Jesus said his Kingdom is not of this world. But what can that mean for a religion that accepts Creation, Incarnation, and natural law? Or more concretely, one in which progressives speak of social justice, traditionalists of Christ the King, and the Lord’s Prayer itself calls for the coming of the Kingdom here on earth? It’s not an easy question.
Christianity obviously makes a difference in our lives. It gives us a particular way to understand the world and our place in it, and that changes what we do and our relations to others. As Christianity spreads and its effects accumulate, it gradually changes the social environment of expectations and understandings in which life goes forward.
That is why Christ says the Kingdom acts as a leaven. It can’t be seen, and how it works is obscure, but as it takes hold it transforms everything. The general disappearance of slavery in Europe and Byzantium by the High Middle Ages provides one example. Monasticism provides another. The monks left the world to find God, and without intending it they transformed the world through their work and example.
Even so, after the conversion of Constantine gradual change through subtle influence no longer seemed enough. After all, if Caesar is Christian, shouldn’t he govern as such? Or to update the question, if we all have the vote, and the right to engage in political and social activity, shouldn’t the way we exercise those rights be guided by the way we understand God, man, and the world?
For that reason a view of Christianity that concentrates on the individual, his relation to God, and his personal conduct, with larger social and political effects as byproducts, has come to seem pietistic and overly individualistic. Christianity is said to have an explicit “social”—meaning actively political—dimension.
The resulting tendency toward activism has become much stronger in recent decades, and sometimes seems to eat up the rest of the Faith. One reason for that situation is the modern constructivist understanding of man and society. At one time people thought of law as basically unchanging, and the social order as natural or settled by history. Today they feel free to make and unmake laws, governments, and the social order generally.
People view that process as open-ended, and the progressive political thought that dominates Western public discussion is at least implicitly revolutionary and utopian. It wants to create a new kind of human being, liberated from sexual norms, fixed identities, and religious and cultural traditions, for the free, equal, and radically superior social world now under construction. Promoting the attitudes and understandings necessary for that world and human type is now considered an obligation of all governments.
What lies behind that view is the technological tendency of modern thought, which does away with guidance from nature, history, and transcendent standards. On this view the world is raw material for us to do with what we will, subject to logical and practical constraints. All wills are equally wills, the idea seems to be, and in principle have an equal claim to satisfaction. But the need to make wills compatible rules some choices (“intolerant” ones) out of order, and the need to provide incentives and settle disputes means we will always have inequality, at least in the form of rich people and government officials.
The result is today’s mainstream progressivism, which merges global bureaucracy and capitalism with radically egalitarian ideals. A view that’s so entirely centered on human will and collective action isn’t Christian, but the closer you come to it the more progressive you are. Many people who want to combine progressivism and Christianity therefore believe that their chief Christian duty is joining with others in remaking the world on such lines. Their faith thus merges into current political causes that amount to a substitute religion. The Kingdom, for them, has become entirely of this world.
That doesn’t make sense as a Christian view. Nor does it make sense politically, because of the problem of limits. The progressive dream is to remake the world in accordance with human will. But modern thought makes all things—including man and his projects—the outcome of mindless inexorable natural law, and it’s not clear why that should lead to progressive utopia. Marx claimed it would, but the historical laws he thought pointed that way don’t work.
Current ways of thinking exaggerate the opposing tendencies, but there are serious limitations on freedom that put utopia out of reach. Objective factors such as economics, technology, and basic human nature don’t determine everything, but they establish limits and stubborn tendencies. In the modern period, for example, they have made life materially more abundant in many ways, but also made life inhuman in ways people have been complaining about since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
To overcome such strong and enduring tendencies directly—if that could be done—would require comprehensive social control by rulers and administrators. That’s why Vatican progressives have been drawing closer to billionaires, celebrities, and transnational bureaucrats. They want a partnership: Vatican and other progressives will provide the virtue and vision, their partners the power, public support, and practical skill, and the result will be a far better world.
But why expect anyone, let alone political ideologues and people who have climbed to the top of an enormous hierarchy, to have the superhuman virtue and wisdom needed for such an enterprise? And why expect this project to work better than previous attempts to reach utopia through the exercise of supreme political power?
It’s clear, then, that allying ourselves with secular progressivism and worldly power is a bad idea. But what should we do?
Catholic corporatists and distributists tried in various ways to put the economic and social order more in line with Catholic social thought, but their efforts fell through. Modern tendencies were too strong. The more recent attempt to assimilate Catholic thought to secular neoconservatism has also failed. The effect has been more to distort Catholicism than promote the common good.
Hence the call for the Benedict Option. Ideas vary as to what that is, but it seems to involve a recognition that Constantine is dead, the new emperor and court are aggressively technocratic, and we need to struggle to keep our act together and make our way in a very different world.
Under such conditions it seems clear that the Church should put less effort into attempts to influence general government policy. She no longer has much influence by herself, and the basic understandings on which secular political movements, parties, and causes are based today are radically at odds with her own. If she allies herself with them she is more likely to corrupt than promote her vision of the public good.
Very likely her chief practical political activity in the years to come will be self-defense—attempting to preserve her ability to preach and live by the Word in an unfavorable environment. And that is the most public-spirited thing she can do. The great need in public life today isn’t support for the right parties and programs, it’s a better understanding of human life and the public good. And the Church can provide that if she’s free to be herself and speak.
So it seems we’re mostly back to the pre-Constantinian situation, in which the Church concentrated on preaching the word, living the life, and staying alive (when legitimately possible) rather than lobbying Caesar, trying to get our guy on the Antioch city council, or supporting this or that faction at court.
We should still present Catholic social and moral teaching, of course, but recognize that current ways of thinking make it incomprehensible to most people. So our chief concern in public discussion should be changing people’s minds on basic issues regarding the nature of man and the world. Once that’s been done we can talk more productively about things like natural law and the common good. That, it seems to me, is a way the Church can still act as a leaven in public life, one that the world needs today no less than in Roman times.
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