Politics and public life in a hall of mirrors

If it is true that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Church makes Him present in the world, then it is supremely important that she be able to do things her way.

(Image: Chris Barbalis/Unsplash.com)

Today’s electronic communications have fragmented our world into myriad images and soundbites that can be reassembled to make anything seem real. That has made it a paradise for con-men, propagandists, and insane people. If you’re somehow tempted by the view that the world is flat or run by shape-shifting alien lizards, you can go online and find plenty of support for that.

So there are arguments for controlling speech. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will guard the guardians? Suppressing disfavored views aids propaganda more surely than truth. So it seems best to keep stumbling on, with well-disposed people doing what they can to be rational.

But there is nothing new under the sun, and the problems with speech and truth go very deep. People have always known about liars, frauds, and fantasists, but long ago some of them noticed much deeper problems. Verbal and visual representations are almost always deceptive in some way. Truth is a hard-won and fragile attainment.

Plato, for example, was suspicious of poets, because they tell stories that are pleasing but false. And he had doubts about writing: written words cannot impart true knowledge, he thought, because they don’t explain themselves. As he said, “if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.”

It wasn’t only the Greeks who worried about such things. The ancient Chinese thinker Laozi thought language always falls short when it deals with the most important matters. As he put it, “the way that can be told is not the Eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.” The obvious consequence, he thought, is that “he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.”

Laozi’s view reminds us of the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.” Our language draws its meaning from our experience of visible things, so what we say about divine things is routinely misleading.

The great traditions—East and West, pagan and Christian—thus agree that words are insufficient and often deceptive.

The Church of course is aware of the difficulties. Deceit is everywhere, man is prone to error, and words by themselves are far from transparent. Her answer is the Incarnation—the embodiment of Truth in Christ, and the Word-made-flesh (Jn 1:14) in his Church. God truly knows, and He is truly among us. That is why the Church is able to rely on texts and preaching more than Plato or Laozi could. Words can have divine inspiration, and they can be interpreted within the Church in accordance with her tradition and doctrine, so that the questions they provoke can be answered properly.

But what do such grand principles mean in everyday life today, flawed as we and our leaders are, and bathed as we are in words, images, and spin that constantly put all aspects of truth in question? Often enough, people don’t even try to get things right. There are problems with Twitter neither fact-checkers nor Elon Musk will fix.

The problem of standing by truth in a disordered world can drive people into a hermitage, and for some that’s the right answer. Even so, most of us are active in the world, and we’re told it’s good for Catholics to participate in public life. At least we can remember that there is something higher, better, and truer than politics, and political causes can become bloodthirsty idols when left to people who have forgotten that.

How should we participate in public life today, with all its pomps, snares, and illusions?

We should start by remembering that politics has limited value. Even if we try to make our own politics about promoting the common good—that is, loving our neighbor in a manner suited to politics—the Faith is about God before anything else. So we should never make politics our religion.

That’s a serious risk today. People have become worldly in theory as well as practice. Ideals are seen as a front for political, social and material interests. They often are, of course, but it would be nihilism to see that as the whole story.

The view that ideals are always secondary has affected the Church. We are told, for example, that “realities are more important than ideas.” That statement can be interpreted variously, but many people treat immediate practicalities as the realities in question. And that leads them to think doing something about practicalities is more important than dogma and doctrine, which seem to be only ideas.

And that in turn leads them to think the Faith is first and foremost the pursuit of social goals, most directly, forcefully, and realistically through politics and close cooperation with the secular forces that seem to have the power to do things here and now.

But then the Faith becomes subservient to secular views of social justice, which are always based on radically defective understandings of the human good. That deprives the Church of her specific calling, and it’s not going to end well—for her or anyone else.

What to do? The question is always how we deal with God, ourselves, and others. To answer that question we need to re-interpret the statement about realities and ideas. In the beginning is always the Word: God is the Supreme Reality, so what He is and what He wants of us come first, with our ideas about concrete applications coming later.

Also, our ideas about practical matters should reflect fundamental human realities, for example that political life is carried on in ignorance and illusion, in cooperation with deeply flawed people, and all too soon in reliance on force exerted by the powerful.

