The Tradinista Manifesto is Not a Document of Leftist Liberation

Dean Dettloff
Sep 30, 2016 · 7 min read

The Tradinista Manifesto. The summation of a whole twittersphere of Catholic political thinking. The 20 point program designed to take us from liberalism to justice, opening with the trinitarian formula and closing with an Amen — let it be.

Rhetorically, the manifesto should be unsurprising for anyone familiar with the basic history and tenets of the “Catholic left” as represented by folks like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement. Armed with encyclicals and a demand for authentic Catholic life, recognizing that to take the Church’s teaching seriously would mean a countercultural existence, the Catholic Worker Movement engaged in performative and effective civil disobedience, advocacy, and writing. Though the Tradinista Manifesto is only that, a manifesto, the spirit of the Catholic Worker is present. There’s a resolute commitment to Catholicism on the one hand — to its dogma, its history, its reactions, its processes — and to the material achievability of a just society on the other. But it’s this split, between what sometimes reads as an almost desperate attempt to affirm the orthodoxy of the manifesto and the articulation of a vision for material liberation influenced by theorists of the political left, that ultimately undermines the project.

Though some readers, especially those outside and unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition or those burned by it, will bristle understandably right out of the gate, the problem is not so much that the manifesto employs strong theological and Catholic philosophical language or concepts as it tries to shape a social vision. Not everyone wants to affirm that Jesus is the route to salvation as part of a political program, but for some of us (as for revolutionaries like Thomas Müntzer or more contemporaneously Rudi Dutschke) the Christian narrative is genuinely inspiring and liberating. The context of familiar Catholic themes helps to start a conversation that might otherwise never get off the ground. And while some aspects of Catholic Social Teaching that might frustrate leftists remain (cf. point 9, affirming private property), many of them are articulated such that, optimistically read, they’re shorn of the usual trappings and creatively appropriated toward a vision of the common good such that one wonders if the concepts are even aptly named (is private property still private property if it’s ultimately totally relative to the commons?).

The problem lies, rather, with a preference for a certain version of orthodoxy that becomes so strong that it muscles out and alienates not just potential partnerships with active movements on the ground, but precisely the marginalized people the tradinistas are allegedly concerned with. There is no better example of this than points 11 through 13, centering on sexual ethics. In point 11, the manifesto states:

11. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and similar forms of oppression must be eradicated.

These may manifest themselves as subjective attitudes, but they are primarily and fundamentally structural and material barriers to equality. Both forms of oppression must be fought. Justice demands that we stand with those unfairly excluded from political and economic life, and to demand their full integration into society.

The point rightly recognizes that these problems are systemic and hidden behind opinions or taken-for-granted positions. Kudos to the manifesto for recognizing the pervasiveness of ideology as a means of social exclusion. But the kudos are short-lived when in point 12 the manifesto immediately pivots to cement marriage heteronormatively, saying marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, followed by a reduction of the marriage relationship to its procreative capacities (critiques of bourgeois family life notwithstanding). It is at this point, right in the middle, that any patient leftist reader will be tested and anyone actively involved in liberation organizing will be turned off.

Not only is this position frankly absurd in its own right (insert the usual list of objections dealing with sterile couples or a fixation on genitalia as the basis of all proper sexual ethics), but it commits the exact sin recognized in point 11 — a manifestation (here, literally) of a subjective attitude underwritten by an unacknowledged phobia. That the Catholic procreative emphasis on heteronormative marriage is the result of homophobia and shouldn’t be precluded by a robust Catholic worldview has long been established by Catholic theologians (e.g. Tina Beattie and James Alison); there simply is no reason to maintain the position apart from an unhealthy naivete about both the depth and actual functions of orthodoxy and LGB persons and partnerships. (We can really only be thankful that point 12 was not followed by a point about trans persons.)

