A Catholic Response to the Demise of Rational Public Discourse

To follow the news today is to get the impression that public life, in the sense of rational discussion oriented toward some reasonable understanding of the common good, has come to an end. Everyone notices the partisanship, the bad faith, the indifference to truth, and the substitution of entertainment for hard news. Catholics in particular notice the disappearance of natural law reasoning, even in the informal everyday form that had always upheld principles such as the natural family and the protection of unborn children.

The dominant view seems to be that things mean whatever those with position and power can get people to accept, and claims to the contrary are rhetorical attempts to put something over on people. Such views are held not only by cynics, flacks, and operatives, but by many who hold positions of intellectual authority.

In some respects the disappearance of rational public life is not surprising, although the willingness to deny the reality and intrinsic authority of truth does seem odd. Substantive public life is far from universal. Public discussion always has limits, and in most times and places has hardly existed at all. There’s not much of it in the average apartment complex, business corporation, traditional Middle Eastern city, or third world dictatorship. Nor does the lack reflect any special pathology. Most of us find our own interests and understandings, and those of people closely connected to us, far more pressing than those of people to whom we are only distantly related.

Something special is needed to overcome such tendencies. In particular, public life requires strong mutual loyalties to make it rise above propaganda and maneuvering. People need to believe that who they are is intimately tied to the political society of which they are part, so that they see the public good as part of their own good. It also requires a public culture with enough substance to support intelligent discussion and enough respect for the life of the mind and autonomy of truth to allow the discussion to be fairly free.

For those reasons public life was found at its most intense in pre-modern city states. The citizens of those cities shared a common history and faith, they were joined to each other in the risky business of political independence in an unstable world, and in the most famous cases their piety was balanced by a love of intellectual adventure that found itself at home in republics that were at once commercial and aristocratic.

A great achievement of Catholic Christendom and the European and Western Civilization that followed it was the extension of productive public life to a national and even continental scale. The Church, with its councils, synods, writers, and preachers, has always had her own public life. When Europe became Christian that life gave rise to the public life of Christendom, expressed in institutions such as parliaments and universities. After the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the nation state put an end to the Res Publica Christiana, European public life continued in various forms—the Concert of Nations, the Republic of Letters, the civilization of the West—based on shared history and elite culture together with residual public Christianity. There was also of course the interconnected public life of the European nations. The plays of Shakespeare suggest the strength of English national feeling at the time, which approached that of the Italian and classical city states, and other nations of Europe also developed their own national literatures, universities, and institutions of self-government.

Such things seem more and more to belong to the past. The heirs of the civilization of the West who now run our major institutions have rejected residual Christianity and traditional elite culture, and their emphasis on cultural diversity negates the importance of shared history. Nonetheless, they want to maintain public life, and extend its principles to more and more settings, while at the same time depriving it of substantive cultural content and making it ever more completely technological and utilitarian. The project is to be based on a common faith in science and human rights, common acceptance of institutions like the European Union and the United Nations, ever greater reliance on market and bureaucracy in place of traditional arrangements such as family and religion, and a common historical narrative having to do with the progressive global advance of freedom, equality, and enlightenment.

The project can’t be successful. A diverse inclusive multicultural society can’t have free, active, and intelligent public life, because the principles, habits, and loyalties people are expected to have in common are too few and too abstract. They don’t take enough into account or speak to enough aspects of human life to permit free and intelligent discussion of public affairs. Current discussions of public issues related to the family provide an obvious example. It is now criminal in some Western countries to assert that some ways of organizing sexual life are better than others. If that is so, how can family life be discussed intelligently?

So instead of discussion we have spin, snark, propaganda, bogus claims of expertise, and extremes of partisanship, with political correctness trying to keep a lid on the mess so people don’t realize how much at odds they are. We have the highest positions occupied by people like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, all of whom are entirely unfitted to the positions they hold and entirely unaware of their deficiencies. In the absence of public reason, we have financial policy based on short-term stopgaps and foreign policy based on supposed expertise combined with complete indifference to the specifics of the local situation. We even have proclamations by those responsible for public principle at the highest level that support for marriage as a natural institution with natural functions is simply hate.

