take so far on Pope Benedict XVI?
One of the things that I really like about Pope Benedict is his emphasis on peace. This was true of him even before he became pope. He was very vocal in his opposition to the Iraq war. At one point he was asked in an interview if there could be such a thing as a just war these days, and he said no. One of the reasons he chose the name Benedict was to honor Benedict XV who was the peace pope in the early 20th century. He’s styled himself to be a peace pope. This is something I deeply appreciate with him.
You’ve written that Catholics should draw on the liturgy to inform how they participate in political life. How does that work?
I gave a talk at Notre Dame last year on the social meaning of the Eucharist. The first thing I said was, “If I tell what the social meaning of the Eucharist is, you have to promise me you won’t stop going to Mass.” The point being, if you reduce the liturgy to a meaning, why keep doing it once you‘ve got the meaning down?
Unfortunately people fall into a “this means that” sort of approach when they’re trying to connect the liturgy to everyday life. Like the Offering means we should give of our gifts, and that kind of thing. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the liturgy as a deeper formation of how we see the world and how we act in the world. It’s also an invitation to see the Church as a body, the Body of Christ, which is a kind of political and public body in the world, not just a private club.
One example might be the way the Body of Christ transcends national boundaries. We should come to see people all over the world as fellow members of the Body. We should understand that this is more determinative than the borders of whatever nation we happen to live in. For us, it’s more determinative that we’re members of the Body of Christ, not citizens of the United States of America. Our primary loyalty is to Christ. All other loyalties are secondary, like our loyalties to the nation we live in and all those other things.
Alisdair MacIntyre says that the nation state is simply too big to be a real community discerning the common good.
It almost sounds like you’re advocating a kind of Catholic theocracy. Isn’t our loyalty to the Church on the level of faith and morals, and doesn’t the political sphere have its own autonomy, “render unto Caesar” and all that?
No, nothing like a theocracy, if that means Church control of the state. The Church should not seek the means of coercion, and should do penance for seeking it in the past. The only proper sense of “theocracy” is the simple recognition that God rules the world.
I think people misread the “Caesar’s coin” episode in the Gospel as if Jesus were setting up some kind of modern division of labor between God and Caesar. The coin Jesus was looking at, after all, would have borne the inscription “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.” That is, the emperor claimed to be Son of God. Jesus did not wish to divvy the world up between two Gods. “The whole earth is mine,” says the Lord (Ex. 19:5). As Dorothy Day said, “If you give to God what is God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar.”
How can Catholics witness fully to the spirit and letter of the gospel as they should and also be fully involved politically in this two-party country—not just voting but running for office—when it seems that more and more neither Republicans nor Democrats fully reflect Catholic teaching?
I know what you mean. It always reminds me of that scene in The Blues Brothers when they go into Bob’s Country Bunker and the woman says, “We’ve got both kinds of music here: country and western.” We’ve got both kinds of politicians here: Republicans and Democrats. There’s just got to be something more. I think Catholics are really starting to feel this, to feel left out of the process. They just don’t find their values resonating with either party.
But I think this is one of those teachable moments. The Church needs to see itself as a kind of tertium quid. Christians ought to feel that they don’t quite fit in with politics as usual. That realization can be a good thing.
Do you mean that Catholics should come together so there’s finally an authentic “Catholic vote” or are you suggesting they form a third political party?
No, not a voting bloc or a third political party, but an independent presence in the social and political arena. The Church should, for example, decide for itself which wars are unjust, and not defer that decision to the state.
Do you see any examples of faithful Christian politicians trying to work more effectively within the current structures?
Yes, if you want to talk about participation in the party political process, there are some interesting things going on. For example, there are some Democrats openly standing up and declaring themselves pro-life. Their own party doesn’t quite know what to do with them. I’m thinking of people like Tim Roemer who ran for the Democratic Party leadership and lost to Howard Dean. It’s voices like these that indicate something new has to happen.
Anyone reading your articles on globalization might conclude that you’re not its biggest fan. What’s wrong with it and what do you think are its most damaging effects?
Gustavo Gutiérrez once said that being against globalization is like being against electricity. He’s certainly right that globalization is a fact that is not going away. What I mean when I talk critically about globalization is the way workers are treated, environmental laws, and so on.
When you have this kind of mobility of capital across national borders, the result is a “race to the bottom”. Companies move to Mexico where they can pay people 60 cents an hour. But now they’re going to China because they can pay 30 cents an hour for the same work. The same logic applies to environmental laws. Corporations find places where environmental restrictions don’t apply, where they can dump sewage into the water and get away with it.
