In the last several months I’ve been discussing the problems Catholics face dealing with public life today. The recent election underlined some of them. The bishops and others made their pitch about threats to the family and the freedom of the Church, the Democrats stood firm, and most Americans—including most self-identified Catholics—voted for the Democrats. Not only does the world care very little for Catholic concerns, but it seems that Catholics acting as citizens care little for them as well.
So what should the faithful do? If the world’s against us, so it’s becoming harder and harder to act or even think as Catholics, should we retreat to monasteries? Return to the catacombs? Overthrow the government and establish a dictatorship run by a revolutionary vanguard? Such proposals have serious drawbacks, and something much more moderate would be more to the point. All we really need to participate with integrity in public life as citizens and Catholics is a society in which what is good—and not freedom, equality, or prosperity—is the highest standard. If we had that, discussions about goals that rise above who gets what would become possible, and Catholic concerns could become mainstream.
It seems that those concerns would do well in such a setting. Our social doctrine is consistent with natural law, which means that on the whole it follows a common-sense understanding of what things are, what’s good for them, and how they work best. So we should be able to get a lot of mileage out of talking about what’s good in human life as we find it, and how that can be respected and promoted. All that’s necessary is that people accept the good life and common sense as standards.
The problem is that appeals to those standards don’t work very well today. Modern public discussion doesn’t like common sense, even educated common sense. If something can’t be observed, measured, and dealt with by neutral professional standards, people think it’s rational to ignore it and do what they otherwise want to do. After all, they believe, if something can’t be nailed down and proved it’s a prejudice, a stereotype, or an attempt to spin the discussion, so it doesn’t deserve serious attention.
That skeptical approach to informal knowledge can be productive in the natural sciences, but it doesn’t work when applied to life in general. Basic human decisions require insight and judgment, and neither can be made exact or turned into academic expertise. If we limit ourselves to what can be made rigorous our decisions must either ignore reason altogether or base themselves on arbitrary default assumptions like equality. In either case, the results will defy common sense. For examples, look at what educators, architects, and legal thinkers have done to schools, cities, and the law. What now passes as expertise has led to results that are often completely at odds with normal ways of thinking, learning, and living.
Such an approach to knowledge and reason has nonetheless become established, and the result is that ideas of ultimate goals and natural patterns have more and more been driven out of public discussion. We can’t talk about the good life, because the good life involves goals and patterns that are intrinsic to human existence: youth and age, virtue and vice, male and female, true and false happiness. Opinions differ on what those things mean, and the issues are hard to prove, so people say that each should decide for himself. On such a view the function of the political and moral order reduces to the satisfaction of individual preferences in a technically rational way, as much and as equally as possible, and we end up with the managed consumer society as the highest public goal. That society has its own view of the good life—the life of the politically correct and moderately self-indulgent consumer and careerist—but people don’t notice that, and if you propose a different standard of what life is about they complain that you’re trying to force your values on them.
Rejection of the authority of anything that can’t be measured has become so ingrained it has come to count as common sense for many people. This is why many people view atheism and gay marriage so favorably. Grown-ups don’t rely on invisible friends, they say, and people of the same sex can love each other and want to share their lives, so why not forget about the one and accept the other? An adequate response would have to bring in ultimate causes and goals, as well as natural patterns like the role of sex in human life, but public discussion more and more excludes such considerations.
To be able to make our points understood in today’s world we need to open the door to a fuller idea of reason that recognizes there is something more to the world than what is rigorously demonstrable. Otherwise it will remain forever impossible to talk about the good life, and public discussion will become more and more at odds with Catholicism. But how can that door be opened? Philosophical arguments for the importance of what can’t be demonstrated by formal logic and statistics are abstract, and as a practical matter they’re not likely to get anywhere without concrete examples of what the “something more” might be, presented in public as true, argued for as rational, and demonstrated as relevant in daily life.
As a practical matter, natural law arguments need to be accompanied by specifically Catholic arguments, backed by the evidence of a specifically Catholic way of life, so that natural law can be a compromise fallback. In addition to the arguments Catholics make as loyal Americans, concerned citizens, and followers of common sense and natural law, they should make public arguments as Catholics. That’s how they believe it’s most sensible to understand the world, so why not bring what they believe rational and real, and the reasons they have for that belief, into public life? Liberals treat their views as knowable public truth, and socialists and libertarians do the same. What do we hope to gain by accepting that other people’s claims for the public validity of their views are legitimate while ours are not? It’s suicide to treat the minimum outcome we need as the extreme position in a discussion, so why accept rules of discussion that turn a natural law position into just that?
Secularists will be outraged, because they consider religion irrational and at bottom antisocial, but why not force them to argue their view? It outrages secularists that our views exist at all. Why try to mollify them by keeping quiet about them? If we simply accept the exclusion of specifically religious views from public life, then in the long run—which increasingly looks like it’s now upon us—we’ll have to accept its basis in an increasingly radical skepticism, and therefore the invalidity of natural law as well as Catholicism as knowable public truth.
To argue as Catholics in public life is not necessarily to demand that public life be put on a specifically Catholic basis, any more than to argue as a liberal is necessarily to demand immediate enactment of all liberal positions. Views differ, politics is very much a matter of the practical, and there is no such thing as a perfect society or government. What’s needed, though, is to expand public discussion beyond principles such as freedom, equality, and prosperity, and even beyond philosophical principles such as natural law, to include religious principles, such as the created nature of man. Many of the latter are shared by non-Catholics, and indeed by most Americans, so why not bring them up? To accept that they should be excluded as a matter of principle, when a contrary principle like the individual right to define the nature of the universe can be proclaimed by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, is in effect to concede defeat in advance. How can that be politically wise?
This column first appeared December 6, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Sir Thomas More” painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527.