Catholics: Increasingly a Dissident Minority

Pro Deo et Patria is the motto of the Army chaplaincy, and an English version of the phrase is part of the Boy Scout Oath and the Girl Scout Promise. The phrase is well chosen for those organizations. It’s a call for loyalty to the particular society in which we live, and to the moral and cosmic order that gives that society its setting, orientation, and meaning.

The effect of such loyalties is to create a public order guided by substantive goods we are all assumed to revere. Something of the sort seems necessary for rational public discussion and decision, since the latter require something to attach us to the particular society of which we are members as well as to common goods that have enough content and particularity to support usable common standards. Nonetheless, the phrase is out of keeping with current demands for diversity and individual autonomy, because it suggests that specific concrete loyalties take precedence over individual and minority preferences. Whose God are we talking about, if we insist on talking about God, and what are the features that attach us to our country and make it what it is? Don’t different groups have different views on such matters? Who has the right to tell people what their loyalties have to be?

It’s hard to make sense of a call for particular public loyalties in a country that is increasingly understood less as a concrete community united by history and culture than an abstract legal order devoted to security, choice, tolerance, and physical well-being, with no connection to any particular cultural or religious tradition, and no loyalty to any history other than the history of the growing coherence and dominance of a governing regime that abolishes all other social loyalties.

Tensions between the implications of phrases like “God and Country” and the demands of the political outlook now dominant have therefore grown to the breaking point. The Canadian Girl Guides recently redid their promise as a “promise … to be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada,” and similar changes have been made in Australia and the United Kingdom. At the same time military chaplains have come under increasing pressure to fall in line with the new orthodoxy, and been slapped down for now-heretical statements such as “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

Instead of loyalty to a particular worldly and transcendent order the current orthodoxy puts self-determining subjectivity at the center of the moral and social world. Will and desire—“choice”—is the ultimate standard, and principles like equal freedom and equal satisfaction are expected to give all choices equal status. Instead of “God and Country,” the new order might choose as its mottos “access” and “free to be you and me.”

The new outlook seems uniquely right, just, and reasonable to those who hold it, but it leads to very serious problems. At bottom it’s a political manifestation of the religion of me, and not surprisingly researchers have found that its rise to dominance has been accompanied by a growing tendency toward narcissism. It is nonetheless a religion, which makes it something greater, and more troublesome, than simple narcissism. It has a conception of the holy in the deification of the other as well as the self, and a corresponding moral ideal that requires treating every me as an equal co-deity. Those conceptions have been found to require the radical transformation of all social relations by elimination of what now counts as discrimination and oppression, a transformation that is thought to trump all other considerations.

The scheme nonetheless runs into problems. When there are millions of equal deities there are sure to be conflicts, and in the absence of a transcendent principle to decide them they can only be resolved arbitrarily by whoever is in a position of power. The need for a power capable of deciding winners and losers can’t be recognized, because it contradicts the claims of freedom, equality, and supreme rationality, so the power must hide its face and put itself beyond discussion. It does so through claims of inscrutable expertise and by blackening its opponents as bigots and the like.

The results in public life include a tendency toward irrationality, willfulness, and cutting discussion short, all of which are made necessary by the impossibility of discussing the hierarchy of goods when all goals are simply a matter of will and desire. Examples include the constant use of claims of personal offense to silence debate, the treatment of children as adjuncts to adults, so that the right of an adult to acquire a child is thought to override the child’s interest in normal family life, and the claim that reluctance to force conscientious objectors to bake cakes for same-sex weddings or pick up the fifteen or twenty dollar monthly tab for other people’s contraception is a war against women and sexual minorities.

The new order also radically transforms the relationship between citizen and government. Instead of the citizen as participant we get the citizen as client. It’s all about me, or rather about millions of mes, so concern for personal obligation and the functioning and integrity of government gives way to concern for personal experience and the delivery by government of goods such as equality of esteem that bring with them endlessly proliferating demands. Under such circumstances government becomes viewed as a sort of self-generating public service provided by experts that’s somehow part of the nature of things and can therefore be taken for granted while we all pursue our bliss with public support.

In fact, government is not part of the nature of things. In a world in which honest and effective government is difficult to achieve it’s not sensible to assume that politics can be replaced by expert administration. Nor is it sensible to assume that a government that abandons substantive public reason in favor of radical subjectivity as its ultimate principle will remain functional and concerned with the public good, or even its stated goals of equal freedom, equal satisfaction, and multicultural sensitivity. It is more likely that those who run it will be more impressed with their own will and desire than that of their millions of charges, and concern themselves initially with the efficiency and coherence of the system that puts them in power, and eventually with their own personal advantage and that of their families, friends, and allies.

