Last month I discussed how the assumptions and language of public life today, which are based on commercial and bureaucratic concerns, are biased against Catholics. To make matters worse, the all-pervasive electronic media, increasing reliance on commerce and bureaucracy in everyday affairs, and changes in the purposes of formal education, along with its radical expansion, mean that the same assumptions and language have come to pervade the whole of life.
That means trouble. For example, it means that natural theology and the idea of natural functioning, which arise from everyday happenings that haven’t been put into commercial, industrial, or bureaucratic form, have become less and less understandable. More and more aspects of life are viewed as intentional social constructions, with the result that people have come to think that papal authority is superstition, “banning gay marriage” and “denying the priesthood to women” are arbitrary, and belief in God as a knowable reality is an absurdity, like belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Further, those views can be backed with arguments that can seem impressive. For objective validity, a supporter might say, knowledge must be based on publicly repeatable observation and measurement; otherwise it is a matter of individual taste or opinion. It follows that almost nothing can be taken seriously for purposes of public discussion that can’t be dealt with scientifically or technologically. So physical objects and actual human preferences can be taken seriously, but not much else. Realities that are more complex, subtle, and hard to nail down are denied or confined to the private realm. To take them into account in public life, it is thought, would impose on everyone the private mythologies of some. How could that be right?
It can’t, not on a view that rejects higher goods and natural moral law in favor of the physical and demonstrable. On such a view value becomes a matter of subjective desire, and reason a matter of finding the most efficient way to achieve our goals, so that the point of politics and morality becomes giving everyone his preferences, as much and as equally as possible, consistent with the coherence, stability, and efficiency of the system. Egalitarian technocracy, which is rule by commerce and bureaucracy, comes to seem indisputably correct as a way of organizing social life.
How should Catholics respond to such a situation? In the past we might have appealed to tradition, common sense, and natural human feeling, but such things are now increasingly rejected as social prejudices and stereotypes that stand in the way of needed reforms. And in any case, hedonistic materialism has itself become a tradition that to many seems entirely commonsensical. So “you gotta be kidding” isn’t enough, at least not without a great deal of preparation. It can just as easily be turned against us. That means we have to go to basic principles, and we have to do so in a sound-bite world that considers itself vastly superior to everything that came before.
As I suggested in my previous column, we won’t be able to do any of that if we accept the language and assumptions of present-day public discussion, which define what is real in such a narrow way that basic moral, philosophical, and religious issues can’t be recognized. We need not do so, however, because there is a split between public assumptions and everyday experience that we can take advantage of to reach people, change minds, and ultimately transform the way life is talked about.
The view now dominant has important strengths, notably its association with modern science and technology, and its still closer association with modern techniques of social control like regulatory bureaucracy and various forms of propaganda. It also has very serious weaknesses. It tends toward decisive action that ignores important realities, because it has a strong preference for simple principles that translate directly into policy. (Consider, for example, the various campaigns to eradicate sex differences.) More basically, it takes a false view of man. It treats him as an isolated individual, when what we are and want depends on other people and the world of which we are part. It therefore follows from our nature that the good life cannot be simply a matter of choice but must involve cooperation with social roles and patterns, and with the overall nature of things.
The greatest deficiency of the view currently dominant is that it gives us no adequate way to evaluate goals. It makes individual preferences the source of value, and puts them all on the same level, leaving no room for thoughtful understanding of what is good. We are indeed guided by preferences, but we are also guided by reason and by aspiration toward what is good, beautiful, and true. The good life must satisfy us in all our dimensions, so it can’t be simply a matter of what’s wanted. We don’t simply want what we want, we want it as something that is right to want, that is part of an overall scheme of life worth aiming at. That is why hedonism is no fun, and preference satisfaction so unsatisfactory as an overall moral and political standard.
Since the dominant understanding of man and rational action is wrong, so is that of politics. Dealing with human life is an art, not a matter of organizational design and management. Our answers to basic questions necessarily determine how we try to live together, so there is no way to avoid the question of the highest good, of what it makes most sense to aim at. In any event, the dominant liberal view that makes politics a matter of organizing freedom and equality is self-defeating on its own terms. Experience shows that in the absence of a standard of human nature and what is good making those things ultimate goals leads to a pervasive system of control to keep people from oppressing each other. Since the system lacks the balancing principle that an understanding of human nature would provide, it expands without limit and becomes a new form of tyranny.
In a world that tries to immunize itself against concerns other than efficiency, equality, and preference satisfaction, Catholics need to circumvent the public discussion and restart it on a different footing. Saint Ambrose noted that God does not normally save his people through rational argumentation (“non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”). Man is nonetheless a creature of reason, at least in part, and if we don’t deal with that side of him we’ll have problems. The obvious way to start, since we live in a world in which well-paid sophists have supplanted traditional authorities, is to do what Socrates did in a similar setting: ask pointed questions that are hard to get rid of because they go to the heart of how people live. For example:
• How should we live?
• If we choose a way of life, is it possible to be wrong?
• If we want the right to choose, do we want choice for its own sake or something more definite?
• If we just want choice, and what’s chosen doesn’t matter, what’s the point? If we want something more definite, isn’t that thing the real concern?
• How much fun is fun? How free is freedom? How successful is success? Does equality make us equally happy? Don’t we need something other than those things to make sense of life and find it satisfying?
• Is marriage a foundation for a good life, or an add-on?
• Do men and women want the other to be just like themselves? Or do they look for something definite and distinct from each other?
• What is love? What makes it so important? Does it just hang there among the atoms and gamma rays that otherwise constitute the world? What does the world have to be like for it to matter so much?
And so on, for all the basic aspects of life on which the Church has something to say and the technological outlook does not. The questions will meet with dodges, but like Socrates we must expose the dodges as futile. To make serious progress we don’t need to persuade everyone: we just need to reach enough people to put in question basic issues now treated as settled. Until we do that, we will never stop losing badly.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 5, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.