The Political Theology of Recognition

The Political Theology of Recognition

Our pursuit of justice is connected with the recovery of a mysticism, a spiritual training in the act of recognition.

In its power to frame, to narrate a world in which we might live, language has effects. It was in hopes of changing certain effects by challenging a certain language that the Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz, Bishop of El Paso, wrote the words above.

In this instance the language being challenged was the use of the word “crisis” to describe the dramatic and tense and painful situation on the border between Mexico and the United States. The effect he sought to change was the way this crisis language has escalated efforts to “militarize the border and to enact legislation criminalizing migration and people who migrate.” The bishop’s argument was not that the border would cease to be a problem were our language to suddenly change.

No, his contention was that speaking of the border as a crisis prevents us—prevents the Church, that is—from speaking of it as something else: an occasion of holiness, for example, or an opportunity to practice the virtue of hospitality. The problem with framing the border as a crisis, in other words, is that in everyday parlance crises are chaotic, and chaos must be met not with holiness and hospitality but division and distance, regulation and rules, law and order. The deep problem—which includes but exceeds the need to work for legal immigration reform—is that framing the border as a crisis prevents us from seeing it otherwise. “At the root of our inability to address global migration is a fundamental misrecognition,” wrote Bishop Seitz. It is, he continued, “the borders we have internalized” that prevent us from seeing this “crisis” through the lens of Christ.

If this is true, and I think it is, then the political task of Christians today is not to “defend” either ourselves, or our national borders, but to learn how to recognize, to become a people capable of seeing our Savior in those who are suffering and acting upon this mystical recognition. If this is true—and, again, I think it is—then among the most basic theoretical tasks in our post-Christendom Catholic Church is the development of what might be called a political theology of recognition. It is this hypothesis, at least, that I will take up in the present essay.

Political Theology Before, During, and After Christendom

All too briefly, political theology is a field that deals with the intersections, overlaps, and tensions between theology and political theory. It attempts to analyze and criticize the many ways that political arrangements are intertwined with theological realities. Political theologians, then, trace the entanglements between the ways that religious traditions understand concepts like law, the economy, or justice, and the ways these same concepts are understood within varied political traditions.

For Christians of many stripes, taking up a political-theological lens can help us pose questions about the public, political tasks of the Church. What kind of political action ought Christians, as a community and as individuals, undertake? How ought the Church embody and agentially bear God’s desire to save the world? Notably, the answer to such questions has changed—developed, we might say—throughout salvation history. And this means that understanding the Church’s political task depends on knowing, among other things, when the question is being asked.

In his important and provocative book The Desire of the Nations, for example, the Anglican political theologian Oliver O’Donovan argued that, while the pre-Constantinian Church understood its political task in salvation history through the heuristic of martyrdom, the Constantinian Church understood its role not as martyrdom but as governance. In taking note of this shift O’Donovan’s point was not that the task of the Church had changed—its status as agent in salvation history remained the same, in other words—but its role. Naming the pre-Constantinian role as martyrdom and the Constantinian role as governance allows a question for our times to emerge more clearly: what is the political task of our own, post-Constantinian, Church? Or, for Catholic Christians, how are we to understand the public task of the Church after Dignitatis Humanae?

Dignitatis Humanae marks an important political-theological shift for the Church not only because it was there that the Council fathers ratified a personal right to religious freedom (the “immunity from coercion in civil society” of all persons, as they put it in paragraph 1), but also because it shifted Church teaching on the proper relation between the Catholic Church and the state. Since Dignitatis, for example, the Church no longer sought to be named the official religion of any secular nation-state—it no longer signs concordats. Instead, Catholicism has voluntarily accepted what the sociologist Jose Casanova has called “institutional disestablishment” and become, in so doing, a “public religion” that acts politically within civil society.

