How Catholics Can Avoid Cooperating with Evil in Public Life

In a recent column, I suggested that the most important thing for Catholics to do politically is to present, argue for, and act on the Catholic understanding of human life. We are defined by our faith, which has to do with an understanding of God, man, and the world, and our goal as Catholics is to live that faith and make it available to others.

That principle applies to public as well as other aspects of life. It may not seem an effective way to make things happen, but taking obvious public success as the standard means aligning ourselves with the principles on which public life is currently based, and that means certain defeat.

Catholic support for the contemporary welfare state shows the problem. Catholics believe in feeding the hungry and caring for the unfortunate. The welfare state is now considered the obvious method of attending to such things in an effective and reliable way, so most Catholics occupationally concerned with public affairs support it. The problem is that something as ambitious as the modern welfare state is more than a practical response to human needs: it is the embodiment of a vision. Man needs an ideal goal to give his actions overall sense and coherence, and a world that believes in technology instead of God takes as its goal social improvement through rational organization and control. If that’s the goal, then the all-provident state is the implementation, and trying to limit it, or denying its ability to solve an ever broader range of problems, is considered rejection of faith, hope, reason, and compassion.

To support such a project is to accept, at least as a practical matter, the corresponding view of human life as something that can be systematized and administered in an open-ended and ever-more effective way. That view is the basis of progressive social policy, and it is radically anti-human as well as anti-Catholic. It means that man is not oriented in any serious sense toward anything that transcends the competence of the secular bureaucratic state. Nor is he an agent in any serious sense, since if he were social life could not be administered. Instead, he is an employee, consumer, hobbyist, and sometime welfare client for whom freedom is simply the right to choose from a menu of choices the system can provide conveniently.

Catholicism rejects such a view of life in favor of something far more complex and multilayered. As human beings we have a variety of concerns that we pursue in a variety of ways, individually and in combination with others. Those pursuits and concerns are not interchangeable and not all on the same level, but they should all be taken seriously and given their due.

What motivates that understanding is the conception of the world as a complex system oriented toward purposes that transcend it. The result is that Catholicism cannot accept that social justice is a matter of securing equal status and equal satisfaction of preferences for everyone through an overall administrative system. Instead, it sees it as a state of affairs “that allow[s] associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” So it’s not a bureaucratic or centralizing principle, but one that facilitates the legitimate activities of each particular agent and thus tends to decentralize the life of society. Nor is it radically egalitarian, since it accepts the legitimate particularity of intermediate institutions like private property and the family. To pick a current example, redefining marriage to include connections that lack the features that give marriage its fundamental role in human life makes it impossible to articulate and justify what is due marriage according to its nature and vocation. It follows that “gay marriage,” on a Catholic understanding, is radically at odds with social justice.

Such a view has very little presence in public life, to put it mildly. Almost no one understands it, or is even aware of its existence, and our first political task must be to change that situation. But how?

The most important single thing to do toward that end is to understand what our own position really is. That’s surprisingly difficult. As a practical matter, recent attempts by the Church to reach out to the secular world have meant accepting the ways of thinking that define that world at a time when they were becoming more single-mindedly anti-Catholic and anti-human. The result has been an increasing inability to present the Catholic view of things in connection with principles that make it comprehensible.

So Catholic social teaching is thought to be something other than what it is. To most people it has come to seem identical to liberal progressivism, with residual hang-ups about sex tacked on at Vatican insistence. Those who notice a problem have often responded by merging social Catholicism into American or free market triumphalism, combined perhaps with a plea for personal piety and good works and an emphasis on the damage done to the poor by excessive state action.

Both views are seriously flawed, because both are based on an understanding of the social order as a mechanism for the efficient and reliable conversion of resources into satisfactions. The one side, which emphasizes equality and security, thinks bureaucratic controls are the best way to advance that goal. The other, which emphasizes efficiency and innovation, prefers markets and enterprise. The ultimate goal is basically the same, though, because both sides assume that the point of life can only be to get what we want.

