Last month I suggested that if society rejects transcendent standards and natural law, then political and moral order become what those in power make of them.
Fascism and communism show one way that can work out: the will of the charismatic and powerful becomes the highest law. That view of political life is exciting and dramatic, so it sometimes gets traction, but it soon runs into problems. Photos of Europe in 1945 show how big those problems can be.
Liberalism—the outlook on public life now dominant in the West—is much more sober. It appeals to utility rather than charisma, and prefers the rationality of a system to the excitement of battle. For the liberal, getting rid of transcendent standards means deciding questions based on this-worldly practicalities, and rejecting the idea of a natural moral order means affirming our ability to define for ourselves what things are and what they mean to us. Such views are thought to provide a safe, tolerant, and commonsensical solution to the dangers posed by modern skepticism: not the fascist Triumph of the Will, but the liberal Triumph of Choice.
The devil, though, is in the details. Choices conflict, so the Triumph of Choice means nothing unless we know which choices triumph. Liberalism tries to be principled, and its moral skepticism means it can’t give the nod to the choices that are simply better. It wants a neutral solution, so it ends up appealing to technical effectiveness and the “do your own thing” attitude implicit in the triumph of individual choice over collective will.
What it tries to do, then, is set up a system in which individuals get as much as possible of whatever they want within the limits imposed by the coherence and effective functioning of the system itself. The nature and needs of the system then provide a standard for deciding conflicts.
Those needs put a premium on goals, like a career, that support the functioning of the system; on pursuits, like consumption choices and private indulgences, that are easily managed because they don’t much affect other people; and on acceptance of the choices of others. So when there are conflicts, it’s the self-regarding, efficiency-promoting, and tolerant goals that get the nod.
In a complex and dynamic society, goals constantly conflict with each other in all sorts of ways, and liberalism provides a clear principle for resolving the conflicts. In addition, it’s progressive, which means that as time goes by it perfects its system. So as liberalism develops, it subordinates disfavored to favored goals ever more comprehensively.
The result is that it eventually becomes tyrannical and therefore self-refuting. Religious freedom provides an example. The liberal principle of neutral individual freedom has no special concern for religion as such, but views it as one pursuit among many. For that reason liberalism favors freedom of worship as a private activity much more than freedom for religion to play a public role. So it seems to set religion free, because it wants to set all activities free, but ends up suppressing it, because religious concerns are too comprehensive and go too deep to fit smoothly into a system of efficiently satisfied individual preferences.
So liberalism starts by rejecting government recognition of religious authority and insisting on free choice and expression in religious matters. The First Amendment represents that classical stage of development: the law can no longer support any particular religious view, but it is still friendly to religious activities and to the self-government and public influence of religious communities.
The development does not stop there. Eventually liberals get concerned about features of private life that they see as oppressive. They abandon their classical “limited government” approach, and start to insist on subordinating recognition of religious authority by private institutions to the purposes of the individuals who rely on the institutions. One result is that the government comes to forbid private discrimination on grounds related to religion. An employer who wants to promote a Christian ethos in the workplace can’t preferentially hire Christians, and a Catholic printer is not allowed to refuse to print programs for a “gay wedding.”
Most recently the demand that institutional expressions of religion give way to individual choice has been extended to insistence that Catholic schools and hospitals provide products, like birth control pills, that are at odds with Catholic teaching but are thought necessary for the equal freedom and well-being of women. That demand is based on the same liberal principle that has repeatedly been applied in the past—subordination of collective to individual goals for the sake of individual freedom, equality, and well-being (as well-being is understood by the individual involved).
The uncomprehending outrage at Catholic recalcitrance shown by prominent liberal commentators is therefore unfeigned. It’s based on strong trends in political thought that are neither new nor foreign. If the purpose of government is to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with liberty and the pursuit of happiness understood as the individual freedom to do as one chooses, then it makes sense that the freedom of religious groups to act in accordance with their ideals should give way to the freedom of individual women to choose how they will live without any additional burden resulting from the nature of their choices or their identity as women.
The Obama administration’s actions are, of course, outrageous. The reason, though, is not that officials are unprincipled but that their principles are narrow and lead to inhuman results. In the end, their system has room only for goals that are strictly private, goals people don’t much care about, and goals like career and political correctness that support the system itself. Everything else is too disruptive for the efficient neutral operation of the system, and has to be rooted out in the name of freedom, which now means freedom from inconvenient connections to other people and from higher goods that guide how we live together.
When understood that way, freedom becomes something no sensible and thoughtful person would want. But how do we Catholics turn the situation around, when the whole trend of public discussion seems against us? For starters, I think, we should argue for our positions based on substantive reasons for holding them. If the main argument we present is the American tradition of ever-greater freedom and equality, we’re going to lose, because the other side can argue that too, and their argument (not to mention their institutional and material resources) will be stronger. The individualism of the usual American understanding of freedom assures that result.
That doesn’t mean that our argument should be, “Down with Thomas Jefferson!” or, “Long live the Pope!” What it means is that we should insist on bringing into the conversation a concern for natural law, for common goods that go beyond efficiency and material prosperity, for the freedom of religious communities and other groups outside the state, and for the roots of America in Christianity and of Western society in Catholic Christendom. If other people can say that American life has sometimes slighted things that deserved more attention, why can’t we?
We could, for example, say that the American Founding was an attempt to realize goods such as subsidiarity and the general welfare in accordance with divinely-based natural law, but the way our national understanding of such things has developed has to be supplemented or it will defeat its own purposes: instead of federalism, limited government, and subsidiarity we’ll get centralized tyranny; instead of the common welfare we’ll get a way of life that is sordid, selfish, and self-destructive. Such arguments are certain to provoke outrage, and they won’t be winners right away, but they include more of the realities of life than the opposing arguments, so they are likely to win in the end. And in any event, if we continue to accept principles that at bottom are anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, and anti-human, like a purely individualistic understanding of freedom, we will be always be in a false position, and we will always lose.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!