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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