Catholicism Offers the U.S. a Vision of the Good Life

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American political institutions give us all part of the responsibility for how we are governed. Catholics need to carry out that responsibility in accordance with their best understanding of man, society, and American political life.

The Catholic understanding of man and society is reasonably well worked out, but the nature of American political life is ambiguous. Our institutions are republican by design, and based on limited and distributed powers. They are also democratic, and claim to reflect the will of the people. What’s needed to bring those two aspects together is mutual persuasion. If powers are limited and distributed, mutual persuasion is necessary for government to go forward, and if that is how decisions are made, they can reasonably be viewed as the considered judgment of the people.

That system seems a good one for carrying on public life in accordance with reason. For government to do something a great many people in different situations must be persuaded the action would be sensible. As described, though, the system is simply procedural. It says that a variety of people have to agree before something happens, but not what kind of people they are or what leads them to agree. It leaves uncertain what the point of the activity is.

Our foundational documents do not really settle the issue. The Preamble to the Constitution says that the goals of the “more perfect union” established by the Constitution are justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. The First Amendment tells us that religion and the press have a protected though unofficial role, while other amendments protect property and privacy rights and show a tendency to broaden the popular element in government. And the Declaration of Independence says that we are all created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Such points are suggestive, but they do not do much to settle the goals of government or the grounds of its decisions. The goals are said to include happiness and the general welfare, for example, but what are those things? Do they include wisdom, virtue, and religion? How about creative destruction and liberation from traditional restraints? And how do “we the people” go about making decisions? Political spin? Fasting and prayer? The maneuverings of activists? Also, how much influence should Exxon, the New York Times, Harvard University, the Pope, or the AARP have on the process? The documents don’t answer such questions, so on the face of it they’re left to the workings of the system.

That’s not satisfactory to most people. A system of government must be able to demand loyalty and sacrifice, and it has to stand for enough good principles and good people to justify that. Those called to support it won’t be satisfied if it’s basically a free-for-all. For that reason a political system is never defined solely by reference to institutions and procedures. It is always tied to a vision of what life is and ought to be.

So what is that vision in America’s case? Or if it’s ambiguous, what should Catholics take it to be? If we look at events since independence it’s evident that we started with a mixture of tendencies that turned out to be unstable. On the one hand we had radically secularizing tendencies, such as equal freedom understood as something that defines itself, that tended in the long run to identify the human good with practical and mainly economic advantages, and put power in the hands of managers who claim they can deliver those advantages to each of us. On the other hand, public life was also influenced by religion and natural law, as well as by understandings of the good life inherited from Christendom and classical antiquity. Those understandings were strong in daily life and profoundly affected law and policy, but they were less often mentioned as political principles, and were often considered undemocratic because they led to differences of social position among ordinary people—for example, between men and women.

In recent years there have been two main ways of resolving tensions among the opposing tendencies. Both of them have involved subordinating inherited to secularizing tendencies while trying to divert attention from what was being done. Religion, natural law, and inherited conceptions of the good life have been replaced–or identified—with some understanding of individual rights oriented toward doing and getting what one wants. That understanding is then said to be the meaning and justification of America.

The first way of resolving the conflict, which now counts as conservative, emphasizes the strength and assertiveness of particular individuals and institutions as the highest standard, and interprets the meaning of America as global capitalism backed by American power abroad, and entrepreneurship backed by somewhat traditional family life at home. God and God’s law are real, the idea seems to be, and traditional values and understandings of the good life are a good thing, but what they all stand for is American freedom, power, and economic individualism.

The second way, which calls itself progressive, downplays effective action by particular actors in favor of a legal and administrative order that secures and equalizes the satisfactions of all individuals. God and higher law are merged into a system of universal human rights that is intended to be backed by emerging global bureaucracies. Strength, assertiveness, effective action, and traditional patterns of life disappear as ideals, except to the extent they undermine the position of traditionally dominant groups because they are displayed by the less advantaged.

Both resolutions are evidently unsatisfactory, for reasons that can be gathered by contemplating the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both leave out basic features of human life, and neither is willing to limit itself by admitting that human actions and relations have a setting that is larger than human desire. The result is that both lose touch with reality and end badly.

Since neither makes sense, neither is usable as a guide for what America should be. People claim from time to time after an election that one or the other has won definitively, but that will never happen because each soon discredits itself. In the meantime the dysfunctions resulting from the deficiencies of the two views accumulate: in the world they have given us, one in eight young black men is in prison, more than half of all births to women under 30 are out of wedlock, the life expectancy of white people without a high school diploma dropped four years between 1990 and 2008, foreign adventures exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve, and obviously unsustainable levels of government borrowing are insufficient to prop up economic activity and employment.

Hence the need for the Catholic view, otherwise known as Catholic social teaching. In spite of efforts by bishops, the record presence of Catholics in high public office, and a huge array of Catholic institutions of learning, that view is all but absent from public discussion. Nonetheless, it is the one that best supports what has made American life and politics functional and worthy of loyalty. The others kick out too many considerations in the interests of a pure system of technology and will.

Catholic teaching is essentially moderate and inclusive. It respects individual and local freedom, and takes economic and other practical concerns seriously. And it accepts a First Amendment approach to religion as appropriate in a country in which influential people do not accept Catholicism as their standard of cooperation. But it also recognizes God, nature’s law, and the inheritance of Christendom and antiquity as indispensable components of social life. Since those things have been fundamental to what has been best in America, and they are evidently needed to make it clear that there are limits on what power can do, the Catholic view or something very like it is the only one available that is capable of restoring America to itself.