So we can’t expect too much from it. Instead of joining in efforts to remake the social order politically, which in a technocratic age will always involve an attempt to remodel human life on anti-human lines—the current attempt to abolish sexual distinctions is an example—we should start by rectifying ourselves. Do we love God with heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves? For example, do we worship as we should, and treat those we deal with in daily life as if they are as real as we are? Such personal and immediate matters, which directly concern the transformation of life to which we are all called, cannot be dispensed with.

It is also necessary, in a society as complex, hierarchical, and politically active as ours, to think about institutions. But here we have the difficulty that we control very little, the effects of institutional changes are often unpredictable, and whatever influence we have is shaped and limited by the conditions of public life already noted. That is why starry-eyed idealists who go into politics soon find themselves disillusioned.

Under such circumstances it seems best to support institutions that have shown themselves basically necessary and beneficial, and focus our public activity on propagating an independent perspective on public life and maintaining the practical conditions that make a Christian life possible.

So we should obey the law when possible; present, in word and action, a Christian view of human relations and obligations; and defend the Church from attempts to subordinate her to the secular order. If it is true that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Church makes Him present in the world, then it is supremely important that she be able to do things her way.

The last point includes defending the practical possibility of a Christian society, at least within a larger less Christian one. That involves defending the freedom of the Church, and the relative autonomy of economic, cultural, and community institutions, notably that of the natural family. Without those things, where is the setting in which a Christian way of life can exist?

So it seems that Catholics should be anti-utopian, and apply their public efforts to preaching the word, living well as Catholics, treating others as they would be treated, and defending their practical ability to do those things in daily life—which includes resisting current tendencies on the “social issues.” In an age in which large institutions absorb more and more of life, and the state feels obligated to transform human relations, that will give politically-minded Catholics plenty of things to busy themselves with.


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About James Kalb 126 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. “We are told, for example, that ‘realities are more important than ideas.’ That statement can be interpreted variously…” We are also told that this statement is anointed as a “principle” (Evangelii Gaudium, 2013), and that there are three other like principles, all of which lend themselves to avoidable misunderstanding:

    First, when is “realities are more important than ideas [concepts?]” at risk of NOMINALISM (exemptions from undenied moral norms)?
    Then, when is “time is greater than space” at risk of HISTORICISM (the “paradigm shift”)?
    Also, when is “unity prevails over conflict” at risk of CLERICALISM (the synodal triad of Marx, Bats-sing and Hollerich)?
    And, when is “the whole is greater than the part” at risk of GLOBALISM (e.g., the Fundamental Option, Proportionalism/Consequentialism)?

    The difficult fit is how to leaven increasingly disrupted life on the street with revealed and undiluted truth? How to be equally steadfast in both mercy and dogmatic truth?

    Well, a good place to start is the neglected bridge (!) already built by St. John Paul II in (a) Veritatis Splendor (1993) which, dealing with all of the above, rescues us with moral absolutes, AND (b) his affirmation of Divine Mercy, and canonization of St. Faustina (the first new saint of the Third Millennium).

  2. A hall of mirrors analogy is descriptive although truth has its own way of becoming evident to the human intellect. An understanding of this is seen in the young Jorge Bergoglio’s adoption of Peron’s socialist principle: reality is greater than ideas [mentioned here by P Beaulieu]. Peron perceived the practical approach to alleviating economic subjugation and resulting poverty by direct action, rather than involvement with political, religious theory and all the censures that prevent immediate unsolicited action.
    What Bergoglio brought to the papacy is the same refined for religious practice. Pope Francis perceives the outcast homosexual, the divorced and remarried prevented from receiving the care that only Catholicism can give. Ideas now are the doctrines that prohibit this. Consequently, in James Kalb’s hall of mirrors we have a mixture of good and evil [as traditionally perceived] and right or wrong in context of reality on the ground. A whirling of ideas for many a mentally exhausting challenge to belief, for some as discussed with Church historian Percy in The Peddling of Dialogue article who perceives Francis’ approach of doctrinal moral dualism to a declining Church a brilliant way to permit views often antagonistic to come to the fore for discussion [presumably synodal dialogue] for identification and resolution.
    Resolution in our hall of mirrors great Synod, expectedly an expression of the myriad of ideas Kalb refers to is not a given. That is, unless we return to those ideas that are neither transient nor the creation of the human mind. That’s where His Holiness seems off track, that we expect divine revelation listening to the Holy Spirit when those truths have been revealed.
    How then does truth have a way of manifesting itself if it were not inherent to the human intellect created in God’s image? Man, by his created nature is able to apprehend truth that possesses the power of self evidence, its own intelligibility without the requirement of supporting arguments [although reasoned assimilation follows]. Kalb then is essentially correct in his final sentences in appeal to faith in Christ and the Christian life. Added, as is also inherent to the human creature is his ingrown propensity to follow strong moral leadership. Here I’m a Bergsonian, who in The Two Sources of Religion and Morality gives historical account of that often singular leadership that changes things for the better.

