The release of Pope Francis’ new encyclical has elicited a higher than usual volume of hostile blogosphere traffic. This was the case even in the leadup to its release, when nobody actually knew the content. Indeed, it is questionable as to whether any hostile commentators had even given the document a meaningful perusal following its release.
Putting that to one side, what is interesting is the fact that the heart of the hostile response is the subsuming of whole spheres of operation into one particular area of competence, with the most significant of these being the nation state. This is not apparent at first glance, until one considers, for instance, how it is politicians running for office within the nation state (such as Jeb Bush or Rand Paul), or policy makers and commentators who are try to influence the levers of state that are basing their rejection of the encyclical on the grounds that this is the realm of “politicians”, meaning state bureaucracies and their operatives.
Another story that is noteworthy is the commentary given by the Catholic University of America’s C.C. Pecknold on National Review. Perhaps unintentionally, Pecknold appears to have taken a biopolitical angle in examining how the popularity of the push for same-sex marriage comes not merely from grass roots agitation, but also from the machinations of state bureaucracies and their operatives. What Pecknold suggests in his article is that the reason for this is that the granting and enforcement of same-sex marriage represents an opportunity for the state to increase its capacities and its purview in what has largely been touted as a private matter of love.
These two seemingly unrelated stories suggest a development identified by William Cavanaugh in his Theopolitical Imagination. This is the point that, contrary to the claims of a post-Cold War defeat of top-heavy statism and the triumph of freedoms over the whitered state, there appears to be a push towards increasing the capacities of state in matters that traditionally were conceived to be pre-political, in the realm of the social.
What should be of concern to Christians if this trend continues would be the increasingly shrill claims by the state and its operatives to define what is or is not a matter of religious concern, whether it is the defining of contours of the Church’s ability to teach, or the rendering of aspects of the Church’s life to a service to a customer. This tension is inevitable given, as Augustine once commented in his City of God, the world we live in has citizens straddling multiple poloi until the time of judgement in the eschaton. The real task then, is finding the sites of this tension, and calibrating a proper response.