A secular society?

Progressives really do find anything that suggests the American or Western past an intolerable threat in need of instant suppression.

(Image: Alejandro Barba | Unsplash.com)

Modern Western governments claim they leave questions of ultimate meaning to the individual. That is the point of the Supreme Court’s claim that our public order is based on “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It also informs a common interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae, that it tells us that that government shouldn’t favor one religion over another.

That claim is convenient for governments, because it means they don’t have to explain and defend their ultimate goals. But it can’t possibly be right. Basic questions inevitably pop up everywhere, so government neutrality is impossible.

For example, government demands obedience, loyalty, and sacrifice. It claims the right to use deadly force in support of its decisions. How can it do those things without claiming a special connection to what gives life meaning?

Today that is more true than ever. In an industrial and democratic society traditional social connections weaken, politicians get votes by offering people benefits and protection, and everyone who matters is convinced that the most effective way to do anything is to organize it comprehensively in the manner of an industrial process.

The result is that government finds more and more things to do. It raises us when young, educates us, looks after our health and general well-being, cares for us in times of difficulty, polices our attitudes toward each other, and increasingly tells us what to believe. It couldn’t do these things without a general view of man, his place in the world, and how he should live his life.

That creates problems for secular governments, because there’s nothing within their range of concerns that deserves to be treated that way. So of necessity they have evolved ultimate standards that they treat as transcending ordinary considerations. Those function as a religion, and eventually crowd religion out of the position in society it once held.

As secular liberal government has evolved those standards have become more abstract, comprehensive, and absolute. At first the standard in America was a combination of liberty and prosperity against a background of equality before the law. In recent times equality has become more activist and prominent, and the emphasis has shifted away from equality before the law to various aspects of social equality.

Today the liberal standard is best described as “dignity,” meaning personal freedom, assured material well-being, and respectful treatment by others, where “respectful” includes accepting and indeed supporting one’s understanding of who one is.

That standard values equality in some respects: elimination of poverty, and abolition of social distinctions that are irrelevant to the functioning of global markets and transnational bureaucracies. We are all to be insured in every possible way, and there is to be no distinction between man and woman, Frenchman, Japanese, and Englishman. But political and economic equality aren’t a prominent part of the mix. Universal economic security is important, and it’s necessary for everyone to have the vote, but it’s accepted that George Soros and Bill Gates should keep their money and their political views should carry a lot of weight. After all, don’t they know how to run things?

It’s also accepted that the experts and journalists who determine the official version of reality should guide how people vote. If the people ignore what they are told and go their own way the outcome is considered illegitimate. Perhaps for that reason it’s accepted that judges and bureaucrats should make or at least have veto power over major decisions.

The result of all this is a system in which unelected authorities elaborate and enforce a comprehensive this-worldly idea of what life should be like, even though officially the system is democratic and leaves such questions up to the individual.

The system is based on simple principles such as equality, human desire, and the needs of the commercial and bureaucratic institutions that are thought uniquely suited to maximize general well-being. The result is considered uniquely rational, comprehensible, and achievable. To oppose it is thought irrational and indeed proof of bigotry.

But the system is less rational and worthy of choice than its supporters believe. Supposedly, we have unprecedented freedom: we can be whatever we want! But our exercise of that freedom can’t infringe on the freedom of others, which is also unbounded.

That of course means conflict. My desire to have a loud party at 3 a.m. conflicts with your desire for a good night’s sleep. Bob’s desire for acceptance of his recently-adopted identity as a woman conflicts with Mary’s desire for a women’s locker room free from naked men.

What does a concept of dignity based on respect for arbitrary choice require in such cases? The rules don’t allow them to be resolved by reference to the human realities that man is diurnal rather than nocturnal, and has two sexes that differ profoundly. After all, Bob and I evidently reject such claimed realities, and we have an equal right to define what reality is. So the disputes can be resolved only by flipping a coin, or by reference to the efficiency, stability, and coherence of the system.

The latter at bottom means the interests of the powerful, and it’s the standard chosen. The result is that the personal freedoms we are given reduce to those that fit neatly within the system: lifestyle, consumption, and career choice, all from the menu of choices thought harmless or beneficial to our rulers.

Since it is in the interests of those who run things to have well-rested workers, noise ordinances are generally alright even though some people are night owls. And traditional sexual standards and identities support loyalties and ways of life our rulers don’t control, so violating them is permitted and indeed applauded. The result is that I can’t have my party, but if Bob says he’s a woman he can hang around naked in the locker room while the middle school girls’ swim team is using it.

To make matters worse, current views submerge man in the world. Everything is constructed by choice, social convention, or the decision of the powerful, and there’s no reality beyond that. That means that there is nothing to limit the power of the system to define reality and social order in ways that suppress natural human relationships and crush the human spirit.

If next year the evolving demands of “dignity” require suppression of marriage between man and woman, because the institution expresses white Christian patriarchal heteronormativity, it’s hard to see what reason there is, on current ways of thinking, for not enforcing the requirement. For a Catholic to object would weaponize an abusive claim of “religious freedom” in the interests of white fragility.

Even today that example might seem crazy to some, but common sense is no longer applicable. Current concerns about “safety” show the logic behind the demands. Progressives really do find anything that suggests the American or Western past an intolerable threat in need of instant suppression.

Our educated class has fallen into an insane purity spiral with horrifying social consequences. But what’s the solution?

Lunacy burns itself out, so the current craziness won’t last forever. It is likely to do enormous destruction while it lasts, though, and in the meantime the best we can do is point out that the emperor has no clothes, and present a better understanding of human life, social relations, and the world than the one driving the madness. The Church certainly has the resources, and at some point people will be ready to listen.

