Lent is a time of retreat and reflection. That can mean very different things for different people at different times in their lives. But it always means stepping back from daily preoccupations and looking at where we are, where we’re going, and what we should be doing.
So it’s a good time for Catholics concerned with religion and politics to look not only at their private and spiritual lives, and their connection to the people around them, but at the state of the world and their general approach to public affairs.
Being a good Catholic and a good citizen ought to go together seamlessly. Catholicism favors the good of man, and therefore the well-being of human communities, and a well-grounded community—one that accepts human nature—would recognize the necessity of religion and the benefits of Catholicism in particular.
Life of course introduces complications. Jesus told us to give Caesar his due, for example by paying taxes, and Peter said we should honor the king, even when the king happens to be Nero. So Catholics should respect order, authority, and government even when imperfect.
But the modern principle that government is subject to democratic and rights-based limitations affects how we should apply those teachings. If the political doctrine on which government claims to be based tells me I should vote, speak out, and know my rights, I should be able to speak severely about my representatives Chuck Schumer and Donald Trump when it seems appropriate.
To further complicate the question of our relation to our rulers, governments today feel called upon to transform the world in ways that are neither democratic nor consistent with a natural law understanding of rights. For example, they are enforcing transgenderism and other aspects of gender theory ever more intrusively.
The implications are difficult to unravel. The Catechism tells us that:
authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned … If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.
With that in mind, can a settled determination pervading all aspects of government to transform human life in ways that oppose natural law turn it into a conspiracy against the common good? It seems that principle applied to the hard totalitarian regimes of the last century. To what extent could it apply to today’s far softer but increasingly thoroughgoing forms of totalitarianism?
Whatever the answer, Catholics should continue to use what freedom and influence they have to promote the common good. If the problem with modern government is that it has adopted bad principles, we need to put forward better ones. So today more than ever the greatest contribution Catholics can make to the public good is to promote the Catholic faith. And we should do so first and foremost through our lives. If we don’t take what we recommend seriously in our own case why should others pay attention to it?
As Catholics our commitment should be to truth, so our concern should be esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem. Any other emphasis corrupts judgment and is wholly at odds with the mission of the Church. Concern about public relations has, for example, been a major cause of the Church’s failure to deal with bad conduct by her clergy. And we should completely avoid virtue signaling—trying to look good by striking whatever moral pose happens to be in vogue. That’s the modern equivalent of praying on street corners, with a pinch of incense to the idols of the age thrown in, and it’s the cheapest possible substitute for actual virtue.
It’s always tempting to hide troublesome issues. In recent decades the Church has struggled to maintain its position as an institution in an increasingly secular world. The effort has exacerbated the tendency of many who speak for the Church to try to get on the good side of secular authorities by emphasizing issues that are dear to global elites, like climate change, free movement of labor, and abolition of national distinctions, and by minimizing issues, like those slightingly referred to as “pelvic” or “below the belt” sins, that are basic to the structure of ordinary life but annoy governing elites who don’t care how people live as long as they show up for work, buy lots of consumer goods, and don’t cause trouble.
But there are many ways to go wrong, and we shouldn’t flatter ordinary people any more than the powerful. In the West today we tend toward careerism, consumerism, and self-indulgence, and the point of traditional Lenten practices is to break the hold such things have on us. Catholics concerned with politics have an additional reason to undertake such disciplines—they make for a better society—and they should reflect on the ways in which the public good involves something higher than a materialist conception of happiness.
Public life today has no sense that there is any such thing. That’s one reason Catholicism has so much difficulty finding followers or even sympathetic listeners in today’s world. Catholics should therefore find ways to raise the issue. We must start somewhere, and even something as simple as support for dress codes in schools, better public architecture, or a requirement that businesses observe a weekly day of rest might begin to draw attention to non-utilitarian goods.
Secular society and the Church are always at least somewhat at odds, and how to deal with that situation has no final solution this side of Kingdom Come. Social peace is a great good, so political action should be guided by prudence as well as truth. But how far do we take that?
The need for tolerance in a world with many conflicts shouldn’t normally mean silence in the face of serious evils. “Let’s keep quiet about each other’s bad conduct” is a poor basis for the social compact. Speaking out may lead others to point out our own flaws, but that’s probably all to the good. It’s not the publicity given scandals that damages the Church but bad conduct by Catholics that publicity tends to suppress.
But today it won’t be up to us how far conflicts get carried. Suppression of standards and distinctions like those relating to sex that have traditionally ordered social life is more and more seen as a basic function of government. Under such conditions serious conflict between government and the Church becomes hard to avoid. The ambition and scale of the modern state is what creates the problem. The Roman state was tiny by modern standards, and Christians didn’t pose an immediate practical problem, so in spite of sporadic persecution they were mostly left alone to live as they chose and to attempt to persuade others to their way of life. Our modern Caesars have far more resources and are far more involved in all aspects of life, and we see around us that they want more than a pinch of incense—active participation in evil, indoctrination of children in inhuman principles, and worse.
Under such conditions working for the general public good will largely have to give way to doing what we can to defend ourselves and our ability to live as Catholics. Whatever happens we should continue to live as openly as possible by what we believe to be right and true. At the very least, we should refuse to live by lies or participate in what is wrong.
And we should continue when possible to promote larger goods. Peter advises that in times of persecution we should always be ready to give every one that asks “a reason for that hope which is in us.” The worse the climate for Catholicism the more important apologetics becomes. We and our pastors should take that to heart, and with that in mind pray that our leaders—those meeting at future synods in Rome, for example—place far more emphasis on the need to communicate unchanging Catholic understandings to an ever more unreceptive world.
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