Catholics Must Not Cede Ground in Public Debate

In the last several months I’ve been discussing the problems Catholics face dealing with public life today. The recent election underlined some of them. The bishops and others made their pitch about threats to the family and the freedom of the Church, the Democrats stood firm, and most Americans—including most self-identified Catholics—voted for the Democrats. Not only does the world care very little for Catholic concerns, but it seems that Catholics acting as citizens care little for them as well.

So what should the faithful do? If the world’s against us, so it’s becoming harder and harder to act or even think as Catholics, should we retreat to monasteries? Return to the catacombs? Overthrow the government and establish a dictatorship run by a revolutionary vanguard? Such proposals have serious drawbacks, and something much more moderate would be more to the point. All we really need to participate with integrity in public life as citizens and Catholics is a society in which what is good—and not freedom, equality, or prosperity—is the highest standard. If we had that, discussions about goals that rise above who gets what would become possible, and Catholic concerns could become mainstream.

It seems that those concerns would do well in such a setting. Our social doctrine is consistent with natural law, which means that on the whole it follows a common-sense understanding of what things are, what’s good for them, and how they work best. So we should be able to get a lot of mileage out of talking about what’s good in human life as we find it, and how that can be respected and promoted. All that’s necessary is that people accept the good life and common sense as standards.

The problem is that appeals to those standards don’t work very well today. Modern public discussion doesn’t like common sense, even educated common sense. If something can’t be observed, measured, and dealt with by neutral professional standards, people think it’s rational to ignore it and do what they otherwise want to do. After all, they believe, if something can’t be nailed down and proved it’s a prejudice, a stereotype, or an attempt to spin the discussion, so it doesn’t deserve serious attention.

That skeptical approach to informal knowledge can be productive in the natural sciences, but it doesn’t work when applied to life in general. Basic human decisions require insight and judgment, and neither can be made exact or turned into academic expertise. If we limit ourselves to what can be made rigorous our decisions must either ignore reason altogether or base themselves on arbitrary default assumptions like equality. In either case, the results will defy common sense. For examples, look at what educators, architects, and legal thinkers have done to schools, cities, and the law. What now passes as expertise has led to results that are often completely at odds with normal ways of thinking, learning, and living.

Such an approach to knowledge and reason has nonetheless become established, and the result is that ideas of ultimate goals and natural patterns have more and more been driven out of public discussion. We can’t talk about the good life, because the good life involves goals and patterns that are intrinsic to human existence: youth and age, virtue and vice, male and female, true and false happiness. Opinions differ on what those things mean, and the issues are hard to prove, so people say that each should decide for himself. On such a view the function of the political and moral order reduces to the satisfaction of individual preferences in a technically rational way, as much and as equally as possible, and we end up with the managed consumer society as the highest public goal. That society has its own view of the good life—the life of the politically correct and moderately self-indulgent consumer and careerist—but people don’t notice that, and if you propose a different standard of what life is about they complain that you’re trying to force your values on them.

Rejection of the authority of anything that can’t be measured has become so ingrained it has come to count as common sense for many people. This is why many people view atheism and gay marriage so favorably. Grown-ups don’t rely on invisible friends, they say, and people of the same sex can love each other and want to share their lives, so why not forget about the one and accept the other? An adequate response would have to bring in ultimate causes and goals, as well as natural patterns like the role of sex in human life, but public discussion more and more excludes such considerations.

To be able to make our points understood in today’s world we need to open the door to a fuller idea of reason that recognizes there is something more to the world than what is rigorously demonstrable. Otherwise it will remain forever impossible to talk about the good life, and public discussion will become more and more at odds with Catholicism. But how can that door be opened? Philosophical arguments for the importance of what can’t be demonstrated by formal logic and statistics are abstract, and as a practical matter they’re not likely to get anywhere without concrete examples of what the “something more” might be, presented in public as true, argued for as rational, and demonstrated as relevant in daily life.

As a practical matter, natural law arguments need to be accompanied by specifically Catholic arguments, backed by the evidence of a specifically Catholic way of life, so that natural law can be a compromise fallback. In addition to the arguments Catholics make as loyal Americans, concerned citizens, and followers of common sense and natural law, they should make public arguments as Catholics. That’s how they believe it’s most sensible to understand the world, so why not bring what they believe rational and real, and the reasons they have for that belief, into public life? Liberals treat their views as knowable public truth, and socialists and libertarians do the same. What do we hope to gain by accepting that other people’s claims for the public validity of their views are legitimate while ours are not? It’s suicide to treat the minimum outcome we need as the extreme position in a discussion, so why accept rules of discussion that turn a natural law position into just that?

Secularists will be outraged, because they consider religion irrational and at bottom antisocial, but why not force them to argue their view? It outrages secularists that our views exist at all. Why try to mollify them by keeping quiet about them? If we simply accept the exclusion of specifically religious views from public life, then in the long run—which increasingly looks like it’s now upon us—we’ll have to accept its basis in an increasingly radical skepticism, and therefore the invalidity of natural law as well as Catholicism as knowable public truth.

To argue as Catholics in public life is not necessarily to demand that public life be put on a specifically Catholic basis, any more than to argue as a liberal is necessarily to demand immediate enactment of all liberal positions. Views differ, politics is very much a matter of the practical, and there is no such thing as a perfect society or government. What’s needed, though, is to expand public discussion beyond principles such as freedom, equality, and prosperity, and even beyond philosophical principles such as natural law, to include religious principles, such as the created nature of man. Many of the latter are shared by non-Catholics, and indeed by most Americans, so why not bring them up? To accept that they should be excluded as a matter of principle, when a contrary principle like the individual right to define the nature of the universe can be proclaimed by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, is in effect to concede defeat in advance. How can that be politically wise?

This column first appeared December 6, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Sir Thomas More” painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527.

James Kalb


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).