Wherein lies a lesson. American Catholics have tended to think of politics as participation in a common project shared with all citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Current trends may force us to rethink that view. Respected and authoritative forces in our society support trends that hollow out political self-government, so it is increasingly difficult to think of politics as a common project of the citizens. A Supreme Court decision or propaganda campaign carried on by media figures is not a citizen project, and such things increasingly determine how we are ruled. In addition, the political society in which we live increasingly expresses an ideological project rather than natural law or natural community. Some citizens may buy into that project, but given its nature Catholics can’t do so. So to maintain our integrity in a period in which traditional conceptions of God and Country don’t apply, it seems we must find our way as an indigestible dissident minority.

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).

  • Ciarán Ó Coigligh

    Dear James, I wish to thank you for this powerful account of a situation which is unfortunately becoming a global phenomenon. It gives me no satisfaction to tell you that you piece describes the situation in Ireland with total accuracy. Thank you and God bless.

  • Prof_Override

    “government is not part of the nature of things.” – True. Government is an abstraction, and as such will mindlessly morph from the modern toward the post-modern as is well laid out though not explicitly stated in the article. The pithy conclusion to such an arch is also well stated. The problem lies in that the focus seems to all backward. The lurch from a 1950’s view of the world (modernist not traditionalist BTW – ref. Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”) toward post modern narcissism should be and is predictable, as is the future pendulum swing back toward something resembling sanity per se. The question becomes whether the “indigestible dissident minority” remains a petulant, insular minority or whether it is a reformatory force when the opportunity arises (and it will). On that point I’m not clear.

  • Watosh

    Mr. Kalb makes some excellent points.

  • Rusty

    This thesis would make for an interesting discussion in a first year discussion group for students reading Plato’s Republic. All political regimes degenerate towards tyranny, and the democratic regime may be the most colourful, but it inevitably becomes debased towards the individual preferences that Mr. Kalb describes.

    I do stress first year, before minds become poisoned by post-modernist claptrap that dismisses Plato as a dead white guy.

    • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

      I read Plato’s Republic in High School for English class. The teacher I had would never teach with this angle, as he was a big consumer of post-modernist claptrap Kool Aid.

      • Rusty

        Teaching Plato to a captive group of 16 and 17 year old teenagers sounds like a huge challenge to me. Perhaps the book should come with a warning “City in the Sky Only – Do Not Attempt in Real Life”.

      • Tony

        I think it is perfectly awful to read Plato’s Republic in an English class, period. English class should be for reading great works of imaginative literature; and the students simply don’t have the wealth of practical experience that will make the Republic understandable. I understand that this point can be made against all study of political science by youngsters; Aristotle said that we shouldn’t study it until age forty.

    • Nick_Palmer3

      Absolutely. And as a follow-on, Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” nicely places things in a modern perspective.

    • Vincent

      “before minds become poisoned by post-modernist claptrap” Well said! I wonder if we (that is Catholics) will be able to recover an intellectual grasp of things until modernism is ‘re’ condemned in the post Vatican 2 era. It seems to have been dismissed, but I wonder if it’s not the elephant in the room that gave birth to tyranny of relativism which led to the problems discussed above.

    • tamsin

      debased towards the dictatorship of relativism…

  • poetcomic1

    “The Greeks, as if forseeing an apostasy more malignant than their own, used to call the hairy herb in hedges which sticks to the clothes of men who touch it, ‘philanthropon’;
    and with no greater justice is the same title applied at present to those men with their mouths full of philanthropy and their hands itching for booty who set up schemes of
    universal love and charity.” -Kenelm Digby COMPITUM.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    Mr. Kalb has wonderfully described the situation in which we find ourselves. It was because of this reality that I decided to get out of the military, and tried (unsuccessfully) to discourage my sons from joining. It is simply no longer clear what we are defending in the West. Certainly, I could no longer keep my oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, as constantly redefined by SCOTUS.

  • cestusdei

    The old Republic is dead. We must be prepared to become a persecuted minority, again. Our grandchildren will suffer far worse then we will. Those who do the persecuting will think they are doing a good thing. So it goes. We should not be surprised Jesus told us that the world hates him and so it will hate us.