A great deal has to happen before it can do so, but we need to understand the goal before we worry about how to get there. The Church is politic, and she thinks in terms of centuries and eternity. We Catholics need to do the same, and reject immediate effect as the standard for political action. In times of crisis it is more true than ever that it is principle that is decisive.

This essay first appeared February 08, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above was obtained from Shutterstock.

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • crakpot

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident”
    Not our opinion. Not a proposed system. Truth. The founding was more than some social experiment. The founders were making a statement of conscience about right and wrong on matters of government. I can not find a syllable of untruth in the words that followed.

    They did “settle the goals of government” – to help secure our God-given rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Securing the right to life obviously includes deterring aggression and defending the nation when that fails. “Liberty” does not mean getting to do whatever you want – there is no such thing as a right to do a wrong. It is freedom, from unjust power, to do as one ought. “Happiness” is the conscious possession of that which is good, which includes family, work and property, and the true religion. It is right to pursue that which is due.

    The founders also settled for government the “grounds of its decisions” – consent of the governed. For us, that means overwhelming approval for Constitutional powers limited to helping secure those rights. Elections are just to hire people temporarily to execute those powers. It is wrong to take power without consent of the governed, no matter how right you think your goals are.

    • http://jimkalb.com/ James Kalb

      Do you think that Jefferson meant by “liberty” the freedom to do what is right, and by “happiness” the good life crowned by the true religion? Seems optimistic. I doubt, for example, he would have wanted to government to take action to make the true religion more readily available to people.

      On your other point, consent of the governed is the ground of government decisions only in a pure democracy, which the United States has never been and was never intended to be. In other cases it serves as a limitation on decision.

      • crakpot

        I do not care to read Jefferson’s mind – it is only the voice of conscience that flowed through his pen that matters:

        It is illogical to define rights as coming from God, then say one of them, liberty, is a right to do a wrong. John Paul II made this point about freedom beautifully. Happiness was well defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, and it is ludicrous to suggest that a function of government is to supply religion to the people (isn’t that what Robespierre did?). In fact, it is elements within government itself that are usually the threat to our pursuit of the truth on spiritual matters, which is why the 1st Amendment is a prohibition on Congress. It is important to note that this amendment does not acknowledge a “right” to practice whatever you might call “religion,” nor a “right” to say whatever you want. It is not right to so much as take the name of the Lord in vain, and the first three Commandments make it clear that it is wrong to worship false gods. All we have is the right to pursue truth and act on it when we find it, and the right to freedom from elements within government to do so.

        Pure democracy was well defined by Benjamin Franklin as “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.” Catholics would do well to remember what the vote was between Barabbas and Jesus. There was consent from white people to enslave black people at the founding. We have a ruler with consent (from 51% of the 40% of the population who bothers to vote) to steal from Catholic collection baskets to pay baby killers. I would bet there is consent of men in the Middle East to stone women and torch churches. What these examples of democracy have in common is that they do not have true consent of those truly governed, or if they do have it, it is consent to powers that violate the rights of the minority.

        • http://jimkalb.com/ James Kalb

          I think we agree that the best way to support what has been best in American life and thus make sense of it is to adopt the Catholic outlook. I agree that government does not supply the people with religion, any more than it supplies the people with the good, beautiful, and true or for that matter with good health and prosperity, but it does seem to me that things go better when government understands such things correctly and treats them as important goods.

          • crakpot

            I certainly agree that Catholicism holds the truth, but God can pick whomever he wishes to speak through, even if only for a single sentence of conscience, including a remorseful slaveholder who’s religion is unclear.

            As to government people, things go better when they restrain themselves to only using the powers we lend them, only to help secure certain God-given rights. If they don’t understand, they shouldn’t be there in the first place, but often are. In that case, all I want is their obedience to our law, the Constitution. It’s not our job to teach them, nor are positions of power any place for on-the-job training. George Washington was very pragmatic about them:

            “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it makes a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.”

            • http://jimkalb.com/ James Kalb

              In order to figure out what the rights are, and how to interpret and apply them in various situations, governments have to have some sort of understanding of what man, life, and the world are all about. Otherwise they won’t be able to act rationally and coherently. So you can’t exclude religious considerations from public life.

              • crakpot

                Amendment 9
                “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

                Government doesn’t start from scratch to “figure out what the rights are.” We’ve already listed the few we have given them power over. Most “interpretation” of those few is in reality distortion to suit their ends.

                One defect I see with our Constitution is that we’ve entrusted government to police itself on breaking our law. The checks and balances within government have proven too weak. The States are not enforcing the Tenth Amendment as they should. The only answer remaining seems to be “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” However, I think there should be some power in the hands of the people between these hopeless elections and court challenges and the provisions of the Second Amendment.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Scalia J put it rather well in an interview with Catholic News Service, June 14, 1996 “”The minority loses, except to the extent that the majority, in its document of government, has agreed to accord the minority rights.”

          “Thus in the United States Constitution we have removed from the majoritarian system of democracy the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and a few other freedoms that are named in the Bill of Rights. The whole purpose of that is that the people themselves, that is to say the majority, agree to the rights of the minority on those subjects — but not on other subjects.”

          That seems simple enough.

          • crakpot

            Scalia has voted well, but he is wrong about our rights. Rights come from God, not majorities. Only power, or freedom from power, comes from them. That’s what happens when you look only at the form of government (the Constitution), and not the purpose of it (the Declaration).

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