It is impossible to avoid such a view if we accept current understandings of man, the world, and the nature of reason. The industrialization of social life and pervasiveness of mass electronic culture make it hard for people today to avoid those understandings, so if we want to convert others we must first convert ourselves. That conversion has an intellectual as well as a spiritual and moral component, so we need to re-educate ourselves. We need to learn about natural law, read all the social encyclicals, consider how to understand them, study Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic and classical thinkers, and become much more critical of the principles we pick up from our surroundings—from official and popular culture, from the ever more intrusive mass media, and from expert pronouncements and our own formal education.

Once we’ve re-educated ourselves, and developed a more Catholic understanding of the world, we need to speak clearly in accordance with that understanding. That means, of course, that we have to give up the quest for prestige and even acceptability. Those are no doubt good things, but they cannot come before faithfulness and truth. It also means giving the real reasons for what we want, so that our positions will hang together and people will be able to understand what they are and why we hold them.

The HHS mandate provides an example. However important the freedom of the Church may be, the primary reason we don’t want to pay for contraceptives is that contraception is wrong. If we don’t say that, but just claim institutional freedom and freedom of conscience, we are not that different from a business that conscientiously objects to paying taxes because its owner doesn’t like government in general. For our objections to be taken seriously, we must present serious arguments on the substantive point at issue, the moral status and social effects of contraception. (The ability to present such arguments in good faith will of course require additional self-conversion.)

We shouldn’t simply be argumentative, of course, and should do what we can as a direct practical matter to promote social goods. Saint James tells us that faith without works is dead. Practical effect does not, however, trump faith and truth: we cannot make success the standard when that means cooperation with evil. The temptation to do so can seem overwhelming to those involved in active life, especially in a pragmatic and technological age like our own, but must be resisted. It was, after all, the devil who offered Jesus an opportunity to solve the problems of economics, politics, and natural necessity. Jesus turned him down on the grounds that serving God comes first. We should do the same.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 03, 2013 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

    State funding of welfare dates from an ordinance made by Charlemagne as King of the Franks, in a general assembly of his Estates, spiritual and temporal, in 778-779, “Concerning tithes, it is ordained that every man give his tithe, and that they be dispensed according to the bishop’s commandment.” A Capitular for Saxony in 789 appointed tithes to be paid out of all public property, and that all men, “whether noble, or gentle, or of lower degree,” should give according to God’s commandment, to the churches and priests, of their substance and labour : as God has given to each Christian, so ought he to repay a part to God.” A Capitular of 800 made the payment of tithes universal within the fiscal domain of the whole Frankish kingdom. The pope welcomed the latter ordinance with “Life and victory to our pacific and august emperor!”

    From this time onwards, therefore, we may say the civil law superseded any merely spiritual admonitions as to the payment of tithes. Their payment was no longer a religious duty alone; it was a legal obligation, enforceable by the laws of the civil head of Christendom.

    In Catholic countries, the system continued for a thousand years, until the French Revolution abolished the dime in 1789

    • Actually, a somewhat similar system survives in family law, in which parents’ natual and religious obligation to support and look after their children is enforcible by the civil law. I’m not sure anyone calls that “state funding of childcare and aid to dependent children” though.

      When you speak of tithes being paid out of “public property,” do you simply mean that the king paid them as other men did? There can’t have been a very strong sense of a distinction between public property and the king’s property, when Charlemagne felt free to divide the whole empire among his three sons.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        It refers to the “ager publicus” – lands let on perpetual leases (emphytusis) , a practice imitated from the Roman Fisc

  • TheodoreSeeber

    What conservatives need to do is provide a competing vision. Local currency and banks could provide the micro-credit needed to entirely end the welfare state, but they don’t, because “it isn’t profitable enough”.

    • Duncan Maxwell Anderson

      “Local currency and banks could provide the micro-credit needed to entirely end the welfare state, but they don’t, because ‘it isn’t profitable enough.’ ”

      I totally agree. But I hope you’re not implying that being profitable isn’t necessary. It’s just another word for “sustainable.” Profit is evidence of what your fellow man will buy voluntarily.

      What’s not profitable enough in a highly regulated market (like banking) can be quite profitable in a freer market. There is wisdom in what people freely choose—such as worshipping God (to the Obama Administration’s dismay).