As the Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh has written, the benefit of this disestablishment is that “the church has finally been freed from Christendom, from the ambiguities of wielding coercive power.” The problem, however, is that this voluntary separation from the power of state coercion—our renunciation of the means of violence, in other words—does not eliminate the political nature of the Church. Against those who hold that the Church ought to simply steer clear of politics after Dignitatis, the lens of political theology reminds us that the Church remains an agential body through which God publicly acts to save the world. Our task remains both public and political. But our role has changed. What we must consider is what this new role might be. And in this political theology can be of aid. Cavanaugh again:

In one way or another, all political theologies at the end of the twentieth century can be read as so many attempts to come to grips with the death of Christendom without simply acquiescing in the privatization of the church . . . The contemporary ferment of political theology can be understood as an attempt once again to reimagine what God is doing with the principalities and powers in the present age.

What Bishop Seitz is asking us to consider, in other words, is that among the most important roles of the post-Christendom Church is to become recognizers. This means becoming, individually and corporately, persons whose political instincts do not incline us to demand recognition from others but to offer it to them. It will demand taking up “spiritual training in the act of recognition” such that we can become the kind of citizen-companions who are able to support the multicultural, democratic political order to which the Church Fathers have assented by seeing others in their differences and laboring to include them, as different, in a shared political project.

If this is true, and I think it is, then it means that among the most important political roles the church catholic can play in fulfilling its own task of being an agent in salvation history is to recognize others in their differences. It would also mean that the self-chosen task of a post-Christendom Church responds (providentially?) to one of the most pressing dilemmas facing democratic polities in our majority-minority age: the problem of recognition. We can be helped in understanding this problem—and better understanding the political theological task of the Church thereby—by turning to an essential philosophical essay on this topic: Charles Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition.”

Recognition After Christendom

In his 1969 book Four Essays on Liberty, Taylor’s professor Isaiah Berlin thought through some of the most pressing political ideas that shaped the first half of the twentieth century—including the demand for political recognition by previously colonized peoples. Berlin argued there that the post-colonial construction of new nation-states in which particular ethnic or cultural groups could find security and belonging was grounded in the desire of these peoples to be recognized as visible, valuable, and self-determining.

In 1992 Taylor returned to his teacher’s theme but framed the problematic differently. In “The Politics of Recognition” (hereafter PR), it is not the dilemma of post-colonial state-formation that takes center stage, but how existing multicultural states can recognize, and thereby include, the increasingly diverse populations of which they are composed. Taylor’s focus, in other words, is on understanding the role that recognition plays in generating and shaping the identity politics that so dominates our plural, democratic societies.

While much of Taylor’s essay is a genealogical exploration of the dilemma of recognition that confronts multicultural polities, his first task is to spell out why recognition is so politically relevant today. It is relevant, he argues, because our sense of self—our very identities and understandings of who we are—are shaped by dialogical recognition. What he means here is that, although it is true that each of us has some sense of personal identity apart from others, a deep and essential part of our sense of self comes from being recognized as members of particular identity-bearing communities.

Take my own identity as an example. My sense of who I am is so deeply formed by the fact that I am a Catholic priest (or a Jesuit or Kristin-and-Gary’s-son) that it is hard for me to imagine how I could even be recognized as myself outside of the sense of self that the social identity “priest” provides. This in turn means that I cannot be seen as who I am by those who are unable (or unwilling) to become familiar with this category. It is simply not possible for those who do not understand what chaste celibacy is, for example, to fully grant me recognition as myself. Mutatis mutandis, no one reading this is unfamiliar with the pain that such interpersonal misrecognition can cause.

Although I hope it is helpful, my own example of mis/recognition is far from the most personally damaging—or politically pressing. It would not be difficult for us to generate other, more painful and long-standing, instances of social misrecognition based on gender, race, or class. Key here is that, in our contemporary multicultural societies, such misrecognition is increasingly liable to happen not only personally but publicly. This is a problem because recognition is a public good, because our identities are “partly shaped by recognition or its absence,” as Taylor writes (PR, 25).

This means that “a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” Just as with interpersonal misrecognition, many of us are all too familiar with the precise shape of the wound that such public misrecognition leaves on our psyches.

