has taken freedom and equality as her highest political goals, and her most
basic problems have to do with that commitment and how it should be
interpreted. Recent events have focused attention on changing understandings of
freedom and how they are weakening freedom of religion. Understandings of
equality are also changing, with consequences for the Church that are no less
the time of the American Revolution equality meant, in principle anyway, that
everyone had the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What that meant concretely was that America would be a country ruled by settled
laws that applied equally to everyone and did not impose many restrictions. As
time has passed, and especially in recent decades, that understanding has
developed into something much broader and less well-defined.
specifics are dependent on other political commitments, so the views of
conservatives and progressives differ. Last
month we saw that conservatives understand freedom as freedom of action.
Correspondingly, they see equality as equal opportunity, understood as
elimination of artificial barriers to action, together with general
availability of goods like education that facilitate effective action by
everyone. We also saw that progressives have a more consumer-oriented
understanding of freedom that is less interested in general with setting than results in individual
cases. That understanding carries over to equality. For progressives, then,
equality is now a broad requirement of equality of outcome that includes
economic matters but extends beyond them to require equal respect and
consideration in the various affairs of life.
aspects of the progressive understanding of equality tend to win in the long
run. Conservatives want individuals to be able to act effectively, but who is
to say what that requires? People don’t usually choose to be less respected or
successful, so if some groups repeatedly end up that way it seems to show that
something is standing in their way. The obvious way to get rid of the problem
is to require group equality. The alternative would be to tell less successful
groups that the reason they’ve failed is that they’re lacking in natural
capacity or there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, and that’s not an
approach that sits well in a democracy.
that reason conservatives have consistently given ground on many equality
issues. They used to resist “affirmative action,” but they’ve effectively
dropped the issue. They still don’t like “gay marriage”there’s a problem of natural
capacitybut mainstream conservative politicians don’t like to pursue the
issue. Who wants to say that what some people do is not equal? And besides, gay
marriage proponents are committed, organized, and well-placed, so it’s easier
to argue about other things.
result of the evolving view of equality is that respected and influential
people now view Catholic beliefs relating to sex and the sexes as an offense
against basic principles of human decency and legitimate social order.
Prominent commentators, including well-known theologians, claim that the Church
is going to have to ordain women priests and accept homosexuality if it wants
to be able to say anything modern man is likely to listen to.
at the moment an ever-broader understanding of equality seems to be winning.
Nonetheless, all is not well for the progressive cause. The expansiveness of
its demands creates a need to accommodate the system that enforces them, and
that means problems for equality. Contemporary liberal society depends on markets
and bureaucracies, which depend on differences of wealth, bureaucratic
position, and certified expertise. Also, egalitarian demands require big
intrusive government. That kind of government is complex and resists outside
supervision, so it lends itself to management for the benefit of well-placed
and influential people.
have to accept the resulting inequalities. The consequence, though, is that
their system, both in principle and practice, ends up replacing some forms of
inequality by others. It gets rid of inequalities based on sex, lifestyle, and
heritage, but replaces them with inequalities based on education, profession,
position, and wealth. It frees the Obama campaign’s Julia from dependence on a
husband but makes her dependent on bosses and bureaucrats. It adds minorities
to the Supreme Court but leaves everyone off it who belongs to the Protestant
majority or lacks a degree from Yale or Harvard Law School. And it destroys the
way of life of what used to be called the working class by disrupting the
family, cultural, and religious institutions that once helped them lead
productive and orderly lives but are now suspect because they involve
egalitarianism has gone hand in hand with growing economic, social, and
cultural divisions within American society. Today we have Barack Obama, Oprah
Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice, and we also have one in eight black men in their
late 20s in prison. Something has evidently gone wrong. The basic problem, it
seems, is that equality, like freedom, can’t be the highest standard. It needs
to refer to some other standard to tell us what should be equal, and has to put
that standard first if it is going to make sense and avoid defeating its own
Catholics and many others, the highest standards for life in society are the
common good and social
justice. Those standards involve a principle of equal human dignity, but
they also involve support for the institutions though which human dignity and
well-being are realized, and thus for the distinctions and hierarchies those
institutions depend on.
CEO, a Supreme Court justice, a senator, a janitor, and an ordinary voter all
have the same human dignity, but they do not have exactly the same position and
authority, and they do not get treated in exactly the same way. That is
legitimate, because business and government are legitimate institutions that
require certain inequalities to maintain themselves. Catholics and progressives
agree on that point. Where Catholicism, natural law, and ordinary good sense
differ from progressivism is that they accept that other sorts of distinctions
also have a certain legitimacy, since institutions other than global markets,
neutral expert bureaucracies, and the various branches of government are
necessary for the good life.
cultural heritage, and natural human tendencies provide a variety of examples.
The one giving rise to the most pressing issues right now is the family. The
family is at least as legitimate as Microsoft, Boston College, or the federal
government, and it has at least as much right to order itself on its own
principles and receive social support for those principles. As in the case of
business, academia, and government, its principles can’t be made completely
subject to egalitarian demands. They have their own requirements, which must be
discovered through some combination of experience, tradition, and reason.
Catholics, those principles are summed up in well-known teachings of the
Church: sex is for marriage and should be open to new life, marriage is a union
of the sexes directed toward the good of the parties and their children, and
Mom and Dad have somewhat different roles in the common effort. There is, of
course, nothing specifically Catholic or even Christian about such teachings.
There are good reasons for them based on human nature, and similar principles
appear in some form in other major traditions. It seems, then, that even for
secular people the rational attitude would be to accept something like them
barring some very good reason to do otherwise.
accept principles is not of course to accept their abuse. The legitimacy of
some distinctions relating to sex doesn’t whitewash everything the Taliban do,
any more than the general legitimacy of hierarchy in government and business
justify all the privileges of the president of North Korea or the CEO of Apex
Widget Company. Differences in position and treatment are legitimate, but
justice and good order require due proportion.
That is why the Church is opposed to unjust
discrimination. The point of her position is not that different treatment is
always bad but that it is bad when unjust. The requirements of justice, though,
have to be determined by reference to the whole good of man, and not the
demands of an inhuman understanding of the world that flattens some
distinctions while exaggerating others, and disrupts basic institutions like
the family in order to do so. Equality, like freedom, is a good, but it is not
absolute, and it is not a reason for suppressing natural and necessary
arrangements like the family.