Liberalism, Catholicism, and the Good

Our political problems today result from confusion about the nature of man and the good.

Many people today find it obvious that what’s good is getting what we want, justice is getting it equally, and social justice is an overall system that promotes those goals in every setting. If you don’t accept this view, people say you’re hateful and oppressive, because you don’t want people to get what they want; you’re greedy and overbearing, because you don’t like equality; and you’re anti-reason, because you’re against rational systems for achieving obviously worthwhile goals. 

That view of justice and the good is nonetheless defective, and the attempt to force it on the whole of life squeezes out better goods and more just forms of justice. The HHS mandate, which absolutely subordinates the integrity of Catholic institutions to the individual desire for free birth control pills, is a case in point.

But if that view is a problem, what do we do about it? The first step toward something better is a better understanding of what is good—that is, what goals are most reasonable to pursue. People today don’t like to raise that question, certainly not in a political setting, because it suggests that law and policy should be based on a particular understanding of how to live. They object to that, because some people will disagree with the understanding, so acting on it would amount to forcing someone else’s ideal of life on them.

The objection seems plausible, at least to people raised in a liberal society. It nonetheless falls apart on examination, because it’s impossible for a political system to avoid taking a view on what things are most worth doing. Liberalism, for example, holds that the point of government is to help everyone get what he wants. That view of government implies that what people should do (or anyway what’s most reasonable for them to do) is to go for whatever they happen to want, as long as it fits a system that gives equal support to all people and their goals. Liberalism thus has an account of the most reasonable goals for societies and individuals, and so an account of the good. The account may seem minimal, but it’s enough to define the way of life the contemporary liberal state promotes, a life based on career, consumption, and political correctness.

There are serious problems with the account of the good that makes that way of life the standard. That account flattens out the human good, since it makes what to pursue a simple matter of desire and manageability. Also, it fails to recognize goods that are not individual and transferable, since it makes justice consist of tallying up Tom, Dick, and Harry’s goods, and making the totals as equal as possible. The result is that the human good becomes very much like possession of a large sum of money, and justice like equalizing bank balances.

Individual liberals may sometimes have a more subtle understanding of justice and the good, but the subtleties have no effect. The importance of giving individuals what they want and equalizing what can be equalized makes other concerns sink into irrelevance. If Georgetown law school fails to provide free contraceptives, and so burdens the equal sexual freedom of women, it has to change its ways. That result follows whether or not there are liberals who are somewhat troubled by the situation.

In fact, of course, the human good is far more complex, and far more part of how we live, than dominant opinion now assumes. When we are acting reasonably, we don’t want particular things that we think are good so much as a good way of life. We want particular things because we see them as part of a way of life that we aspire to, and believe we should aspire to, because it embodies a standard (such as closeness to God or an ideal of a life well lived) that seems worth living by. So the human good is not at all like having lots of money. Whether viewed from a commonsense, philosophical, or religious point of view, it’s part of a whole way of life infused with goods like truth and beauty that exceed our grasp and can’t be transferred or made to order.

Such a way of life requires more than the efforts of individuals, markets, and bureaucracies, the agencies liberalism accepts as authoritative. Other social institutions are needed to provide a setting for complex non-economic relations and commitments. A society can only be just and good if it helps the family be the family, communities be communities, the Church be the Church, and so on, all so that human beings can be human beings. Social justice isn’t a big, unified machine that delivers equal amounts of stuff to each of us and keeps us from interfering with each other, but a complex condition in which not only individuals but a variety of associations get what they need so that each can make its contribution to human life.

That is a basic point distinguishing Catholic social teaching, which takes the complexity of human goods seriously, from current views that make a unified, rational, and efficient system for satisfying individual preferences the goal of political life. Principles such as the right to life, the rights of the family, the complementarity of the sexes, the need for sexual restraint, the freedom of the Church, the real though conditioned rights of private property, and the general principle of subsidiarity are not arbitrary, dogmatic add-ons to a basically liberal view that identifies solidarity and the preferential option for the poor with a global welfare state. They stand for a radically different understanding of what makes for a good life and a good society.

That understanding accepts nature and tradition as basically good although needing correction, and it rejects centrally-administered social policies in favor of widely distributed initiative and authority. It is therefore the least tyrannical of all views. It is often considered conservative, because it provides support for traditional American ideals—patriotism, federalism, limited government, private property, freedom of religion, individual responsibility, family values—that are threatened by what liberalism has become. It is not simply conservative, however, because it moderates and completes those ideals, and brings out what is best in them, by bringing them into a connected system rooted in a definite understanding of God and man. Thus, for example, it makes private property a responsibility as well as a right; makes freedom of religion a public as well as personal matter by pointing to the place of God in human affairs; and supports and limits patriotism by loyalty to Church, family, and local community.

Catholic social teaching also supports liberal goals, to the extent those goals make sense. Liberalism wants to help the poor and excluded, but offers them a way of life that is sordid and nonfunctional because it has no place for higher goods or for the soul. It wants to promote freedom, but ends by constructing a comprehensive apparatus of control for fear we’ll oppress each other. A more Catholic view would take the full range of human concerns seriously, and offer the poor and excluded the dignity of participation in a way of life worthy of devotion. And it would avoid the administered society by allowing more scope to nature and custom. Thus, for example, it would reject “education” designed to extirpate the inherited moral views and expectations that surround and support traditional family life, and to replace them with careerism, consumerism, and indifference to how others lead their lives. Instead, it would let boys be boys and girls be girls, and offer them an ideal of life that accepts their natural tendencies, disciplines and purifies them, and brings them into the functional order of the Catholic family.

Those, at any rate, are some of the goals of Catholic teaching. Achieving them is a tall order, and we’ll always fall short in many respects. To get anywhere though we need to know what the ideal is. Our most basic political problems today result from deep confusions regarding the nature of man and the good, and better politics require a better understanding of such things. There is no more fitting place to start than with what the Church has to tell us.

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James Kalb 134 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).