month I noted that Catholics need settings in which they can lead a
Catholic life among Catholics. For most of us, loving God and living as
Christians take schooling and support, which we aren’t going to get from the
world at large. That may be one reason the Apostle Paul’s letters focus more on
the practical internal life of Christian communities than on evangelism. The
ultimate ideal may be the New Jerusalem, in which the distinction between the
Church and the World disappears, but we’re not likely to get there any time soon.
Still, those who object to
“fortress” or “ghetto” Catholicism have a point. Something of an inward focus
may be necessary, because today’s world is so much at odds with the Faith, and
we Catholics are not already everything we should be. It should not be
exaggerated, however. Christ told his followers to go out and teach all
nations, and love of neighbor means engagement with the world both individually
But how do we engage the world
socially when Caesarand the mediaare
ever more powerful and anti-Catholic? During the Christian centuries, when
social leaders accepted Catholic Christianity as the norm, it was natural for
them to recognize the authority of the Church regarding matters on which she
has special competence. It was no odder for the king to accept Church authority
on faith and morals than it is today for a government to accept the authority
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or defer to the National Academy
of Sciences on an engineering question.
Those days are past, and it is
less obvious today how the Church can play an effective social and political
role. People mostly aren’t Catholic, and social leaders are less so than most.
Vatican II, while reaffirming traditional doctrine on the duty of men and
societies toward the Church and the true religion, recognized that reality.
Ever since, Catholics have been trying to find practical ways to cooperate in
building a better social order in a setting that does not accept Catholic
doctrine as authoritative.
Cooperative efforts require
common ground, and the more complex and comprehensive the effort the more
common ground is needed. In the absence of agreement on the most fundamental
issues, Catholics have tried to base their cooperation with the extremely
complex and comprehensive activities of the modern state and other secular
actors on natural law.
Natural law can be developed
philosophically in various ways. At bottom, though, it’s a way of talking about
the evident fact that man is not a blank slate for us to write on as we wish,
and the world is not a collection of neutral resources for use in projects that
we choose arbitrarily. There are goals and patterns that are natural to human
life and touch it at all levelsphysical, psychological, social, moral,
aesthetic, spiritual. If we do not respect such things our life will become
degraded or go haywire, like any complex structure that is dealt with in a way
at odds with its basic principles of functioning.
Many examples could be given, but
those having to do with sex are especially conspicuous just now. Sexual
relations create a fundamental connection between man and woman that extends to
the whole person, so much so that limiting the connection in time, or
artificially depriving it of its natural effect, violates the integrity of the
relationship and its participants. That, or something tending in that
direction, is the view not only of the Catholic Church but of other major religious
It is evident then that its truth is accessible to rational investigation and
support, perhaps with the aid of the sifting and ordering of experience that
goes on within a moral tradition in good working order. To make the point more
evident, the disastrous results of
accepting a radically opposing view that Paul VI predicted in Humanae
Vitae become more obvious every day, even from the perspective of secular
Nonetheless, understanding the
issues requires readiness to see a variety of goals and patterns that pervade
human life as part of an overall structure that is meaningful, functional, and
purposive. The mechanics of reproduction, the complementarity of the sexes, the
subjective experience of sexual relations, the experience of viewing another
person as an object of physical desire, the social nature of man, the process
of raising children, our attachment to family and people: all must come
together in a pattern that seems not arbitrary, but natural and authoritative
because oriented toward the good life.
Normal people have generally had
no problem looking at things that way. The world is an arrangement of diverse
systems that work together in a complex and subtle manner. Good sense is the
ability to use our familiarity with such systems to know what’s what, and how
things work in accordance with their intrinsic principles in this setting or
that. That kind of good sense, which necessarily includes a sense of what’s
normal, applies above all to human life. Since that is so, shouldn’t we expect the
good life for man to be closely connected to the nature of man and how human
life works? And why expect sex, which is a fundamental aspect of life, to be
separable from life as a whole?
technological ways of thinking reject such considerations, because innate
patterns and goals sound too much like the natural essences and teleology those
ways of thinking reject as unscientific. They also reject the objective
significance of aspects of reality, such as perceptions of value, that are
vividly present to us subjectively but impossible to define physically. Instead
of functional patterns, natural goals, and objective goods such ways of thought
try to understand the world solely by reference to mechanical cause and effect,
and apply the knowledge so gained to attaining whatever goals people happen to
have. Instead of the good life as the standard, they propose the safe,
pleasant, and efficient life.
The result is that natural-law
moral reasoning loses its basis in how reason and reality are publicly
understood, and comes to seem an imposition of arbitrary demands that are at
odds with perfectly valid (because peacefully achievable) human desires. To
make matters worse, as moral standards come to conform themselves to what is
now understood as reason, and to the tendency of a bureaucratic, commercial,
and technocratic society to view everything from the standpoint of obvious
immediate utility, natural-law moral reasoning comes to appear actively evil.
After all, it tries to bring human life within natural patterns that are
traditionally recognized, and that means stereotyping and discrimination, which
are now considered the worst sins imaginable.
That’s why Barack Obama got a
rainbow-colored halo on the cover of Time Magazine when he came out in
favor of “gay marriage.” Indeed, the requirement under
international law that governments suppress attitudes and practices
stemming from belief in sexual complementarity suggests that extirpating
natural-law considerations is now considered, by our most authoritative
institutions, a basic responsibility of government.
Under such circumstances,
intelligent discussion of the public good, and of the complex and multi-leveled
patterns and goals that shape human life, becomes impossible. So what do
Catholics do when confronted with social authorities that insist, as a matter
of fundamental principle, on replacement of human nature and the good by will
and technology as the highest standard, and demand the imposition of their
vision on the whole of life everywhere?
It’s a difficult question,
especially when the state and other centralized forms of social organization
are as pervasive as they are today. What we obviously can’t do, though, is
support the realization of the progressive vision. The egalitarian,
bureaucratic, and centrally-administered conception of social justice on which
it is based is something we can’t cooperate with. When we support it, as the
case of Obamacare illustrates, we are strengthening what will crush us. We
might as well support the construction of a universal caliphate.
Instead, we must insistently, in season and out,
in every possible setting, assert, argue for, and act on our own contrary
understanding of human life. When there is a fundamental misconception the
answer is not to join in the projects of the people who suffer from the
misconception. It is to do whatever is needed to correct it. Today the Catholic
view is simply not a presence in public life, and at best is misunderstood as
an eccentric variation on some other view. Our most important political task is
to change that.