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  • publiusnj

    This is an ovrerly complex analysis, certainly when applied to “gay marriage.” The long-standing legal helpmates of Marriage–the laws against adultery and those requiring parental support and preventing a male from challenging the legitimacy of any child born out of his wife during the course of the marriage–show the inappropriateness of “gay marriage.” Simply put, a gay partner cannot sire or dam a child with his/her same sex partner. Those legal supports for child-rearing are the reason states have gotten into the matter of marriage. Sure, some males and females who get married will not or cannot have children, but that is because of age or volition or medical incapacity and not because two people of the same sex cannot bear children together through sexual congress. Concerns for the rights of marital privacy dictate that the state should not get involved in the necessarily private questions of whether a heterosexual couple wants or can have children. Legal recognition of their “marriage” ought to be given by the state because of the possibility they could have a child as the result of their sexual congress (the unwilling might change their mind, or medical breakthroughs could happen, etc.).
    With “gay marriage,” though, the partners sexual congress with each other will NEVER bear issue. THe only way one of the partners could sire or dam a child would be by going outside the marital bounds, just the opposite of what the laws of marriage and adultery are designed to avoid.
    Now one might say,as gay advocates have that in the modern world marriage is awarded so many extra benefits that are designed not to ensure child support and legitimacy but to encourage “loving commitment.” Putting aside the fact that marriage is not just a series of governmental awards but also a series of responsibilities and even governmental penalties, as in the marriage penalty under the income tax laws, the question remains: what is the state’s legitimate interest in fostering “loving commitments” divorced from the messy issue of the issue of sexual congress? Why is “two person loving commitment” to be favored over other forms of sexual congress when no child can be conceived? I have never heard that question explored. That is not the “slippery slope” argument of once gay marriage why not man-animal, incest, etc. Rather, it is one rooted in the amorality of the state under the prevailing constitutional jurisprudence: why are two person relationships “with loving commitment” favored by the state over free love or any other variety of polyamory if the possibility of issue is eliminated?

    • thebentangle

      Publiusnj, the kinds of concerns that you express will never become mainstream. Most people simply do not regard child-bearing as integral to marriage. Nor is it. No U.S. law requires applicants for marriage licenses to affirm their intention to have children. You are living in a Catholic bubble. My partner and I will be married next summer, and we are both well past the age when we would even want to start a family. In our state, we have the same right to marry as anyone else.

      But what you have written is illustrative of the problem that Mr. Kalb seems confused about. It appears that you and he are not even mainstream Catholics. Judging from the way Catholics voted in the recent election, your concerns do not mesh with those of most of the Catholic laity.

      Mr. Kalb’s attempts to ground his positions in natural law are futile. Natural law is an arcane concept that most people neither understand nor care about. And it usually gets unpacked whenever the Church’s moral authority hits the skids, the laity becomes Bishop-deaf, and threats of Hell lose their potency. Maybe it’s time to return to the monasteries and the catacombs and try figuring out what to do next. Come back in another hundred years with some new ideas.

      • publiusnj

        Child-bearing is not integral to marriage? Curiouser and curiouser….

      • Mary

        Today the highest compliment you can pay a Catholic is to tell him/her, “You’re not even a mainstream Catholic.” To which we reply, “Thanks be to God!”

        • thebentangle

          Mary, your feeling honored at not being a mainstream Catholic just confirms to me that there is a huge schism in your church now, and the mainstream is much more progressive than the magisterium. What do you think will happen next?

          • Luther

            Another branch of the Protestant shrub will sprout!

            • Tout

              LUTHER Possible. And maybe more Protestants may come to the Catholic Church..

          • Tout

            We hope, Catholics will come out. I asked a lady why Catholics don’t kneel no more to receive H.Communion. She laughed “That is not done anymore” I told her,priests of FSSP always provide communion-rail,for people to kneel and receive on tongue.They just expanded their Mother-house in Germany, build their first seminary in America. I always receive the H.Host on tongue.. God wants to come in us, not in our hand. Too many Catholics didn’t take their religion seriously. Atheists yell loudly; they have to, to forget what awaits them.

          • FrancisXIII

            Well, not really a schism in the Church in the strict meaning of schism, as the Church herself continues to uphold the truth given by Christ….though admittedly there are Catholics who have taken positions against their Church on certain matters, including this. As for the relativism and skepticism that we see nowadays that perhaps allow for the easy dismissal of natural law concepts … or the teachings of Christ upheld by the Magesterium … well, I suppose Scripture has presented instances (and warnings) in which practical worldly matters seem to have won the day over truth. One especially comes to mind. In his trial, Jesus says to Pilate that he has come to bear witness to the truth. Upon hearing this, Pilate asks, with the same practical skepticism today, it seems, “What is truth? ….and immediately after turns to the crowd, says that he finds no crime in Jesus, and then seeks the “mainstream” opinion as to whether he should release Jesus or Barrabas. Regarding your question above “What do you think will happen next?” Well, I don’t know … but I do know that the resurrection came after yielding to the mainstream, the trial and crucifixion of Christ. And that is why I would like to stay in His Church.

      • Tout

        Apparently, many Catholics are not serious about their Catholicism.The state can give their own kind of rights, sometimes opposed to our rights that come from God. Instead of catacombs, I pray for years the rosary twice a month at a Maria-statue downtown and hang sign “Whether glad, sad or wary, stay a while, say a Hail Mary”. A few times, a pedestrian joined me in prayer. I started alone a yearly procession in May. In 2008 a lady took over did much better. 50 Persons praying, singing,carried Mary-statue to a church for crowning. Visiting Turnhout(Belgium), 2004 prayed at statue of Sacred Heart on central marketplace. Statue in terrible shape, held together with 5 metal bands. Back home,I wrote to 100+people & the mayor there, the statue needed repairs.The statue was fully repaired in 2006. And other public Catholic actions. Atheists should fear their destination after death.It’s their own free choice