In addition to seeing the damage it can cause, social misrecognition is politically important for a second reason, because in democratic polities the experience of misrecognition often sparks quests for recognition. It is with the goal of ameliorating what we might call the “political pain” of social misrecognition that social movements form, articulate grievances, and enter the public sphere seeking acknowledgment of their collective identities.

On both the right and the left, in other words, groups practicing identity politics today ask not only for legal inclusion in the mechanisms of the state but also for civil recognition: that there be persons and institutions capable of recognizing them in their particularity. In this dual demand we can see the social logic that generates and gives shape to the many and rivalrous forms of identity politics that cyclone through our fragmented media ecosystems today. Whether the demand is to be recognized as a migrant or a Muslim, as transgender or a Trumper, all of us, it seems, are anxious about the lack of recognition.

But how did we get here? Taylor answers such a question through a brief genealogy of our contemporary anxiety. Although done more thoroughly in his books Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, in “The Politics of Recognition” Taylor traces the problem of recognition to two differences between the pre-modern and modern social imaginaries. The first difference consists in a shift from societies structured by what he calls an ethic of honor to those organized by an ethic of dignity.

Taylor’s point here is that, in pre-modern social imaginaries (think of the ancien regime, for example), social honor was a zero-sum game—some had it precisely because others did not. Today, on the other hand, we live in societies shaped not by honor but by dignity, which is not zero-sum but universally shared amongst all. In our multicultural societies, structured as they are by this ethic of dignity, we feel that each of us must be recognized as fundamentally equal in our status as citizens and persons.

The second difference, which is tied to the first, is that this ethic of universal dignity has been ramified by the rise of a new form of individualism, by what Taylor calls the “ideal of authenticity.” This ideal—the sense that I become the most authentic version of myself by mining my own interior life—arose out of a complex series of displacements of the location of the moral source by which we feel we ought to be guided. The import of this shift is that the source of our moral ideal is no longer located outside of us—in society, for example, or in the cosmos. Now it lies inside of us.

We moderns have come to sense ourselves “as beings with inner depths” to which we must be true (PR, 29). Or, as Taylor put it in The Ethics of Authenticity, we now feel that “there is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life” (29). Even more, if I fail to be true to this inner call, “I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.” In our multicultural societies, structured as they are by this ideal of authenticity, we sense that each of us must be recognized as fundamentally unique, as different from others.

What this brief genealogy reveals, then, is that our contemporary social imaginary is a peculiar amalgam of two sources: a universal ethic of dignity and an individual ideal of authenticity. As we will see, it is the tension between the types of recognition to which these sources give rise that generates some of the most pressing and painful political dilemmas that confront our multicultural polities today.

The Social Logic of the Recognition Crisis

We were not always caught in this particular dilemma of recognition, nor were our politics always shaped so strongly by it. In point of fact, our public capacity to recognize one another has had other forms than recognition via a politics of universalism or a politics of difference.

This can be seen by returning to Taylor’s comparison between societies structured by an ethic of honor and an ethic of dignity. In the former, social recognition was untroubled because personal identity was defined through a fixed and immobile social identity. In such societies to be seen as oneself was to be seen in one’s social position because one’s sense of self was so thoroughly shaped by a shared, external, moral source: the social and cosmic structure into which all members of the society were socialized. In this we can see that fixed-status societies solve the “problem” of recognition by forging a tight link between personal and social identity. It is this link that, in Taylor’s words, explains why “in the earlier age recognition never arose as a problem” because “general recognition was built into socially derived identity” (PR, 34). This means that, in stratified honor societies, the social capacity for recognition was publicly available.

But, of course, this type of recognition came only at great cost. Because the fixing of status that allowed public recognition to proceed automatically also locked persons into social positions that they found stultifying and repressive. Indeed, one way to understand the expressive revolutions of the 1960s is as a large-scale rejection of the misrecognitions that were produced by the very social constraints that allowed recognition to function as a social good. These movements, designed to ameliorate the “political pain” of misrecognition, sought to create a social world in which people could appear in their differences—as women, as Black, as Indigenous—and be publicly recognized according to the more authentic identities they themselves had claimed. I take many of the accomplishments of these movements to be unalloyed goods; much has been gained. But there are things we have lost as well in this proliferation of demands for recognition, and one of these things is the type of public recognition that was possible in a society structured by an ethic of honor.

