How should we be good Catholics and good Americans?
Until recently that did not seem to be an issue to most of us. Separation of Church and State appeared to reconcile the Faith with a secular pluralist public order. The arrangement seemed to leave room for each to be what it is, do what it does, and cooperate in building a world that would be increasingly adequate to man’s material, social, and spiritual needs.
That view looks increasingly unrealistic today. Policies cannot be coherent or rational unless they are oriented toward definite goals and standards. Modern governments believe themselves responsible for human well-being in general. To carry out that responsibility they necessarily adopt a particular understanding of man and his good and try to bring human life in line with it. That understanding is resolutely secular, so that’s the direction they push life.
Progress always wants more, so as the project goes forward the pushes get harder. Government feels obligated, in the name of equality, harmony, and human well-being, to reform people in more and more ways, so it treats fewer and fewer aspects of life as beyond its reach. After all, how can public authorities safeguard individual health or reform gender relations without subjecting things to regulation that once seemed personal? So they end up trying to reshape all aspects of life in accordance with their own understandings.
It turns out that secularity and pluralism are neither tolerant nor pluralistic. They are governing philosophies, and insist on some things and exclude others. To make matters worse they recognize no principle higher than themselves, so their demands eventually become absolute. All else must give way before them, and in the end no room remains for God—a competing authority—unless He stops being God and becomes a poetic expression of the official outlook.
What to do? First, it is clear that the Faith comes before any secular cause, so if American beliefs come to be at odds with it we have to part ways with them. That has always been the case, but for a while the issue seemed only theoretical. Now that the conflict looks all too real we must accept and deal with it.
Doing so is our obligation as citizens as well as Catholics, and it’s the most important aspect of our participation in public life today. America is not a system of beliefs but millions of people living together, so rejecting some beliefs now treated as official is not rejecting America. As Catholics, citizens, and human beings we are obligated to promote the common good of those with whom we live, and if there are beliefs and habits that injure the common good we should do what we can to improve matters.
The best way we can do so is offer an alternative, and we can do that by living as Catholics and defending the legitimacy and rightness of doing so. America needs a way of life that is more functional, rewarding, and solidly based than what pop culture and certified experts have to offer. The best thing we can do is present one. That means we must regroup and reform, so that we once again have a way of life that is noticeably different from that of our neighbors. If we don’t then we’re not contributing what we can to our country.
To live as a Catholic is to know the Faith, love God and neighbor, and act accordingly. That involves personal, family, and other mainly private concerns, but also participation in common life with both Catholics and non-Catholics. Participation takes various forms. They can be as simple as coaching Little League, joining the local gardening society, or participating in a neighborhood watch group. A difficulty with such efforts today is that official policies grow continually more intrusive. It’s a sign of the times that the Boy Scouts and healthcare organizations are under increasing pressure to conform to the latest secular dogmas regarding life and sexual matters.
Life goes on, and we must deal with what it gives us. We can start informally, for example by simply being good neighbors. We can also follow Dorothy Day’s example. Her Catholic Worker houses refused to apply for tax-exempt status and ignored government attempts at regulation on the grounds that they were just a collection of people carrying on their own activities. They weren’t running soup kitchens, although it might have looked that way, they were just people having guests over for dinner. So why should government inspectors tell them what to do? Homeschooling networks avoid regulation as educational institutions by following a similar path.
Catholic anarchism is not enough, though. It is always possible to live as a Catholic even under an unfriendly government, but wanting to heal the sick normally means wanting to be able to do so in an organized way. That is difficult for Catholics if healthcare organizations are required, for example, to participate in abortion. So we must also defend the legitimacy of living as Catholics by publicly opposing legal and social obstacles to doing so. Since those obstacles suppress efforts to promote the common good, opposing them is also our obligation as citizens.
But how do we defend the freedom of the Church in an age that makes religion a matter of subjective private opinion? One way is to say our opinions are as good as other people’s, and we like to follow them, so we should be allowed to do so. Nonetheless, a naked claim of religious freedom that applies as much to Satanists andPastafarians as to Catholics isn’t likely to get us far. Who cares about Catholic objections to so-called “reproductive health services” if they’re just like objections of Christian Scientists to modern medicine generally? So our arguments have to be more substantive. In the long run we won’t be able to defend the legitimacy of living as Catholics without defending the rightness or at least reasonableness of the Faith.
To do so is to engage in public apologetics. That too is necessary to a defense of our ability to live as Catholics. As such it is an obligation not only of the Faith but of citizenship and care for the common good. The Church presents the truth about God and man, and offers a better account of the good life than the views on which—for example—liberal human rights are based. It follows that it would be publicly helpful for it to replace the latter as a public standard. Catholicism as such is therefore in the public interest, and propagating it part of our duty as citizens.
If successful that effort would ultimately mean a Catholic America. That is a very distant goal, of course. Even the normal preliminaries to Catholic doctrine, like natural law and natural theology, have been driven from the public square. People accept privately that there’s more to life than equality and the satisfaction of desires, and more to the world than atoms, the void, and human subjectivity, but such issues are excluded from public discussion, even though they are basic to the good life and any reasonable system of politics.
So at present such ultimate goals are more regulatory than immediately practical. They remind us not to sacrifice basic principle for immediate advantage. For now, though, we need to start at the beginning, and argue publicly the most basic points, like the authority of the natural family and the insufficiency of usefulness as a standard for the good, in the face of dogmatic denial that such points could have more than private validity. There are difficulties in doing so, but we have literacy, prosperity, every kind of intellectual resource, and a public life that is still mostly free. And also we have the obligation of promoting a better life for our fellow citizens, so what excuse do we have for not making our best efforts?
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 13, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.