Every functional society is based on a system of common understandings about man, the world, and the common good. Otherwise those who take part in it won’t be able to cooperate effectively in the network of complex, enduring, and sometimes very demanding undertakings through which they carry on the life of the society.
Such understandings can exist even though they aren’t held by everyone, or in their entirety by many people at all. It’s only necessary that people who run things make them basic to how they cooperate, and the people at large go along with the arrangement. Thus, a secular society doesn’t have to be one in which most people oppose religion in public life. It just has to be one in which influential people agree religion doesn’t belong there, and find ways to enforce the agreement.
In the early ’60s most people didn’t like the school prayer decisions, which pushed religion out of the public schools. But the decisions stuck, because people who ran things liked them, and it’s hard for the people at large to resist what higher-ups settle on as proper. Since that time the same view of what is proper has meant a continuing trend toward secularism, and many Catholics have come to view the resulting kind of society as entirely consistent with their faith. Government is carried on without reference to religion, but political entanglements are corrupting, the Church is free to carry out her mission in civil society, and in any event American public religion was basically Protestant.
So why aren’t things better now, and why isn’t what we have enough?
The problem with that view is that principles have their own dynamism. Time puts all things to the test, and a constitutional arrangement that lasts doesn’t remain a collection of articles of peace accepted for practical reasons. In Rome, rule by emperors began as a way of keeping the peace after a century of civil unrest. As it became established, the emperor became divine, and people were required to accept his divinity. Here in America government was intended as rule by the people for their own practical benefit. Even so, Americans soon began to pay semi-divine honors to the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Founding Fathers, and those honors have since been extended to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. All public authorities inculcate such pieties, and people who reject them are effectively excluded from public life.
The transition from the practical to the sacred is inevitable. How could the emperor be relied on to keep the peace if he was just some guy and wasn’t surrounded by a divine aura? And how could America unite diverse regions and peoples into a union worthy of the sacrifice of the better part of a million lives in the Civil War unless it was something transcendently special and important? Government can’t be just a practical expedient. It has the power of life and death, and at the level of general principle it is not possible to treat such issues as a matter of practical expediency. Beyond that, modern government educates the young, looks after people during life’s troubles, and feels called upon to transform social attitudes in line with its vision of justice. How can such activities be divorced from ultimate human concerns?
People are drawn to what they admire. Those attracted to public life are going to see it as more than a matter of utilitarian public advantage, and no matter what they say they’ll see themselves as more than humble public servants. Also, when they try to lead their fellow citizens they’ll need to appeal to transcendent principle. Governments must attract allegiance that is strong enough to justify sacrifice, at times extreme sacrifice, and there has to be something supporting that. A Memorial Day oration can’t say “these brave men gave their lives that useful arrangements that ignore our highest concerns might endure.” Nor, in present-day America, can it say they did it to be true to their ancestors, kindred, or native soil. To be justified, their sacrifice has to be for a universal principle that amounts to a religion.
Not long ago that religion could have a somewhat Christian character that limited the divinity of the state. Churchill and Roosevelt could speak of the Second World War as a war for Christian civilization. Jefferson and Lincoln might get temples, but there were inscriptions in the temples that invoked Almighty God as the Judge of Nations. Today there is no god higher than Caesar, and Caesar has identified himself with the principle of individual choice and thus with the divinity of the individual will.
The result is that secular liberalism has become not semi-divine, like the original Constitution, but wholly so. As such, it insists on sacred principles, like the supremacy of individual choice subject only to the demands of the liberal system itself, that are at odds with traditional religion of any kind. The result is that secular liberalism eventually feels compelled to drive traditional religion out of social life as oppressive. The freedom of the Church, which Catholics understand to have strong social and public dimensions, is cut back to freedom of worship, an aspect of the right to privacy.
So what do we do, if we view man as social and Catholicism as a system of truths to live by?
There are several possibilities. We can try to prevent the further consolidation of secular liberalism as an established and intolerant religion. We can become once again a Church of the catacombs, carrying on our activities in strict privacy. Or we can try to establish some religious outlook more favorable to Catholicism, if possible Catholicism itself, as authoritative in public life.
The first choice is the obvious mainstream one. It’s the one the bishops make when they emphasize the broad interpretation the principle of religious liberty has traditionally received in America. An advantage of the approach is that it can appeal to the common justification of secular liberalism as a practical arrangement rather than a matter of ultimate belief, so it’s easy to argue for. Still, it has an air of unreality about it, since no one really cares about abstract freedom when sacred principles are at stake. And worse, it leaves secular liberalism as the highest public principle, even for Catholics, and we have seen where that leads.
The second choice, the Church of the catacombs, is what seems to remain if we lose on the first. It too has problems, if only because secular liberalism is so imperialistic. A system that feels called upon to reform family life, and to that end makes it an international human rights problem when Belarus recognizes Mothers’ Day, or Slovenia has only 30 percent of its children in daycare, may not always tolerate meetings in the catacombs. Why, for example, should it allow organizations to meet even in private that tell children that homosexuals are objectively disordered?
So it seems our ultimate goal has to be the last, the creation of a more Christian and eventually a Catholic society. Every society has a religion, or a system that functions as such, so why not go for more truth rather than less? The ultimate goal of a Catholic society may not be immediately practical, since it is likely to be a long time before movers and shakers agree that Catholic principles help them do what they want to do and agree on them as principles of cooperation. Nonetheless, a goal is needed to focus thought, and Dignitatis Humanae tells us that the moral duty of societies toward Christ and his Church is the same now as ever. Since that is so, why not keep our thoughts straight by making that duty part of our outlook? Practical choices among imperfect alternatives are often quite difficult, but they are likely to be made more sensibly if we keep in mind what is ultimately right.