America and the whole Western world have just completed “Pride Month,” a string of observances celebrating all things LGBTQ. The message was that these things are normal and beneficial, a matter of choice and identity, and celebrating them celebrates the equal freedom and dignity of all human beings.
The events draw support from a broader “woke” movement that demands radical equality along traditional dimensions of identity like sex and inherited community. These have always been basic to social life, but they have no intrinsic relation to the world markets, transnational bureaucracies, electoral institutions, and individually-defined personal relationships that are now considered the rational means of organizing society. For that reason they are considered arbitrary and oppressive.
All respectable institutions now sign on to such views. The people who run them believe that opposition can only reflect an unholy combination of fear, hatred, and ignorance.
LGBTQ concerns in particular have become a major theme of United States foreign policy. They have led, for example, to the U.S. embassy to the Holy See adopting the practice of displaying the Pride Flag during the month of June. Until recently that might have seemed a provocation, but the current pontificate has signaled sympathy for “outreach and inclusion” in these matters, and doesn’t seem to find the display objectionable.
A more general reason for viewing the US gesture favorably can be inferred from an essay by two close associates of Pope Francis, titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A surprising ecumenism”, that was published in 2017 in La Civiltà Cattolica, an official Vatican publication.
That essay, which the Pope has repeatedly praised, denounced Catholic and Protestant cooperation in opposition to “same-sex marriage” and other socially liberal causes as an illegitimate “ecumenism of hatred” that seeks political influence in order to subject “public norms” to “religious morals.”
Principles that have normally been considered a matter of natural law applicable always and everywhere are now believed at very high levels in the Vatican to constitute “religious morals.” That seems to mean that they lack justification outside a particular system of religion that no one is rationally obliged to accept, and for that reason are at odds with the rightful secularity of the state.
Such an approach can take us very far indeed in an age in which government gets involved in all aspects of life, and rational morality is thought to be based on abstract principles like equal freedom that leave human nature and natural human goods out of account.
Suppose, for example, schools encourage children to explore with sympathetic adults whether they may be gay or transgender? Or, in connection with other issues, suppose national health services promote abortion and assisted suicide for people who are lonely or don’t have the money they need for the life they want?
Such issues are already with us, and it is not clear where those—including Catholics—who are sympathetic to the demands of a secularity that excludes natural law would be inclined to draw the line.
For that and other reasons, there are still people—especially Christians, but others as well—who maintain, in the face of vehement denunciation, principled opposition to “progressive” cultural demands. Such “culture warriors” believe that public life, including institutional attitudes and policies, should reflect—or at least respect—traditional and Christian views on such matters.
The mainstream secular opinion is that such people want to sacrifice social justice, which is now thought to include the full woke agenda, to their private cultural anxieties. That view of the matter has even entered the Church: “social justice Catholics,” who are concerned with equality, mostly feel at odds with culture warriors, who they view as stuck in old battles that have become pointless and destructive.
But does that make sense? Catholic views of culture and social justice both have to do with the relation between social life and Catholic principle. “Culture” emphasizes traditions and public understandings, and how they form human character and relationships, while “social justice” emphasizes more abstract and general standards. Even so, the two go together. How could they be at odds? If they were, Catholic teaching on basic human concerns would be incoherent. And even from a secular historical point of view that seems unlikely after so many years of thought and discussion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sheds light on such issues. It tells us that social justice has to do not so much with equality as with providing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation” (par 1928). The discussion immediately following mostly has to do with human dignity and the need for solidarity, but the principle is much broader than that.
For example, the Catechism also tells us that the family, formed by “a man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children … is the original cell of social life.” As such, “it is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it” and help and defend it “by appropriate social measures” (par 2202).
That demand is quite open-ended, so it is not surprising public authority has a “grave duty” to “to safeguard public morality” and so ensure “the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family.” It is also obligated to “promote domestic prosperity” and the ability of families to participate in it. In doing these things, however, it “should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.”
Since all those things are due the family, they are part of social justice. But realizing them is tricky. The power and reach of today’s public bureaucracies makes them seem able to solve all problems. But the crude simplicity of their ways of knowing and acting means that when they try to do so they soon become stupid and tyrannical.
So how can a modern government intervene in an ethnically and religiously diverse society of 332,000,000 people in ways that actually promote good morals, stable human relationships, widespread opportunity, and various social protections while also respecting the freedom and autonomy of small-scale and mostly informal relationships?
Different Catholics are likely to favor different answers, all imperfect. What is abundantly clear, though, is that the Catholic vision of social justice that should motivate the answers has nothing in common with the assumptions behind Pride Month and woke progressivism generally.
The latter identify human dignity with human self-definition, and justice and good government with support for that and other individually-chosen projects. In contrast, Catholics believe, like everyone everywhere until very recently, that man has an innate nature, and his good involves fulfilling that nature. The two views are completely at odds, theoretically and practically.
The opposition is pervasive. As the Catechism goes on to say, the commandment to honor father and mother
illuminates other relationships in society. In our brothers and sisters we see the children of our parents; in our cousins, the descendants of our ancestors; in our fellow citizens, the children of our country; in the baptized, the children of our mother the Church; in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called “our Father.” In this way our relationships with our neighbors are recognized as personal in character. The neighbor is not a “unit” in the human collective; he is “someone” who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect. (par 2212)
In other words, Catholicism doesn’t believe in technocracy or the resulting idealization of the self-defining but socially interchangeable individual. What it believes in is the person defined and connected to others through family ties, inherited community, and other mostly unchosen elements of identity. That emphasis on specific durable social identity puts it in line with human nature and the consensus gentium. Even so, it is hard to imagine a (non-crazy) view more at odds with today’s public moral thought.
For that reason, to be a Catholic today is to abandon respectability. For people who want to be liked as much as Americans that is a heavy demand, and the careerists who often dominate even Catholic institutions today are too much absorbed in their social function to understand anything but the official point of view. If the Church is ever again to speak with her own voice about her own social vision she must overcome such problems.
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