Of course, the manifesto doesn’t couch its position in phobia (that’s the whole point of unacknowledged phobias). It articulates a positive good as a norm and proceeds to cleverly measure non-heterosexual relationships as a deformation of that normative structure by leaving this unsaid through an emphasis on procreation. But this is exactly how, for example, racists articulate their own positions, despite being funded by racist phobias. The point is to distract from the obviously ugly and alienating bit of the position by appealing to some other principle. Tradinistas would, thankfully, protect a gay couple from being unfairly singled out or abused for being gay, but if that couple wanted to express its commitment in church they would get a firm talking to about procreation. At bottom this is a matter of orthodoxy; you can’t change the truth, even if it makes you feel bad (that apparent maleffect of modernism), and if we changed our mind about gay relationships well — what then? This is just how it is. It’s for their (our?) own good, after all.

Things are further problematized by the unequivocal and unnuanced stance on abortion in point 13. Combat sexism, the manifesto clearly states, but not by encouraging careful thought about the complexities of sexism, the complexities of biology, etc. Abortion politics in the culture wars are ugly, on both sides, but any baseline history of feminism should at least give pause to recognize why and under what circumstances abortion has been considered a liberating measure for women in a society where patriarchy and property rights over women and the family are necessarily connected. That tradinistas can’t seem to question or think through sexual ethics while they allow some creative play with certain openings in political and economic thought via Catholic Social Teaching (class society is decidedly and intentionally not abolished in CST, but the manifesto calls for this) is telling.

What the Tradinista Manifesto can’t seem to imagine is that perhaps it, too, has internalized the very structures of oppression it rightly criticizes in name. In point 18, the manifesto says “In everything possible, we stand with the poor and the marginalized.” But as it turns out, standing with the marginalized hardly means hearing them out, and it certainly doesn’t mean partnering with them as they work to explore and demand their own opportunities for liberation. We encounter not so much a preferential option for the marginalized as a preferential option for orthodoxy. Tradinistas are paternalists, through and through, not, perhaps, in political matters (highlighting the need for decentralized power structures and emphasizing the integrated but still seperate relationship of polity and church), but certainly in ontological and faith matters (which, of course, are the real matters).

To put it bluntly, welcome critiques of nationalism and liberal political economy aside, tradinistas are not leftists. Tradinistas are conservatives who are out-of-step with nationalism and political liberalism.

Perhaps the Tradinista Manifesto is the beginning of a line of thinking that might become more fully liberating, one that has an even more inclusive vision of the common good, a greater awareness of its own phobic tendencies, and a position that not only stands with the marginalized but hears and advocates for them. The manifesto is internally contradicted, at odds with itself, at a significant structural juncture — between a Catholic vision of the common good that resists exploitation and oppression and a moral position that reifies the oppression of the marginalized groups it explicitly names. As any good leftist knows, the point here is to exacerbate and expose the contradiction. Treated as a revisable start, the manifesto might yet lead to something truly admirable among leftist discourses, a vision easily accessible for a variety of folks already committed to a faith that could lend and has leant to a transformative and revolutionary social project. Treated as a 20 point program, it is doomed to succeed only as a circulation among those who already agree and as a line in the sand for those already working on the fronts of liberation across the board.

To be sure, there is no problem with articulating a leftist vision with the language of a particular faith tradition (I’ve started to stake a career and a life on it), and such a project is worth taking on, even necessary if the left is to make any significant progress in the foreseeable future. Translating between critiques of political economy and faith traditions is required for coalition-building and, especially, for what Catholic critical pedagogue Paulo Freire called conscientization, a deep understanding of one’s world that births the motivation for action. Plenty of hardline leftists could use a good lesson in the history of Christian revolutionary activity and the latent radical possibilities of theological concepts and language, and parishes the world over should interrogate their social worlds with the tools of careful political analysis and the tools of their own faith.

This dialogical space of cross-fertilization will never come, however, from something like the Tradinista Manifesto in its present form. Matthew Schmitz, literary editor at First Things, a conservative Catholic publication, closes his reading of the Tradinista Manifesto saying “When it comes to the tradinistas, I think I’m not a contra.” But Schmitz doesn’t have to be.

As it stands, the tradinistas are the contras.

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