So what do we do? One goal of the Second Vatican Council was to help the Church engage in dialogue with the world, and a major goal of Catholic leaders and thinkers has been a seat at the table so they can carry on the initiative. A problem with that project under present circumstances is that the world is less and less interested in dialogue, discussion, or even thought. It’s run by a combination of propaganda, ideology that grows ever simpler and more intolerant, and self-seeking elites responsible mainly to themselves. Under such circumstances what worldly powers look for from the Church is not dialogue but surrender or silence.

So dialogue may be less effective than hoped. If that is so we need not be silenced, because proclamation—and above all integrity—remain possible. Either way, what we need most of all today is clarity. We need it for the sake of Catholics, who for decades have been fed confusing and ambiguous formulations and as a result hardly know what the Church teaches or why. We also need it for the sake of non-Catholics, who are stuck in a cultural world that grows ever less livable, and need to know that there is a real alternative. And we need it for effective dialogue, if that turns out to be possible, since effective dialogue requires distinct positions to be set forth clearly.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” was painted by Briton Riviere in 1872.

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).

  • somnipod

    Maybe its time for another Vatican council? Maybe fix the dissent and worldwide apostasy that came about after Vatican two? All of the metrics show massive amounts of decline since the liturgical changes, so since the way of faith comes from the way of worship, is it not time to admit the Bugnini mass was an abject failure?

    • Art Deco

      The liturgy is a train wreck. The thing is, people have lost any sense of what proper liturgy is. The interaction between those constituencies gives you the mess we have. When people know what liturgy is and practice it, you do not need much if any policing by ordinaries, just as you do not need a city commission employing inspectorates who issue citations for badly conducted sandlot baseball.

      Some years ago, I saw a piece of survey research undertaken in the Diocese of Rochester. It revealed the following: 24% of Catholic laity preferred strictly traditional music, 18% preferred strictly modern music, 29% preferred a mix, and 29% were indifferent or disliked all music. I was living in the Diocese of Syracuse at the time, and I can tell you what you would find taking a tour around: (1) Masses with no music or (2) Masses with modern music. I could identify for you one parish located in a small town 50 miles from Syracuse where the music was traditional by default. So, a majority of the laity are getting the upraised middle finger at 85% of the parishes.

      I took a census of the musical selections at one particular parish I frequented. All the music was delivered on an upright piano, no one in the congregation sang, and 85% of all musical selections over one six week period were of songs composed and published after 1965. I was told a local music professor was hired at one point (ca. 1993) to improve the music program and resigned in frustration. In spite of grumbling among the lay parishioners, the pastor insisted on treating the music director as if she were some Bourbon civil servant who owned her office.

      You have the parish clergy, you have the church staff – especially the
      music director, you have the active laity, you have the laity whose
      complaints priests listen to, and you have the rest of us. The parish clergy
      could fix the problem, but they disappoint in this respect as they do in
      every other respect. I remember around about 2002 a wheel in the local
      chapter of the Knights of Columbus – a man I respected – was walking
      around with a large lapel button that said something like “support our
      priests”. I would, sir, if more than about 15% of them were committed
      to doing their Sunday job as well as the average Anglican vicar. (The
      homilies of Catholic priests are in my experience far superior to their
      mainline counterparts. The rest is wretched).

  • lifeknight

    Clarity. I’ll drink to that! The Church has watered down the Faith and confused the sheeple. Sadly, it doesn’t take much to do so.

    • tom

      Being led by Lotus eaters doesn’t help. We had O’Malley praying over Teddy and then Wuerl doing the same in Arlington. What a poor example and a grave disservice even to the surviving members of the Kennedy Clan..

    • slainte

      The liberalists/modernists within the Church have attempted to redefine the faith from an objective, absolute, unchanging Truth to a subjective, contextualized, ever flowing and changing, undefinable set of nebulous traditions and dogmas which because of their changing nature cannot ever be nailed down for purposes of explication,
      The latter effort makes possible an evolutionary faith that stands for nothing except constant change and confusion for the laity. Consider the case of some of the LCWR sisters whose faith journey has caused them to evolve “beyond Jesus”.
      Objective Truth exists and He is the solid unchanging foundation upon which His Church is built.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    As Bishop Cupich of Spokane has pointed out, “Catechesis, preaching and passing on the faith must not only be about educating the members of our communities in the content of our tradition. This is important, but it must equally be about developing their spiritual sensitivity to the ways God manifests His presence and action in the world. Schooling people in the ways of ongoing discernment produces a greater receptivity to the tradition of the church and at the same time creates the freedom that will make them more responsive to the will of God throughout their lives. This balance is in keeping with the Lord’s great commission: “Go teach and make disciples.””