As we have seen, in its place two new types of social recognition have emerged: one based in dignity that recognizes everyone as equal, another based in authenticity that recognizes everyone as different. It is the former, through which we sense that in our dignity we are all the same, that generates what Taylor calls a politics of universalism. This politics generates policies that apply equally to all because all are equal. And yet the ideal of authenticity has taught us that we also possess an inimitable self to which we must be true and in which we ought to be recognized. This celebration of difference is what generates a rival politics, a politics of difference. It is the conflict between these two politics, emerging as they do from two types of recognition and two moral ideals that gives shape to the social logic of what we might call, with apologies to Bishop Seitz, our contemporary crisis of recognition.

Even more, for multicultural democracies like ours—societies in which political recognition is often accomplished through collective social movements that can make particular claims and articulate particular grievances—this dilemma can produce a vicious, downward spiral that contributes to the degeneration of democracy. This is because the “political pain” of having been misrecognized tends to produce either withdrawal and disengagement from politics or an even more aggressive cry for recognition.

That is, the crisis of mis/recognition tends to generate political apathy in some constituencies (“Why participate? Nothing will get done”) and ever more competitive and virulent cries for recognition in others (“Ours is the most pressing cause! Hear us, not them!”). This dilemma is the deep structure that gives rise to the kind of combative, rivalrous identity politics that is all too common today. It is the reason that our public sphere seems so crowded with cries for recognition and so vacant of persons willing or able to recognize.

It is understandable, given the depth of this crisis, that some might be tempted to resolve the dilemma by reinstating something like an ethic of honor. After all, if our crisis is so deep, might not the solution be to relink, by force of law if need be, personal and social identities? Of course, the answer to such a question is no, and this is for two reasons. The first, which applies to multicultural polities in general, is its impracticability. It is hard to imagine how a swath of laws binding legal recognition to personal conformity could be passed. And even if they were, it is even harder to imagine how such laws could generate a moral source different from dignity and authenticity. No, it is from these moral sources that we must draw solutions, however fragile they may be.

The second reason, which applies only to the Catholic Church, is that making such an attempt would amount to turning our backs on the lessons the Church Fathers taught us in Dignitatis Humanae. Of course, internal fights about this continue to flare up, but those convinced that the Holy Spirit has and does guide our fallible Church ought not countenance such a response. Instead, we ought to search for, to imagine, to seek to understand the political-theological role to which we are being called in our own times. Rather than attempting to make the dilemma disappear, in other words, we ought to consider instead how to live well within it.

Although it is true that this more restrained effort does not eliminate the dilemma, it does hold out the possibility of ameliorating the crisis of mis/recognition and its twin effects of political apathy and proliferating demands for recognition. In fact, Taylor proposes a similar moderation at the close of his essay.

Inhabiting the Dilemma of Recognition

Having traced the logic of the dilemma in the main body of his essay, Taylor goes on to show how it plays out in the case of a then-current debate over collective cultural rights. Without getting bogged down in the details, the case he takes up deals with the tensions of cultural identity in Quebec, particularly whether citizens of French Canada ought to be able to pass laws that infringe upon individual rights—laws that mandate the use of the French language in public education, for example—in order to preserve Quebec’s cultural distinctiveness. This serves as an example of a particular community prioritizing the politics of difference over the politics of universalism. After all, in seeking to legally enforce the use of French in particular circumstances Quebeckers are ranking the ideal of authenticity over the ethic of universal dignity.

