Last month I noted that Catholics need settings in which they can lead a Catholic life among Catholics. For most of us, loving God and living as Christians take schooling and support, which we aren’t going to get from the world at large. That may be one reason the Apostle Paul’s letters focus more on the practical internal life of Christian communities than on evangelism. The ultimate ideal may be the New Jerusalem, in which the distinction between the Church and the World disappears, but we’re not likely to get there any time soon.
Still, those who object to “fortress” or “ghetto” Catholicism have a point. Something of an inward focus may be necessary, because today’s world is so much at odds with the Faith, and we Catholics are not already everything we should be. It should not be exaggerated, however. Christ told his followers to go out and teach all nations, and love of neighbor means engagement with the world both individually and socially.
But how do we engage the world socially when Caesar—and the media—are ever more powerful and anti-Catholic? During the Christian centuries, when social leaders accepted Catholic Christianity as the norm, it was natural for them to recognize the authority of the Church regarding matters on which she has special competence. It was no odder for the king to accept Church authority on faith and morals than it is today for a government to accept the authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or defer to the National Academy of Sciences on an engineering question.
Those days are past, and it is less obvious today how the Church can play an effective social and political role. People mostly aren’t Catholic, and social leaders are less so than most. Vatican II, while reaffirming traditional doctrine on the duty of men and societies toward the Church and the true religion, recognized that reality. Ever since, Catholics have been trying to find practical ways to cooperate in building a better social order in a setting that does not accept Catholic doctrine as authoritative.
Cooperative efforts require common ground, and the more complex and comprehensive the effort the more common ground is needed. In the absence of agreement on the most fundamental issues, Catholics have tried to base their cooperation with the extremely complex and comprehensive activities of the modern state and other secular actors on natural law.
Natural law can be developed philosophically in various ways. At bottom, though, it’s a way of talking about the evident fact that man is not a blank slate for us to write on as we wish, and the world is not a collection of neutral resources for use in projects that we choose arbitrarily. There are goals and patterns that are natural to human life and touch it at all levels—physical, psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, spiritual. If we do not respect such things our life will become degraded or go haywire, like any complex structure that is dealt with in a way at odds with its basic principles of functioning.
Many examples could be given, but those having to do with sex are especially conspicuous just now. Sexual relations create a fundamental connection between man and woman that extends to the whole person, so much so that limiting the connection in time, or artificially depriving it of its natural effect, violates the integrity of the relationship and its participants. That, or something tending in that direction, is the view not only of the Catholic Church but of other major religious and philosophical traditions. It is evident then that its truth is accessible to rational investigation and support, perhaps with the aid of the sifting and ordering of experience that goes on within a moral tradition in good working order. To make the point more evident, the disastrous results of accepting a radically opposing view that Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae become more obvious every day, even from the perspective of secular social science.
Nonetheless, understanding the issues requires readiness to see a variety of goals and patterns that pervade human life as part of an overall structure that is meaningful, functional, and purposive. The mechanics of reproduction, the complementarity of the sexes, the subjective experience of sexual relations, the experience of viewing another person as an object of physical desire, the social nature of man, the process of raising children, our attachment to family and people: all must come together in a pattern that seems not arbitrary, but natural, authoritative and oriented toward the good life.
Normal people have generally had no problem looking at things that way. The world is an arrangement of diverse systems that work together in a complex and subtle manner. Good sense is the ability to use our familiarity with such systems to know what’s what, and how things work in accordance with their intrinsic principles in this setting or that. That kind of good sense, which necessarily includes a sense of what’s normal, applies above all to human life. Since that is so, shouldn’t we expect the good life for man to be closely connected to the nature of man and how human life works? And why expect sex, which is a fundamental aspect of life, to be separable from life as a whole?
Nonetheless, contemporary technological ways of thinking reject such considerations, because innate patterns and goals sound too much like the natural essences and teleology those ways of thinking reject as unscientific. They also reject the objective significance of aspects of reality, such as perceptions of value, that are vividly present to us subjectively but impossible to define physically. Instead of functional patterns, natural goals, and objective goods such ways of thought try to understand the world solely by reference to mechanical cause and effect, and apply the knowledge so gained to attaining whatever goals people happen to have. Instead of the good life as the standard, they propose the safe, pleasant, and efficient life.
The result is that natural-law moral reasoning loses its basis in how reason and reality are publicly understood, and comes to seem an imposition of arbitrary demands that are at odds with perfectly valid (because peacefully achievable) human desires. To make matters worse, as moral standards come to conform themselves to what is now understood as reason, and to the tendency of a bureaucratic, commercial, and technocratic society to view everything from the standpoint of obvious immediate utility, natural-law moral reasoning comes to appear actively evil. After all, it tries to bring human life within natural patterns that are traditionally recognized, and that means stereotyping and discrimination, which are now considered the worst sins imaginable.
That’s why Barack Obama got a rainbow-colored halo on the cover of Newsweek Magazine when he came out in favor of “gay marriage.” Indeed, the requirement under international law that governments suppress attitudes and practices stemming from belief in sexual complementarity suggests that extirpating natural-law considerations is now considered, by our most authoritative institutions, a basic responsibility of government.
Under such circumstances, intelligent discussion of the public good, and of the complex and multi-leveled patterns and goals that shape human life, becomes impossible. So what do Catholics do when confronted with social authorities that insist, as a matter of fundamental principle, on replacement of human nature and the good by will and technology as the highest standard, and demand the imposition of their vision on the whole of life everywhere?
It’s a difficult question, especially when the state and other centralized forms of social organization are as pervasive as they are today. What we obviously can’t do, though, is support the realization of the progressive vision. The egalitarian, bureaucratic, and centrally-administered conception of social justice on which it is based is something we can’t cooperate with. When we support it, as the case of Obamacare illustrates, we are strengthening what will crush us. We might as well support the construction of a universal caliphate.
Instead, we must insistently, in season and out, in every possible setting, assert, argue for, and act on our own contrary understanding of human life. When there is a fundamental misconception the answer is not to join in the projects of the people who suffer from the misconception. It is to do whatever is needed to correct it. Today the Catholic view is simply not a presence in public life, and at best is misunderstood as an eccentric variation on some other view. Our most important political task is to change that.
This column first appeared April 11, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.