The annual Dominican Pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk, England. Photo courtesy of Lawrence Lew, O.P.
The Church favors peace, and her basic concernleading men to Godis
not specifically political. For that reason, her approach to politics has
generally been irenic. She urges the faithful to obey the law, respect the
powers that be, and interpret motives in a favorable light. She offers
criticism at times, since she has her own view of social relations, but her
normal approach to the political order is cooperative.
From that standpoint, the 19th and early 20th-century Churchwhich
found herself denouncing the dominant tendencies of the ageappears the
exception. The reason for her approach was defense of herself and the faith.
She was being deprived of her position in society, for example in education and
in matters relating to family life. In many countries her property was
confiscated and her right to run her own affairs denied. In some places
persecution went to violent extremes, as in revolutionary France, Mexico,
Spain, and Russia.
Such events reflected a general attempt to replace Christianity as a
social authority with an understanding of man, the world, and social obligation
that leaves God out of the picture. The Church was no longer facing the usual
problem of flawed government, or even the problem of a tyrant who preferred his
private to the public interest. She was facing a powerful movement that wanted
to eliminate Catholicism as a public presence and would go very far to do so.
In such a setting usual approaches no longer seemed to apply.
After the Second World War there was a general relaxation of ideology
in the West. War and revolution had shown the dangers of extremism, common
struggle against manifest evil had deepened feelings of kinship, and a kinder
and gentler form of liberal modernity seemed ready to accept the need for
ethical values that were independent of the state. The political authorities
seemed ready for the Church to put forward what she had to offer, and to accept
the principled cooperation of those who accepted her message.
Vatican II therefore signaled a reversion to the Church’s usual
attitude of general acceptance and support for the political powers that be.
Modernity seemed here to stay, it had brought some good things, its basic goals
could be seen in a positive light, and it now seemed willing to let the Church
try to supply what it lacked. If she could find the right way to do so, she
might be able to restore her lost position of rightful influence, perhaps in a
different form. So why not give it a try?
Paul VI expressed something of that hope in an address to
the last general meeting of the Council. In a world that wanted to go its own
way without reference to God, he suggested, the Church needed “almost to run”
after the society in which she had to make her case. That society was centered
on man and his needs, so the right approach for the Church was to emphasize
service to man, which could be the first step on a journey that would
eventually lead him back to God.
The result of that approach was a readiness to enter into partnership
with secular powers in service to humanity. That readiness has commonly led to
support for government social programs and for transnational organizations such
as the EU. There have been warnings of dangers presented by the tendency toward
ever-increasing state direction of social life, such as John Paul II’s comments
in Centesimus Annus on the “social assistance state,” but those warnings
have not had much effect. The will to engage the aspirations of a world that
identifies the real with the political has led to a widespread impression that
public Catholicism is very much like secular progressivism, but with religious
sentiment and official opposition to abortion layered on.
Current events, some of which I’ve discussed in previous columns, make
it evident that a more clearly independent approach is needed. If we enter into
partnership with the world, we must do it in our own way. That requirement is
not simply pro forma: liberal modernity may seem kinder and gentler than
at the time of the French Revolution, but it remains deeply anti-Catholic. The
problem is that the religiously neutral state is either transitional or
imaginary. A stable and coherent society must be based on something that
amounts to a religionthat is, on an understanding of man, the world, and human
obligation that is treated as authoritative because it is thought rooted in the
nature of things.
For that reason, a society that bases its self-understanding on
secularity will make secularity its religion. It will deny the truth and
legitimate public relevance of religion as traditionally conceived, and won’t
want God to disturb proper public understandings. If it also harbors the
technocratic desire to turn the social world into an efficient rational machine
for achieving its goals, it will become quite intolerant of religions like
Catholics need to face that reality and act accordingly. Our situation
is, of course, better than in revolutionary France. The principle of government
by consent, the aversion to the use of force, and the general peacefulness of
political life give us a great deal of protection at present. American constitutional
law is also a help. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t presume too much on our
supposedly guaranteed rights and liberties. Liberalism claims to limit
government, but it feels the need to reconstruct human relations in accordance
with its understanding of tolerance and equal freedom. In Europe such impulses
have already led to prison sentences for homeschoolers and critics of Islam,
and there is no way to know how much farther the tendency will go or how far it
A basic thing Catholics need to do, then, is defend the internal
freedom of the Church. Catholic institutions must be able to hire, fire, and
govern themselves in accordance with their beliefs, and Catholics must be able
to live and bring up their children in the same spirit. Those freedoms are now
under pressure, because the right of institutions and parents to carry on their
activities as their conscience demands is subject to public policies that are
increasingly at odds with Catholic principles. The HHS mandate is one example;
another is provided by the recent unsuccessful attempt by the Obama
administration to do away with the ministerial exception to anti-discrimination
We also need to defend the public freedom of the Church: the right to
propose our views to others, to provide service to others in line with the
mission and traditions of the Church, and to protest political measures that
offend social justice, such as those that undermine the family and other
non-state institutions. Those freedoms are also under pressure. The Church has
one ideal of human life, liberal modernity a very different one, and the
greater its desire to reform social relations the more the liberal state will
treat the Church as an enemy of justice for presenting a different view of what
social relations should be.
Most generally, Catholics need to oppose the movement toward a society
that is comprehensively managed in the interests of security, efficiency, and
the ever-more-demanding liberal version of human rights. To the extent that
movement succeeds it will leave little room for any goods but those of
liberalism. To oppose that movement we need to emphasize the Catholic and
philosophical teaching of subsidiarity, and the understanding of the human good
it is realized that motivates that teaching.
Those things are part of the positive Catholic vision. The Church
exists for the sake of that vision, and its supreme importance makes adherence
to principle more important, and in the long run more effective, than any
immediate practical benefit gained through compromise with anti-Catholic
tendencies. Liberal modernity is an extraordinarily constricted view that
eventually suppresses what makes life worth living for the sake of a life of
career, consumption, and private gratification.
What Catholics can offer the world is an understanding of how to live
that opens up higher and broader vistas. By doing so they can change what is
possible politically, socially, and spiritually, and in the long run transform
the world. That is the greatest service the Church can offer humanity.
Also by James Kalb:
Catholicism, and the Good
Religion, and the Fight for Freedom
and Liberal Modernity
tyranny of misunderstood freedom