(Photo: © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com)
Last month I discussed
how the assumptions and language of public life today, which are based
on commercial and bureaucratic concerns, are biased against Catholics.
To make matters worse, the all-pervasive electronic media, increasing
reliance on commerce and bureaucracy in everyday affairs, and changes in
the purposes of formal education, along with its radical expansion,
mean that the same assumptions and language have come to pervade the
whole of life.
That means trouble. For example, it means that
natural theology and the idea of natural functioning, which arise from
everyday happenings that haven’t been put into commercial, industrial,
or bureaucratic form, have become less and less understandable. More and
more aspects of life are viewed as intentional social constructions,
with the result that people have come to think that papal authority is
superstition, “banning gay marriage” and “denying the priesthood to
women” are arbitrary, and belief in God as a knowable reality is an
absurdity, like belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
those views can be backed with arguments that can seem impressive. For
objective validity, a supporter might say, knowledge must be based on
publicly repeatable observation and measurement; otherwise it is a
matter of individual taste or opinion. It follows that almost nothing
can be taken seriously for purposes of public discussion that can’t be
dealt with scientifically or technologically. So physical objects and
actual human preferences can be taken seriously, but not much else.
Realities that are more complex, subtle, and hard to nail down are
denied or confined to the private realm. To take them into account in
public life, it is thought, would impose on everyone the private
mythologies of some. How could that be right?
It can’t, not on a
view that rejects higher goods and natural moral law in favor of the
physical and demonstrable. On such a view value becomes a matter of
subjective desire, and reason a matter of finding the most efficient way
to achieve our goals, so that the point of politics and morality
becomes giving everyone his preferences, as much and as equally as
possible, consistent with the coherence, stability, and efficiency of
the system. Egalitarian technocracy, which is rule by commerce and
bureaucracy, comes to seem indisputably correct as a way of organizing
How should Catholics respond to such a situation? In
the past we might have appealed to tradition, common sense, and natural
human feeling, but such things are now increasingly rejected as social
prejudices and stereotypes that stand in the way of needed reforms. And
in any case, hedonistic materialism has itself become a tradition that
to many seems entirely commonsensical. So “you gotta be kidding” isn’t
enough, at least not without a great deal of preparation. It can just as
easily be turned against us. That means we have to go to basic
principles, and we have to do so in a sound-bite world that considers
itself vastly superior to everything that came before.
As I suggested in my previous column,
we won’t be able to do any of that if we accept the language and
assumptions of present-day public discussion, which define what is real
in such a narrow way that basic moral, philosophical, and religious
issues can’t be recognized. We need not do so, however, because there is
a split between public assumptions and everyday experience that we can
take advantage of to reach people, change minds, and ultimately
transform the way life is talked about.
The view now dominant has
important strengths, notably its association with modern science and
technology, and its still closer association with modern techniques of
social control like regulatory bureaucracy and various forms of
propaganda. It also has very serious weaknesses. It tends toward
decisive action that ignores important realities, because it has a
strong preference for simple principles that translate directly into
policy. (Consider, for example, the various campaigns to eradicate sex
differences.) More basically, it takes a false view of man. It treats
him as an isolated individual, when what we are and want depends on
other people and the world of which we are part. It therefore follows
from our nature that the good life cannot be simply a matter of choice
but must involve cooperation with social roles and patterns, and with
the overall nature of things.
The greatest deficiency of the view
currently dominant is that it gives us no adequate way to evaluate
goals. It makes individual preferences the source of value, and puts
them all on the same level, leaving no room for thoughtful understanding
of what is good. We are indeed guided by preferences, but we are also
guided by reason and by aspiration toward what is good, beautiful, and
true. The good life must satisfy us in all our dimensions, so it can’t
be simply a matter of what’s wanted. We don’t simply want what we want,
we want it as something that is right to want, that is part of an
overall scheme of life worth aiming at. That is why hedonism is no fun,
and preference satisfaction so unsatisfactory as an overall moral and
Since the dominant understanding of man and
rational action is wrong, so is that of politics. Dealing with human
life is an art, not a matter of organizational design and management.
Our answers to basic questions necessarily determine how we try to live
together, so there is no way to avoid the question of the highest good,
of what it makes most sense to aim at. In any event, the dominant
liberal view that makes politics a matter of organizing freedom and
equality is self-defeating on its own terms. Experience shows that in
the absence of a standard of human nature and what is good making those
things ultimate goals leads to a pervasive system of control to keep
people from oppressing each other. Since the system lacks the balancing
principle that an understanding of human nature would provide, it
expands without limit and becomes a new form of tyranny.
a world that tries to immunize itself against concerns other than
efficiency, equality, and preference satisfaction, Catholics need to
circumvent the public discussion and restart it on a different footing.
Saint Ambrose noted that God does not normally save his people through
rational argumentation(“non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”).
Man is nonetheless a creature of reason, at least in part, and if we
don’t deal with that side of him we’ll have problems. The obvious way to
start, since we live in a world in which well-paid sophists have
supplanted traditional authorities, is to do what Socrates did in a
similar setting: ask pointed questions that are hard to get rid of
because they go to the heart of how people live. For example:
How should we live?
If we choose a way of life, is it possible to be wrong?
If we want the right to choose, do we want choice for its own sake or something more definite?
If we just want choice, and what’s chosen doesn’t matter, what’s the
point? If we want something more definite, isn’t that thing the real
How much fun is fun? How
free is freedom? How successful is success? Does equality make us
equally happy? Don’t we need something other than those things to make
sense of life and find it satisfying?
Is marriage a foundation for a good life, or an add-on?
Do men and women want the other to be just like themselves? Or do they
look for something definite and distinct from each other?
What is love? What makes it so important? Does it just hang there among
the atoms and gamma rays that otherwise constitute the world? What does
the world have to be like for it to matter so much?
And so on,
for all the basic aspects of life on which the Church has something to
say and the technological outlook does not. The questions will meet with
dodges, but like Socrates we must expose the dodges as futile. To make
serious progress we don’t need to persuade everyone: we just need to
reach enough people to put in question basic issues now treated as
settled. Until we do that, we will never stop losing badly.