      • Augustus

        While Catholics as a group voted for Obama roughly 50% to 48%, the majority of white Catholics voted for Romney. It was the Hispanic minority vote that made the difference for Obama. No one should claim that Hispanics voted for Obama because they favor homosexuality (or gay marriage). Hispanics favor the government goodies Obama offered them while the Republicans, as usual, did a poor job of countering the Santa Clause appeal. And the bishops don’t appear to have made much of an effort to reach that community either. “TheBentAngle” should not make more of it than the numbers allow. Here are the figures:

    • Promarriage

      The care of children was not the only reason the state got into marriage contracts, my friend. IT ACTUALLY IS far more complex than you’d like. Marriage is also a protection for women, raising them from the status of chattel, concubines and throwaways at the whim of men, who traditionally have held property while women could not. It is protection for them as they nurture the offspring to maturity so the children can become the basis for an orderly and humane society. It allows for the care of all who need it in society, support for human personality development in, yes, you said it, a ‘loving commitment’. It’s an excellent help for men as well, tying them to women, giving them children for whom to achieve, a home where they are loved and received with warmth and affection. Men who are married live longer than single men. Women lead with love. Men often confuse lust with love, due to their very strong sexual drive. Insistence on marriage for sexual fulfillment makes the man commit himself to a woman,by giving the relationship time to develop beyond the initial lust stage before relations begin, Free love accents the lust aspect, which, as we all know, can be very blinding. Nothing wrong with it at all, quite the contrary! But, keeping it at bay, allows both parties to discern the true nature. Additionally, the family IS the central organization of society. The breakdown of families is a vital revolutionary concept that statists use to dismantle society as we know it. This contract, marriage, is vitally important to civilization. Killing the unborn at will, euthanasia, unnecessary experimental medicine, sexual human trafficking the likes of which the world has never known before, raising the least to make them most (and lowering all standards of accomplishment as well as morality along with it), are the results of family breakdown – if the family, ie. civilization, breaks down, as it has, barbarism and paganism sets in.

  • Prof_Override

    Wow, he gets it.

    “Rejection of the authority of anything that can’t be measured has become so ingrained it has come to count as common sense for many people.” I’m one of those people. Mr. Kalb is one of the first I’ve seen from his side of the coin to actually understand and argue from this very basic reality. And no Mr. Kalb, most people – liberal or conservative don’t “get it”. Libertarians (not the Tea Party nutjobs (they decidedly aren’t libertarian)) tend to think along those lines.

    The point I’ll try to succinctly make is the demarcation of Romans 12:2: “of the world” vs. “in the world”. Politics and religion are oil and water – they don’t mix, or at best form a very unhappy colloid. Social conservatives who are using non-corporeal reasoning to push their agendas have crossed the line from “in the world” to “of the world”, no matter how you slice it or try to hide its roots, it’s theocratic by definition – which I believe is prima facie “of the world”. Religion and politics, nary the twain should meet. Believers should be libertarians politically and social conservatives privately (see Ron Paul). It is ultimately about each of our personal choices and legislating morality removes the choice, unless of course you are “of the world” in which case that doesn’t matter to you.

    • You seem to see “religion” as sort of an extraneous add-on to a perfectly functional understanding of life and the world that only involves corporeal reasoning. That’s not how it is, though. If you stick to corporeal reasoning (assuming such a thing exists, when reason is evidently not corporeal) then you run into the fact/value distinction and there’s no way to decide what’s good or right to do.

      All politics are based on some understanding of man, the world, and ultimate issues generally. So it’s hard to see religion and politics as oil and water, since religion is just a systematic way of dealing with ultimate issues. Also the American political system makes each of us a participant in government. As such, all any of us can do is try to apply his best understanding of good, bad, and what the world’s like to politics as to other aspects of life. He owes that to his fellow citizens.

      • Prof_Override

        Body, Mind & Spirit. All abstract sequentialism (being a religious lawyer, I would guess you to be squarely in that camp) is simply a mental game of mental constructs. Government, corporations, churches, etc… do not have any physical existence. They are purely mental constructs. Obviously to create some semblance of a civilized world requires at least some of these contraptions, but losing sight of what they truly are is dangerous. As the T-shirt says “I’ll believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one.” – they haven’t yet.

        Politics/Law should be about creating the leanest set of constructs that allow for a well functioning physical world. Do I want murder outlawed – yes. Do I want a good road system with a coherent system of rules that will keep me safe travelling that system – yes. Do I want laws about gay marriage – no, that’s not my right, it has no effect on my safety or the general well being of the community. Do I want laws outlawing pot – no, see comment above and add that it’s prohibition is one of the direct causes of the 1930’s style organized crime issues in Mexico (shame on us).

        Religion/Spirituality are rightfully protected in our constitution. Yes religion is a systematic way of dealing with ultimate issues, but this is the intersection of mind & spirit and laws in this area are and should be taboo. The problem is the hypocritical double standard of the religious, in that they will fight to the death to protect their religion from legislative intrusion, but they see no problem in legislating their particular brand of morality on the rest of us. This should fall under the same prohibition. You’ll notice that I separated spirituality from religion. I believe that the real intent should be to protect each individuals spiritual rights (to believe and practice as they see fit) vs. the religious bastard child – the creation of a non-corporeal construct that somehow is imbued with anthropomorphic characteristics (see T-shirt quote or better yet see the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters).
        For example, “The Catholic Church” has no more existance than the “US Government” does, therefore ACA contraception mandates of the top level legal construct (the US Govt) on other subordinate legal constructs (religious institutions, etc… ) are not violating any real, living breathing human beings spiritual rights. Now if you deconstructed the constructs and levied the requirement against a true individual, that’s would be a different story, but that’s not the case. You can’t have it both ways.

      • thebentangle

        Since I don’t believe in mind-body dualism, I can’t agree with your premise that reasoning is not corporeal. It is completely so, and recent neurocognitive studies have borne this out. But even these findings were anticipated by the phenomenologists, many of whom believed that values are primary facts and that they are accessed through emotion, just as colors are accessed through sight. Your talk of “deciding what’s right or good to do” is based on a completely different model, one that precedes modern scientific understanding of value and fact.