    • tom

      We haven’t had a martyr in America, murdered by forces within the
      prevailing culture, since 1646 at Auriesville, N.Y. when Jesuits were
      beaten to death by American Indians.

      Opportunities for martyrdom for Roman Catholics will be returning at the hands of our Democratic Party.

      • Pamela

        Even if we have to do so through gritted teeth….even if the words ring completely hollow….we MUST PRAY for every enemy of our faith. Pray that through the grace of God their hearts are changed and that they fall to their knees in repentance. Do this every day, several times a day if you can. Eventually, our jaws will relax and we’ll utter these prayers in sincerity, realizing that even those we love to hate are sinful human beings who need God’s mercy…just like us.

  • publiusnj

    The author’s third paragraph (beginning “It’s hard to make sense”), is one of the best summaries of where the current dominant First Amendment interpretation has been leading this country. This country has no moral tradition any longer. All attitudes toward sex, marriage, familial responsibilities and duties toward the larger community are equally acceptable so long as one doesn’t violate a law that current office-holders want to enforce (which often depends on their calculus of what decisions on enforcement will keep them in office). IOW, we live in a legal imperium that raises amorality, as the ultimate desideratum of tolerance, to the highest good of the State

    • tamsin

      “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” ~ Thrasymachus.

  • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

    Personally, I often wonder if I will ever find myself a martyr. Never even considered it until recently.

    • Pamela

      I am right there with you. Increasingly, I feel marginalized in the pews of my own parish. It seems that moral relativism and narcissism have won over. These worldviews are as prevalent among so-called Catholics as they are in secular society. For the moment, I am being told that my views are too harsh or intolerant; who’s to say that in the not too distant future I won’t be punished for my views… or worse?

  • Rob

    Very thoughtful and clearly written.
    Regarding narcissism as a religion I put it this way:
    God is that than which no greater can be thought. (St. Anselm) This is also true of modern man. Only modern man is so small-minded that he cannot think of anything greater than himself.

    Mr. Kalb does a good job of showing the social and political implications of that state of humanity.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The “country” is not the state, but the nation.

    Nationality is defined by descent and birth, and it is neither revocable nor is it attainable at will. Someone can lose his citizenship but his nationality, never. The nation is a unit of common descent and blood, not of voluntary adherence and association, like a club.

    As Mazzini summarised it, “They speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same tradition.”

    The national character, like a soul, pervades its members’ natures and expresses itself in their actions; this is the country, the “patria” to which loyalty is due, not its government, not its political system, not its constitution, for all these can change; the nation cannot. Poland was Poland even when it was partitioned between its conquerors and Ireland under English rule was Ireland still and French Catholics who hated the Republic never wavered in their love for la France eternelle.

    • Art Deco

      Actually, they didn’t speak the same language in Italy. Local dialects all up and down the peninsula, many of them mutually unintelligible. Standard Italian is a derived from archaic Tuscan.

      • Tony

        Well, yes and no. The dialect spoken by my Calabrese cousins cannot be understood in Venice, and the Venetian dialect would be hard to understand, not impossible but pretty difficult, in Reggio di Calabria. Yet the Tuscan of Petrarch, which is the real parent of modern Italian, is very very close to modern Italian, much closer to modern Italian than Chaucer is to modern English, though Petrarch and Chaucer are contemporaries (and Petrarch was the elder of the two). Because of Petrarch and the great Florentines, Tuscan became the literary language of Italy, and pretty early on, so that anyone who was literate, no matter what you spoke to the milkman, was quite conversant in it.

    • One aspect of the current transformation is the abolition of nationality as you define it. Treating common descent and blood as the basis of fundamental public loyalties is now viewed by all respectable opinion as a moral atrocity.

      • Rusty

        I’m not sure that respectable opinion rules on this one.

        We are about to enter yet another election in Quebec where the separatist party has cleverly exploited the “us” and “them” question and appears poised to win a majority in the provincial parliament. They have done so by attempting to outlaw symbols of religiosity in the public sphere, which has a disproportionate impact on immigrants and Jews. The so-called Charter of Values flies in the face of the government’s strategy of encouraging french-speaking immigration, which comes mostly from third-world nations where birth rates continue to be high.

        The ugly face of Quebec nationalism reflects exactly what you suggest is transform(ed or ing) elsewhere – common descent and blood as the basis for fundamental public loyalties.