Although he recognizes that some may consider this attempt unequal and therefore unjust, Taylor argues that Canadian citizens ought not fall back onto a static conception of equality as sameness—i.e., a society in which everyone speaks English because that is somehow more “equal.” Rather, he thinks that his own country ought to strive to be as hospitable as possible to the differences in language and culture that exist within it while still upholding the good of equality that undergirds the rival politics of universalism. In this instance, difference ought to take priority over equality, he thinks. The import of this example is that it shows how allowing equality to eclipse difference, to simply trump it always and everywhere, can lead to a version of a liberal society that is altogether “inhospitable to difference because it cannot accommodate what the members of distinct societies really aspire to” (PR, 61). It shows, in other words, that the dilemma of recognition cannot be resolved by simply allowing the politics of universalism to dominate the politics of difference.

But neither does this mean that the politics of difference ought to dominate. Indeed, so doing would simply invert the mistake, creating a society inhospitable not to authenticity but to universal dignity and equality. And this means that, rather than attempting to resolve the dilemma by rolling back the clock and legally instituting an inevitably nostalgic ethic of static honor, or by allowing either dignity or authenticity to dominate the other, multicultural polities must instead learn how to inhabit the dilemma of recognition by preserving both moral sources. Absolutizing either a politics of universalism or a politics of difference is not on offer.

What is on offer, then, is not a “fix” for this dilemma but a suggestion for how multicultural polities might learn to inhabit the tensions of a society made of multiple moral sources. Taylor’s claim is that, although the dilemma cannot be eliminated, its dangers and fallibilities can be flagged and thereby avoided (or at least softened) and that this can be done by articulating the dangers inherent within each form of politics. What this requires is the ongoing effort to call those who prefer one type of politics to remain open to the good held out by the other. For advocates of equality, then, it would mean being reminded that although equality is an inestimable good, societies nevertheless ought to work hard to remain hospitable to difference.

Such persons need to be reminded that authenticity remains an invaluable moral source in democratic societies. But advocates of difference require something different: they need to be reminded that while authenticity is a vital good, societies also ought to strive to preserve equality both in fact and opportunity. Such persons need to be reminded that equality remains a fundamental democratic ideal.

What Taylor asks, in other words, is that each kind of advocate be open to learning and relearning a peculiar presumption: the presumption that, like they themselves, the other is also the bearer of a unique and irreplaceable gift. This does not mean that in every case advocates of equality, for example, would agree that difference ought to curb their proposals. But it does mean that they might be open to having their proposals curbed in this particular case. Further, this openness might come because, instead of attempting to resolve the dilemma by dominating the other or rewinding the clock to a fixed-status society, they had been reminded that, “just as all must have equal civil rights, and equal voting rights, regardless of race or culture, so all should enjoy the presumption that their traditional culture has value” (PR, 68, emphasis mine).

And so we are finally in a position to ask the sharp question: who can help an apathetic and fractious polity like ours to enact such a presumption? Is there anyone desirous, for their own reasons, of aiding advocates of difference or of equality in the perennial and often painful task of recognizing that, in a particular instance, their political opponent may well be the bearer of a unique and irreplaceable gift? Is there another collective body capable of aiding the body politic in the task of mutual recognition?

De facto, the answer to such questions may be either yes or no. The church catholic, to be clear, may or may not, in fact, be able to fulfill such a role, to live up to such a calling. But granted that our role as a body through which God acts to save is no longer that of governing, we would do well to consider whether it is to something like this that we are being called. And, if the answer is yes, we would likewise do well to make a concerted attempt to become such a body.

The Ecclesial Vocation of Democratic Recognition

It may turn out that Bishop Seitz was incorrect to call our post-Constantinian Catholic Church to “a spiritual training in the act of recognition.” Or it may turn out that he was correct but, insufficiently ascetical as we are, we find ourselves unable or unwilling to respond. But if we can accept the indignity of following such a call imperfectly, it seems to me that the church is possessed of two important resources that can be of help.

First, we are well suited to assisting our fellow citizens in remaining open to a good held by another. This is because we know that we do not possess the good, but that it is given to us, that it is a gift. It is because of our constitutive dispossession—because we know ourselves to be creatures not creators—that practicing Taylor’s presumption ourselves and helping others to do the same places no new or onerous burden on our shoulders.

