Equality and Catholicism

America has taken freedom and equality as her highest political goals, and her most basic problems have to do with that commitment and how it should be interpreted. Recent events have focused attention on changing understandings of freedom and how they are weakening freedom of religion. Understandings of equality are also changing, with consequences for the Church that are no less serious.

At the time of the American Revolution equality meant, in principle anyway, that everyone had the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What that meant concretely was that America would be a country ruled by settled laws that applied equally to everyone and did not impose many restrictions. As time has passed, and especially in recent decades, that understanding has developed into something much broader and less well-defined.

The specifics are dependent on other political commitments, so the views of conservatives and progressives differ. In an earlier essay we saw that conservatives understand freedom as freedom of action. Correspondingly, they see equality as equal opportunity, understood as elimination of artificial barriers to action, together with general availability of goods like education that facilitate effective action by everyone. We also saw that progressives have a more consumer-oriented understanding of freedom that is less interested in general setting than in results in individual cases. That understanding carries over to equality. For progressives, then, equality is now a broad requirement of equality of outcome that includes economic matters but extends beyond them to require equal respect and consideration in the various affairs of life.

Some aspects of the progressive understanding of equality tend to win in the long run. Conservatives want individuals to be able to act effectively, but who is to say what that requires? People don’t usually choose to be less respected or successful, so if some groups repeatedly end up that way it seems to show that something is standing in their way. The obvious way to get rid of the problem is to require group equality. The alternative would be to tell less successful groups that the reason they’ve failed is that they’re lacking in natural capacity or there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, and that’s not an approach that sits well in a democracy.

For that reason conservatives have consistently given ground on many equality issues. They used to resist “affirmative action,” but they’ve effectively dropped the issue. They still don’t like “gay marriage”—there’s a problem of natural capacity—but mainstream conservative politicians don’t like to pursue the issue. Who wants to say that what some people do is not equal? And besides, gay marriage proponents are committed, organized, and well-placed, so it’s easier to argue about other things.

One result of the evolving view of equality is that respected and influential people now view Catholic beliefs relating to sex and the sexes as an offense against basic principles of human decency and legitimate social order. Prominent commentators, including well-known theologians, claim that the Church is going to have to ordain women priests and accept homosexuality if it wants to be able to say anything modern man is likely to listen to.

So at the moment an ever-broader understanding of equality seems to be winning. Nonetheless, all is not well for the progressive cause. The expansiveness of its demands creates a need to accommodate the system that enforces them, and that means problems for equality. Contemporary liberal society depends on markets and bureaucracies, which depend on differences of wealth, bureaucratic position, and certified expertise. Also, egalitarian demands require big intrusive government. That kind of government is complex and resists outside supervision, so it lends itself to management for the benefit of well-placed and influential people.

Progressives have to accept the resulting inequalities. The consequence, though, is that their system, both in principle and practice, ends up replacing some forms of inequality by others. It gets rid of inequalities based on sex, lifestyle, and heritage, but replaces them with inequalities based on education, profession, position, and wealth. It frees the Obama campaign’s Julia from dependence on a husband but makes her dependent on bosses and bureaucrats. It adds minorities to the Supreme Court but leaves everyone off it who belongs to the Protestant majority or lacks a degree from Yale or Harvard Law School. And it destroys the way of life of what used to be called the working class by disrupting the family, cultural, and religious institutions that once helped them lead productive and orderly lives but are now suspect because they involve traditional distinctions.

Post-’60s egalitarianism has gone hand in hand with growing economic, social, and cultural divisions within American society. Today we have Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice, and we also have one in eight black men in their late 20s in prison. Something has evidently gone wrong. The basic problem, it seems, is that equality, like freedom, can’t be the highest standard. It needs to refer to some other standard to tell us what should be equal, and has to put that standard first if it is going to make sense and avoid defeating its own purposes.

For Catholics and many others, the highest standards for life in society are the common good and social justice. Those standards involve a principle of equal human dignity, but they also involve support for the institutions though which human dignity and well-being are realized, and thus for the distinctions and hierarchies those institutions depend on.

A CEO, a Supreme Court justice, a senator, a janitor, and an ordinary voter all have the same human dignity, but they do not have exactly the same position and authority, and they do not get treated in exactly the same way. That is legitimate, because business and government are legitimate institutions that require certain inequalities to maintain themselves. Catholics and progressives agree on that point. Where Catholicism, natural law, and ordinary good sense differ from progressivism is that they accept that other sorts of distinctions also have a certain legitimacy, since institutions other than global markets, neutral expert bureaucracies, and the various branches of government are necessary for the good life.

