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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