Globalization is an aesthetic which produces a way of looking at the world. It assumes that we’re a universal subject. We can go anywhere and do anything. But this has damaging effects. A few years ago my friends and I gathered for a dinner party and started discussing what should be done about Kosovo. I remember thinking how incredible it was that most of us had never even heard of Kosovo just a couple of weeks ago. But suddenly we’re all talking as if we know what’s right for this place on the other side of the world. It’s absurd.
If we live in such a free-market economy, how do we end up with such homogenization?
Doesn’t mass media technology have a lot to do with this? It seems to bring the whole world to our homes in a little box.
Sure, that’s a big part of it. And it’s not all negative. There are benefits too. You get a wider vision of the world. You have more cultural exchange. But the temptation we have to resist is to think that we’re the universal subject. America in particular has this tendency to think it’s the universal nation, the exceptional nation, which means that we know what the solution is to everyone’s problems.
I sometimes joke that if I were invited to give a commencement address—which I never will be—I’d never say the usual thing they tell the graduates: “Go out and change the world!” I’d tell them: “Go home! Go back to your little towns and please, dear God, don’t try to change the world!” The world has had enough of American college graduates who know what’s best for the world.
You’re right, you probably won’t get invited… For all its defects, it does seem that globalization is helping to unite humanity and create a kind of global community that’s never existed before. Do you see more unity in the world or just different kinds of division?
There’s some truth to the uniting effect. The internet, for example, is a remarkable tool for getting in touch with people around the world. That’s a good thing. But the idea that we’re all one big happy family now is really absurd. People are being worked to death to make our toys in China and Thailand and other places. We are not one big happy family.
In many ways, globalization is very beneficial to capital and very detrimental to labor. Capital can move across national boundaries freely but labor can’t. They say that globalization has made national boundaries irrelevant. But national boundaries are essential to making it work. As soon as you cross the border between the United States and Mexico you can pay people a dollar an hour instead of ten dollars an hour.
So capital can cross the border, but there’s a big fence and border guards to keep labor from crossing. People do manage to get in, but if they do they’re under constant threat of being sent back. So they have to accept low wages, no health care, that kind of stuff.
So the old divisions are still there and in many ways they’re stronger. But since we don’t talk about class anymore, they tend to be invisible. When we have debates about NAFTA, the question is always phrased: “Is this going to be good or bad for America?” We never get to the real question: “Which class of Americans is this going to be good or bad for?” The basic answer, of course, is that it’s good for capital and bad for labor.
You’ve made the argument that the Eucharist is an answer to globalization. What do you mean?
I want to be cautious about saying the Eucharist is the answer to anything. It’s not magic. But it is central to a Christian way of seeing and acting. That’s what I’m talking about.
In the Eucharist the global is realized in the local. Each congregation that meets has the whole Body of Christ present. It’s a different way of talking about the relationship between the global and the local that doesn’t have the same implications as the total dominance of the global over the local.
The other point is that the imagination of the Eucharist tends to resist the imagination of the detached consumer. This is because the Eucharist consumes us, it makes us part of the Body of Christ and takes us up into Christ. Since we know that we’re members of the one Body of Christ, we can resist this idea that we’re just detached individual consumers who survey the world and choose whatever we like. Now that we’re a member of the Body, as Saint Paul says, the pain of one of the members is our pain as well, the pain of all.
Catholics are really starting to feel left out of the process. They just don’t find their values resonating with either party.
This also would seem to imply mutual responsibility, that we really are our “brother’s keeper”…
Yes, exactly. It resists individualism.
When we talk about our “free-market culture”, we’re assuming a certain understanding of freedom. What kind of freedom is presumed and promoted in our free-market culture and where is it leading us?
The classic philosophical distinction between positive and negative freedom is that negative freedom is freedom from interference and positive freedom is the ability to do something. The kind of freedom you get in the so-called free market is not the freedom to flourish as human beings—it’s negative, an absence of restrictions. This by itself isn’t necessarily helpful.
In the free market, where nothing is considered objectively good, no goods that everyone necessarily ought to desire, then everybody is free to choose anything. Some choose poetry and others pornography. Everybody’s free to choose whatever they want. In this kind of culture, all movement towards goods is arbitrary—and so, in the absence of a common good, all you have in the end is power.
Is this your main criticism of Walt Disney, that since companies like this have so much marketing power there’s not much real choice left in the market?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Disney is just an example I’ve used of a hugely powerful company. Whatever movies and merchandise they put out is what every kid in school is watching and has to have.
