“Under the control of the State”

In 1956, in his book, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, Professor Herbert Deane at Columbia University wrote: “Only with the rise of totalitarian societies in the twentieth century has a new general effort been made to bring all aspects of human life under the guidance and control of the state or the totalitarian party” (8). 

When these lines were written, we assumed that they applied only to Nazi or Communist societies. But in the fifty some years since Deane wrote these words, the reabsorption of all spheres of life once separated by the division of society, religion, and polity has increasingly taken place under “democratic” auspices, under the relativist doctrine that no truth exists, that the state is free to define whatever it judges to be fit for human living. This all-powerful state was something that had not been seen in the West since the Fall of the Roman Empire. The causes of this change are both metaphysical and moral.

We have been taught to think that “democracy” is automatically “the best regime,” the only alternative to any totalitarian state power. Though it has been coming for some time, within these past couple of weeks, we are seeing clearly that the desire, force, and will to subsume all subsidiary social institutions, especially religion and family, under the control of the state is also endemic in current democratic societies. Religion is seen to be, not the “first right,” that popes speak of, but the principal opposition to the utopian move to provide everything for everybody under the benevolence of the all-caring state.

Perhaps no organization has been more reluctant to grasp and acknowledge the operative logic of this total control ideology than the Catholic Church. It has prided itself in its subtle accommodation in recent times to what were thought to be reasonable principles for understanding of the political order, the nature, limits, and place of revelation within it. Catholics have striven to show that its beliefs and organizations are able to accept a limited state, a state that understands its own nature and does not claim competence over all spheres of human life.

On the surface, we might be tempted to look on the move to extend what is called “health care” to everyone, including religious institutions, to be something wholly neutral and well-meant. The fact is, however, that it is but one aspect of a world-wide logic, by no means limited to this country. It demands, under the name of the universal common good, the complete control of the state over all aspects of human well-being, especially those having to do with matters of life, death, human reproduction, and efforts to prevent or control the same.

That an American president should cast himself as the main advocate of this massive extension of unlimited state power should, in fact, surprise no one. The essential premises of such expansion have been taught in most American universities for years with little effective criticism. The position that the President employs to justify his actions has been in the books for a long time.

Catholicism, much to its surprise, suddenly finds itself in the eye-sight of the absolute state because it is now the remaining body of reasoning that articulately opposes this power extension into all aspects of human life. No one should be fooled into thinking that a democratic totalitarianism is not possible. It is in fact happening before our very eyes. It will be very smooth and enticing. It will reward those who assist it along the way.

What is thus of particular interest is the way that administration spokesmen use dissident Catholics to play off Catholics against the hierarchy. The U.S. bishops have become remarkably alert to the threat against its public institutions in a way that many self-announced Catholic politicians, universities, hospitals, and publicists have not. The fact is that those Catholic sources that support the administration’s move can anticipate reward on the condition that they serve to justify doctrinally what is going on in the name of “democratizing” Catholicism.

But what is behind all of this current turmoil is the demise of religious freedom itself. The tradition of religious freedom as classically understood is no longer accepted as limiting the state. The state now argues that its concept of “human dignity” now controls what religion can hold in the public order. Anyone who disagrees with state definition will no longer be allowed to join government programs or institutions. A new ideological test of citizenship is in place. And that test maintains that what Catholicism holds about marriage, contraception, human life, abortion, human experimentation, and euthanasia is contrary to the government’s definition of human life.

In effect, arguments of reason are delegitimized to be replaced by what the government will do whether we like it or not. What the government proposes to do is, by that very fact, what “ought” to be done. No higher authority exists but itself. Understanding that this claim is essentially what is motivating the policies of the administration in recent weeks, the bishops have understood that what is at stake is not just “health care.” Rather it is the very possibility of taking seriously what reason and revelation stand for concerning human life, its meaning and ultimate destiny.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).