    The Holy Father has recently reminded us that ““God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.”

    • Such statements are valuable but the history of post-60s catechesis not to mention analogous situations like the New Math show that they need to be applied in a nuanced way. You can’t get people to compose Latin poetry when they don’t have their declensions and conjugations down, but that’s the sort of thing modern educational methods have led to.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        No, and you don’t write real poetry with the “Gradus ad Parnassum” at your elbow either. It is only be getting the rhythms of Vergil and Horace into your head that you can do that.

    • Art Deco

      MPS, I can give you the name of a Melkite priest who had a file of sermons covering the entire liturgical calendar He began building the file after he was ordained around about 1942 and continued making use of it until his retirement. His texts were, of course, updated, (“whenever I find something from the Church fathers, I grab it). They were concise and quite stereotyped. Every one began with setting the Gospel account in time (“according to the chronology of the Biblical School of Jerusalem”) and every one ended with a takeaway – three things to consider or do during the week. That man was a teacher. This ought to be common. He was, alas, unique.

    • Tradmeister

      Sounds like we’ll be playing historical contextualiztion and interpersonal relationalism with Church teaching.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Speaking of St Bonaventure (as well as other theologians of the 13th century), Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, observed, “Here, “revelation” is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of “revelation.” Where there is no one to perceive “revelation,” no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it…“ This means that revelation cannot be understood apart from the receiving subject, that is, the Church, in her journey through time.

        • Tradmeister

          If the suggestion is that our 13th century saints were playing theological Marshall McLuhan, I think any such claim is not going to hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

          By the way, neither will any claim that Joseph Ratizinger is a fully orthodox upholder of the faith.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            It seems to me that he is saying no more than Joseph Maréchal SJ, Marie-Dominique Chenu OP, Cardinal Henri de Lubac SJ, Cardinal Yves Congar OP, Cardinal Jean Daniélou SJ, Claude Mondésert SJ and every other theologian of note had been saying in the fifty years before the Second Vatican Council.

            Indeed, nearly a century ago now, we find Maurice Blondel writing to Auguste Valemsin, “First, the scholastic ideology, which still exclusively dominates, includes the study neither of religious psychology nor of the subjective facts that convey to the conscience the action of the objective realities whose presence in us Revelation indicates; this ideology only considers as legitimate the examination of what objectively informs us about these realities as designated and defined. Moreover, and especially, everything is instinctively resisted that would limit the authoritarianism born of an exclusive extrinsicism. And, without formulating it, the conception is entertained according to which everything in religious life comes from on high and from without. Only the priesthood is active before a purely passive and receptive flock.”

  • Tradmeister

    James K. merits one to two cheers for decrying the debased nature of politics and political discourse that we are currently saddled with. He seems to yearn for greater sanity and rational thoughtfulness. Indeed, if only we could have such from our leaders and shapers of national discourse.

    But we must bravely face the facts in their fullness as well. We can talk about dialogue, but such a concept as we have witnessed in the past 50 years is alien to Church Tradition. We can talk about clarity, but we still pay homage to a feckless Second Vatican Council that was the most non-clarity council we have ever had. We can talk about natural law reasoning, but such ultimately doesn’t just point to the wrongness of abortion and homosexual conduct, but also to putting all religions on an equal, legal pedestal.

    We need a true comprehensive shift in our framework. As I believe a few others have noted, the true relationship between the Church and the world should be as a mother to her children. Not as a group of friends sipping wine together in the living room after enjoying a nice dinner. If we’re not going to move from the latter to the former, but simply call for our fellow wine sippers to be more thoughtful, rational, and civil, then we will continue to largely endure the problems that we face.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The Holy Father has cautioned us that “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.” And “There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”

      • Art Deco

        Is that the latest excuse for Marty Haugen music?

        • W Meyer

          Truly, there can be no excuse for Marty Haugen music.

      • I’d note a limitation: correctly reading history is a deep problem, and the Church has sometimes found it expedient to aid the faithful and guard her integrity by defining dogma. The Holy Father wisely observes that not everything can be made clear and safe. That doesn’t mean that nothing can be made clear and safe in any respect, or that it is wrong to maintain clarity where it is available. To the contrary, I would think.

