Stubborn differences on political and social issues usually come out of problems regarding basic understandings. It’s not always obvious what the problems are. Most often they have to do with something that goes without saying for at least some of those involved. The result of that situation is that people see their opponents as willful, perverse, or irrational—as people who simply refuse to accept what’s obviously right.
Examples include “gay marriage” and other issues relating to sex. Those who see man as self-defining and the physical world as raw material for his projects see the issues one way. We write our own ticket in sexual matters, and anyone who disapproves is a bigot, would-be oppressor, and probably psychologically disordered. Those who see man as social, the physical world as meaningful, and the family as basic to society see them quite another.
Another example is the dispute between “social justice” Catholics who emphasize government protections and benefits, and their less statist, more distributist, or more libertarian counterparts, who emphasize the role of individual, family, local, religious, and other non-governmental arrangements, and therefore limit the direct role of government.
How the dispute plays out is somewhat complicated. It should be a matter of emphasis rather than principle, since Catholicism is prudent and moderate on such matters. It rejects libertarianism, which dissolves the common good into private goods, so that the function of government is reduced to protecting individuals from physical assault and violation of property rights, and also socialism, which dissolves private goods into the public good, and wants government to administer both as part of a single comprehensive system. Both views go astray by trying to impose a single principle on everything. They ignore the complexity of man as a being that is at once individual, material, social, and spiritual, and of society as a system made up of infinitely varied forms of cooperation and competition with respect to the whole range of human concerns.
In contrast, Catholics recognize that government should look after the common good, defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily,” but in accordance with subsidiarity, less by direct action than by establishing standards and a framework that facilitate the efforts of a variety of actors to realize private and public goods. Catholics also insist that some of those actors—such as individuals, families, and the Church—have an integrity, status, and authority that is independent of state and market and must be respected.
The complexity of the situation makes the right balance between laissez faire and government intervention hard to find. It’s especially hard today when government and other leading institutions have no interest in doing so. The balance must be determined by reference to human nature and the good life, as well as current and historical circumstances. Current public discussion, which downplays human nature and identifies the good life with a combination of choice and security to be realized technologically, has no remotely adequate understanding of such things.
The problem comes up vividly in connection with direct government responsibility for the problems of particular people. All or almost all agree the public interest requires government to come to the direct assistance of individuals in protecting them from force, theft, and fraud. So everyone or almost everyone thinks government should establish an army, police force, criminal justice system, and civil courts.
But what about other serious concerns individuals often have, such as the lack of goods considered basic? Should government protect each of us from lack of food, clothing, shelter, and medical care? If so, up to what standard? Bare survival? Cots, soup kitchens, and emergency clinics? Customary standards of comfort and decency? And what about other more intangible problems like social exclusion?
Widespread prosperity, the decline of family and other informal local connections, the penetration of commercial and bureaucratic ways of doing things into all corners of life, and an ever broader conception of human rights, and more individualistic and egalitarian understanding of social justice have led to the view that government should take care of all those things. It should not only promote the common good but act as universal guarantor of the well-being of every individual. Where that view is not held explicitly it is often simply assumed, so that every instance of individual hardship is considered an instance of government failure.
However, the same tendencies have also led to a growing understanding of government as properly neutral among ways of life. The universally-active secular liberal state says it has no official version of the good life, but simply wants to facilitate whatever versions its people adhere to individually. The result is that people expect government to be not at all involved in their lives from the standpoint of how they live, but totally involved from the standpoint of supporting their well-being.
The expectation doesn’t make sense, and something has to give. What’s given for the most part is the view that government should let us live as we choose. We’re allowed to do so in theory, but only when our choices are consistent with the efficiency, stability, and effectiveness of an increasingly comprehensive system of social management. So we have a constitutional right to virtual kiddie porn, but are subject to an ever more comprehensive system of controls designed to keep us safe, healthy, and free from oppressions and microaggressions in daily life. The result is a sort of neo-socialism with elements of crony capitalism that accepts markets and private property as necessary mechanisms but tries to integrate them as much as possible into a comprehensive system of bureaucratic control.
Neo-socialism naturally leads to a quasi-libertarian backlash. People in America used to say “it’s a free country,” but no more, and that bothers many of them. All mainstream voices agree security and choice are the goals, but where the party that dominates high-end public discussion interprets them in an ever broader sense as things to be secured for all by comprehensive government intervention, a more libertarian party would like to interpret security as government suppression of theft, violence, and foreign threats, and promotion of choice as less government involvement in social and economic life.
That situation makes life difficult for Catholics. They’d rather not be neo-socialists or quasi-libertarians, but public life has to be based on commonly shared understandings, and that makes it hard to participate fully today without becoming one or the other. A principled alternative to collectivism and individualism would require a conception of the human good as more than choice and security, and acceptance of authoritative institutions like family and Church that don’t reduce to property, markets, or the state bureaucracy. The assumptions governing public life, which have to do with maximizing individual preference satisfaction by technological means, provide no grounding for such principles.
What decides the issue in favor of neo-socialism for many Catholics is concern for the poor and excluded, together with acceptance of rational bureaucratic organization as an effective or at least readily available way to get something done. What decides others in favor of quasi-libertarianism is the reflection that administered societies become nonfunctional, and concern that a comprehensive system of social administration will inevitably suppress Catholicism, along with other good things, because it imposes an overriding view of what life should be and where ultimate authority rests.
There’s no way to deal with the issue intelligently while participating in public life in accordance with current assumptions. What Catholics need to do politically, then, in addition to protecting the Church’s ability to function and her members’ ability to live in accordance with Catholic principle, is overthrow the assumptions that make equality, economic utility, and technology the supreme standards for public discussion. Those concerns have their place, but public life becomes tyrannical and inhuman when it excludes God and an adequate understanding of human nature. We should therefore focus our public efforts on insistent proclamation of the principles that are missing.
Technocratic assumptions are deeply rooted today, so the effort to change them is not likely to yield practical results any time soon. That effort is nonetheless what the Church is called to pursue in public life today. Her mission is to proclaim the truth about man and the world, and that mission comes ahead of political alliances for limited goods that are quite obviously intertwined with intrinsic evils.
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