I’m trying to understand this phenomenon: If we live in such a free-market economy, how do we end up with such homogenization? How is it that in this incredibly free market you can drive three thousand miles from one end of the country to the other and the whole way you meet people listening to the same songs, wearing the same clothes, watching the same movies and TV shows, talking the same way, getting news from the same sources, and staying at the same hotels? Where does that come from?
You’ve said that CEOs of large corporations sometimes despair because they’re being manipulated by the all-powerful market forces. Is it even possible for the individual Christian consumer not to go with the flow?
Yes, I think it’s possible. CEOs are being honest when they say that they’re often squeezed by the consumer. Sure, corporations will try to manipulate consumers to get their interests to coincide with the corporation’s interests, but still the consumers drive corporate decisions.
We like to blame Wal-Mart, but we’re responsible for Wal-Mart. We shop there because we accept low, low wages for others so we can get low, low prices for ourselves. The consumer is in the driver’s seat, despite the manipulation. And it’s possible to resist. Most of us don’t have to shop at Wal-Mart. You can buy fair trade and voluntarily pay more for a product that you know is going to provide a decent living for other people. It’s difficult because some people feel compelled to shop at Wal-Mart—their own wages are low—but for many of us that’s not the case. We’re able to make other choices.
What sorts of choices have you made in your own life that reflect your critique?
We’re not perfect, but my wife and I really try to do something as a family. There are a lot of opportunities here in the Twin Cities. We belong to a co-op and also own a share of a community supported farm. There’s another farm co-op of family farms that markets through our church where we buy things like eggs and cheese each month. We buy fair trade and try to reduce consumption as much as possible. I bicycle to work, we only have one car, and we’ve insulated the house. We don’t watch much TV, don’t have cable, no internet at home, you know, that sort of thing. And we always try to buy local, even though there are many times when you can’t. Finding a pair of shoes that aren’t made in China or Thailand takes a lot of effort. But we try to do these things as part of our spiritual life. It’s part of our spiritual practice to make these concrete, everyday sacramental choices.
Imagine if Catholics had said, ‘No, sorry, this is an unjust war; we’re just going to sit this one out.’
There’s been a lot of debate about just war theory in recent years for obvious reasons. Who do you think is responsible for determining if a war is just or not?
That’s been a key issue for me recently. Here you had the Pope and the bishops world-wide saying that the war in Iraq would not be a just war. And then Catholics went and fought in it anyway. People like George Weigel and Michael Novak were making very public arguments that it’s not the Pope’s decision, it’s the president’s decision, and we ought to defer to the decision to the president. I think that’s just disastrous.
If we’re going to have a functioning just war theory, then we can’t abdicate this judgment to the leaders of the secular nation state, as if they can decide when a war meets Christian criteria and when it doesn’t. Historically the prince was traditionally responsible for making these kinds of judgments. But the prince in medieval Europe wasn’t outside the Church. This wasn’t a secular role, but a pastoral role within the Church.
Also, individuals were never absolved of responsibility for deciding when princes’ judgments were just and when they weren’t. It’s always up to the individual to decide and to apply these criteria. And bishops and popes often intervened in these matters, excommunicating looters, imposing truces, interdicting the Eucharist, and so on. The recovery of the Church’s sense that it needs to be the place where these decisions get discerned is absolutely crucial, otherwise we’ve lost any sense of what it means to be Church.
But how can anyone but the government make an informed judgment? Yes, we have the moral principles, but we can’t apply them unless we have the facts of the real situation. When the necessary information to make a judgment is classified for national security reasons, what choice do we have but to trust our political leaders?
There are at least two problems with that argument. One is the idea that the administration has better information than we do. In a lot of ways, as we’ve seen, the administration was only gathering the kind of information that it wanted and wasn’t giving a full hearing to the rest. It was manipulating the information to get the result it wanted. Can you really trust them to be fair judges of the information?
The second problem is that moral judgments are not primarily a matter of information but are a matter of sound moral judgment based on moral formation. There’s no reason to suppose that the president of the United States is more equipped to make sound moral judgments than the Church, the pope or bishops. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There is reason to be very suspicious of the ability of the president of the United States to make sound moral judgments based on sound Christian principles and not based on reasons of state and basic national and corporate self-interest.
But when we’re talking about the common good in general, who’s responsible? Isn’t this the role of the state?
There are many reasons to resist the idea that the nation state is solely responsible for the common good. Alisdair MacIntyre has some interesting arguments on this. He says that the nation state is simply too big to be a real community discerning the common good.
