A Discussion with Peter Steinfels, Co-director, Fordham Center on Religion and Culture
May 22, 2011
Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in spring 2011 Brandon Butterworth interviewed Peter Steinfels, Fordham University professor and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.
Can you speak about your background and how these experiences have brought you to your current work? How does your Catholic faith inform your worldview?
I was baptized and raised Catholic and I guess I just never got over it. My father was a liturgical artist, so religion and lively discussion was standard in the family. I got involved in politics very early, and it’s always been a passion of mine.
I first was interested heavily in morality and international affairs, particularly in the Catholic resistance to Hitler. That brought me to Columbia for my doctorate.
After that it was natural for me to go to be an editor for Commonweal. I then went to the Hastings Center looking at bioethics and then left there to work on a book on neoconservatism, which at that time was different and didn’t have the religious dimension.
I then went to the New York Times where I became the national religion correspondent, working on all religions in America. It was a different experience [from being the editor at Commonweal]. Then I was a columnist, then did my book on Catholicism in America. My wife had taken over for me at Commonweal, and we then handed it off to a younger person. We wanted to do something new, so we spoke with the university and started the Center on Religion and Culture, which puts on events and discussions about whatever is on the public mind regarding religion.
Now you ask how Catholicism informs my world view. It does very much. In Catholicism you have to take the secular into account. There’s no easy application of scripture or doctrine. And in my life, the faith and its practice are important.
Is it different for the Church in how the institution informs your worldview, rather than say the Protestant faiths?
Others see the church as imposing, but from within you have the plurality within the Church. It’s a big world. And within Protestantism, even within one denomination, it could be more imposing.
There’s a distinction between those traditions that rely on literal injunction from scripture. That has not been the particular Catholic approach. So you have strong teachings on moral doctrines, but then you consider the application of those to particular circumstances, what has been called “casualistic,” that’s often used the pejorative term but I don’t it necessarily should be. Whether we’re talking political or medical ethics, there’s always this question of the interaction between circumstances, facts, consequences, moral teachings, all that you have. And that’s probably the most significant thing for me in terms of the act of Catholicism’s approach to these questions.
Do you consider the execution of diplomacy, or relating to other cultures in an unofficial way, to be a strictly secular affair? What about government?
Well, we get into complicated issues by what we mean by “secular” or “strictly.” I don’t take secular as meaning irreligious or anti-religious, but an area of life, whether it be business decisions or political decisions, or scientific research and conclusions, that is not directly answerable to religious authorities, or to religious authorities’ interpretation of their sacred text. So not directly answerable to cardinals, archbishops, or rabbis, or to various assemblies and so on. In that sense diplomacy and international politics on that level is a secular enterprise.
The word “strictly”—I don’t know what to do there, but I would question it when we met if there isn’t an indirect influence. I wouldn’t rule out some kind of an indirect influence which I think operates in everyone with their deepest moral convictions, like a commitment to democracy, equality, a certain level of well-being for people; and those in the case of religious folks are faith based and faith formed. So that means that if one is an ambassador, or one is a midlevel diplomat or one is a member of a congressional committee dealing with foreign policy issues, I just presume that one’s outlook would be shaped by those commitment, which have been shaped by faith, prayer, meditation, ritual, study, or some other religious practice. Like joining in community with religious rituals, or even in meditation.
You say in your book A People Adrift of the declining role that the Catholic faith has in Americans. What kind of effects can we expect from this in political discussions?
I’ll qualify your description of the book. The subtitle mentions a crisis for the Catholic Church, and in the ntroductory poses a fork in the road through transformation or irreversible decline. I’m not ready to give the final word on that.
But you’re right that one of the options is a serious decline not necessarily in numbers, although there’s more recent data that says that’s a problem, but definitely in a strong personal identity on Catholic’s religious identity formed by their faith. We’ve all got a bunch of identities, whether they be ethnic or alumni of colleges, but most of those don’t have something to do with how we live our lives, or how we make important decisions. But there’s a real possibility that that type of identity will decrease, and we may even see that in the number of Catholics. So what are the consequences?
Numerical strength in mobilizing people would decrease, which could mean decreased influence of Catholicism, whether from Church officials, or in average peoples’ lives. You’d also have a loss of Catholicism in public life. You’ll have a loss of concepts which are a Catholic resource to civic life, like common good, which is a strong catholic concept. There’s also a tradition of social solidarity. There’s a tradition that is not shared by others, particularly not in Conservative Protestant traditions, of the good that government can do. Human beings are basically social creatures: we don’t come in as individuals who enter into a contract. We are social from ground up. There are notions of subsidiary, solidarity, that tradition I spoke to, bringing human reasoning and moral calculus to concrete political decisions, a natural law tradition that morality is read off reality rather than just created by people. All of these are important contributions that the Catholic tradition can make to public life, and their loss would be unfortunate.
What role should Church leadership have in this political discourse? What about Catholic public officials?
It’s important for people of every faith group to have their leading figures speak to political and social issues, to try and explain how their tradition affects these things. I think Catholic leaders have done that and must continue to do that. We have a wariness in the U.S. about religious leaders actually intervening directly in political contests, to say vote for this or that. But it’s nothing new, and part of that tradition that religious leaders should decry segregation, speak about inequities, life chances, and so on. They get into trouble, and in the long term reduce influence when they get too involved in electoral politics. There’s at least one group of the catholic bishops these days, who all the while say they’re not doing that but create the perception they are.
Are you talking about the bishops who refused Communion?
Well, this has happened in campaigns, and that’s one part of the group. One example is the bishop of St. Louis who said Kerry should not get communion, saying it on the eve of the Missouri primary in 2004. It’s not a simple question, and there’s probably more evidence pertaining to evangelical churches than the Catholic Churches, that this direct intervention in politics has a backlash in young people. You can see that support in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace.
What role do public officials have? Public officials should grapple seriously with the decisions politically if they make themselves known with their tradition, and should act with that tradition in mine. The Bishops taking those positions, regrettably, I think is influenced by political figures who are pro-choice on an issue, abortion, which is a great concern to Catholics, but who have only taken a small grappling with what their church teaches. They can use other things to get to their conclusion, but they use bumper-sticker slogans to get to it.
I do think political figures have a right to take into consideration the question of what kind of consensus is necessary for a government policy or legal restriction in a country where people have different beliefs and share citizenship, but those arguments must be put forth in a much more sophisticated way.
The Chicago Council’s task force on “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad” included recommendations for dealing with religious communities abroad and the need for the U.S. to change its diplomatic means when speaking about religion. As a council member and given your experience, is there anything that the U.S. or the U.S. government must do first in order to engage with these other religious communities? Does it need to get its own house in order before it engages in diplomacy?
Not sure what you mean by house in order or whether as a sequence in time it must be “first.” But I do think that the things that the report said are necessary, that the formal diplomatic apparatus become much more sensitive to religion, and it would probably be helpful if they became more sensitive to religion in the U.S. itself. Our experts in some sectors of government, particularly the military, have drawn from more secularized sectors of the American milieu and may be out of touch with how religion works with people. That may be important to get the house in order.
But if there was anything that I could add to the report it is how religious groups in the U.S. can play a more thoughtful, sophisticated, less simple-minded and more knowledgeable role in forming the background for IR. We were putting the emphasis on how our government works, not on how our politics works. I think this has to do with the quality of our religious groups, and how they can and do educate well on other cultures. They can contribute to politics a real sense of what it means to be religious, and this in turn would influence better decisions overseas. But they must be sensitive to how other religions see the world too. We may have a better chance in the U.S. because of our pluralism to see how others see things. We can see other people’s perspectives without going to war.