Last month, I
suggested that the most important thing for Catholics to do politically is
to present, argue for, and act on the Catholic understanding of human life. We
are defined by our faith, which has to do with an understanding of God, man,
and the world, and our goal as Catholics is to live that faith and make it
available to others.
principle applies to public as well as other aspects of life. It may not seem
an effective way to make things happen, but taking obvious public success as
the standard means aligning ourselves with the principles on which public life
is currently based, and that means certain defeat.
support for the contemporary welfare state shows the problem. Catholics believe
in feeding the hungry and caring for the unfortunate. The welfare state is now
considered the obvious method of attending to such things in an effective and
reliable way, so most Catholics occupationally concerned with public affairs
support it. The problem is that something as ambitious as the modern welfare
state is more than a practical response to human needs: it is the embodiment of
a vision. Man needs an ideal goal to give his actions overall sense and
coherence, and a world that believes in technology instead of God takes as its
goal social improvement through rational organization and control. If that’s
the goal, then the all-provident state is the implementation, and trying to
limit it, or denying its ability to solve an ever broader range of problems, is
considered rejection of faith, hope, reason, and compassion.
such a project is to accept, at least as a practical matter, the corresponding
view of human life as something that can be systematized and administered in an
open-ended and ever-more effective way. That view is the basis of progressive
social policy, and it is radically anti-human as well as anti-Catholic. It
means that man is not oriented in any serious sense toward anything that
transcends the competence of the secular bureaucratic state. Nor is he an agent
in any serious sense, since if he were social life could not be administered.
Instead, he is an employee, consumer, hobbyist, and sometime welfare client for
whom freedom is simply the right to choose from a menu of choices the system
can provide conveniently.
rejects such a view of life in favor of something far more complex and
multilayered. As human beings we have a variety of concerns that we pursue in a
variety of ways, individually and in combination with others. Those pursuits
and concerns are not interchangeable and not all on the same level, but they
should all be taken seriously and given their due.
motivates that understanding is the conception of the world as a complex system
oriented toward purposes that transcend it. The result is that Catholicism
cannot accept that social justice is a matter of securing equal status and
equal satisfaction of preferences for everyone through an overall
administrative system. Instead, it
sees it as a state of affairs “that allow[s] associations or individuals to
obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” So
it’s not a bureaucratic or centralizing principle, but one that facilitates the
legitimate activities of each particular agent and thus tends to decentralize
the life of society. Nor is it radically egalitarian, since it accepts the
legitimate particularity of intermediate institutions like private property and
the family. To pick a current example, redefining marriage to include
connections that lack the features that give marriage its fundamental role in
human life makes it impossible to articulate and justify what is due marriage
according to its nature and vocation. It follows that “gay marriage,” on a
Catholic understanding, is radically at odds with social justice.
Such a view
has very little presence in public life, to put it mildly. Almost no one
understands it, or is even aware of its existence, and our first political task
must be to change that situation. But how?
important single thing to do toward that end is to understand what our own
position really is. That’s surprisingly difficult. As a practical matter,
recent attempts by the Church to reach out to the secular world have meant
accepting the ways of thinking that define that world at a time when they were
becoming more single-mindedly anti-Catholic and anti-human. The result has been
an increasing inability to present the Catholic view of things in connection
with principles that make it comprehensible.
social teaching is thought to be something other than what it is. To most
people it has come to seem identical to liberal progressivism, with residual
hang-ups about sex tacked on at Vatican insistence. Those who notice a problem
have often responded by merging social Catholicism into American or free market
triumphalism, combined perhaps with a plea for personal piety and good works
and an emphasis on the damage done to the poor by excessive state action.
are seriously flawed, because both are based on an understanding of the social
order as a mechanism for the efficient and reliable conversion of resources
into satisfactions. The one side, which emphasizes equality and security,
thinks bureaucratic controls are the best way to advance that goal. The other,
which emphasizes efficiency and innovation, prefers markets and enterprise. The
ultimate goal is basically the same, though, because both sides assume that the
point of life can only be to get what we want.
impossible to avoid such a view if we accept current understandings of man, the
world, and the nature of reason. The industrialization of social life and
pervasiveness of mass electronic culture make it hard for people today to avoid
those understandings, so if we want to convert others we must first convert
ourselves. That conversion has an intellectual as well as a spiritual and moral
component, so we need to re-educate ourselves. We need to learn about natural
law, read all the social encyclicals, consider how to understand them, study
Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic and classical thinkers, and become much more
critical of the principles we pick up from our surroundingsfrom official and
popular culture, from the ever more intrusive mass media, and from expert
pronouncements and our own formal education.
re-educated ourselves, and developed a more Catholic understanding of the
world, we need to speak clearly in accordance with that understanding. That
means, of course, that we have to give up the quest for prestige and even
acceptability. Those are no doubt good things, but they cannot come before
faithfulness and truth. It also means giving the real reasons for what we want,
so that our positions will hang together and people will be able to understand
what they are and why we hold them.
mandate provides an example. However important the freedom of the Church may
be, the primary reason we don’t want to pay for contraceptives is that
contraception is wrong. If we don’t say that, but just claim institutional
freedom and freedom of conscience, we are not that different from a business
that conscientiously objects to paying taxes because its owner doesn’t like
government in general. For our objections to be taken seriously, we must
present serious arguments on the substantive point at issue, the moral status
and social effects of contraception. (The ability to present such arguments in
good faith will of course require additional self-conversion.)
We shouldn’t simply be
argumentative, of course, and should do what we can as a direct practical
matter to promote social goods. Saint James tells us
that faith without works is dead. Practical effect does not, however, trump
faith and truth: we cannot make success the standard when that means
cooperation with evil. The temptation to do so can seem overwhelming to those
involved in active life, especially in a pragmatic and technological age like
our own, but must be resisted. It was, after all, the devil
Jesus an opportunity to solve the problems of economics, politics, and natural
necessity. Jesus turned him down on the grounds that serving God comes first.
We should do the same.