        However, I think I would agree–at least partially–with your second point, which is about the role of religious belief in politics. Although I am a secular humanist and an atheist, I have no desire to banish religious belief from the public square. It has as much right to be there as my beliefs do.

        Nevertheless, I believe politicians who can ONLY provide sectarian religious justifications for their positions lose credibility among the general public, and that is a problem that will ultimatelyt take care of itself.

        • Reason involves reference. How does one purely material thing or event reference another? On your other point, I agree that in public life we try to find common ground. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.

          • thebentangle

            I don’t see any problem with material things referencing other material things. What other kind of things are there?

            Since everything we do, say, or feel shows up as a localized brain activation, I don’t see the need for a concept of “spirit” to serve as some kind of mediator between the word or gesture and its referent. When I point an accusing finger at my cat after she nibbles on a power cord, my gesture is a completely material one, as is her response (sniffing my finger).

        • Promarriage

          If you’re an atheist, why are you here interfering with a Catholic site? You shouldn’t be here. This is a discussion for Catholics about THEIR beliefs.

          • thebentangle

            Yes, “Promarriage,” but your beliefs affect not just Catholics but non-Catholics. If what I say offends you, just pretend I am not here.

            • Promarriage

              Who could [pretend you’re not here? You’re occupying all the oxygen in the room and you don’t make sense, just gas.

          • Prof_Override

            If you all think alike then there is no need for a discussion board. I’m an Episcopalian (more Catholic than the Catholics), I enjoy this site and those who contribute because of the level of discourse and insight. While some of the discussions can get a little prickley, the bomb throwing Troll level is low. Civil, mindful discourse is a good thing for all involved.

            • Tout

              PROF OVER “..more Catholic than the Catholics.”,Too bad. Try to improve

        • Promarriage

          Sectarian positions? Hmmmm. What, exactly, is a ‘sectarian position’? It’s nothing more nor less than a viewpoint about life. We all have a viewpoint. We come to the world with it, we come at problems with it, we live what we truly believe and understand as good, if we know how to live with sanity. You say you don’t believe in God, apparently you think abortion is fine, and that’s your worldview. First, there are no atheists, there are just people who don’t want to obey. There HAS to be God. The world shows his wonders. Just because we understand His world better than we did long ago, doesn’t mean we could create it. You believe in God, bentangle, you’re just bent, that’s all. Go do some Catholic reading – I mentioned Hilaire Belloc above in one of my comments. He’s enjoyable and clear thinking. Anyone who doesn’t believe in something, will eventually believe anything. And that’s your viewpoint, bentangle. There is no Catholic bigotry against homosexuals that I know of.
          There are just bad people who go after many others with hatred and homosexuals are just one group they hate. Believe me. I’m not a homosexual, but I’ve experienced plenty of hatred from religious types. They like rules, just don’t want an actual, accountable relationship with God.
          Anything can be corrupted and often is, by these ‘religious types’. Doesn’t mean basic Catholic doctrine isn’t sound or that it lacks integrity. People will always let us down eventually. The modern Church hasn’t led effectively, in my opinion, giving too much ground to secular humanism. Doesn’t mean that by departing from Christ’s true message, that the message is false. As for hatred of homosexuals, the Church wants no homosexual acts against its vulnerable parishioners. This is bigotry? Maybe you ought to develop a viewpoint that includes the moral law.

          • thebentangle

            Promarriage, where did I say I thought abortion was fine? You’re creating a straw man. And you tell me I believe in God when I tell you I don’t? And you’ve decided, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that I don’t believe in anything? I can see you’re trying to fashion me into something that will not disappoint your expectations.

            There is “no Catholic bigotry against homosexuals?” Then please tell me where there is. Shall I go to Pat Robertson for bigotry against homosexuals? But he will assure me that he is not bigoted. Maybe nobody in this world is bigoted. It’s a bigotry-free world.

            I don’t think so.

            “The Church wants no homosexual acts against its vulnerable parishioners.” Do you not see what a sorry record the Church has had in protecting its children from rape and other forms of sexual abuse by priests? And do you not see that many of your parishioners ARE homosexual and that they abused by the Church’s stigmatization of them?

            • Promarriage

              Yes, the Church, in my opinion, should have prosecuted the less than 1% of gay priests who raped children. You bet! Hold press conferences and turn over the evidence to the authorities. However, in Williamsburg, New York recently, 45 rabbis were arrested for ongoing rape and sodomy of children under their care. This is a heck of a number and the Orthodox Jewish community wants it handled in house, at Rabbinical court, where it will be swept under the rug, if history is prologue to future. The world is saturated with all forms of pornography too disgusting to think about, women and children of both sexes are sold so they can perform sex acts for money they never see and who die within 3-5 years max of the abuse andyour’re grousing on and on about 1%?!! And about secrecy? With so many enemies in the very unCatholic and venal world, they circled wagons, knowing that by osmosis, alone, the evils would occupy part of the Church, and their enemies in the press would pounce and try to destroy them for exposing the 1%. Would I have? No, I think they should have prosecuted. As for stigmatization, don’t participate if you don’t like their attitude. Organizations always have rules that many people find to be hurtful and stifling. Can’t you study religion, but avoid the organization? Or, are you just what I call a ‘hater’? A hater is a bigot who just loves to hate.

    • Alecto

      TEA party nutjobs? I have to assume you are an edumacator, a paid shill, who has never done an honest day’s work. Seems to me you are aptly named, “Prof. Override” since you believe you can discard reason, sound judgment and common courtesy on a whim.

      • Prof_Override

        Go away Troll. Either add to the discourse or find one of those bomb throwing sites where you toss wal-mart witticisms back and forth with other Trolls.

  • thebentangle

    Mr. Kalb, your article reveals some confusion about who Catholics are. You note that most self-identified Catholics voted for the Democrats, who care little for Catholic concerns. But if so many Catholics supported the positions of the Democrat party, then maybe those positions are in fact the very ones that reflect Catholic concerns.