  3. “But what do such grand principles mean in everyday life today, flawed as we and our leaders are, and bathed as we are in words, images, and spin that constantly put all aspects of truth in question?”

    The only solution is prior censorship. In Catholic Europe it was known that if you have the truth, you don’t tolerate error. The Index of Forbidden Books is the Catholic Church’s own answer to errors.

    With the Catholic Church protected and recognized as the true religion of the state, it would be possible – and necessary – to use the criteria of the Church to come up with a just prior censorship policy.

    Interestingly, this was attempted and did have an effect with the Motion Picture Production Code. The code was developed with the assistance of a Catholic priest.

    What must happen is that publication through any means (i.e. audio, visual, or verbal) must be recognized as a privilege and not a right. The consequences of “free speechism” in practice means that evil has a megaphone and good has a whisper – if that.

    It was Pope Pius VI who recognized that allowing what I call “free speechism” or – using an established phrase – “the marketplace of ideas” leads to the spread of error. He wrote around 1791 that no person would allow poison to be put in a well just because they were sure that an antidote existed somewhere.

    I have investigated and one of the earliest uses of the phrase “marketplace of ideas” was in the platform of the American Communist Party in 1948. It was printed in the New York Times.

    “Even if we try to make our own politics about promoting the common good—that is, loving our neighbor in a manner suited to politics—the Faith is about God before anything else.”

    Seek first the kingdom of heaven…

    Practically this means the salvation of souls – supremely one’s own.

    But I believe that the Church hasn’t taken the correct action in this regards. Too much of a focus on personal evangelization has lead to the neglect of taking political action to ensure that the “intellectual milieu” is supportive of the Catholic faith.

    The immoral filth and errors which have been propagated because of an almost total lack of censorship of TV are much more significant than the extent to which a missionary is able to speak to those who are open to the truth.

    Furthermore, there is “the elephant in the room” with regards to the Catholic Church’s ability to influence politics. That is the unjust tying of tax-exempt status to a lack of taking sides on political issues. It was likely brought about through Protestant fears inflamed by defamatory propaganda against the Church. I understand that it started in 1934. That is what ought to have been fought.

    Even unjustly losing tax-exempt status was and is preferable to allowing immoral people (typically non-Catholics) to obtain office.

    • So far as I can tell, everyone agrees censorship is a good idea. It would be interesting to compile a list of exceptions. But it seems unwise for Catholics in America in 2022 to emphasize that apparently all-but-universal consensus.

    • The church has no right whatsoever to control what people think or say, period. Believers are under God’s authority and obedience is both necessary and expected. The church has no authority to act as a defacto government, and a tyrannical one at that. The gospel calls us to repentance, faith, and obedience, not to imitating secular systems.

      • God has the right to our obedience especially with regards to our beliefs concerning faith and morality. The Catholic Church is the means through which God teaches us.

        If a person wants to spout heresy or apostasy they could – immorally – do so. But the state shouldn’t have any problem with executing him for it. It is likely because of a failure of the latter that we are where we are. What would have happened if Martin Luther had been swiftly executed? That he wasn’t was likely due to evil civil rulers.

        It is true that the Catholic Church doesn’t have any direct authority to intervene in civil affairs.

        But for the Church to tell its adherents that they must not vote for X because he supports abortion isn’t directly exercising authority. There is a possibility that the Church may – very unlikely – be incorrect in this particular instance, but as a guide to conscience She would be much better than an unlearned person with no theological training.

