Brexit and the Trump movement, with their emphasis on the decisive importance of national identity, show that explicit identity politics has spread to all points of the political compass.
That’s not surprising, since identity is radically contested today. The questions relate not only to who gets placed where, or the common concerns of this group or that, but to the nature of identity as such. When something so basic becomes an issue it can’t be ignored or kept from affecting all social life—including, of course, the Church.
It’s an unusual situation. Identity matters, but people usually don’t argue about it. It precedes choice, because it tells the chooser who he is and gives him a perspective from which to define and deal with issues. So it’s not normally something people create for themselves, and someone who seems to do so is most often a con man, fantasist, or psychopath.
To choose an example close to hand, I am a human being, a man, son, brother, husband, and father, a Catholic, and an American. So I belong to a particular species, sex, family, Church, and country, and those things are part of what I am. I can’t undo any of those characteristics easily, or in most cases at all: I can’t drop out of the human race, unman myself, disown my blood relatives, unmarry myself, or undo my baptism.
Nor did I have much choice acquiring most of them. I had no choice becoming a human being, man, son, or brother. Nor could I choose my children, although I could have avoided becoming a father. In a sense I had more choice becoming a Catholic, since I’m a convert, but my conversion was less a choice than a recognition that I had already become Catholic in outlook and loyalty. Marriage was more completely voluntary, but it too involved dispositions that are not simply a matter of choice, for example readiness to maintain a principled commitment to a particular person over the course of a lifetime. And, of course, it also depended on the consent of that person.
These identities are social as well as individual. They make me what I am, and they make me who I am in society. How I understand myself, my good, the world and my place in it, what I am and should do, depends on stable and functional social networks to which I belong, the most important of which relate, almost by definition, to aspects of identity. If a network is sufficiently important, it defines who I am, and thus some aspect of my identity.
To some extent these understandings of identity—of what it is to be a human being, man, Catholic, or member of a family, what I should do as such, and so on—are therefore personal and social. They likely differ somewhat among Tom, Dick, and Harry, and among Americans, Italians, and Japanese. Even so, they are not personal inventions or pure social constructions. Some version of them—some understanding of humanity, sexual distinctions and roles, marriage, blood relationship, and ultimate reality and our relation to it—seems to be basic to every society and thus part of what constitutes human life.
Further, some versions of these understandings promote the normal beneficial functioning of human life better than others. Recognizing the obligations of husband and wife as specific and permanent, for example, works better than treating them as purely contractual or terminable at will. That is one reason Catholic doctrine, which presumes a system of identities that include manhood, womanhood, and the married state, is able to define such relations and their obligations universally and authoritatively.
With all that in mind, a well-functioning system of identities seems basic to a normal and rewarding human life. It’s part of what makes us social and rational beings, since it tells us who we are in society and gives a perspective from which we can reason effectively. As such, it’s part of what makes human life—like any functional system—organized and articulate. So it’s troubling that the world seems to be in the midst of a comprehensive identity crisis: a time in which identities seem to be dissolving, even as they paradoxically take on obsessive significance.
The case of American identity may shed light on the matter. That identity is far from a human universal, but it evidently has some reality. Growing up in America marked me (to continue with myself as an example) in a way that won’t go away, and brought with it unavoidable obligations toward the assemblage of people and institutions that helped make me what I am. So I’m distinctly and indelibly American.
On the other hand, America is a manmade unity rather than a natural fact or a divinely ordained reality, it won’t last forever, and it’s changed a great deal, along with the principles and spirit that animate it. Further, those who guide it want to move more and more toward open borders and ultimately a borderless world, a change that would eventually make American identity less distinct even than my identity as a Brooklynite.
That’s a problem, because while American identity is humanly dispensable, membership in a particular people is not. A people is a population joined by common history, loyalties, institutions, and way of life, and by a sense of common destiny. The existence of particular peoples is a human universal, and they serve a necessary function by providing members with a somewhat coherent framework for life with others that includes mutual loyalties and the common habits, attitudes, and understandings that go by the name of culture.
The culture of a particular people functions in large part by recognizing other aspects of identity and giving them a common interpretation that helps them work together so that people can have a decent way of life. Thus, particular peoples and their cultures normally recognize common humanity, masculinity, femininity, family relations, and religion, and attribute an importance to those things related to their natural and intrinsic function. Until recently, American culture did so as well. Like other cultures, it had flaws, but it had strengths as well, and gave Catholics a place to live and something to work with.
Today that has changed, at least officially. The official view is that the aspects of identity that I mentioned as human universals continue to be personally fundamental to the extent people feel them so, but they should be deprived of all relevance to social position and functioning, and made as voluntary and as subject to personal interpretation as possible. Any contrary view—for example that male and female are fixed categories that matter, or that marriage is a specific objective reality rather than the freeform personal project—is bigotry and demonstrates ignorance, stupidity, or psychological disorder. Exceptions to the subjectivist rule that seem indispensable, for example the obligations between parent and child, are dealt with by viewing them as creations of the law that can and should be changed whenever social policy demands.
Such things are now considered a matter of fundamental human rights. That, though, is insanity. It means, for example, that it’s supremely important to recognize Bruce Jenner as a woman, because he says he’s one. At the same time it’s supremely important to recognize no difference in nature, tendency, or role between men and women, except to the extent women seem to have a special strength or competency, or special protection seems necessary—for example by distinguishing men’s and women’s sports. (The latter situation, however, cannot be called “special protection” for fear of implying women are weaker.)
None of that hangs together. People recognize on some level that the situation is bizarre, and an accepted system of identities rather like the inherited one is basic to human life. That is the fundamental meaning of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, and it’s the reason people committed to the tendency of events describe those developments as irrational, bigoted, willfully stupid, and so on.
Such criticisms are often hysterical, but there’s a real issue lurking behind them. When a sustained and serious effort to eradicate the social relevance of something as basic as sex or particular cultural tradition collapses, the result is likely to be something crude and unpredictable. Consider, for example, the situation in Russia and China after the failure of communism, an attempt to eradicate the social relevance of economic self-interest. So it seems that those intensely alarmed by Brexit and Trump correctly sense a profound threat to the global managed system that has been the implicit goal of public policy since the Second World War, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, and realize that we may be on the edge of (as people say) very interesting times.
So what do Catholics do in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves? There is much to say, and no space to say it, so further discussion will have to wait until next month. The issues will still be with us then.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 8, 2016 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail of “The Golden Rule” painted by Norman Rockwell.