    But then you bring in a second term: “the faithful” to describe Catholics like yourself (those who, presumably, voted for Republicans). And from there on it’s “we” (the faithful). Do I detect a schism in the Church? And will the real Catholics please stand up?

    You lament that Catholic concerns are not mainstream, but you are really referring to the concerns of the institutional Church, aren’t you?

    The truth is that more and more Catholics are entering the mainstream on issues like contraception, abortion, homosexuality, marriage equality, and church-state separation, and they are driven by the same values of tolerance and equality that guide most Americans.

    For these Catholics, the Church no longer has the moral authority it once had. It has repeatedly squandered that authority and is continuing to do so by its relentless assaults on homosexuals and women’s reproductive health.

    • Actually, I’m usually a third party voter. And Catholicism is neither the average view of Catholics in a particular time and place nor an institutional outlook, any more than science is the average view of people with science degrees or the institutional outlook of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

      Your comment about “relentless assaults on homosexuals and women’s reproductive health” confirm my general impression that people who want to invert moral reality end up having to invert reality generally. It’s a full-time job, and it looks like a bore. Why not drop it?

      • thebentangle

        Mr. Kalb, you explained what Catholicism is not, but I’m left wondering what it is. I must deduce from what you said that Catholicism transcends both people and institutions, both of which can only be pale reflections of it. How very Platonic.

        This may be the problem. Platonism doesn’t sell well these days, so I don’t expect that you’ll be able to, as you say, “make [your] points understood in today’s world.”

        Today’s world is pluralistic and democratic. Authoritarian systems of thought–those in which Truth is passed down through a Great Chain of Being–are increasingly alien to people in the developed democracies of the world. I don’t see any signs that this trend is reversing itself, so if anyone should “drop” the spiel, it is you.

        • As a practical matter you can get a good idea what Catholicism is by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, together with the Bible, lives of the saints, Church history, imaginative literature, etc. It would also help to look at Catholic art and architecture and listen to Catholic music. And then you should try to live as a Catholic, pray, get to know some devoted Catholics, etc.

          At a more conceptual level, I compared Catholicism to the natural sciences. Like them it’s a system of truths, beliefs as to truth, assumptions as to what truth involves, ways of understanding it and attaining it, and so on. Catholicism is also a system of living by the truth, so I suppose a better comparison would be to natural science plus technology. I don’t see anything Platonic about that kind of explanation.

          Don’t know why you consider the present world democratic or democratic in tendency, or for that matter pluralistic. It presents itself that way, of course, but all the same we’re constantly told what to do and believe. It seems to me things are becoming more that way rather than less.

          • thebentangle

            Mr. Kalb, I’ve been blogging on Catholic websites for about a dozen years, so I have a pretty good idea what Catholicism is. I come to these discussions because I hear gays and lesbians being slandered and I wish to voice my objections. Nobody gets a better view of the Church’s ugly underside than a gay man who identifies himself as such on these sites. Here is a small sampling of the epithets that have been used against me at Crisis and on Mercator: diabolical, demonic, sodomite, filth, “you’re gonna burn in hell.” “in mortal sin,” intrinsically disordered, deficient, “like a person without arms.” “Sad little thing.” “hideous perversion.” “unspeakable baseness.” “deviant. (many times)” “gay marriage is a cheap knock-off.” (plus epithets that I cannot quote here.) I feel like I’ve stepped into a medieval auto-da-fe.

            The only bloggers who joined me in denouncing this kind of language were non-Catholics.

            Since I know that the Church instructs the faithful to be respectful and compassionate toward homosexuals, I believe you and other educators have your work cut out for you.

            If you want to evangelize, as Pope Benedict urged Catholics to do in his annual Christmas message, then you might start by deciding (1) whether I in fact deserve any of those epithets. (“in mortal sin?” “demonic?” “intrinsically disordered”) and then (2) how those epithets square with the principles of compassion and respect.

            The Church is confused about this just as it is confused about anti-semitism. While denying its anti-semitic past, the liturgy continues to include over 400 New Testament readings that perpetuate the libel that Jesus was killed by the Jews.

            Similarly, the Church teaches that homosexual acts are a mortal sin and that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” while urging Catholics to show compassion and respect. It doesn’t add up, and the results are what you see in these blog conversations. Read some of them. See for yourself.

            This is why I would never consider becoming a Catholic. Catholics have presented themselves in the worst imaginable way to me personally, and they continue to slander LGBTs at the institutional level. Do you know what Catholic teaching about slander is?

            If you want to sell a concept, first you have to treat the customer like a human being. Why does the Church imagine that it can continue to draw in converts with insults and threats of Hell fire?

            Again, I think that if you want to evangelize, it is time to think about your message and then train your sales force. Some basic skills in dealing with people would go a long way.

            • If I thought something was a serious vice that is very hard to kick I might well say it led to acts that were intrinsically disordered and objective mortal sins. I might also believe that like everyone else people caught up in that vice should be treated with respect and compassion. I don’t see the contradiction unless there’s some rule that only sinless people or people with the right outlook on things should be treated with respect and compassion. I also don’t see why stating my view would be slander. I wouldn’t be saying someone does something he doesn’t do, I’s be saying something he does he shouldn’t do. Very likely he’d say the same about me.

              According to Nostra Aetate, “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” I don’t see the libel in that or in the Gospel passages you find objectionable. The Old Testament often mentions bad things Jews did, and the New Testament does the same with the apostles. Does that make the Old Testament antisemitic and the New Testament anti-Christian?

              You appear attached to a way of life the Church (like many others) has never approved. I would expect that attachment to stand in the way of your entering the Church. All I can suggest is what I’d suggest to anyone, that you try to be as honest as possible how things stand, and not fall back on abusing your opponents (e.g., the “relentless assaults on homosexuals and women’s reproductive health” claim). You have some ideas about how to win friends and influence people. Demonstrate them in action.

              • thebentangle

                Mr. Kalb, I did not come here to, as you say, “win friends and influence people.” I came to plant a burr under your saddle and to make you uneasy about what you are doing.

