In the last couple of months I’ve discussed problems arising from over-reliance on technological ways of thinking, and suggested that our response as Catholics should emphasize things that such ways of thinking leave out—the Faith, the natural law, the good, beautiful, and true.
But that’s too abstract, since such things don’t come in pure form. The world’s complex, everything is mixed with everything else, and our way of doing things must accept that. That’s why we look to a variety of guides in dealing with life: nature, experience, tradition, reflection on natural law, and ultimately revelation. All are necessary.
That sounds very complicated, but it’s just acting and thinking the way people normally do. Human beings aren’t naturally stupid or incompetent. If we were, we would have died out long ago. The methods of investigation that have given us modern natural science supplement our original ways of understanding but can’t replace them. Science isn’t helpful when deciding who to marry, and in any event requires experience and common sense like any other human activity.
So we start with common practices and understandings of the kind that have always been with us. That means accepting that experience, tradition, common sense, established habits, ordinary distinctions, and what are now called deeply-rooted social stereotypes have something to them. To deal with life in an ordinarily competent way we must rely on them, and we grow up doing so.
We don’t stop there, since traditional and informal understandings sometimes go wrong. Jesus criticized people who put tradition over the word of God, for example by giving to the Temple rather than helping parents in need. Nor are the traditions of Western modernity better than the traditions of first century Jewish elders: it is the former that have made Planned Parenthood the quintessence of what is thought honorable.
What leads to such perverse results? Bad traditions are like bad habits that have spread and become generally accepted, so the two arise in similar ways. We do what seems easy or appealing rather than what we should, and eventually find it hard to do otherwise. But that means habit and tradition can be corrected in similar ways, with the aid of reflection on our whole experience of life, including our own—and other people’s—better habits, traditions, and perceptions.
Better things are always at hand, because evil is not self-sufficient. It’s parasitic on good, which makes it all the more evil, but also makes it weak. However common bad habits may be, it’s very difficult for someone to be consistently bad. If he were, he would find it hard to get through the difficulties of life. That requires a degree of prudence and ability to get along with our fellows that is hard to reconcile with complete evil. It is yet more difficult for a community’s traditions to be wholly bad, since it could not exist at all without loyalty, cooperation, and self-sacrifice.
We correct bad habits and traditions both intuitively and rationally. The intuitive process involves recognition of patterns. We notice that things go better if we don’t do what we’ve become accustomed to doing. Eventually, if we are persistent and lucky, and bad habits start to seem unappealing as we grow tired of their consequences, we learn to choose what’s better.
The rational process involves reflection on natural law. Natural law has to do with aspects of human conduct and social organization that are part of any well-functioning system of human life. These include family, community, and culture, which is the system of habits and traditions that grows up among people who live together.
We don’t simply invent a way of life for ourselves. To live well we need connections that touch us closely, help define who we are, and guide us into rewarding ways of doing things. That is why we are naturally social, cultural, and connected. It is not easy to live well as an isolated individual or a pure citizen of the world. (The two situations are very similar.)
The networks of connections that help make us what we are start in our immediate surroundings, with family, friends, and local community, and expand to something extensive enough to constitute a people with traditions and institutions that provide a whole system of life, but are distinct enough to be an object of personal loyalty.
Such networks give us a home and way of life, and our habits and traditions should support the conditions that help such things exist and endure. In the case of families, these include recognition of the natural functions—the union of man and woman for mutual support and new life—that define what they are and should be. Without such a recognition, why believe family should be one thing rather than another?
In the case of community and culture a good tradition will accept that people live in particular communities, starting with the family, continuing with the local community, and extending to the particular people or nation, and also to the Church. Such communities need boundaries and a sense of distinctiveness to exist and endure as something capable of attracting loyalties that define who people are and guide them into a mutually rewarding way of life.
A good tradition will therefore reject absolute universalism. That’s part of what’s involved in making subsidiarity basic to Catholic social thought. Life isn’t all bridges and roads: walls are also necessary to a decent human existence, and good habits and traditions support them.
We’ve noted that tradition is liable to error, and needs to be backed by more than the fact it is traditional. But reflections on natural law can also go astray, too easily to serve as the ultimate foundation for society. Philosopher kings are hard to come by, and when you find them they mostly don’t agree with each other.
Even so, life presents issues that must be resolved, and people need a highest principle they can trust for dealing with them. As a practical matter, that means religion.
Older thinkers recognized the necessity of religion to support a community and its way of life. Today people officially reject that view, and praise a secular, multicultural, and inclusivist society. What we get, though, is a social order increasingly dominated by a mindless ideology hardly any one really believes but no one is allowed to question seriously.
The worth of Catholicism does not depend on its usefulness. Even so, a discussion of basic political and social issues can hardly avoid noticing that it is extraordinarily well-suited to serve as the basis of social order. It provides a complex of standards, understandings, and practices that accept the value of what is natural, individual, social, and transcendent, and gives each its place in an ordered whole.
That is important. Once we get beyond the tribalism that finds tradition sufficient in itself, and the intellectualism that tries to base social order on philosophical reflection and ends up relying on force and arbitrary ideology, something of the sort becomes indispensable. Now as always, extra ecclesiam nulla salus—socially and politically as well as religiously.
But what does all this mean today, when instant communication, cheap and fast intercontinental travel, and global economic integration seem to have destroyed the settings in which traditional local communities can exist?
These are difficult questions, but basic needs eventually find a way. Perhaps something like Rod Dreher’s Benedict option will be found helpful. Or perhaps national borders can continue to guard the distinctiveness of national and local communities. If not, and no other solution is found, the problem will very likely resolve itself the way it did at Babel, where the attempt of a universal human community to equal the heavens led to loss of the ability to cooperate and consequently to dispersion. We, or our descendants, will see.
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