To all appearances, everyday life is becoming ever more at odds with the Catholic vision of what it should be. It’s becoming less like life as traditionally conceived, a network of relationships, loyalties, and purposes, many of which are natural or transcendent and therefore enduring. Instead, it’s becoming more like eBay, Facebook, a government office, or an industrial process, a setting in which nothing concrete stays the same and nothing that matters much ever changes.
The transformation is progressive, and applies more and more to each succeeding generation. Young people are brought up and made ready for the resulting social setting by formal education, institutional childcare, commercial pop culture, and computer networks. They are taught in a thousand ways to consider the bureaucratic and commercial world the serious part of life, so everyone has to have a career, and progress in it is considered the thing that gives life meaning and weight.
The struggle for career success or survival mostly goes forward in service to enterprises with hundreds or thousands of employees, often under temporary or part-time arrangements that are easily reshuffled or broken off. Slogans like “equal opportunity” make the interchangeability of human resources with similar technical qualifications into a basic social and moral principle. To that end natural distinctions and connections, like those related to sex, and inherited and traditional ones, like those related to cultural and religious community, are debunked and deprived of effect as a matter of fundamental public policy.
The result is that transcendent commitments and basic human connections become divorced from concerns thought serious. In the absence of natural, traditional, or transcendent connections that are thought to matter, public life fragments. Among professionals it devolves into battles among propagandists, policy entrepreneurs, and competing political teams and brands. Among the public at large it dissolves, except at the most local level, into sporadic participation in shifting electronic networks that present fragmentary images assembled into evanescent storylines by Internet memes.
Tweets and hashtags are addictive, but not functional, so the work of making decisions and running things is carried on less by democratic persuasion than by bureaucracy and commerce, and by interests and institutions that are able to act continuously and coherently but avoid the limelight because they lack legitimate authority. Under such circumstances democracy becomes a safety valve for popular discontent, a reality check and warning system for governing institutions, and above all a means of legitimation: whatever the government does, the people should go along with it, because they appointed the decisionmakers and if they don’t like the result they can appoint someone else.
Current theory tells us that all that should be okay. Commercial and neutral bureaucratic arrangements seem to let each of us define his own values and way of life. That is the point of the system: free to be you and me. If you want to buy virtual child pornography you have a constitutional right to do so. Also, such arrangements lend themselves to public supervision, so it’s thought they can be relied on to be rational, just, and effective. You just need to have the right people with the right training, affiliations, and loyalties doing the supervising. Our rulers think that’s happened for the most part: the Supreme Court is staffed solely by graduates of Yale and Harvard Law Schools, the great majority of recent presidential candidates have had similar institutional backgrounds, and it’s very difficult to attain high office without acceptance by news media led by people from the same world. To further prevent the intrusion of disruptive interlopers the highest offices are filled more and more by members of family dynasties, who can be presumed safe.
Under such circumstances it’s thought that all that’s needed for utopia—for the secular equivalent of the Kingdom of God on earth—is for the EU and similar arrangements to perfect themselves in accordance with their principles and become universal.
Systems thought perfect are never so. In practice the realm of freedom modern life offers us isn’t so free. We are social beings who live in a world created by the attitudes and beliefs of others. Not many can follow their own drummer when electronic media penetrate everywhere, we are raised by peer groups, pop culture, and bureaucratic arrangements, and equal opportunity laws require every institution of any size to insist on equal affirmation of all beliefs and ways of life as central to its mission. Under such circumstances how can an independent way of life exist as anything but individual idiosyncrasy understood as such?
Such a state of affairs is a problem not just for Catholicism but for any humane way of life. Career, political correctness, and pop culture don’t make a worthy life, but that’s what young people especially are offered today, and the most obvious alternative is an “alternative” culture that defines itself more by a pose of rejection than by anything positive and real.
But if that’s a problem, what does someone who doesn’t like what’s on offer do about it? Catholics won’t be surprised to hear that the thing most needed for independence from an all-pervasive this-worldly system based on career, consumption, and electronic distraction is a concrete transcendent focus of loyalty: in other words, God.
In a basic sense, of course, that is all we need. Even so, it is hard to orient ourselves toward God without regard to the daily circumstances of life. People say that a saint can thrive in all environments, illumined by joy and transforming those around him by his presence. The ideal, though, is hard to realize. In the Gospels even Jesus didn’t transform many people, and at times seemed downright gloomy. How many can do better? It seems then that the perpetual availability of the way of sanctity isn’t a complete answer to our present situation. While directing ourselves to ultimate concerns, we also need to act on a lower, more concrete, and more specifically social plane.
“Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice,” and other goals fall into place. The injunction seems very sensible, but what’s involved in the kingdom and justice of God, and how should we seek them as members of a this-worldly society? That’s the subject of Catholic social teaching, which applies general Catholic principles to social relations to determine what sort of society best helps man toward his natural and supernatural ends.
It’s a difficult and complicated business, so people try to simplify it in various ways. It’s hard to push forward as a whole, so they try to achieve it piecemeal, notably by finding common ground with non-Catholic and often anti-Catholic forces. That is why Catholic bishops lobby legislators with regard to health, employment, the environment, and immigration policy, hoping to bring about a world more worthy of humanity by giving their support to projects designed and led by people who don’t like and don’t understand the Catholic view of man and the world.
Not surprisingly, attempts to forward some goals of Catholic teaching while sidelining goals at odds with other people’s projects often end up defeating Catholic social teaching as a whole. If you establish a comprehensive system of healthcare with secularists in the driver’s seat you’ll get a system that treats abortion as a fundamental good, and eventually one that treats death as a medical treatment and “homophobia” as a mental disorder.
If you try to provide for education and social protection of individual welfare through the present-day state, the effort will be carried out in accordance with the state’s view of how things should be, and you’ll get secularist indoctrination and radical weakening of the family. Do such developments truly forward the natural and transcendent goals of our nature?
With that in mind it seems there’s something wrong with many current efforts to give practical application to Catholic social teaching. It appears from what’s been said that the most important social problem at present in the Western world isn’t healthcare, the environment, employment, or social exclusion. It’s the radical subordination of God and man to what is intended as a system of rational social management that is intended, among other things, to deal with such problems.
To do battle with that evil it seems that we need a rethinking of the practical implications of Catholic social doctrine that keeps ultimate goals more firmly in mind, and views with intense suspicion measures that seem likely to increase the reach of commerce, the state, and supposedly neutral formal expertise at the expense of traditional and natural communities like the family.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 23, 2015 on the Catholic World Report website and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: AP / Pablo Martinez)