                Your claim that homosexual behavior is a vice and a mortal sin is simply a slander. The religious origin of your claim does not change this fact. Let’s not pretend we don’t know how Catholics construe the words “vice” and “mortal sin.” These are simply the strongest terms of censure that the Church can issue, and they do incalculable harm not just to gays and lesbians but to their families and loved-ones. These terms strongly stigmatize gays, just as the scarlet letter “A” once stigmatized adulteresses or the yellow Star of David was once used to stigmatize Jews. The results of stigmatization are well known, but in case you’ve forgotten, they include bullying, low self-esteem, broken families, and suicide. There is now an abundance of evidence about this–in both anecdotal and statistical form–which the Church ignores at its peril.

                Once you have slandered an entire class of people with such epithets, it is difficult or impossible to mitigate the damage with exhortations to “compassion” and “respect.” People are not fools. They get it. They know which of these incompatible messages to ignore, and the results are here in the Crisis comboxes for anyone to see. The torrent of abuse toward anyone who identifies as gay or lesbian or who even defends gays and lesbians is just breath-taking. We are told we are are deviant, diseased, disordered, sick, and sinful beings who are going to burn in Hell. Tell me that you do not believe these things yourself. Then tell me you are respectful and compassionate.

                Paid writers like yourself come along and stoke the crowd’s fury with much of the same language: “intrinsically disordered,” “objective mortal sin,” “vice.” You are modelling this language for them, as your Church as already done. The reason you still haven’t denounced it is that it is the desired outcome of your efforts.

                It may interest you to know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed “homophobia, stigma, and discrimination” as one of three “prevention challenges” for HIV in this country. Please read this carefully:

                Homophobia, stigma, and discrimination put MSM [men who have sex with men] at risk for multiple physical and mental health problems and affect whether MSM seek and are able to obtain high-quality health services. Negative attitudes about homosexuality can lead to rejection by friends and family, discriminatory acts, and bullying and violence. These dynamics make it difficult for some MSM to be open about same-sex behaviors with others, which can increase stress, limit social support, and negatively affect health.

                You should also be aware that in May of this year the World Health Organization called for a “de-psychopathologization of sexual diversity and the prevention of interventions aimed at changing sexual orientation.” “Homosexuality is not a disorder,” they said.

                The Church has painted itself into a corner on this issue and has few friends left. All the world’s major health and social care organizations have denounced the Church’s teachings about homosexuality, and the leaders of the world’s biggest democracies–notably President Obama, Prime Minister Brian Cameron and French President François Hollande–are supportive of same-sex marriage.

                So now the Vatican is going to Muslims and orthodox Jews for support. It has come to this.

                • If you want people to rethink something, to “make them uneasy about what they are doing,” it helps to seem reasonable and willing to consider and respond thoughtfully to what they say. Otherwise you’ll give them the impression that there’s not much to be said on your side of the issue.

                  • thebentangle

                    Mr. Kalb, your perception of me as unreasonable may be just that and only that–a perception. And in fact I do take great pains to respond thoughtfully. If it seems to you that I do not, it may be because you don’t agree with my responses and have made no head-way in convincing me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am stubborn or closed-minded. It could just indicate that your arguments are not convincing. You can fault me for my frankness, for which you will have some more pejorative term, no doubt, but as I said, I am not here to make friends. Or, really, even to convince anyone. I only hope to plant a few seeds (or burrs) of doubt and to be a witness.

                    • buckyinky


                      I always enjoy reading James Kalb’s thoughts. Thanks for giving him the opportunity to share more of them!

          • thebentangle

            Mr. Kalb, regarding the question of whether we truly do live in a democracy, your perception that “we’re constantly told what to do and believe” is one that I’ve seen frequently expressed on conservative Catholic websites. I’m always puzzled by it, but it begins to make sense when one considers the growing marginalization of certain ideas held by (conservative) Catholics. Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage often complains that acceptance of same-sex marriage will result in her being considered a bigot for upholding traditional marriage. Of course, that’s not why history will count her as a bigot (the real reason is that she opposes marriage equality), but in one sense her “perception” is accurate, and it points to a process that has unfolded many times in the past (e.g., during the Civil Rights era). She has simply seen the writing on the wall and has come to realize, with horror, how history will view her. It is already happening.

            Do you realize that guest writers on Crisis (e.g., Dale O’Leary) are advocating reparative therapies in the face of the World Health Organization’s condemnation of these therapies? There could not be a clearer example of the disconnect between Catholicism and the real world.

            Conservative Catholics, who see the tide changing against them, are in a panic. But rather than adapt to changing realities, they deny that these realities even matter to them, or should. This drives them further into irrelevance and denial, in a kind of vicious downward spiral. And, increasingly, they find themselves in an echo chamber, cut off from the real world. Everyone sees this but them. (Think, the Emperor’s New Clothes).

            Instead of recognizing that the problem is one of intransigence in the face of change and of sectarian vs. secular models of governance, they begin to see threats of state control all around them. The “state” is then perceived as intrusive and totalitarian because it embodies the will of a more general polity–one that demands fairness, equal opportunity, and justice.

            But what “threatens” the Church is not totalitarianism by any stretch of the imagination. It is democracy and pluralism—both of which the Church has never quite managed to accept since the French Revolution.

            • History will say whatever it is that historians say at this time or that. On the whole, it’s likely in most times and places to favor whoever has the better grip on reality. With that in mind a Catholic isn’t likely to be worried about the judgment of history. Bubbles burst, and the common human judgments that are the basis of natural law tend to reinstate themselves.

              In particular, a Catholic and for that matter any sensible person is not likely to treat the WHO, a bureaucratic organization far removed from anything normally called “the real world,” as the judge of what constitutes reality. Do you see the growth of such institutions as a sign of pluralism and democracy? The influence of transnational professional organizations looks quite different to me.