      • There have been nations born only secondarily of blood, but primarily of an idea. Americans are blessed to be part of one such nationality, whose original form and rights are an ideal and example that will endure even if the state itself fails (vid. Arthur’s Camelot).

        Don’t accept that nationality is lost to us. It will deprive us of a very powerful idea, one that can sit side by side with – indeed, even intertwined with – deep faith.

        A place where everyone can sit in peace under their apple tree, and none to make them afraid. *That’s* our proper national soul in America. No way we’re calling quits on that one. Not as Americans. Not as believers.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Only consider the Basques, the Catalans, the Flemings of Vlaamse Beweging, the Lombard League, the Scots, the Hungarian minority in Roumania, the Swedish minority in Finland in and, quite topically, the Russian minorities of the Near Abroad

        Fichte’s idea that borders should depend on dynasties and treaties, but on language and nationality appears to be alive and well

        • I agree that traditional nationalism hasn’t disappeared, any more than personal enrichment disappeared as a motive during the communist period. My point is only that it’s lost official respectability. I should say though that there’s some tolerance for the nationalism of smaller groups when it tends to disrupt the nationalism of larger and more powerful groups.

      • TheAbaum

        Treating any common characteristic as essential to nationality is considered a moral atrocity, which is why the Ninth Circus just decreed that wearing the American Flag on the Fifth of May is verboten.

        It is debatable whether or not their screeds are respectable, even in the judiciary, given the frequency with which their opinions are overturned upon appeal.

    • Gian

      Nationality is NOT defined by “descent and birth”. Hindus form a single nation but they have been divided into thousands of non-intermarrying castes.
      And even the English–would you claim that ALL of them have shared “descent and birth”?
      Also look up Chesterton in The Heretics. The nation is a mystic thing, not reducible to a pert formula. The nation is defined as an shared object of love. Each nation is a particular piece of humanity that provides an instance of the Natural Law, more or less imperfectly. That is, the particular laws and customs of a particular people are instances of the Natural Law as understood and applied by that particular people.
      CS Lewis also alluded to this when he wrote that God is viewed through national lens and horrid societies have horrid view or image of God.

  • don Pavao

    When catholics became minority in the Church it was just a logical step that we will become minority in the world.

    • dove1

      But that is ok! He said He will not abandon us! We’re fine.

      • John

        Right, dove. There’s actually no need to worry whatever happens. The result is already in and Jesus wins everytime. Best regards

        • dove1

          Amen! Have a blessed Easter season!

  • Tony

    The foolish Girl Guides now make the girls swear to be narcissistic twits. “Be true to yourself” means no more than that you should do what you want to do, and not to let other people get in your way. It’s like swearing that you will be swallowed up in pride, and that you will take no account of the common good, particularly if what is good for your country generally involves a great deal of sacrifice from you.
    We Catholics will end up being the last people in our countries who remember what a city, a society, and a culture even are. It is normal and natural for people to love their native lands; that is part of the virtue of piety. The progressives by definition have to hate their native lands, and their traditions, and their culture — because all of those things impinge upon the all-competent all-devouring Self.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      It was a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment that the nature of the human person can be adequately described without mention of social relationships. A person’s relations with others, even if important, are not essential and describe nothing that is, strictly speaking, necessary to one’s being what one is. This principle underlies all their talk about the “state of nature” and the “social contract,” and from it is derived the notion that the only obligations are those voluntarily assumed.

      Later, Bentham was to insist that the idea of “relation” is but a “fictitious entity,” though necessary for “convenience of discourse.” And, more specifically, he remarks that “the community is a fictitious body,” and it is but “the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.”

  • HigherCalling

    There is an excellent word that describes “thinking” in the post-modern, relativistic culture: Preposterous — pre + post — the practice of placing “before” that which should come “after.” The result of such disordered thinking is the loss of primary things (God, the protection of innocent life, family, truth…) and the elevation of secondary things (the individual, emotion, tolerance, fairness, equality…). Preposterous thinking refuses to put things in their proper order and ultimately rejects natural order all together. It is an intellectual absurdity that brazenly calls itself “progress.” It cultivates weeds in the human mind, it places unnecessary traps in the path of sustaining freedom, and it is the central cause of the Culture of Death.

  • Thank you for writing this truth. A clear train of recent events, not least of which involves agents of the state asking about the contents of citizen group prayers, certainly lends a lot of weight to Kalb’s logical thesis. Kalb is simply explaining WHY Freedom of Religion is dying so quickly, as part of a broader push toward tyranny.