But to fill the need the Church will have to be clear and forthright on what she believes. For that reason the age of ecclesiastical subordination to secular trends and ways of thinking must come to an end. Now of all times is not the time for mediocrity, opportunism, or attempts to curry favor with the world. More than ever, it is a time for truth.


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About James Kalb 106 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).

7 Comments

  1. Yes, indeed, we need our bishops to find their voice. Not about politics, not about the environment, not about immigration, not about race issues but a voice about transcendent truths. Let the bishops leave specific policy implementation of transcendent truths to the laity. After all, isn’t this exactly what Bishop Barron told us was the role of the laity in the Church? Or did that pertain only to the destruction of things Catholic by terrorist Marxist thugs?

    • Blah blah blah. More long winded academic ramblings. We need bishops who at least will let us receive on tongue. Not much too ask? Maybe kalb and his ilk on handys?

  2. We read that “Modern Western governments claim they leave questions of ultimate meaning to the individual [….] It also informs a common interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae, that it tells us that that government shouldn’t favor one religion over another.”

    In the United States the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that “the CONGRESS shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion […]” Nothing there to restrict the Judicial or Executive branches!

    It never even occurred to the still-sane Founding Fathers that such cultural meltdown and protection from non-Congressional overreach would ever be needed. But, today, we now DO HAVE the “establishment” of SECULAR HUMANISM as our enforced national religion, courtesy of the JUDICIAL branch of government…

    This through United States Supreme Court rulings (fatwas!) regarding “right” (rite?) to abortion versus the real and prior right to simply live and breathe (Roe v. Wade, 1973), the very meaning of marriage versus the oxymoron of gay “marriage” (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), and even the very existence of natural and binary sexuality versus fabricated gender theory (Bostock v. Clayton Co, 2020).

    In addition to freedom of religion, these fatwas ALSO endanger the First Amendment “freedom of speech” and of “assembly,” as in the freedom to use in public only the two self-evident personal pronouns (his/her), or as in preserving an assembled private work environment free of in-your-face gay and transgender activism and courtroom prosecution.

    As for the EXECUTIVE Branch of government, depending upon elections, might we again look for more of the same(?)—-as when, after one president put a man on the one moon, a more recent president by executive order tried to put at least one mooning man in every girl’s restroom in the country.

  3. Thanks James, it is good article, it should not be surprise that even the Supreme Justices Court in many countries, included the one of the US, has been “brainwashed” by radical political forces that have been trying to change the foundations of Western civilization. The quote “ the right to define one’s own concept of existence…” , in actuality, should not be so dangerous and contrary to the human existence, but it is so only because such forces have temporary succeeded in redefining some concepts and institutions. The previous government help such forces to redefine the concept of family and human sexuality. Obama had to “evolve” to support the “homosexual marriage” and during political campaign Hilary Clinton said “LGBTs rights are human rights”. Extreme radical redefinitions, not properly challenged, terrible consequences, but at least we know how far they can go. Then, apparently “surveys” , “polls” , “rallies” etc, showed that the “opinion of the Americans was becoming more “progressive”, changing” in favor of “homosexuality” etc. Thus, it is not so long ago that those political forces obtained such extreme legality that endangers the meaning of the “right to define own’s concept of existence…”, and should be absolutely contingent to “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”. In the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Roberts said that the opinion of the majority is a “redefinition” of the concept of marriage, and it is a legislative not a juridical decision of the Court. There should not be reason that civil society, politicians and Church had to stop expressing their opinions, beliefs about these core fundamental values of human existence. Without addressing the root of the problems, the progressives are motivated to continue being even more “intolerants with the American past”, and forbid it if they can; without correcting errors and trying only to accommodate our religious doctrine or political programs, it is not going to be like “the ostriches that bury their heads in the ground hoping the problem pass by them”, no, if Church, society, and politicians do not identify what is the root of the problem and plan strategies to eliminate it, the only thing that will happen is that the intolerance will persist, grow, it become stronger.

  4. One could make a compelling case that the time has come, and is in fact long overdue, for massive, strictly nonviolent civil disobedience by Christians in the United States along the lines of that of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity union, which ultimately brought down the militantly atheistic, completely secularized government of the Soviet Union. (Today’s Russia mandates Christian religious education in its public schools.) That thousands of babies are “legally” butchered every day in America is reason enough to defy with peaceful civil disobedience the current “legal” assault on civilized society and on humanity itself. Since Roe a “legal” assault on gender and natural marriage — on human nature itself — has provided further justification for such Christian civil disobedience.

    The case for Christian civil disobedience will not be made here. Instead It will merely be pointed out that the U.S. bishops are obliged to make clear that it has become gravely sinful to vote for Democrat party candidates. Consider the words of Argentinean Archbishop Emeritus Hector Aguer in a televised interview a year ago:

    Opting for a pro-abortion candidate or for a party that includes abortion in its platform is a mortal sin. … We become accomplices if we vote for people who are going to pass a law that facilitates abortion or that legalizes this abominable crime …

    We cannot vote for those parties or candidates who have declared themselves in favor of abortion. They are going to try to play dumb, of course, but we must demand that they declare their position on this issue and as soon as we know, we will decide our vote. Even if they have no ethical or religious conscience, we do …

    It  is a mortal sin to vote for a party or a candidate who supports abortion, and I will argue this with anyone, because if not, what will become of us? This is about the life of a defenseless human being, innocent, the poorest of the poor, in this we cannot compromise.

    The U.S. bishops’ Faithful Citizenship document on political responsibility must be revised such that it does not aid U.S. Catholics in rationalizing voting for Democrat party candidates. The Democrat party ferociously defends all that Archbishop Aguer correctly condemns, and in addition to that, it fully supports the assault on human nature itself. One simply cannot aid and abet by their vote this diabolical attack on civilization, humanity and human nature made in God’s Image — and avoid mortal sin.

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