              • thebentangle

                Mr. Kalb, is Catholic Relief Services (CRS) one of the transnational professional organizations that you find so troubling? Now that you’ve expressed your doubts about the World Health Organization (WHO), I hope you will tell us which of the following other international health and aid organizations you disapprove of: The World Bank, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Project Hope, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Médecins sans frontières, the World Food Programme, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Red Cross, CARE International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

                It is not difficult to see why some of these organizations would be an affront to the Church. I know that the WHO strongly supports women’s rights to contraception and opposes anti-gay legislation and homophobia. So does the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And though I haven’t investigated all of the organizations I listed, my hunch is that the others are basically in line with the WHO on those issues.

                This is a massive challenge to the power and prestige of the Church, but the Church will continue to pretend that these organizations are “far removed from anything normally called the ‘real world,’” as you say. Ironically, it is evident to anyone living in the real world that the Church has run-away delusions of grandeur.

                These organizations have immense capabilities for gathering data, disseminating accurate information, and raising funds, and they are highly respected throughout the world. When the WHO says that homosexuality is not a disorder, people listen. And meanwhile the Catholic Church continues to squander its moral authority with teachings that are completely discredited elsewhere in the world of health and social welfare. This is because the Church listens only to itself and spins around in a hall of mirrors.

                • If what you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. That doesn’t mean the hammer isn’t a good hammer or has no uses, it just means that the opinion of professional hammerers isn’t everything.

                  A basic problem with neutral scientific professionalism of the modern type is that it wants to analyze the world in a way that fits what neutral scientific professionals have to offer. And a basic problem with international social welfare organizations is that they want society to be transparent and manageable from the top down using the neutral scientific professional tools at their disposal.

                  The result is that they have zero comprehension or sympathy with local, informal, cultural, and religious arrangements that enable ordinary people to live decent, dignified, and productive lives independently of NSPs and INSWOs. In other words, by their professional and institutional limitations they have no use for social conservatism. That’s a severe limitation on their value.

                  The situation is made worse of course by the ability of activists to capture such organizations in the interest of causes the organizations have no special reason to oppose, and more generally by the tendency (symbolized by the EU and the enormous growth of international trade and finance) for ruling elites to unify trans-nationally and thereby make themselves independent of the people to whom they were originally answerable.

                  We can agree I think that the basic issue in all this is who has the better grasp of reality overall, the Catholic Church or the WHO etc. You say the one has its head in the clouds, I say the other. We shall see.

                  • thebentangle

                    Mr. Kalb: Thank you for not “ceding ground,” as you say, but your hammer-nail analogy would be more effective if it applied ONLY to scientific professionalism. But it also describes the Church’s way of viewing the world and in fact it is a problem inherent in every type of organization and institution, bar none. That doesn’t mean that we stop trying to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, does it?

                    Your claim that these transnational professional organizations have “zero comprehension or sympathy with local, informal, cultural, and religious arrangements” is, like most absolute claims, greatly overstated. And what you see as a lack of comprehension may in fact be a generous and judicious effort to solve problems that are caused by local cultural conditions such as intensely patriarchal systems of power. For examples, field workers may be in situations where, in order to help the women, they have to challenge the men. So the question becomes: How does one change a social structure that is self-destructing? This is a complex and difficult task, and it’s similar to what I have undertaken here, although on a much grander scale.

                    Furthermore, I would never presume to accuse any of these organizations of insensitivity to local cultures unless there is really good evidence that they are. You haven’t offered any, and I’m not aware of any.

                    • The Church recognizes far more types and sources of knowledge than scientific professionalism does. That’s an advantage of tradition as a principle. All sorts of human perceptions and reactions, even those no one is quite able to articulate, get swept into the mix, and only what is stable in a variety of settings and from a variety of perspectives becomes accepted as authoritative. Without that she wouldn’t have lasted 2000 years or thereabouts.

                      The multilevel organization of the Church, in which most of what happens goes on at the local level, and the arrangement whereby the most important leadership come from people (the saints) who typically have no special official position, is also a help. Also, there’s far less discretion as to what can be promulgated as binding doctrine, so the danger of a runaway ruling class is much less.

                      For all that I’d agree there can be problems of the same kind. To pick a recent example, the manner in which various post-Vatican II changes like the New Mass were decided and implemented made the Church look a bit like one more transnational bureaucratic organization. The higher-ups, or at least the Pope, seem increasingly aware of the problem. Let’s hope.

                      The attitude of international organizations toward sex roles is hardly judicious, or motivated by an effort to solve specific problems caused by local cultural conditions uncovered by field workers. Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has been ratified by almost all countries, requires parties to “take all appropriate measures … to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based … on stereotyped roles for men and women.” So there’s a universal across-the-board requirement under international law for governments to root out the view that men and women differ in any way that matters, and all arrangements that reflect that view. Since sexual distinctions play a basic role in all cultures, the view that we should assume that international organizations typically respect local cultures seems an odd one to me.

                  • Tout

                    JAMES KALB, I know, the Catholic Church is the best leader. I propagate God by my public actions.Especially my efforts since 2002 for a procession, finally a lady took over(2008) got yearly procession ending in the church with Mary-crowning.And other public actions. I may not be able to write long articles, but e.g. I wear daily a wooden 3 cm cross on top of my sweater for all to see.I do ask people to take Communion on tongue. I never took in hand.

    • Promarriage

      True, sad to say, the Church has lost its authority. What it has to say about morality, economics and governance has been indispensable to Western Civilization. English writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, the most prolific English 20th Century writer and Catholic apologist, stated, in his intro to his book, “The Crisis of Civilization”: ‘It was the Faith which gradually and indirectly transformed the slave into the serf, and the serf into the free peasant’. The book, written in 1937, compiled his essays on the Church’s impact on society and was presented to students at Fordham University that year. He concludes that the only hope for the future of our world lies in a reconversion to the Catholic standpoint. I think a study of the writings of Hilaire Belloc would be invaluable as well as enjoyable and enlightening to ANY true searchers for truth.