        It was defective as far as I can determine, but The Legion of Decency was an attempt to do just this in an informal manner. The films were rated and those which were immoral enough weren’t patronized by the members of the Legion. And even those not of the Legion could use the ratings as a guide.

        The Church Herself is the government in the spiritual realm. Just censorship isn’t tyranny.

        • The Church could support something like the Legion of Decency, or bring back the Index Librorum Prohibitum for her members. And I suppose the state could suppress Christianity denialism the way it suppresses other kinds of denialism. But there’s prudence to consider. Would an Index cause more problems than it’s worth? And would a state Disinformation Governance Board armed with the death penalty really be a good idea even if a politically connected bishop or theologian could be appointed to run it?

          • A scan through titles on the Index (officially discontinued by Pope Paul VI in 1967) can be an eyeopener…

            In those hall-monitor/house-mother and less corrupt days, we find the ultra-democratic Rousseau’s (who sent his five illegitimate children to orphanages)”Social Contact,” Marx’s economic historical determinism in “Das Kapital,” Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” and so many others–all censured. Even Margaret Mitchell’s scandalous (Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler!)”Gone with the Wind,” and H.G. Wells’ materialist and technocratic “Outline of World History.”

            Of the not-yet listed Teilhard de Chardin, Pope John XXIII’s remark was, “your job is to refute him.” The same with the others…

            Just think, what if instead of the Land O’Lakes Declaration, Catholic academia had set itself to the a more robust engagement with the cultural, economic and political abuses and half-truths of the day–articulating the non-ideological truth instead of rolling with every pandemic ideology and over-specialization that happens along? A compromised immune system!

            Today, the Index would be a laughable patch on a dam(n) that broke long ago. Whatever the New Evangelization is, certainly intellectual clarity rises to the rank of a vocation. The Society of Catholic Social Scientists is one outpost in this direction. The SCSS journal is open access: http://www.catholicsocialscientists.org/journal-cssr.html

  4. What must happen is that the moral content of what is propagated must be carefully regulated. No support of immoral practices or those who engage in them (e.g. divorce, abortion, sodomy, euthanasia, fornication, suicide etc.) should be allowed to be publicized. If an error is mentioned it must be – at the end – refuted or contradicted with the truth. (I see no reason to tolerate debates between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Do the Ukrainians debate with Russia, now? No, they fight the invaders.) I don’t see any reason that errors should be allowed to be propagated at all. If necessary what truth might be gleaned from an almost entirely erroneous work – e.g. on the Index – can be extracted and the original – probably – destroyed.

    Those who write speeches carefully craft their words. There are all kinds of malicious propaganda tactics and logical fallacies which are used to manipulate the masses. The same spirit could be used for good – minus the tricks.

    One of the most important things that must be regulated is images and videos of humans. There should be zero tolerance in this area. It would likely be best to make sure that females almost never are shown in any visual manner. As I have mentioned before, there was a saint who vowed not to look at the face of any woman. The least that can be done is that females ought to be almost entirely excluded from mass media. If there are any females, they must adhere strictly to the Marylike Modesty standard at all times.

    Even words are important in this regard. For instance, describing what is covered when writing about dress standards is more moral than describing what isn’t. The latter is likely immoral. Of course, the descriptions of lewd acts that one reads or hears in certain news reports (e.g. the feminist “crime” of “intimate” assault) must be censored.

    The problem with censorship is that it is difficult to do well. However, those who are wicked probably lose no sleep over banning a commenter. In this way, an evil status quo is maintained. The beliefs – and subsequently attitudes – of the masses are carefully controlled by the mass media. And thus the errors believed by those who have been duped or who are a part of a conspiracy are translated into unjust censorship of truth which might upset TPTB.

    I recently came across a new and more evil form of censorship. I wrote the following comment and it might have been removed by the company which owns the platform.

    “Private campaign contributions (i.e. bribes) and even use of one’s own money should be illegal. Every candidate ought to be given a certain amount of equal funds from the government.

    [Really controversial comment concerning Chuck Schumer which likely wouldn’t be appreciated on this website.]

    Nancy Pelosi is not a Catholic and ought to be removed as well for supporting unborn child murder.”

    Regardless, it wasn’t obvious from my profile that there had been unjust censorship. The “Removed” tag didn’t show up. The comment was “shadow-removed.”

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