A couple of months ago I reviewed R.R. Reno’s book Return of the Strong Gods, in which the author calls for strengthening the loves and loyalties that hold Western societies together. At the end of my discussion I mentioned justice, an issue that needs to be dealt with for the project to succeed.
The conception of justice that now pervades high-toned discussion demands that every type of person find the social world equally welcoming and supportive. The alternative is thought to be hate, bigotry, privilege, exclusion, and so on. So if a transgender Japanese atheist and his domestic partner move to a small Ohio town, and don’t feel equally accepted because of those characteristics, that’s considered a problem that needs to be overcome.
But that demand effectively rules out any social role for the basic shared loves and loyalties that have reliably knit societies together: love of God, love of family, love of the history, heroes, and cultural heritage that make a people a people. The couple will mostly fall outside of the network of relationships those loves and loyalties create. To the extent such connections matter, they will be outsiders.
Those who accept the current conception of justice might argue the contrary. The love of God binds all of us together, even those who are not aware of it. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and love makes them families, so to value the family and the unifying power of love is to value all families. And the history, heroes, and heritage that draw us together are the history, heroes, and heritage of ever-growing equality and inclusion. It follows, the argument would go, that the arrival of the couple in the town would provide the townspeople with an occasion to reaffirm and deepen solidarity, and should thus increase social cohesion.
Such arguments often have something to them. It’s true, for example, that God creates a bond among all his creatures. And if the couple were thought to fall outside the bonds of common humanity that would indeed be a problem. But politics is a practical matter, which means it’s usually a matter of degree. With that in mind, how much trust and cooperation do connections that apply universally support? By themselves, can they create bonds that are tenacious enough to hold people together through the difficulties and strains that arise in the life of a society?
In spite of happy talk the answers to these questions are not favorable to radical universalism. It is not unity in reconciled diversity but unity in faith that has actual binding power. And family attachments can be strong when they have enduring importance, but it makes more sense to treat them that way when they are founded not only on sentiment but on basic features of human life such as sexual complementarity and the creation and support of new life.
As for cultural community, a culture is a network of habits and understandings that grows up when people live together for a long time. It is a system people have developed for living with each other that provides proven ways to deal with everyday matters. For that reason, a common culture is much more likely to support a satisfying way of life than the combination of commerce, bureaucratic administration, and sensitivity training now considered the proper way to organize social life. So a government that cares about the well-being of the community it governs will care about cultural continuity and coherence.
In spite of the recent emphasis on encounter, going to peripheries, and so on, Catholic teaching accepts such concerns as entirely legitimate. Pope Saint John Paul II, who came from a nation that had maintained itself through very serious difficulties, was particularly aware of them. He noted in Centesimus annus, for example, that one reason for the collapse of communism was its failure to accept the fundamental importance of particular national culture: “For this reason the struggle to defend work was spontaneously linked to the struggle for culture and for national rights” (par 24). And in Dilecti Amici he notes that “We must do everything we can to accept this spiritual inheritance [of particular culture and history], to confirm it, maintain it and increase it,” especially where there is a need to protect “from the danger of destruction from outside or of decay from within the very existence and essential identity of the particular nation” (par 11).
But how do we make sense of such particularistic concerns in the face of the universal aspects of Christian morality and indeed morality in general?
The obvious answer is that morality—and therefore justice—includes particular as well as universal obligations. “Be just and charitable to all” does not exclude “honor thy father and mother,” “prefer your wife to other women,” “look out for the interests of your employer more than his competitors,” or “concern yourself specially with the good of your community, country, and people.”
To act in accordance with the latter principles is not unjust to the people to whom we have more distant connections. It’s usually the way people connect most effectively to others and promote common goods, so if people didn’t act that way they would become either more inert or more self-seeking. That would make the world worse than it is now.
The resulting preferential option for one’s own can of course be taken too far. If my son enters an athletic or musical competition I should help him prepare—that’s how talent gets developed—but shouldn’t interfere with his competitors’ preparations. The key, obviously, is reciprocity: I should do for my son only what I would want a competitor’s father to do for his.
Such thoughts may seem rather humdrum. Where is the journey to the peripheries? The preferential option for the poor and marginalized? Jesus presented a despised outsider—the Samaritan—as the model for love of neighbor. And he said that we should love our enemies, because “if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this?”
Also, Christian morality does go beyond the practical everyday functioning of society. “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female” tells us that even ordinary human distinctions that are basic to everyday life are subordinate to a higher principle of unity.
But that recognition does not require a social order without distinctions of sex, class, or nationality any more than “you are all one in Christ Jesus” means that family ties or distinctions of authority are bad. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves or seek single-mindedly for what is extraordinary and unprecedented.
Grace does not abolish nature, it completes it, and the requirements of ordinary obligations like the Ten Commandments are usually pretty ordinary. The doctrine of creation tells us that the natural everyday functioning of human life is fundamentally good, however much its fallen aspects need correction. And one implication of Catholic acceptance of natural law is that morality should cooperate with how people naturally carry on life. If it doesn’t it either gets ignored or leads to inhuman tyranny.
With all that in mind, it seems clear that allowing distinctions like sex, religion, and nationality to play an important role in social life violates neither natural justice nor Christian morality. Higher principles do not require a featureless global society ordered by commerce and public administration and run by billionaires and bureaucrats. Apparatchiks—including academic and ecclesiastical ones—may support such a result. But why should anyone else agree that justice forbids distinctions and boundaries that are neither bureaucratic nor financial?
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