      When the state taxes us to distribute our money “charitably” to its voter base (welfare) and its donor base (favored businesses) is supplant a cardinal virtue with the sin of theft. This is exactly what has happened in the banking industry: Federal and state politicians have written laws to seize small-time bankers’ rights, to appeal to popular envy—while eliminating competitors of their big-bank political donors—to keep the campaign checks coming in.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I am implying that in a free market that offers 10% ROI for the major stockholders of banks (no, your average depositor is anything but a major stockholder), a micro bank offering .5% ROI is not profitable enough to get funded. Profit is the ONLY reason anything ever gets done in a “free market” of any sort, and the business that offers the greatest profit, not the business that offers the best service to the common good, will always win. There is a reason that Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit, not a bank.

  • Joseph Edwin

    Well said, in this chaotic secular world were everything needs scientific justification, the the only way to go against it is through logic. Let’s pray that more will come to accept God’s laws.

  • Matthew

    There is a great deal we as Catholics can do to express our vision of goodness and social justice in public life. We must oppose unjust war. We must make sure that the sick are cared for. We must protect against abuse and exploitation by the powerful and greedy. We must be good stewards of the earth that we leave to our children and grandchildren.

    • Alecto

      The sick cared for by whom? Oppose unjust war defined by whom? Protect against abuse and exploitation defined by whom? How? Good stewards of the earth as proposed by whom? The who, how, when and where are as important as the rest of it.

      Great way to shed real personal responsibility for anything you do and lay responsibility and costs at the feet of Everybody, Anybody, Somebody and Nobody.

      • Matthew

        All values are defined by “someone”. This piece talks about values that Catholics typically embrace. As Catholics our values are informed by the Church and by our own consciences. We must always do what we believe to be right, however hard that might be for us. On most issues, I agree with the teachings of the Church. Being good stewards of the earth as proposed by the Catholic Church, for example, is definitely something I support. It makes good sense scientifically and morally. Catholic teachings on social justice are clear too.

        • Alecto

          Where doctrine compels or forbids certain actions, like abortion or euthanasia, you have no choice to follow your conscience. Where the matter is prudential, there are also considerations. What do you mean by “On most issues?”

    • DC

      Anyone who condemns big business for being powerful and greedy but embraces the powerful (and greedy) big government or vice versa is not paying very close attention to human nature or to church teaching. Neither solidarity nor subsidiarity is very compatible with either big institution. I know of no national politician who is endorsing policies which will strengthen the family and local communities. We must have individuals, families and communities that can sustain themselves and reduce or eliminate most of the utter dependence that currently exists on governments and corporations that have no vested interest in the health and vitality of local peoples. The bigger the government/corporation the smaller the citizen/customer.

      • DC

        By the way, I’m not saying that big corporations nor that big government (i.e., federal government) must be abolished. There are some functions/services that only they can and should provide. But the more we rely on them the less we can expect them to be accountable to us and the more we become accountable to them.

  • James1

    Early on in the HHS mandate “debate,” I thought it perilous when the bishops chose to argue against the mandate using a First Amendment basis. It seems to me such a choice cedes the Rock of Truth to the Whim of the State.

    • Alecto

      Not at all. We live in the State, and we are part of the State. And I believe, as the Founders did, that our rights, of which the free exercise of religion is but one among many rights, come from God not from government. But, I did have a Torts professor who openly mocked me for suggesting that!

      • James1

        Of course we live in the State and are part of it. And, yes, the Founding Fathers recognized certain “inalienable rights” endowed by our “Creator.” (as a number of the Founders were Freemasons, the interpretation of “Creator” as the same being as the Catholic “God” could well be debated, I guess, but I digress…)

        However, the law of the State is transient, rather than Eternal, and it should be increasingly evident the law – indeed even the interpretation of The Law – is determined more by the whim of the mob than by reason in light of faith. I believe it a dangerous thing to build a firm defensive (or even offensive) position on shifting sands rather than bedrock.

        Should this be argued from a legal standpoint, we lose, as the argument is inherently a moral one. The culture must change before the law.

        • Alecto

          Agreed, but law is at its core, the attempt to embody morality. If laws are not moral, they don’t have much force other than the force of a police state to compel.

          • James1

            Well, perhaps we are going around in circles, then. It was my point that the HHS mandate is deficient in the “moral embodiment” to which you refer, and thus should be argued on the moral grounds that it is not a “just law.”

            I would tend to state amoral laws are not *just* laws, but such laws would tend to require said Police State to enforce. As this nation’s anti-terrorist efforts expand, how far away is an oppressive Police State?

