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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