After all, the Catechism itself, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola, commends us to “be careful to interpret insofar as possible [our] neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way,” such that we can be “more ready to give a favorable interpretation of another’s statement than to condemn it” (CCC §2478). Importantly, calling our fellow citizens to live Taylor’s presumption and attempting to live it ourselves does not mean agreeing to any particular proposal. We may still in the end dissent. The political public sphere remains fully agonic and beautifully underdetermined. But it does mean making the repeated effort to recognize, to see and to acknowledge, not only the claims that others are making but the good they are seeking and the moral source that breathes life into that good. Indeed, it may be through the repetition and effort this role requires that the Holy Spirit will help us, in Bishop Seitz’s words, to “decolonize our imaginations through the practice of a spiritual mysticism and to touch Christ through the flesh of the poor and those who migrate.”

Second, making this effort will require that we learn how to resist the isomorphic temptation of becoming only another social movement that exists to demand the recognition of its rights. Rather than allow ourselves to be transformed into yet another interest group—a transformation that readies us for bitterness and self-pity when we too go unseen—we ought instead to be ourselves: a body that is ready to recognize other bodies. This means learning how to become persons whose political instincts incline us not to clamor for attention but to offer it to our fellow citizens. Another Bishop, the Norwegian monk Erik Varden, put this call beautifully in a recent interview. “If I conceive of myself as the sun in a universe of extinct stars,” he said,

I will always remain the sole subject of a relationship. Sure, I may realize that others exist, but I do not recognize any meaning in them. Instead, if I discover that I am made for the relationship, I also discover myself responsible for that relationship. I can be a source of good for the other’s life, but I can also inflict deep wounds. There are relationships—I am thinking of those between parents and children—where this is very clear. It is a reciprocal relationship where, however, it may happen that a father or mother has to give up being seen, or even accept abandonment. It is possible to make this sacrifice by remaining firm in your loving purpose, which means always keeping the door open . . . The human being becomes truly human when they express this ultimate feeling of dedication to the good of the other. [Too often,] instead, we are dedicated to claiming our rights, to singing the litany of our traumas.

Despite the parental metaphor, the political-theological vocation to which Bishop Varden is calling the Church in these words is the very opposite of paternalism. It is not an invitation to presume that we know best in anything . . . except perhaps one thing: the collective knowledge of how to offer the presumption of recognition—and perhaps the capacity to call others to do the same.

Despite the language of abandonment, neither does this vocation demand that we permanently suppress our own desire to be seen in public. It simply asks that we put such a desire in abeyance. It means that spiritual training in the act recognition includes a training in patience. Finally, neither does this vocation mean that being asked to soft-peddle our conviction,s or translate our principles or to settle in any way for being anything less than our fullest selves in the plural public sphere. In fact, if democratic recognition is a name for the ecclesial vocation to which we are being called after Christendom, then our very willingness to undergo this public mortification, to take the lower place, will be the discipline that transforms us into ourselves. It will be by responding to the call to recognize that we become ourselves recognizably Christian.

What all of this means is that the political-theological role of the Church today involves neither selecting the option of withdrawal from democratic politics nor attempting to use state power to reintegrate the social and political identities of all who inhabit our plural polities. Taking up the option of being integrally Catholic in our multicultural age means neither retreat nor grasping again for the levers of power. And yet, we must still have a political-theological vocation. The only question is what that vocation consists in—not whether it exists at all.

My contention here is that we would do well to consider Bishop Seitz’ invitation to undergo a “spiritual training in the act of recognition.” Such a disciplining process has the potential to transform us into the kind of citizen-companions who are able to support the multicultural, democratic political order to which the Church Fathers have assented by seeing others in their differences and laboring to include them, as different, in a shared political project. It may be that this is not the role we would have chosen for ourselves had we been able to choose. But it may well be the ecclesial vocation to which we are being called.

Seeking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through prayer