    Explorations of how to cope in such situations are harder to come by. I would start by throwing out this thought for consideration:

    The Church, as an institution, is a critical form of insurance and security against (and even within) such tyrannies, as well as a cornerstone of a mission from a Power higher than man. The 1st duty of believing Catholics is, therefore, to turn toward their own church. They must guide and influence her through their involvement, toward the principled inner strength that will be required. While building connections to economic activities and other works outside the church that will help sustain her through times of trial, and place some level of outer power in front of that inner strength. But the inner strength, and determination to stand up for Christian belief and for believers, must come first.

    This is a huge mind shift for modern American Catholics – even for Crisis Magazine readers, who will be more sensitized than most. Fully understanding what this mission involves may require that allies come from unexpected places, and that some habits and reflexive responses be set aside.

    I don’t know where this is going, myself – only that we must be ready to treat the threat, and the imperatives, with the seriousness they deserve. Exactly what that involves in practice, and the templates one must learn lessons from (Christianity in pagan Rome? Orthodox Judaism? the responses of the Mormon Church in America? China’s Falun Dafa?), are topics for several articles and discussions beyond this one.

    • dove1

      Read Revelation and the other prophetic books to know where it is headed. God won’t tolerate much more! He tells the Holy Innocents who cry out for vengeance that when the last soul is saved, He will act. Think about it. Since Adam there has been a finite number of people who have lived. There will be a finite number of people in Heaven. Who knows the number? Only God! But looking around, (watching as we are instructed), I can’t help but think that we’re fast approaching it. Remain faithful, love God and fellow man, fear not and all will go well with us. Soon and very soon, we’ll go to meet the Lord. Meanwhile have a most holy lent and Happy Easter – He wants His saints to be happy, let’s not disappoint Him! God Bless!

      • Happiness in a good cause. A timely and worthy reminder, thank you.

        As for what G-d will tolerate, no idea. I can’t time the stock market, a construct whose components I can at least understand. I’m not going to even try timing G-d, whose plan, nature, and conceptions are utterly beyond me. The last century saw 100+ million murdered, without a final end. When will one come? The reply to Job out of the whirlwind seems apt for such questions.

        Until it does come, I think it’s up to us to act as best we can, if we really want to count ourselves among the Hosts of Heaven. I’m reminded of the guy who ends up in Heaven after a flood, only to have St. Peter ask him why he didn’t avail himself of the boat, rescue helicopter, etc. that were sent for him…

        • dove1

          In the same place he addresses the Holy Innocents, He seems to understand that He is tolerating…and will respond instantly once His greater mission is accomplished (filling Heaven). Our command in the matter from Jesus was to “Wait and Watch”, not much on boats and helicopters in my version. Douay Rheims 1899. Maybe a newer version, I suppose. Seriously, I get your point, but besides prayer (acting the best we can), for most of us, there isn’t a lot of “direct action” we can take to change the situation. It is a test, but patience in prayerful hope is called for more so than “action” at this time. Unless you refer to Corporal works of Mercy, Lent, confession, Rosaries, Prayers for the Conversion of Russia, First Five Saturdays devotion, daily prayers, etc. as your helicopter and boat. I lumped them all into “prayer”. More direct action: Turn the other cheek and thank God for all His blessings! Act Christ-like! Be Christ-like. As best we can! Have a Holy Lent and a Happy Easter – pray for me as I will for you! If His mercy and our faith, hope and love are well founded and strengthened, I’ll see you there!

  • John O’Neill

    Benedict XVI once foretold that the future Church would be smaller but much more faithful to the magisterium. I think this is true; the Church is shrinking dramatically especially in the large urban areas where it once was dominant but it is growing in more rural and Southern areas where it has become a strong resistance to the rising tide of atheism, relativism, and godless democracy. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus, Christus imperat.

  • AugustineThomas

    If Christian men hadn’t all become such ponces and cowards we wouldn’t be having these problems.

  • dove1

    Well said and right on target, Mr. Kalb!

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  • Nick B. Steves

    So to maintain our integrity in a period in which traditional
    conceptions of God and Country don’t apply, it seems we must find our
    way as an indigestible dissident minority.

    Love that analogy: “indigestible”. Digestion is exactly what Leviathan—the modern ideological apparatus some call “The Cathedral”—does to cultural, social, and religious particularity.