A Practical Agenda for Catholics

People today have no idea what the Catholic view is all about, and we need to demonstrate it in practice and explain it in terms generally accessible.

(Image: TeroVesalainen | Pixabay.com)

The Church has had a political role since Constantine. That is no surprise. Catholicism is primarily a doctrine and way of living for its adherents. But the Faith deals with basic realities that have public and political consequences. So the Church’s authorized teachers naturally end up intervening in social and political matters.

That is why the American bishops, especially in the larger cities, used to play an influential role in public life. There were a great many Catholics, most of them strongly attached to the Faith—as recently as 1955 weekly Mass attendance was 75 percent—and the Catholic clergy were respected so people looked to them for leadership.

Times have changed. There are still many Catholics, but they’re much less attached to the Church, and even those who retain an attachment rarely look to their pastors for political guidance.

In addition, the assumptions guiding American public life have gone off in a direction opposed to a Catholic vision of social order. During the earlier decades of the twentieth century the public issues the Church was concerned about, such as labor reforms inspired by Rerum Novarum, could find widespread support outside Catholic circles. And the “social issues”—abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, no-fault divorce, gay marriage—hardly existed as such.

That’s changed. The social issues are now treated as absolutely basic to our national life, and all established powers reject the Catholic view on them. The recent war of words between Governor Cuomo and Cardinal Dolan over New York’s new abortion law is a sign of the times. As some have noted, the governor, by declaring the Cardinal an extreme rightist spreading inflammatory falsehoods, excommunicated him from the Church of Political Legitimacy. It’s evident that Cuomo didn’t think that would hurt him politically, and that the Cardinal thought himself in no position to respond in kind.

Under such circumstances Catholics concerned with public life need to take stock and find what they can still do productively. In local affairs, and on a few specific issues like abortion, something directly practical may still sometimes be achieved. But the same is not true of broad issues of public policy, because people in public life don’t understand or care about the Catholic vision of such things.

Instead, they base their positions on a technocratic conception of life that makes all things subservient to the human will. The healthcare system, for example, is becoming a system for managing and maintaining human resources for the sake of the economic system—that’s why death management is growing in importance—and for providing biotechnological consumer goods like babies for people who want them and abortions for people who don’t.

For the foreseeable future, then, general policy initiatives on the part of the Church will have to be less practical than symbolic. Their basic purpose will be to supplement the evangelical goal of changing minds on basic issues, so the important point will be integrity rather than practical politics. Concrete political initiatives will mostly have to do with practical issues of special concern to the Church and to Catholics—most prominently, maintaining the freedom of the Church, and of Catholics to live their faith.

Our responsibilities as Catholics are love of God and love of neighbor, with love of God coming first. From a practical standpoint love of God suggests a focus on worship and our own conduct and beliefs—are we all pointing in the right direction?—and thus on the Christian community. Under present circumstances that means disentangling ourselves from a society and culture that denies God’s relevance and points us away from Him.

Our situation requires far more of a break with common ways of doing things than it once did. Life no longer centers on the household and local community, where Catholic understandings may still carry some weight. Electronic media that dissolve close social connections penetrate everywhere and shape our relations to our fellows. And most practical activities are carried on through large institutions that are generally committed to anti-Catholic understandings.

If we immerse ourselves in those settings, most of us will get swamped and go where the current carries us. For a setting in which people who are not invulnerable heroes of the Faith can live a life closer to their aspirations, we need what almost amounts to a parallel society, with its own system of education, sources of livelihood, and informal social life.

The approach presents obvious difficulties. People would need endurance and strong convictions, especially at first. There may be problems maintaining discipline and coherence without cultishness. And it’s likely to be a struggle finding ways to make a living without offering a pinch of incense to Caesar.

But other people have solved such problems. Groups as different as the Amish and Mormons have been able to thrive in America while maintaining their distinctiveness. What works for us would no doubt evolve through trial and error, with different people finding different solutions. Saint Benedict presents one form of the Christian life in an inhospitable society, Saint Paul another, the congregations to which Paul ministered yet another. The declining appeal of the larger culture should make the task easier: it should not be difficult to offer something more appealing than the life the Western world now offers.

As to practical love of neighbor, the Church’s emphasis should be on direct charitable activity. Instead of supporting (for example) government social benefits, and lobbying for this feature or that, we should provide services ourselves. We need, to the extent we can, to show alternatives to misconceived secular projects like the modern welfare state, rather than joining them on their own terms.

The Church is evangelical, and her most basic social goal is to change the understanding of the good life and society in a world that more than anything needs vision. People today have no idea what the Catholic view is all about, and we need to demonstrate it in practice and explain it in terms generally accessible. The ordinary laity would lead on the first point, academics and clergy on the second, and all would cooperate on both.

A defense of marriage and family, for example, would first and foremost involve getting our own lives in order. That would require the aid of a far more pastoral clergy that is clear on what is at stake and helps people with the difficulties they often face understanding, accepting, and living in accordance with truth. When we make progress on that we will be able to argue the benefits to others far more effectively.

But there are bound to be legal problems with all this. A Catholic hospital wouldn’t offer assistance in dying, a Catholic school wouldn’t teach the equivalence of all religions, and a gay Somalian atheist would not be as much at home in a setting influenced by traditional Catholicism as a conservative Irish Catholic who is married with eight children. How could such things be allowed in the new world now coming into view?

So defense of the freedom of the Church will be the most pressing matter we will have to face during the coming years. That includes the freedom of Catholics to speak out, live their faith, run their affairs, educate their children, and engage in charitable activity.

That defense will require political action to prevent straightforward application of principles like inclusiveness that are now considered absolutely compelling. That won’t be easy. It will be necessary to know our convictions and why we hold them, and be ready to stand up and argue for them articulately in the face of opprobrium. A Church that cares about her faith, her people, and the world would cultivate such qualities among her leaders.