This brings me back to Dorothy Day. She believed we were all responsible for the common good. We’re responsible for each other, for our neighbors. Personalism was a key theme for John Paul II. For Dorothy Day personalism meant that if somebody was hungry, you didn’t send a letter to your congressman—you fed them. For me, this is the biblical vision of the common good: we’re responsible for each other. The only way you can discern what’s truly good for each other is to meet each other face to face. That’s the only way to promote the common good.
You’ve written that the nation state has become a “parody of the Church” and that we should treat it like the “phone company.” How far do you think the state has overreached itself in this country?
The phone company quote comes from MacIntyre. He says that the nation state is a dangerous and unwieldy organization that presents itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic provider of goods and services which is always about to, but never actually provides, value for money, and on the other hand, as a repository of sacred values which from time to time asks us to lay down our lives on its behalf. He says it’s like being asked to die for the telephone company. I think that really characterizes it very well.
On the one hand, you have this enormous bureaucratic organization which is growing constantly despite all the talk about small government. Even under Reagan and the current president the state continues to grow. People foresaw this as early as the 19th century. When there’s no organic community and your society is a mass of individuals, each with their own goals, goods, and ends, you need a bigger and bigger state to keep them all from interfering with each other.
There’s a spiritual aspect to the state’s claims. That’s why I call it a “parody of the Church”—it claims to saves us. Currently, it’s saving us from these diabolical terrorists who are out there and want to kill us. The state presents itself as the only protection from this diabolical enemy. The irony is that the state made this enemy for us in the first place.
The amnesia about who terrorists are and where they come from is just amazing. The way the story’s usually told, we were just sitting here minding our own business, and then on September 11, 2001, these crazy people attacked us for no good reason and now we have to defend ourselves. But the truth of the matter is much more complex. It has a lot to do with American foreign policy and American military meddling in the Middle East which we don’t want to talk about. It has a lot to do with the CIA helping to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953 and installing a Shah who ran a brutal dictatorship. These are things we forget, but that other people never forget. The state in a lot of ways is like a protection racket: it defends us against the enemies that it itself creates.
What can or should the Church do if or when the nation state oversteps its boundaries?
The first thing the Church needs to do is stop fighting unjust wars. Take the just war theory seriously. I’m not talking about pacifism. If there’s a war that the Church judges is unjust, then Catholics shouldn’t fight it. That’s the way the just war theory is supposed to work. It’s sometimes supposed to say ‘no’ to acts of violence. What the theory is usually used for, of course, is to justify whatever violence is going on. I can’t think of a single instance where it was used to stop violence. That is the most pressing issue.
Imagine what would have happened if Catholics in the previous war had said in significant numbers, “No, sorry, this is an unjust war; we’re just going to sit this one out.” The world would have turned upside down.
Another thing is to stop buying into the idea that all significant questions of money and power need to be funneled through the state, that the only thing we can do about issues like health care is to get the state to do something.
You wrote about the need for the Church to create alternate social spaces independent of the state. What are these spaces and why are they important?
It doesn’t have to be just the Church. The Church can collaborate with others to create these spaces and often does. For example, the farming co-op that I mentioned earlier. This is a way the Church helps promote a new space where economic decisions about the food we buy are not based just on the profit motive. They’re based on stewardship of the land, the preservation of the family farm, providing just wages for the producers, producing healthful products, and so on. This kind of alternative space doesn’t obey the logic of the so-called free market. In fact, it’s a much freer space where people can voluntarily pay a living wage to the farmers and help transform the economy.
Another example is Voices in the Wilderness, a group of Christians and non-Christians who took medicine and toys over to Iraqi children in defiance of the American embargo. This is a way of seeing the earth as God sees it, without national boundaries. I remember being so shocked when I was a kid at seeing the first picture of the earth from the moon. I wondered where the lines were. We had a globe in our house and all the countries had lines around them and were different colors. I was shocked to see the earth as God sees it: with no boundaries whatsoever.
Who do you think has the most to teach us about being Catholic, about being the Church, as we move into the 21st century?
That’s a really tough question. One of the people that comes to mind is Jean Vanier, the head of the community. He’s written such beautiful things about his life with the mentally handicapped. I think he has so much to teach us about the patience and gentleness of God, about bearing each other’s burdens, and the joy this kind of openness brings.
What do you think the top priority should be for the Church moving into the 21st century?
One of my thoughts is don’t fight unjust wars. If that were done in significant numbers, that would make a huge difference. I hope it’s not the case, but I think this is going to be a huge issue because wars will be more frequent, not less, in the coming century.
But the highest priority for the Church should be to live the gospel, not just preach it. Don’t just adore the Eucharist: enact it.