        • Tradmeister

          James K., everything that can and has been made clear and safe should have been made clear and safe. And that corpus of teaching should be upheld in its entirety. It does not do to cast aspersions against doctrinal absolutism nor to label people as pelagians.

      • Tradmeister

        If the Holy Father is saying that a Catholic cannot adhere to and affirm the fullness of Holy Tradition, then, at a minimum, it is safe to say that a traditional Catholic can withhold assent from such questionable comments, ideas, and yes, even teachings.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour


          One must consider the nature of Holy Tradition. As Bl John Henry Newman expressed it, “It is latent, but it lives. It is silent, like the rapids of a river, before the rocks intercept it. It is the Church’s unconscious habit of opinion and sentiment; which she reflects upon, masters, and expresses, according to the emergency. We see then the mistake of asking for a complete collection of the Roman Traditions; as well might we ask for a full catalogue of a man’s tastes and thoughts on a given subject. Tradition in its fulness is necessarily unwritten; it is the mode in which a society has felt or acted during a certain period, and it cannot be circumscribed any more than a man’s countenance and manner can be conveyed to strangers in any set of propositions.”

          • Tradmeister

            I think Pius IX and Pius X had a thing or two to say about relativistic, contextualized, evolutionary heterodoxy, dissent, and all around nonsense.

            You should also brush up on the Oath Against Modernism.

          • slainte

            You write, “…We see then the mistake of asking for a complete collection of the Roman Traditions…”

            The ultimate success of Modernism/Progressivism relies upon the Laity “forgetting” what constitutes Roman Catholic Tradtion. It would be counter-productive for this group to provide a “complete collection of the Roman Traditions” which might serve to remind Catholics of the foundational bases for their faith.

            It’s far easier to cause a dumbed down laity to accept new ideas if they have NOT been taught pre-Vatican II Traditional Catholic faith. Those who do not know the Faith can be more easily led, and thus more easily deceived.

            The decision by hierarchy to stop catechizing Catholic youth in the traditional Faith in the post Vatican II period (late 1960s onward) has ensured that prospective generations of Catholics slowly and inexorably forgot the traditional fath, thus opening the door today to the substitution of a Nouvelle Theology that is alien to traditional Catholicism.

            • Michael Paterson-Seymour


              Well, Bl John Henry Newman was writing in 1830, about a century before the Nouvelle Théologie. He revised the work for a republication of his works in 1870, so the passage represents his mature judgment.

              Now if Holy Tradition is “the Church’s unconscious habit of opinion and sentiment; which she reflects upon, masters, and expresses, according to the emergency,” it obviously cannot be reduced to a series of propositions, precisely because it is unconscious, until she “reflects upon, masters, and expresses” it, in dealing with new questions that come before her and emergencies that arise, just as a man’s tastes are implicit, until he is called upon to exercise his judgment, or his character reveals itself in particular actions.

              • slainte

                MPS, Our Catholic Faith is both knowable and concrete; it is recorded as an historical event and is, and always has been, infused with the mystical and providential power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

                Cognizant that it is He who has guided the historical Catholic Church from its inception, the Popes, as Christ’s earthly vicars, and the Magisteria have guided the earthly church by drawing upon the fullness of the historical faith tradition over time with firm reliance that He who guided the Church in the past continues to guide her in the present.
                The depository of faith which informs Tradition includes the wisdom and rulings of past popes, the teachings of the magisteria (past and present), and the Divine and Natural Law made knowable by the Holy Spirit; all in an unbroken line of succession. Much of this deposit is recorded in wiritings. He who is Truth guided the historical Church and formed its tradition was True then, True today, and will be True tomorrow.

                If we accept that the historical church was guided by the Holy Spirit, Modernity’s demand that we turn our back on our Lord’s historical guidance through time is nothing short of heretical.

                • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                  “It is latent, but it lives…” Its past manifestations in the history of doctrine assure us that it will enable the church “to reflect upon, master and express it” in the future.