Religion, cultural heritage, and natural human tendencies provide a variety of examples. The one giving rise to the most pressing issues right now is the family. The family is at least as legitimate as Microsoft, Boston College, or the federal government, and it has at least as much right to order itself on its own principles and receive social support for those principles. As in the case of business, academia, and government, its principles can’t be made completely subject to egalitarian demands. They have their own requirements, which must be discovered through some combination of experience, tradition, and reason.

For Catholics, those principles are summed up in well-known teachings of the Church: sex is for marriage and should be open to new life, marriage is a union of the sexes directed toward the good of the parties and their children, and Mom and Dad have somewhat different roles in the common effort. There is, of course, nothing specifically Catholic or even Christian about such teachings. There are good reasons for them based on human nature, and similar principles appear in some form in other major traditions. It seems, then, that even for secular people the rational attitude would be to accept something like them barring some very good reason to do otherwise.

To accept principles is not of course to accept their abuse. The legitimacy of some distinctions relating to sex doesn’t whitewash everything the Taliban do, any more than the general legitimacy of hierarchy in government and business justify all the privileges of the president of North Korea or the CEO of Apex Widget Company. Differences in position and treatment are legitimate, but justice and good order require due proportion.

That is why the Church is opposed to unjust discrimination. The point of her position is not that different treatment is always bad but that it is bad when unjust. The requirements of justice, though, have to be determined by reference to the whole good of man, and not the demands of an inhuman understanding of the world that flattens some distinctions while exaggerating others, and disrupts basic institutions like the family in order to do so. Equality, like freedom, is a good, but it is not absolute, and it is not a reason for suppressing natural and necessary arrangements like the family.

This essay first appeared August 7 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

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).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The classic liberal definition of equality is contained in Article Six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789:

    “Law is the expression of the general will.  Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation.  It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.  All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.”

    The corollary of this is found in Article Three:

    “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.  No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

    To a Conservative, freedom primarily means being free from interference, especially government interference.  To a Liberal, freedom primarily means sharing in the government, seeing in government action the consummated result of the people’s own organized wishes.  Hence, their deep suspicion of all intermediate institutions, not directly dependent on government.

    • I think the participatory conception of equal freedom has receded into the background in present-day liberalism and is mostly trotted out to give democratic legitimacy to a basically nonparticipatory administered system. The Obama campaign’s Julia isn’t a political person, she just wants someone to rely on to help her with her difficulties so she can attend to her private goals. (See my piece on this site a few weeks ago comparing Julia and Ayn Rand.)

    • Adam_Baum

       Apart from the murder and mayhem of the French Revolution, what is described above is statism.

      The logical extension of Article Three is state supremacy over all forms of authority. For example, parental authority isn’t God-given, to be protected by the state, but granted by the state.

      Article Six essentially provides for majoritarian tyranny, when it states that the law is ” the expression of the general will”.  Such a view provides not for “law and order”, but a law alone, based on populist whim and as such makes the individual a subject, not of a king, but the faceless mob.

      To be a conservative does not “primarily means being free from interference, especially government interference.”, it is primarily the recognition that each of us is an individual, given unique skills and talents, and free-will that should not be abridged or limited unless we would impose our will to the detriment of others-and that a state that does not protect the individual is unlawful.

      Unfortunately, the equality of outcome pursued by the left must ignore the diversity of human beings and as such, deny the God that made us unique.

      Secondly, it recognizes the accumulation and exercise of political power must be carefully controlled, because history shows that it when it becomes concentrated, it attains a sort of critical mass that leads to vane and frivolous misuse of power, and eventually to both the soft tyranny described by de Tocqueville as well as the harder forms we unfortunately have seen regularly, especially since the last century. 

      The French Revolution was an affront to God and humanity, because in spite of the lofty prose of its intellectual fathers and constitutive documents it made the state a god and therefore the only equality it provided was an equality of the individual to the state and its guillotine.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        One can find a more positive assessment of the Revolution and its legacy in the great Catholic historian, Hilaire Belloc:

        “The scorn which was in those days universally felt for that pride which associates itself with things not inherent to a man (notably and most absurdly with capricious differences of wealth) never ran higher; and the passionate sense of justice which springs from this profound and fundamental social dogma of equality, as it moved France during the Revolution to frenzy, so also moved it to creation.

        Those who ask how it was that a group of men sustaining all the weight of civil conflict within and of universal war without, yet made time enough in twenty years to frame the codes which govern modern Europe, to lay down the foundations of universal education, of a strictly impersonal scheme of administration, and even in detail to remodel the material face of society—in a word, to make modern Europe—must be content for their reply to learn that the Republican Energy had for its flame and excitant this vision: a sense almost physical of the equality of man.”

        • Adam_Baum

           Even a genius can get it wrong, especially if they are being quoted decades after their death. The “strictly impersonal scheme of administration” is now very impersonal and very scheme.

          • Adam_Baum

             Correction, impersonal to the point of dehumanizing.

    • Cord_Hamrick

      Michael, are you quoting the The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approvingly? Or as an illustration of wrongheadedness?

      The French Revolution, most of the thought which was unique to it, and the legacy in writing of its proponents, are of little or no value in constructing a wisely-ordered, just, virtuous, and fruitful society. What it has left us was disastrous enough at the time and never attained to much that is good at any point since, except by deviating from it. Such freedom as the French Enlightenment ever attained came from the occasions in which it was forced by circumstances beyond its control to adopt the policies of the Scottish Enlightenment, where a decent respect for existing institutions, subsidiarity, and ambivalence about utopian thinking prevented the wholesale barbarity of the Reign of Terror. But as for the French and the writings of any political theorists associated with it, it is almost a total loss. (I’m looking at you, Rousseau, you nekulturny sentimentalist, you waste of ink.) One cannot safely follow its example or its intent. And it is not even safe to listen to whatever it recommends and then do the opposite, for it is not consistently wrong enough to be useful in that way.

      In discussing the proper ordering of society, someone who is dealing with the British evolution and the American experiment is at least constructively participating in the current conversation. It is only 1st down, but at least they’re on the right end of the field and know at which yard-line the line of scrimmage may currently be found. But trying to wring benefit from The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is like being the lone player wandering about on the opposite end of the field, looking for the ball, while one’s own coach screams and waves from the sidelines, unnoticed. It’s like visiting CERN in 2012 and proposing a corpuscular theory of light.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I cited the Declaration of Rights as a succinct statement of a perennial theme in Liberalism.

        The participatory concept is behind G K Chesterton’s remarks, ““The idea of the Citizen is that his individual human nature shall be constantly and creatively active in altering the State…  Every Citizen is a revolution. That is, he destroys, devours and adapts his environment to the extent of his own thought and conscience.  This is what separates the human social effort from the non-human; the bee creates the honey-comb, but he does not criticise it…  No state of social good that does not mean the Citizen choosing good, as well as getting it, has the idea of the Citizen at all.”

        • Adam_Baum

           Today its more like “The idea of the State is that its persistent nature shall be constantly and creatively active in altering the Citizen.

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  • JP

    I believe it was de Tocqueville who wrote that in the long run Freedom and Eqaulity are 2 different and diametrically opposed conditions. To increase Eqaulity in any society the people must lose some Freedoms.

    Yet, the Founders were very careful to limit Eqaulity to Eqaulity under the Law. The compromises they enacted in order to make the Constiution law resulted in no Freedom and Eqaulity for Slaves, and limited Freedom and Eqaulity for women; many states limited voting rights, and there were a number of ineqaulities allowed by the states initially that would later be abolished by the legislatures, the courts, or the Civil War. I don’t think anyone today believes in unlimited Freedom; however, we are living in a society where Freedom itself is something not quite appreciated as it once was.

    Progressive theory and practice a century ago had serious problems with our Constitutional order, in that it was difficult to remove or dilute enumerated rights; but, their finger prints are all over the history of our civic and political decline (the 16th and 17th Amendments and ObamaCare are just a few examples). Forced Eqaulity (is there any other type of Eqaulity?) has costs and unintended consquences. It is rare to read any Catholic thinkers who are not for the kind of Eqaulity that today’s Progressives demand. Yet, Christ Himself valued Freedom above all else. The Freedom to do what is right trumps the kind of false Freedom that is compeled. Religious Freedom is the right of the Sinner to act with Mercy and Charity without having the government’s boot on one’s neck.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The contradiction at the heart of liberalism lies in its simultaneous assertion of popular sovereignty and universal human rights.  In the brief interlude, during the 19th century, between the absolutist state of the Ancien Régime and modern mass democracies, this was achieved by the separation of the public sphere of state activity and the private sphere of civil society.  The state provided a legally codified order within which social customs, economic competition, religious beliefs, and so on, could be pursued without interference.

      But, when the social consensus on which the distinction rested breaks down, as it did following the introduction of universal suffrage and the rise of mass political parties, liberalism has no way of defining or defending the boundaries of this sphere; everything becomes potentially political.

      One can see the turning point in Teddy Roosevelt’s statement in 1910, “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”  Rousseau had anticipated this, when he wrote, “““Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign [the People] is sole judge of what is important.”

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