America has taken freedom and equality as her highest political goals, and her most basic problems have to do with that commitment and how it should be interpreted. Recent events have focused attention on changing understandings of freedom and how they are weakening freedom of religion. Understandings of equality are also changing, with consequences for the Church that are no less serious.
At the time of the American Revolution equality meant, in principle anyway, that everyone had the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What that meant concretely was that America would be a country ruled by settled laws that applied equally to everyone and did not impose many restrictions. As time has passed, and especially in recent decades, that understanding has developed into something much broader and less well-defined.
The specifics are dependent on other political commitments, so the views of conservatives and progressives differ. In an earlier essay we saw that conservatives understand freedom as freedom of action. Correspondingly, they see equality as equal opportunity, understood as elimination of artificial barriers to action, together with general availability of goods like education that facilitate effective action by everyone. We also saw that progressives have a more consumer-oriented understanding of freedom that is less interested in general setting than in results in individual cases. That understanding carries over to equality. For progressives, then, equality is now a broad requirement of equality of outcome that includes economic matters but extends beyond them to require equal respect and consideration in the various affairs of life.
Some aspects of the progressive understanding of equality tend to win in the long run. Conservatives want individuals to be able to act effectively, but who is to say what that requires? People don’t usually choose to be less respected or successful, so if some groups repeatedly end up that way it seems to show that something is standing in their way. The obvious way to get rid of the problem is to require group equality. The alternative would be to tell less successful groups that the reason they’ve failed is that they’re lacking in natural capacity or there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, and that’s not an approach that sits well in a democracy.
For that reason conservatives have consistently given ground on many equality issues. They used to resist “affirmative action,” but they’ve effectively dropped the issue. They still don’t like “gay marriage”—there’s a problem of natural capacity—but mainstream conservative politicians don’t like to pursue the issue. Who wants to say that what some people do is not equal? And besides, gay marriage proponents are committed, organized, and well-placed, so it’s easier to argue about other things.
One result of the evolving view of equality is that respected and influential people now view Catholic beliefs relating to sex and the sexes as an offense against basic principles of human decency and legitimate social order. Prominent commentators, including well-known theologians, claim that the Church is going to have to ordain women priests and accept homosexuality if it wants to be able to say anything modern man is likely to listen to.
So at the moment an ever-broader understanding of equality seems to be winning. Nonetheless, all is not well for the progressive cause. The expansiveness of its demands creates a need to accommodate the system that enforces them, and that means problems for equality. Contemporary liberal society depends on markets and bureaucracies, which depend on differences of wealth, bureaucratic position, and certified expertise. Also, egalitarian demands require big intrusive government. That kind of government is complex and resists outside supervision, so it lends itself to management for the benefit of well-placed and influential people.
Progressives have to accept the resulting inequalities. The consequence, though, is that their system, both in principle and practice, ends up replacing some forms of inequality by others. It gets rid of inequalities based on sex, lifestyle, and heritage, but replaces them with inequalities based on education, profession, position, and wealth. It frees the Obama campaign’s Julia from dependence on a husband but makes her dependent on bosses and bureaucrats. It adds minorities to the Supreme Court but leaves everyone off it who belongs to the Protestant majority or lacks a degree from Yale or Harvard Law School. And it destroys the way of life of what used to be called the working class by disrupting the family, cultural, and religious institutions that once helped them lead productive and orderly lives but are now suspect because they involve traditional distinctions.
Post-’60s egalitarianism has gone hand in hand with growing economic, social, and cultural divisions within American society. Today we have Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice, and we also have one in eight black men in their late 20s in prison. Something has evidently gone wrong. The basic problem, it seems, is that equality, like freedom, can’t be the highest standard. It needs to refer to some other standard to tell us what should be equal, and has to put that standard first if it is going to make sense and avoid defeating its own purposes.
For Catholics and many others, the highest standards for life in society are the common good and social justice. Those standards involve a principle of equal human dignity, but they also involve support for the institutions though which human dignity and well-being are realized, and thus for the distinctions and hierarchies those institutions depend on.
A CEO, a Supreme Court justice, a senator, a janitor, and an ordinary voter all have the same human dignity, but they do not have exactly the same position and authority, and they do not get treated in exactly the same way. That is legitimate, because business and government are legitimate institutions that require certain inequalities to maintain themselves. Catholics and progressives agree on that point. Where Catholicism, natural law, and ordinary good sense differ from progressivism is that they accept that other sorts of distinctions also have a certain legitimacy, since institutions other than global markets, neutral expert bureaucracies, and the various branches of government are necessary for the good life.
Religion, cultural heritage, and natural human tendencies provide a variety of examples. The one giving rise to the most pressing issues right now is the family. The family is at least as legitimate as Microsoft, Boston College, or the federal government, and it has at least as much right to order itself on its own principles and receive social support for those principles. As in the case of business, academia, and government, its principles can’t be made completely subject to egalitarian demands. They have their own requirements, which must be discovered through some combination of experience, tradition, and reason.
For Catholics, those principles are summed up in well-known teachings of the Church: sex is for marriage and should be open to new life, marriage is a union of the sexes directed toward the good of the parties and their children, and Mom and Dad have somewhat different roles in the common effort. There is, of course, nothing specifically Catholic or even Christian about such teachings. There are good reasons for them based on human nature, and similar principles appear in some form in other major traditions. It seems, then, that even for secular people the rational attitude would be to accept something like them barring some very good reason to do otherwise.
To accept principles is not of course to accept their abuse. The legitimacy of some distinctions relating to sex doesn’t whitewash everything the Taliban do, any more than the general legitimacy of hierarchy in government and business justify all the privileges of the president of North Korea or the CEO of Apex Widget Company. Differences in position and treatment are legitimate, but justice and good order require due proportion.
That is why the Church is opposed to unjust discrimination. The point of her position is not that different treatment is always bad but that it is bad when unjust. The requirements of justice, though, have to be determined by reference to the whole good of man, and not the demands of an inhuman understanding of the world that flattens some distinctions while exaggerating others, and disrupts basic institutions like the family in order to do so. Equality, like freedom, is a good, but it is not absolute, and it is not a reason for suppressing natural and necessary arrangements like the family.
This essay first appeared August 7 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.