                  The Holy Father has referred to this Tradition, this sensus fidelium, ““The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”

                  • slainte

                    Tradition is not merely latent, but expressly known and alive in the fullness of the historical life and faith of our Catholic Church.
                    We are thus able to know God, and by Grace and recorded history, we are able to recognize when modern architects of a Nouvelle Theologie would cause a radical shift in our Faith from being “Creator centered” to an alternate reality, “creature centered”. From this prideful error has flowed consequences,

                    The old Catechism tells us that we exist to Know Him, to Love Him, and to Worship Him. We move toward perfection by imitiating and conforming ourselves to Him. Tradition reminds us that we humans are His humble servants.

      • slainte

        Is one who makes reasonable efforts to follow the Ten Commandments and live the Beatitudes, who attempts to adhere to the proscriptions against sexual immorality as set forth in the Books of Leviticus and Romans, who recites the Holy Rosary, who accepts the creation of the world as set forth in Genesis a Restorationist or a Legalist?
        Ordering one’s life in accordance with the biblical mandates revealed in the Divine Law coupled with ample Love and Mercy does provide clarity, security, and personal freedom; this hardly constitutes a “lab faith”.
        By referencing a “journey of faith”…a “historical faith”…might we assume that you are suggesting something akin to a Hegelian Dialectic evolution of Catholicism…an evolving faith that supercedes Divine Revelation and the Natural Law?

        • gnt

          Given the quotes listed who knows? That is the problem. It can mean almost anything to anybody.

      • guest

        What is a legalistic and what is a restorationist exactly?

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          In the context, it can be explained by the Holy Father’s further remarks “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­”

    • tom

      Around 1960, Jacques Barzun declared that Western Civilization was cooked. He also declared it would take a few centuries to recover from our decadence. I believe him.

  • tamsin

    A Catholic response to the demise of rational discourse?

    You know, sometimes it just needs to be as simple as

    “But, Daddy, he’s got nothing on!”

    h/t Mitchell Kalpakgian’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, elsewhere on Crisis.

  • Adam__Baum

    Given that so much of the cultural trensettters, academia, media, public officials are committed, absolutely or maniacally to ideas that are war with reality and morality I wonder if “rational public discourse” is possible.

    • Adam,

      I concur. I would also recall Alasdair MacIntyre’s central argument that modern liberalism’s political debates are incoherent on a basic terminological level.

    • PewSitter

      “…the world is less and less interested in dialogue, discussion, or even
      thought. It’s run by a combination of propaganda, ideology that grows
      ever simpler and more intolerant, and self-seeking elites responsible
      mainly to themselves.”

      I agree with Adam’s assessment that “rational public discourse” today is impossible. The Catholic church must secure the ideas, art and knowledge that a just and good society needs in a very safe place, then head for the catacombs to wait out the disaster that modern atheist society will face shortly.

      As for the Catholic in the pews, the USA is not the end-all and be-all of life. Other countries are far better in charity and justice. See: http://internationalliving.com/

  • tom

    A Catholic convert who survives in Brooklyn. That’s my homily for the week. This James Kalb is a brave soul. I think some of the clarity we seek will come with guidance from Pope Francis.

  • Danny Klopovic

    I think the article puts the problem well when it notes that “So dialogue may be less effective than hoped. If that is so we need not be silenced, because proclamation—and above all integrity—remain possible.”

    Unlike Catholics (since I am Anabaptist), I think the end of the Res Publica Christiana was a blessing – and it is precisely because Catholics still lust (not a strong enough word but it will have to do) after their Christendom, it is neither rational to expect genuine dialogue from Catholics, Vatican II notwithstanding, or to expect integrity as long as Catholics remain Janus-faced on issues arising from so-called natural law, notions like religious freedom etc.

    That said, the Protestant Reformation was, I think, a deformation but that does not thereby legitimate Christendom, a crucial point that I think Catholics fail to sufficiently appreciate – or as that old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

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  • Valentin

    I’ve noticed both in my mother and fathers generation as well as my generation (at least in the US and Germany especially among the thousands of potheads) a large lack of a conscious interest in religion beyond what it can get us in terms of secular advantages or what particular preference happens to be backed by one religion or another as opposed actively seeking what is right without the arrogance that so many “modernists” have.

  • Valentin

    “so that they see the public good as part of their own good” A very apt phrase especially since what we need is objective gentlemen like those who made the villas go smoothly or those who ran plantations namely working for the overall good where personal good and the good of someone else don’t contradict.