      • thebentangle

        I have to wonder how much of this account of history is myth. On the question of slavery, we know that the Cathedral of Salamanca was built by slaves and that some popes owned slaves. The naval galleys of the Papal States used captured Muslim slaves. St. Augustine argued that slavery was not forbidden by natural law, and Thomas Aquinas believed it was acceptable given certain restrictions. During the Age of Discovery, several papal bulls approved of slavery. To give credit where credit is due, some of the popes did also condemn “unjust slavery,” but Jesuit missionaries owned slaves, and books critical of slavery were on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1826. There was never any Papal condemnation of the Transatlantic slave trade.

        Even after our Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th Amendment, Pope Pius IX in 1866 affirmed that slavery was not against divine law. One hundred years later, the Second Vatical Council finally declared slavery to be an “infamy.” That’s really quite a time lag, isn’t it?

        Do you know when it first officially opposed anti-semitism? That’s quite a story, and we can leave that for another time. But what about the oppression of gays and lesbians in Africa, especially now in Uganda? Just earlier this month, Benedict blessed one of Uganda’s top law-makers, Rebecca Kadaga, who is pushing the country’s “Kill the Gays” bill.

        And if the Church helped transform the slave into the serf and the serf into the free peasant, why was the Church on the side of the Monarchy in the French Revolution? Historically, the Church has tended to see eye-to-eye with monarchies and fascist dictatorships. Virtually every one of the fascist governments of the 20th century was supported by the Church.

        These are all just facts. If there is something I’m ignoring, please let me know.

        • Promarriage

          You mean Hitler? No truth to that at all! You mean Mussolini? The Church had lost all power in Italy. It couldn’t raise an army to fight him. It only held Rome. And Rome hid Jewish fugitives throughout the Vatican to save them from Hitler. Pius XII was emissary from the Vatican to Germany during the 1930’s and he spoke against Hitler frequently. Pope John Paul II was an underground seminarian in Poland during WWII, risking his life to become a priest. Slavery? You’re right about some of this. However, the slaves you speak of, like at Salamanca where slaves built the Cathedral, were likely Muslim slaves. The Muslims invaded and enslaved Spain, dug in deep, persecuting Catholics for hundreds of years. If you doubt this, read today’s paper about the suffering of Coptic Christians in Egypt under the Muslim regime. For twelve hundred years, these Christians have been marginalized and disenfranchised by the Muslim rulers there. Right now, they face racial cleansing (ie. extinction) as have the refugee Christians from Iraq who flowed into Syria. Witness ethnic cleansing of Christians, burning of churches, rapes, and disenfrancisement by Muslims, by Muslims, bentangle, with the U.S. cheering and aiding them under Bill Clinton. What was it like during the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula? Given their aggressive anti-Christian activities of today, we know it was grueling and will be again if they rule us. A country just might enslave them out of revenge and fear and have them build a Cathedral or two. But, slavery in all of Europe was ended by the Renaissance. Not so, in Communist China, nor in the other Communist countries. And the Catholic Church is not hand in hand with these Communist leaders. Back to slavery, and the Church doesn’t have a thing to do with it. Slaves to serfs? In my opinion, serfdom wasn’t such a good post to assume. I wouldn’t have wanted it for myself being the freedom loving American I am. Yet, for the serfs, it was a step up from being owned by masters, as was the case with most men of the old, extensive and very pagan (you would have felt right at home, no Catholic need apply!) empire. It was a step up for them in that they gave their loyalty to their lord, they gave part of their produce, and he protected them from enemies and they had a firm place in society. With the Norsemen invading from the North, the Mongols and Muslims from the East and South, it wasn’t a friendly world nor a safe one and unified, Catholic Europe provided the only stability there was. Despite all the wars and chaos, modern Europe evolved. As for the French Revolution, you might, I stress the word ‘might’, want to read this link: It tells about the horrors of the anti-Catholic French Revolution, which evolved into the Napoleanic empire. Through it all, the people of France, and across Europe, responded with increased loyalty toward Rome. Must have been all the statist-sponsored murders and broadscale theft of Church property. Made them a tad fearful of the new freedom they found. The people sure didn’t go willingly against what you’d describe as their evil Roman Church masters. How so? But, most of them weren’t gays or lesbians, so why should you care? Broaden your scope of interest, or stop writing. It gets very tiresome.

    • Tout

      I am a Catholic.The truth: many Catholics are only lukewarm in their Faith. Many may wake-up, realize they must defend God to save America. I got yearly procession going, (2008)carrying a Mary-statue through the streets to church for crowning. Other public acts are on this page. Catholics,please receive the H.Host on tongue;let God come in you, not in your unblessed hand. How many Catholics know they can see an ongoing miracle in Guadalupe(Mexico-city); one in the North of South-America; a few in Europe. Atheists don’t mind killing unborn children. Atheists want ‘tolerance’ but don’t tolerate. For they fear Catholic signs, reminding them where they’ll go when they die. Million Catholics were killed: Germany,Russia,China, etc. The Church still defends children, mothers, families. Many Catholics may wake up to a strong belief, turn to God. That happened before. That’s what we pray for.

  • Paul Tran

    Sadly, secular & civil laws are all about playing to the tune of whatever happens to be society’s mood and no longer about upholding the highest standards society should abide.

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  • MatX

    “All we really need to participate with integrity in public life as
    citizens and Catholics is a society in which what is good—and not
    freedom, equality, or prosperity—is the highest standard. If we had
    that, discussions about goals that rise above who gets what would become
    possible, and Catholic concerns could become mainstream.”

    Are you willing to let go of your earthly goods then?

    • I should be willing to, when it becomes the right thing to do. Earthly things are not the highest standard, so other things should sometimes take precedence.

  • Robert

    The problem now is that public debate takes place entirely through the media system which is run by a few extremely evil individuals. There is no questioning the media complex which is far more powerful and intrusive than any politician or group. In fact many politicians have been destroyed by it. Until this media complex is somehow broken which is highly unlikely I don’t see much hope for any form of conservativism restoring itself again.