Last month I suggested that there is no Catholic social ideal, at least not in any very concrete sense. The situation is somewhat like that regarding theologies and philosophies: some are better, more helpful, or more suited to the times than others, but a Catholic doesn’t have to accept any particular one of them.
Even so, some are ruled out altogether. Pantheism and naturalism, the view that God is nature or that nature is all there is, are anti-Catholic. State socialism and strict libertarianism are similarly at odds with Catholic social teaching when viewed as ideals, although particular libertarian or socialist policies may sometimes be justified.
Catholicism values reason highly, and never makes arbitrary assertions. So if a view dealing with the things of this world is fundamentally at odds with the Faith, it’s going to be at odds with natural law and reason as well. In our time such views usually take the form of secular ideologies that promise hope and change but deliver an anti-utopia. Such views can reasonably be called anti-ideals.
Thought works its way toward overall coherence, so if you’re insistently wrong on one basic point the effects creep into all aspects of how you view things. If you hold to a political anti-ideal you’ll likely also accept an anti-theology—a hardcore socialist or Mussolini-style fascist, for example, is unlikely to be theologically orthodox or even take the Faith seriously. The same holds for other combinations: a religious error like subjectivism naturally leads to political errors like secular progressivism and the philosophically irrationalist view that 2+2 can equal 5.
All of which is a problem, because public life and high-end thought today are dominated by anti-ideals and anti-philosophies. The thought of those now counted as experts is dominated by naturalism, the view that only natural forces and laws operate in the world, and mainstream public life by technocracy, the view that the purpose of social order is maximum preference satisfaction consistent with efficiency, stability, and manageability.
These views are focused, narrow, and effective as immediate means of power. They are also intolerant. They’re good for winning wars or producing lots of consumer goods, but ruthlessly exclude alternatives as aside the point and not worth considering. People who hold them know what makes sense to them but find other views comprehensible only by reference to stupidity or moral vice.
That is why the editorial board of the New York Times—an institution that articulates and largely determines mainstream understandings of public affairs—feel justified in simply asserting that “President Trump’s assault on the birth control mandate is … filled with spite, based on falsehoods and fueled by vindictiveness toward his predecessor.” Without evidence or argument these experienced, responsible, and extremely well-connected journalists feel able to assert that support for conscientious objection rights for people who decline to take a purely technological view of sex can only be based on stupidity and wickedness. After all, what other possibility is there when the technological viewpoint is the only one that makes sense?
Under such circumstances, participation in day-to-day mainstream public life means going along with understandings and ways of doing things that are radically anti-Catholic and indeed anti-human. But our actions and associations most often determine our attitudes and beliefs. It’s hard to keep the critical distance that allows independent judgment in the day-to-day struggles of public life. So full mainstream political participation today is very likely to mean abandoning the Faith in its integrity. We see that all around us: how many prominent Catholic political leaders are orthodox?
The desire to get things done is seductive. For example, labor unions and health care for all seem eminently Catholic causes. New treatments extend life and cure disease, but often drive medical costs beyond the resources of families and voluntary or cooperative arrangements. And globalism, feminism, mass immigration, and the creeping totalitarianism of corporate life have profoundly weakened the position of working people.
It seems that something needs to be done. So why not join in coalitions that seem likely to do so? Obamacare and the labor union movement appear to be obvious ways to broaden availability of medical care and promote security and adequate income for a great many working people. Such benefits may well seem sufficient to overcome serious objections, since no actual system of things is perfect.
So we shouldn’t be surprised, for example, that Catholic sisters and others involved in healthcare were instrumental to the passage of Obamacare, and many Catholics consider right to work laws, whose emphasis on negative freedom of association reduces union power, patently anti-Catholic for that reason.
But the significance and effect of any policy depends on the system of which it is part. Both the union movement and the push for universal health care are enlisted today in support of efforts to organize basic aspects of life on anti-utopian lines. American unionism now means support for the entire left-wing social agenda. And the mainstream view today is that “health care” includes contraception and abortion as fundamental components. In the name of individual autonomy—implicitly but more importantly, for the sake of efficiency—it will increasingly include “assisted suicide” that need not even be voluntary.
These connections are far from accidental. Labor unions are part of the broad secular progressive coalition that aims at a comprehensively administered social order. The economic interests of public sector unions, which are the heart of American unionism, favor transferring family, community, and private functions to government—which is the effect of all social reforms that now count as progressive. And a comprehensive government system for health care makes the definition and administration of human well-being a managerial problem for a technocratic ruling class, to be dealt with in accordance with efficiency and the interests and outlook of that class.
Under such circumstance, can it be right for Catholics to support comprehensive government provision of health care or restricting the independence of American workers with regard to labor unions? Promotion of some good ends can’t justify support for policies, organizations, and movements that treat promotion of serious evils as central to their mission.
The current intellectual, social, and political situation has been catastrophic for the Church. It is increasingly bad for secular society, where it is radicalizing divisions and degrading living conditions, especially for the less successful. The proper response is not to go with the flow and compromise basic principle for the sake of comfort, social respectability, and the hope of making marginal improvements as part of the dominant team. We need to maintain our independence and offer fundamental alternatives instead of joining in constructing what is more and more clearly an anti-utopia.
The most important thing Catholics can do as citizens today is broaden the range of concerns taken seriously in public life beyond utility, equality, and efficiency. Joining coalitions with people who categorically reject our concerns won’t help us do that. Instead, we need to understand our own views, present them clearly, continuously, and forcefully, and find ways outside established structures to further them.