            I will stand pat that arguing on the grounds of a First Amendment “violation” is a losing proposition in light of the administration’s lack of concern regarding the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

            • Alecto

              I agree with that. I guess we’ll have to prepare to work and lose until we win!

  • Alecto

    Wait. Wait until the economy, under the weight of infinite entitlement grants, vanishing distinctions between citizens and residents, shrinking productivity, crushing taxation, regulation and redefinition of every institution which underpinned this clunker society finally breaks down. Until then, be in the world, but not of it. Preparation = survival.

    • I agree that the welfare state and other big formal institutions are likely to become less and less functional so that people will have to rely more and more on personal, communal and religious ties. How do you combine a welfare state and good government with effectively open borders, for example, which seems to be something our betters all want?

      • Alecto

        Or, how do we, as Christians, faithfully execute Jesus’ command to help one another if we’re being gradually deprived of the means and ability? I fear what’s coming, and the possibility that the vacuum left by the collapse of the entitlement state will make it all but impossible to assist those who truly need help. Two-thirds of the country receive varying amounts of government support. Will it be possible to help them all? These are questions we must ask now so that when the time comes, we can provide that charity.

        • Carl Albert

          we have to begin a foundation for subsidiarity; meaning – in this context – faithfully supporting our parishes and faith communities today with our time, talents and treasures. like you, I fear what’s coming; not just for what it portends for me and mine, but more-so for the weak. I believe the fall of the social safety net will bring about a revitalization of faith. we need to be ready for it before it occurs.

  • Bucky Inky

    Thank you for continuing to post your work here Mr. Kalb. Your thoughts become ever timelier as the siege grows ever stronger, and resistance becomes ever more necessary.

    With increasing frequency, the stand a Catholic must take to uphold the Faith means opposing those leaders ordained by the Church who, you touch upon this in the article, appear to be more interested in harmonizing with the passing temporal order than in considering what effect the spirit of the age is having upon eternal souls. How does the typical layman, me included, discern such things, however? A not insignificant part of practicing one’s Catholic faith includes faithfulness to one’s Ordinary, and to the Pope. But how do we proceed when those upon whom we depend to fulfill our call to faithfulness, are themselves unfaithful? Can we continue being Catholic without them?

    Perhaps the faithful Catholic’s plight has a parallel in the recent BSA decision to allow openly homosexual scouts among their membership. In encouraging people to forsake the BSA, Laura Wood wrote: “One doesn’t need a corporate-funded super-organization to take a pack of boys into the woods and learn about survival. It’s time to begin anew.”

    Are we to say similar things about our bishops, and even our Pope – i.e., “We love the Catholic Faith and we see its traditions as necessary and wish to uphold them: if the bishops and popes don’t share our beliefs in this regard, who needs them? We’ll carry on without them!” Incidentally, Mrs. Wood also raised the question more recently, whether Pope Francis is even Catholic. Her decision even to raise the question was, in my opinion, hasty and based on uncertain details of what Pope Francis said, but I understand her concern, which I think is a desire to preserve the traditions upon which (such is our belief) the salvation of our souls depend.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Supreme Court to United States Catholics: It is no longer legal to not cooperate with evil.

    • Alecto

      But cooperation is a personal choice to comply. No government can ever make you do anything. You do it, or you suffer consequences for choosing (operative word) not to do it. We always have remedies, one is civil disobedience. Society has become complacent with the tyrannical overreach and has stopped asserting the equal and opposite reaction equally as aggressively.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        If you think we still have civil disobedience available to us, go talk to the grave of David Koresh. This has been going on for a long time while we did nothing, it is now our turn to have our children dragged away to the reeducation centers and be burnt out of our homes.

        • Alecto

          Koresh? The guy who was building up a cache of weapons? The paranoid child rapist? Bad example Seeber. You’re better than that, so are we.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            We’re now in the same boat according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Supreme Court of the United States. Their definitions, not mine, prevail.

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  • Ben

    I think it is necessary to find the common ground between the Left’s obsessive overreach via Big Government and the Right’s zealous Ayn Rand style of anarch-capitalism. Neither is a good model for America. Catholics would be better off registering as independents in order to stop compromising our faith, in my humble opinion.

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