(Photo: © bargotiphoto - Fotolia.com)
issues that now put Catholics in opposition to secular public thought
are too basic to ignore. The Church accepts God as our reference point,
and views freedom to develop our relation to Him and act by reference to
it as basic to our good and our dignity. In contrast, secular society
has made our own outlook and desires our reference point. Those things
make us what we are, or so it is thought, and freedom to follow them is
considered the key to a good and dignified life.
leads to views of morality and justice in which drastically different
claims and authorities carry weight. The Church values conscience, and
accepts “this is right”in general, this expresses the moral nature of a
world that after all is God’s creationas a claim that normally
overrides other considerations. Today’s secular world values individual
autonomy instead, and prefers the authority of claims such as “I want
this” or “this is part of my identity as I define it.”
contradiction is sharpened by conflicts in institutional loyalty. The
Church accepts its hierarchy as the authority that defines, protects,
and furthers the most fundamental human concerns. Secular society
rejects that authority in favor of that of the state, with its courts,
constitutional law, experts on human rights, and system of education and
social welfare. At one time it was possible to reconcile the two by
saying that they dealt with different matters, the Church hierarchy with
fundamental spiritual and moral principles and the state with worldly
practicalities and standards of conduct generally accepted as a matter
of vernacular natural law (otherwise known as common sense).
view no longer works because of growing state absolutism resulting from
the decline of transcendent religion and the sense of a natural moral
order. All social institutions, including the family, are now viewed as
state creations, so that determining what they should be in light of
ultimate values such as equality and personal autonomy is considered a
basic function of government. On such an understanding there is no room
for the moral authority of the Church.
From the Catholic
standpoint the claims the secular world treats as authoritative are
weak. “I want this” is a reason for doing something, but a weak reason,
and “this expresses the identity I define for myself” is not persuasive
at all. We don’t make ourselves, and our decision does not determine the
value or reality of what we choose or believe ourselves to be. To say
otherwise would make radical self-assertion the foundation of morality,
which is indeed the tendency of modern thought.
Secular society of
course views things differently. From its standpoint the Church’s
claims are not merely weak but outrageous. “This is right,” where
“right” is presented as obligatory without regard to desires, chosen
identities, or the needs of a public order that makes freedom and
equality its supreme goods, is seen as an attempt to make the speaker’s
outlook and preferences trump other people’s. There is no place for
those who make such assertionsprolifers, gay marriage opponents, and so
onin contemporary liberal public discussion.
Against that background secular society is coming decisively to view
religion as a matter of private lifestyle and symbolism that should be
strictly subordinated to a general system of lifestyle freedom,
prominently including sexual freedom. The latter, after all, has fewer
explicit public implications than religion, especially now that human
life is understood technologically, and is therefore likely to be more
manageable. And in any event there seem to be more people today,
especially influential people, who care strongly about it.
important to understand how bad the Catholic view looks to people who
accept the current secular view, which includes almost everyone who has
been formed by present-day education and pop culture, and is well enough
attuned to current attitudes and understandings to become respected and
influential. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Windsor, which argued against the Defense of Marriage Act by treating marriage as a creation of the state and refusal to extend it to same-sex couples as simple malice, makes it evident that mutual respect is not to be expected.
is also important to understand that the Catholic view is indeed the
Catholic view, and is correct no matter what the ruling powers may think
of it. The points at issue are too basic to be finessed, and we can’t
deal with today’s world and our fellow citizens without making an issue
of them. Otherwise what we say will either be treated as
incomprehensible or absorbed into the current secular outlook. A call
for mutual love, for example, will be understood as a call for affirming
and supporting the desires and self-defined identities of all people
just as they are, subject only to the principle of mutual tolerance.
deal with the current situation of fundamental conflict we must abandon
comfort, mediocrity, and the habit of blurring our views on fundamental
issues. Once we do so we will have advantages that will ultimately
tell. Our opponents have power, position, and self-assurance, but not
substance or stature. Public leadership and discussion is at a low ebb today.
A public orthodoxy that says that man and the world are what we make of
them, which is what we have now, takes us out of the world as it is
into a world of fantasy. Willful delusion has certain advantages when
it’s in poweron its own terms it’s impregnablebut it eventually leads
to defeat because the world refuses to cooperate with it. Contemporary
understandings of family life, for example, have not led to more
happiness or better outcomes for much of anyone.
So in the long
run truth and reason win. But what do we do now? First, like Paul, we
should preach the word in and out of season. People may not seem to
listen or understand, but on some level they don’t really accept the
official theoryit’s not the sort of view that can be held through and
throughand we don’t know who will be ready to hear something different.
Further, we should do so with clarity and intelligence. As Peter said,
we should be “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls
you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). So we should
get beyond sound bites and soothing ambiguities, and present the best
arguments we can for the Faith. Most people will shrug them off, but
some will be looking for a better way of dealing with life and the
To prepare the way, we should insistently confront
ingrained falsehoods and confusions wherever and whenever perpetrated.
Black legends exist because there’s a demand for them, so debunking this
claim about the Crusades or that one about Pius XII won’t register
immediately with most people. Still, the truth should be readily
available for the day someone is interested. We also need to take charge
of the language of discussion, at least the language we use ourselves.
Instead of talking about “banning same-sex marriage,” we need to talk
about opposing the new requirement that everyone view a relation between
two men as a marriage. Otherwise we are conceding most of the issue by
our very way of talking about it.
Above all, we need to live like
Catholics. There are much more important reasons to do so than the
argumentative advantage it confers, but it remains true that in a time
of moral confusion living well is the best offense. People know that the
current order of things doesn’t help them lead good lives, and if they
see someone who has something better many of them will eventually want
to know more about it. We should live in a way that makes that the
natural turn for their thoughts to take.