Modern ways of thinking lead people to moral views that are different from traditional ones, so it’s not surprising they consider themselves morally superior to people in the past. Whether current moral understandings are actually better is nonetheless dubious and deserves investigation.
Modern thought wants to take fewer things into consideration but in a more rigorous way. Its dream is to explain everything by reference to modern physics. Some believe this way leads to rationality, control, and efficiency.
The approach is very effective in many situations: consider modern industry, agriculture, medicine, and warfare. But it means we simplify too much. We talk about people as if they were bundles of desires or components of a machine, and about society as if understandings of the good, beautiful, and true—and normal human ties like marriage—matter only privately. At the same time, religion is treated as a sentiment or a sort of private mythology. It would complicate things and make them less controllable if it were viewed as anything more than that.
The result is that we talk about politics and human life in ways that are utterly inadequate, so that they lose definition, connection, and purpose. We speak of voters instead of citizens, and of partners, relationships, and companion animals instead of marriage and family—which, in any event, have lost their definition, so that they have become whatever people want them to be. And nobody talks about the good life; they talk about economics and social programs instead.
But leaving out essentials leads to bad substitutes. When society is seen as a sort of machine, for example, people become careerists instead of social beings. Ties to particular people and communities aren’t taken seriously; only the economy and bureaucracy are taken seriously. So this is where people now put their efforts and the way they understand who they are. This is hardly a moral advance.
Social justice is also transformed. It no longer refers, as in the Catechism, to enabling the various components of society—family, Church, local neighborhoods, and particular cultural communities—to achieve their goals and further the common good and that of their members. Instead, it means depriving those components of all significance, since allowing them to matter would interfere with freedom and equality. It also means administering the social mechanism comprehensively to ensure all individuals are as equal as possible and that they don’t interfere with each other’s goals. “Social justice” thus becomes a force making for disruption and tyranny.
However, we can’t do without a larger scheme of meaning and reality. Since we no longer understand ourselves as part of a tradition, or the world as having a natural moral order, we create a moral and social order and force everything into it. This becomes the function of politics, which substitutes for religion and social tradition. The result is that the government’s involvement in human life becomes more pervasive while its understanding of human life becomes thinner.
Progressive politics, however convinced of its rectitude, presents a problem when used as a substitute for religion. If everything is this-worldly, and things are what we make them, then transcendence—that which is greater than us—doesn’t exist. This means something essential is missing, because there’s nothing to worship. Without some higher reference point the whole effort becomes simply a field for the exercise of power.
This won’t do, so people look for an escape, and in the absence of vertical transcendence they turn to horizontal transcendence. The Holy, we are sometimes told, is that which is Wholly Other. In a horizontal world there is no such thing, so we look for that which is as different from ourselves as possible. The result is the religion not of the Wholly Other but of the Holy Other. “Love God, and your neighbor as yourself” becomes “love as divine the person who’s as different as possible.”
Whoever is most unlike us, or those who made our world, or the people who have generally been on top and now seem to stand in our way (careerism is always a factor today), becomes holy. And the Church becomes the Church that puts the Holy Other at the center of her concerns. In other words, she becomes the Church of the Peripheries.
This suits current ideas of morality, but what does it mean? What, for example, is the standard of centrality? From the most basic standpoint, we are all sinners who distance ourselves from God, so we’re all at the peripheries. As such, the Church holds a very important place for us. What she offers us, though, is help freeing ourselves from our sins so that we may live better lives and escape the peripheries.
However, this doesn’t seem to be what is intended. “The Church of the Peripheries,” like other current catch-phrases, is difficult to pin down, but it seems to involve a social understanding of what it is to be peripheral. I view of this, the Church of the Holy Other is concerned with distance from centers of wealth and power. So a woman living among family and friends in a village in Guatemala would be on the peripheries, while a London banker whose wife just left him and whose friends have proven unreliable would not.
But the expression “peripheries” also seems to include those distant from traditional middle-class respectability. So a priest who says the Church should accompany and support a New York fashion designer in his walk, whomever he happens to love, has gone out to the peripheries, while a priest who tells a garage mechanic in Youngstown it’s OK to wear a MAGA hat has not.
It’s hard for someone who can step back from current prepossessions to see why such an emphasis would help the Church, her people, or anyone else. Most everyday people are engaged in their daily lives and don’t think of themselves as peripheral. To the ordinary believer, the Church of the Peripheries will seem to be the Church of Faraway People I Know Nothing About. What does that have to do with loving God and neighbor here and now?
The Church is universal, so she should have a presence in rural Guatemala and the New York fashion district, but no more so than in London and Youngstown, and her approach to those whose social connections are shaky or whose way of life has dubious aspects—which can include London bankers, New York fashion designers, Youngstown garage mechanics, and indeed all of us—should be basically the same. Where she has influence she should promote subsidiarity, so that people can be part of social networks that favor living well, and at a more personal level—where she usually has the most effect—she should help each of us understand where we go wrong and how we can do better.
What’s the point of this expression? “Church of the Peripheries” sounds a lot like “people’s government.” It’s a denial of institution and hierarchy where institution and hierarchy are inevitable. As such, it’s either confused, a rhetorical exaggeration to make up for some supposed oversight, or political obfuscation.
It may be all three, but the last interpretation is worth comment. When interpreted politically, to say that the Church wants to make the peripheries central is to say she wants the world integrated into a single unitary system. And to define the Church by her support for those who reject conventional middle-class respectability is to say that middle-class life and the standards that have ordered it should be debunked.
This interpretation explains why today’s Vatican gets along so well with global bureaucrats, billionaires, and celebrities, and why the Synod on the Family showed more interest in affirming alternate lifestyles than Catholic marriage. You don’t need to believe that people in Guatemala don’t matter, or that the lives of the saints are a panoply of conventional middle-class respectability, to think there’s a problem with that. You just need to think there’s a problem with the comprehensive technocratic organization of the world that all respectable forces now support, that traditional modes of local social organization resist, and that the Church once had the wits to oppose.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis meets George and Amal Clooney at the Vatican, May 29, 2016. (Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano)