The Church favors peace, and her basic concern—leading men to God—is not specifically political. For that reason, her approach to politics has generally been irenic. She urges the faithful to obey the law, respect the powers that be, and interpret motives in a favorable light. She offers criticism at times, since she has her own view of social relations, but her normal approach to the political order is cooperative.
From that standpoint, the 19th and early 20th-century Church—which found herself denouncing the dominant tendencies of the age—appears the exception. The reason for her approach was defense of herself and the faith. She was being deprived of her position in society, for example in education and in matters relating to family life. In many countries her property was confiscated and her right to run her own affairs denied. In some places persecution went to violent extremes, as in revolutionary France, Mexico, Spain, and Russia.
Such events reflected a general attempt to replace Christianity as a social authority with an understanding of man, the world, and social obligation that leaves God out of the picture. The Church was no longer facing the usual problem of flawed government, or even the problem of a tyrant who preferred his private to the public interest. She was facing a powerful movement that wanted to eliminate Catholicism as a public presence and would go very far to do so. In such a setting usual approaches no longer seemed to apply.
After the Second World War there was a general relaxation of ideology in the West. War and revolution had shown the dangers of extremism, common struggle against manifest evil had deepened feelings of kinship, and a kinder and gentler form of liberal modernity seemed ready to accept the need for ethical values that were independent of the state. The political authorities seemed ready for the Church to put forward what she had to offer, and to accept the principled cooperation of those who accepted her message.
Vatican II therefore signaled a reversion to the Church’s usual attitude of general acceptance and support for the political powers that be. Modernity seemed here to stay, it had brought some good things, its basic goals could be seen in a positive light, and it now seemed willing to let the Church try to supply what it lacked. If she could find the right way to do so, she might be able to restore her lost position of rightful influence, perhaps in a different form. So why not give it a try?
Paul VI expressed something of that hope in an address to the last general meeting of the Council. In a world that wanted to go its own way without reference to God, he suggested, the Church needed “almost to run” after the society in which she had to make her case. That society was centered on man and his needs, so the right approach for the Church was to emphasize service to man, which could be the first step on a journey that would eventually lead him back to God.
The result of that approach was a readiness to enter into partnership with secular powers in service to humanity. That readiness has commonly led to support for government social programs and for transnational organizations such as the EU. There have been warnings of dangers presented by the tendency toward ever-increasing state direction of social life, such as John Paul II’s comments in Centesimus Annus on the “social assistance state,” but those warnings have not had much effect. The will to engage the aspirations of a world that identifies the real with the political has led to a widespread impression that public Catholicism is very much like secular progressivism, but with religious sentiment and official opposition to abortion layered on.
Current events make it evident that a more clearly independent approach is needed. If we enter into partnership with the world, we must do it in our own way. That requirement is not simply pro forma: liberal modernity may seem kinder and gentler than at the time of the French Revolution, but it remains deeply anti-Catholic. The problem is that the religiously neutral state is either transitional or imaginary. A stable and coherent society must be based on something that amounts to a religion—that is, on an understanding of man, the world, and human obligation that is treated as authoritative because it is thought rooted in the nature of things.
For that reason, a society that bases its self-understanding on secularity will make secularity its religion. It will deny the truth and legitimate public relevance of religion as traditionally conceived, and won’t want God to disturb proper public understandings. If it also harbors the technocratic desire to turn the social world into an efficient rational machine for achieving its goals, it will become quite intolerant of religions like Catholicism.
Catholics need to face that reality and act accordingly. Our situation is, of course, better than in revolutionary France. The principle of government by consent, the aversion to the use of force, and the general peacefulness of political life give us a great deal of protection at present. American constitutional law is also a help. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t presume too much on our supposedly guaranteed rights and liberties. Liberalism claims to limit government, but it feels the need to reconstruct human relations in accordance with its understanding of tolerance and equal freedom. In Europe such impulses have already led to prison sentences for homeschoolers and critics of Islam, and there is no way to know how much farther the tendency will go or how far it will spread.
A basic thing Catholics need to do, then, is defend the internal freedom of the Church. Catholic institutions must be able to hire, fire, and govern themselves in accordance with their beliefs, and Catholics must be able to live and bring up their children in the same spirit. Those freedoms are now under pressure, because the right of institutions and parents to carry on their activities as their conscience demands is subject to public policies that are increasingly at odds with Catholic principles. The HHS mandate is one example; another is provided by the recent unsuccessful attempt by the Obama administration to do away with the ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws.
We also need to defend the public freedom of the Church: the right to propose our views to others, to provide service to others in line with the mission and traditions of the Church, and to protest political measures that offend social justice, such as those that undermine the family and other non-state institutions. Those freedoms are also under pressure. The Church has one ideal of human life, liberal modernity a very different one, and the greater its desire to reform social relations the more the liberal state will treat the Church as an enemy of justice for presenting a different view of what social relations should be.
Most generally, Catholics need to oppose the movement toward a society that is comprehensively managed in the interests of security, efficiency, and the ever-more-demanding liberal version of human rights. To the extent that movement succeeds it will leave little room for any goods but those of liberalism. To oppose that movement we need to emphasize the Catholic and philosophical teaching of subsidiarity, and the understanding of the human good and how it is realized that motivates that teaching.
Those things are part of the positive Catholic vision. The Church exists for the sake of that vision, and its supreme importance makes adherence to principle more important, and in the long run more effective, than any immediate practical benefit gained through compromise with anti-Catholic tendencies. Liberal modernity is an extraordinarily constricted view that eventually suppresses what makes life worth living for the sake of a life of career, consumption, and private gratification.
What Catholics can offer the world is an understanding of how to live that opens up higher and broader vistas. By doing so they can change what is possible politically, socially, and spiritually, and in the long run transform the world. That is the greatest service the Church can offer humanity.
This essay first appeared June 14, 2012 in Catholic World Report under the title “In the Middle of the Journey” and is reprinted with permission.