Basic issues have basic importance. Does God exist? If he does, what is he like? If he doesn’t, can an objective moral order survive his absence? It seems obvious that such questions are crucial to all aspects of life, including our life together in society.
That conclusion has inconvenient implications. Christian societies, Muslim societies, and secularist societies are all different from each other. One excludes another, so we can’t favor them equally. It seems then that we must choose one over the others, or else live with a compromise that is likely to prove awkward and shifting—a situation, of course, that is often very difficult to improve upon.
That view of the matter makes people today uncomfortable. They would like to agree with the political philosopher John Rawls, who wanted basic questions put aside in public life as divisive, and claimed that could be done in a principled way to the satisfaction of all reasonable citizens whatever their outlook. Rawls devoted a great deal of effort to working out those views, and they have become extremely influential.
Catholics had already accepted much of the argument. After the Second World War thinkers such as John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain attempted to define ways in which the Church could give full support to a public order that leaves basic questions unresolved and relies instead on “articles of peace” or a “democratic charter” that people with different fundamental commitments could agree on. Such views made enormous progress in the 1960s and later as the Church attempted to rethink her approach to the modern world.
Rethinking seemed necessary. A liberal form of modernity had triumphed that appeared hard to reject completely because it seemed likely to dominate the social world into the indefinite future. Parallel to that triumph there arose a tendency in the Church to put less emphasis on the reality of God, since reality is essentially a public matter, and more on the subjective side of the Faith. Theologians began to speak of God as Mystery rather than Being, catechists and moralists turned away from doctrine toward experience and human relations, and celebrations of the Mass began to emphasize community and the response of the faithful at the expense of transcendence. What had seemed firm began to seem negotiable.
The apparent hope behind such tendencies was that lessened emphasis on transcendent absolutes would make the Faith more accessible to modern man, and enable the Church to cooperate in the construction of a peaceful and tolerant world in which Catholics could maintain personal and religious integrity as citizens of a free and open society. They would serve God by serving man, acting as a leaven and transforming hearts and minds.
The hope hasn’t panned out, and the transformation has gone the other way. Integration of Catholics into a society that rejects the Faith ever more comprehensively has mostly led them to redefine Catholic belief as strictly private opinion or an idiosyncratic restatement of existing social aspirations. For conservatives, Faith often merged with faith in America. For liberals, who have had more intellectual and organizational influence, Love became mostly equivalent to social welfare as understood by their secular colleagues, and the Divine Other tended to give way to the human other, so that outreach and inclusiveness came to substitute for the mystical union.
At the same time secular social aspirations, deprived of any standard outside themselves, became ever more single-minded and far-reaching. “Peace and tolerance” came to mean that all significant aspects of human life must become commercial, bureaucratic, or strictly private and individual, since otherwise conflicts may arise that cannot be resolved. And it became accepted that a “free and open society” must control human relations ever more comprehensively, so that the private commitments of individuals do not affect others and thereby oppress them. Pluralism as an ideology turned out more monolithic than Sharia, at least in principle, since Sharia explicitly permits the legitimate enduring survival of self-governing communities that reject it.
Under such circumstances Catholicism, as a system of fundamental principles regarding man and the world accepted as true and taken as a practical guide for human relations, becomes illegitimate. Recent developments requiring Catholics to collaborate in “gay marriage” and provision of abortifacients have driven the point home. Since such principles are an essential feature of the Faith, it has evidently been a mistake for Catholics to accept subordination of what is real to what seems politic, and tailor their faith to the demands of a supposedly free, tolerant, and democratic Caesar.
As Catholics and rational beings, we should put God and reality first. Insistence on reality and truth does raise special issues with regard to divine things. Saint Thomas tells us that we cannot see God in his essence in this life, and Paul says that Love is greater than Faith or Hope, at least for us here and now, since our shaky grasp of the divine things toward which the latter virtues are directed means that at present we can realize the good of love in greater perfection.
Even so, love is concerned only with its object, however darkly we see it. To emphasize love is therefore to insist on reality and truth; otherwise we are concerned with our own state of mind and not the beloved, and our love becomes moral preening and not love at all.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that subordinating reality to human relations and subjective experience hasn’t had the benign effects people imagined. Instead, it’s led to suppression of justice, since justice depends on truth, and to activism in place of the active life as traditionally conceived. The active life is lived in the service of truth, so it’s based ultimately on contemplation. Activism, in contrast, creates its own truth. It does away with “in the beginning was the Word” in favor of “in the beginning was the Deed.” Reality becomes something we create through our own efforts, which means that worldly power has the final say on what’s what.
Such tendencies have had enormous influence. “The philosophers,” said Marx, “have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” And his followers have indeed tried to change the world, subordinating truth and justice to human relations (in the form of class struggle) and what was claimed to be the subjective experience of the oppressed. The bloody results are known to all, although leaders of thought have pushed them out of active historical memory.
The Church has also suffered from such tendencies, whether in the gross form of alliance with Marxist movements or the more widespread everyday form of official suppression of those who prefer orthodoxy and tradition to current ideological projects. Examples have included abusive treatment of seminarians who accept perennial Church teachings and of doctrinal and liturgical traditionalists.
However damaging they may be, and however worth opposing, such tendencies are ultimately self-limiting, because they are not based on reality. Hard Marxism has generally disappeared, although a softer form of progressivism that gives similar primacy to human relations and subjective experience at the expense of truth is still with us. The tendency toward self-limitation especially applies within the Church. In matters of state false ideologies often lead for a while to great power. In the Church, however, the result of rejecting truth is rapid decline. The Church cannot be concerned basically with worldly power, since at bottom she has none. She must be about truth or become useless and disappear.
The law that the Church becomes weak by pursuing worldly influence and strong by giving herself to truth offers hope for the future. Magna est veritas et praevalebit—truth is great, and will prevail. That is why the Church was able to provide a superior vantage point that abolished the absolutism of power within Christendom. And it is the reason that for 2000 years she has always come back, whatever the abuses and scandals.
Even within the Church tyrants and their courtiers arise from time to time and have their day, but their influence is nothing compared with that of her saints and doctors. It is to the latter that we should go in times of confusion and trouble. They are the ones who instruct us in basic truths, and it is only by holding fast to those truths that the Church has been able to overcome the world.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 2, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: City Methodist Church, Gary, Ind. / Kris Arnold)