Life goes on and the world keeps changing. However alarming the future sometimes seems we should remember that evils conflict, so we’re not going to get all of them simultaneously. So it’s likely to be more than virtue and principle that helps us maintain our freedom as Catholics. The inefficiency, irrationality, and corruption produced by an ever more incoherent culture is likely to make enforcement of official principles like transgenderism hit-or-miss. And the demographic diversity that seems almost certain to continue increasing in a globalist age will involve the growing presence of people who aren’t Western liberals and also want to live in their own way.

In the end, what works wins, and what can’t keep on won’t keep on. So even from a natural standpoint the Church and her vision is likely to prevail over her modern opponents. Insanity destroys itself. Even so, it’s enormously powerful while it lasts. so there are going to be severe bumps on the way. The Barque of Peter needs to prepare for them, we should all help it do so, and our pastors need to help us get ready.


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About James Kalb 90 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).

10 Comments

  1. “People today have no idea what the Catholic view is all about, and we need to demonstrate it in practice and explain it in terms generally accessible.”. It might be helpful to add: “MANY CATHOLICS today have no idea what the Catholic view is all about, and we need to demonstrate it in practice and explain it in terms generally accessible.”. Yes, it’s true that there are many Catholics in the pews on Sunday who hold views and beliefs counter to Church teaching. It might not be entirely their fault, as many of them have never heard a sermon about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or have been properly Catechised, or don’t believe in the Real Presence. In many Catholic Churches today, I fear most of the congregations are essentially Protestants who make the sign of the Cross. Once we get the Pope and the majority of Bishops onboard with the defense of marriage and family, we will most likely have smaller, more devout Catholic communities about which Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of 20 years ago.

  2. Do all that you can to build up AUTHENTIC Catholic communities. Do all that you can to build up an AUTHENTIC Catholic culture.

  3. None of this will work so long as the vast majority of Catholics in America remain heterodox. Do we require them to either toe the line or face consequences? I can assure you, they are not going to toe the line. So does that mean they need to be put out? That reduces the Church in America to 10-15% of its current “membership.” Are we ready for that? Is cutting out the cancer really the only way to begin to recover? And yet without such a call to fidelity I don’t really see how we will be able to accomplish anything. It really does seem beyond fixing.

    • May 9th: I believe Pope Emeritus Benedict addressed this when he predicted that in the future the Church membership would be smaller, that there would be small ‘communities’ of the faithful committed to living the faith without compromise – I don’t believe he meant to exclude anyone but these small communities would be like a bonfire and anyone who would want to come out of the dark and come into the light of the fires would be welcome. But if we are to be fully committed to living our faith, we have to start now. Living our faith as Jesus desires us to do will draw others to us and to His Church – which is His presence on earth.

    • Just as proper nutrition can cure bodily diseases (real food vs food substitutes), proper adherence to the Church in all of its doctrine and tradition can cure the problems we Catholics are experiencing in these days.

  4. @Adam
    I was about to reply, but you pretty much covered what I wanted to say.
    So, thanks for saving me some time! 😉

  5. The first practical thing that every person who believes that they are a Catholic must do is read, understand, and live everything taught in the book “Liberalism is a Sin” (http://liberalismisasin.com/).

    The second is to learn and practice their (traditional) faith. The most important lesson that people must learn is that about mortal sin, its consequences, and what sins are mortal. Pray the Rosary every day.

    The third is to strenuously FIGHT (the evil culture)! Denounce and write polemics condemning sodomy, the murder of the innocents, contraception, and state arrogance and usurpation of matters of marriage which are the sole province (for the baptized) of the Catholic Church. Don’t be nice to the wicked (Was Jesus nice to the Pharisees?) and their dupes. Pray at abortion clinics.

    The fourth is to be different in a good way. Especially women, but to a certain extent men must be modestly dressed. This would mean for men (ideally) no shorts or short sleeves (best not to wear jeans either). Women must never wear pants (St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for this) and their opaque dresses should reach below their knees with a neckline at the bottom of the pit of the throat, and sleeves at least halfway down their forearms. Don’t watch TV.

  6. I agree in concept on the need for greater modesty by all, especially by women because a men are very easily visibly stimulated. So, I am in agreement on skirt length and on dresses needing to be opaque and not sleeveless.

    However, I don’t believe it is necessary to go as fully as far as suggested to be sufficiently modest. Women’s sleeves should be long enough to not create an underarm “window” and collars high enough to avoid exposing cleavage should be sufficient. As far as women wearing pants I am not entirely opposed provided they aren’t form-fitting.

    (Note: It is particularly incredible to me how many women approach the communion rail to receive during summer months with exposed cleavage that doesn’t respect where they are or consider their immodesty’s effect on priests.)

    I would add that clothes of men, and more especially women, should not be so tight or form fitting that they “leave little to the imagination.” As far as men are concerned, however, since women are not as visually stimulated, I see nothing wrong with men wearing longer loose fitting shorts and short sleeved shirts in the appropriate settings (but certainly not to Sunday mass).

  7. I’m so glad this issue is being addressed. We cannot sit by and let paganism take over our world, especially in the United States. For this is what it is – paganism and anarchy. Every day the news brings us more and more horrifying items about hatred, killing, intolerance, and disrespect of traditional Judeo-Christian values – and that’s just in this country! We can’t sit back and assume “common sense will prevail”, because people are divesting themselves of common sense at an alarming rate. There is no time to wait. We must pray and rely on the Holy Spirit and Holy Mother Mary to show us how and when to act; to teach us to shine the light of Christ to people living in darkness, with humility and love; and to recognize that we may not win each battle but truly, God has the victory in the end.

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