It seems that Catholics have been getting nowhere in the public square lately. The problem is not just losing ground on this issue or that, but an increasing inability to get our issues recognized as real and legitimate. That’s true not only with moral issues, but also with more basic ones like the rationality of religion and the very existence of human nature.
That situation seems to be new. Paul found that Christ crucified was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but he could quote Greek poets to the one and the Bible to the other, and with both he could appeal to the evidence of their hearts and the heavens. So he could start the discussion with a stock of common authorities and understandings.
Those are harder to find now. To make matters worse, Catholics share much of the incomprehension of their secular brothers. It’s not just nominal Catholics who often seem at a loss regarding the Church’s teachings and why they’re believable, but active laymen, educators, theologians, priests, and even bishops.
A basic part of the problem is the outlook that determines what is thought to make sense in public discussion today. Free speech doesn’t mean the best argument wins. If you say something that’s basically at odds with the attitudes and beliefs that animate a discussion you won’t be understood no matter what the merits. It will be as though you were speaking Etruscan, or trying to persuade a group of hunter-gatherers that they should go on a march to protest fat-shaming.
The problem grows with the size and diversity of the public. If the participants in a conversation are very numerous and different they aren’t likely to have much in common, and they won’t be able simply to say what’s on their mind and be confident of getting anywhere. Each will have to limit himself, and appeal to the few beliefs and concerns others can be counted on to share.
We learn what those are by looking at how public discussion is actually carried on. The result is that it becomes a specialized activity, the specifics of which are determined by what succeeds, and thus by considerations such as who runs things. Commercial and bureaucratic interests tend to dominate today, so public discussion is concerned more and more exclusively with concerns and understandings that make sense from their standpoint. The result is that in political life today “this would increase efficiency and labor force participation” sounds reasonable, while “this would help us become what we are meant to be as human beings” does not.
Since it is a specialized activity, the assumptions and techniques of public discussion are independent of everyday habit and experience and must be learned. One of the functions of formal education in a complex and highly organized society like our own is to train students, especially those expected to become leaders, in those things. The more at odds they are with the way people ordinarily speak and think the more insistent the training must be and the more it must suppress ordinary views and habits.
Global markets and neutral expert bureaucracies are far removed from daily life, so the outlook that pervades them is very different from the one people normally acquire from their family, daily experience, local community, and cultural and religious heritage. Students who are ambitious and intelligent spend sixteen or more years being drilled in the former outlook. Those who want to rise pick up on what they’re told, and adopt it as their own. Their outlook on the world thus becomes independent of tradition, ordinary human habits, and immediate experience, all of which they have been taught to reject as misleading.
Hence the loss of status by religion and literature, not to mention basic aspects of the art of living such as natural law morality. Those things take into account the whole of what we do and suffer. They gain their authority through their ability to illuminate life as we live and experience it in all its aspects, including loss, failure, and the non-career aspects that matter most to ordinary people.
The people who run our world—including many who run Catholic institutions—have been trained out of serious concern for such things. Theirs is a stripped-down view of the world that’s easily translated into commercial and bureaucratic language. In that view human relations have less to do with love, loyalty, and truth than with autonomy, nondiscrimination, and efficient allocation of human resources. Instead of the good, beautiful, and true, their vision of the good life mostly involves career success, with other concerns lumped together as leisure-time activities that each of us can choose and define for himself. The conception of justice is similarly stripped-down, and involves making the good life so conceived equally available to all. What is socially right is then the effort to arrange the world so everyone gets what he wants, as much and as equally as possible, consistent with the efficiency, coherence, and stability of the system.
Such a view is supported by all mainstream institutions and authorities. Popular entertainment emphasizes money and hedonism. Education is thoroughly career-oriented, and when it covers topics like religion and literature tends to do so in a reductive or debunking way. And pundits tell us that the highest moral values are equality and tolerance. The effect is that the most basic human concerns end up on the same level as internet memes. Religion and having children become private lifestyle choices, death becomes a weird event no one knows how to deal with, and the sole standards for good order between the sexes become consent, choice, and equal career success.
Such views are defended by their apparent simplicity and rationality: people equally want things, their desires have an equal claim to fulfillment, and the need for universality and simplicity demands that we derive our understanding of morality from those features of the situation rather than from confusing matters like natural law or higher goods. The resulting view is considered supremely rational and humane, so that there must be something wrong with people who reject it. It tells us that people should get what they want as much and as equally as possible, so those who reject it must either want special advantages, so they’re greedy, or they simply want to keep others from getting something, so they’re malicious. There are no other possibilities in a world in which no higher goods or natural orderings can publicly be taken into account.
This means problems for the Church. It’s natural for those who accept it to credit any number of anti-Catholic Black Legends: religion, moral tradition, and even the concept of human nature make no sense, so they’re oppressive, against reason, opposed to science, a mask for the will to power, and so on. So ingrained have such views become, and so closely connected to principles now treated as fundamental to any reasonable social order, that people become simply unable to assimilate evidence to the contrary. If you tell them that the French Revolution was far bloodier than the Spanish Inquisition, and far less concerned with justice, they won’t know what to make of it, and however good your arguments they just won’t stick.
In recent decades the Church has nonetheless emphasized a form of outreach that uses the language and appeals to the concerns and understandings current in public discussion, for example by speaking the language of “human rights.” The intent was good: Paul became “all things to all men that [he] might save all,” and it seemed reasonable for today’s Christians to do the same. Despite the good intentions, the initiative has led to serious problems. One is that the emphasis on speaking to modern man using modern language has meant far less emphasis on speaking Catholic language to Catholics. The result has been pastoral catastrophe in catechesis, the liturgy, and the understanding of the faith.
A more basic problem is that Paul was speaking natural language and appealing to natural concerns. Grace completes nature, so the conversation could soon turn to Christ. He would not have been so successful if he had been speaking the language of economists, marketing experts, and academic ethicists to bureaucrats. Technocratic society is defined by human will and know-how to the exclusion of all else. Grace cannot enter it without making it something other than what it is, so we will get nowhere trying to join the public discussion by sounding like today’s pundits, politicians, and policymakers. Rather than appeal to their way of thinking, we must use our own language and speak from the heart, from our own tradition, and from the continuing realities of life as human beings actually experience it. Only in that way will we be able to touch lives and realities.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 7, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “The Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins” was painted by Giovanni Paulo Pannini in 1744.