In a recent column, I suggested that the most important thing for Catholics to do politically is to present, argue for, and act on the Catholic understanding of human life. We are defined by our faith, which has to do with an understanding of God, man, and the world, and our goal as Catholics is to live that faith and make it available to others.
That principle applies to public as well as other aspects of life. It may not seem an effective way to make things happen, but taking obvious public success as the standard means aligning ourselves with the principles on which public life is currently based, and that means certain defeat.
Catholic support for the contemporary welfare state shows the problem. Catholics believe in feeding the hungry and caring for the unfortunate. The welfare state is now considered the obvious method of attending to such things in an effective and reliable way, so most Catholics occupationally concerned with public affairs support it. The problem is that something as ambitious as the modern welfare state is more than a practical response to human needs: it is the embodiment of a vision. Man needs an ideal goal to give his actions overall sense and coherence, and a world that believes in technology instead of God takes as its goal social improvement through rational organization and control. If that’s the goal, then the all-provident state is the implementation, and trying to limit it, or denying its ability to solve an ever broader range of problems, is considered rejection of faith, hope, reason, and compassion.
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To support such a project is to accept, at least as a practical matter, the corresponding view of human life as something that can be systematized and administered in an open-ended and ever-more effective way. That view is the basis of progressive social policy, and it is radically anti-human as well as anti-Catholic. It means that man is not oriented in any serious sense toward anything that transcends the competence of the secular bureaucratic state. Nor is he an agent in any serious sense, since if he were social life could not be administered. Instead, he is an employee, consumer, hobbyist, and sometime welfare client for whom freedom is simply the right to choose from a menu of choices the system can provide conveniently.
Catholicism rejects such a view of life in favor of something far more complex and multilayered. As human beings we have a variety of concerns that we pursue in a variety of ways, individually and in combination with others. Those pursuits and concerns are not interchangeable and not all on the same level, but they should all be taken seriously and given their due.
What motivates that understanding is the conception of the world as a complex system oriented toward purposes that transcend it. The result is that Catholicism cannot accept that social justice is a matter of securing equal status and equal satisfaction of preferences for everyone through an overall administrative system. Instead, it sees it as a state of affairs “that allow[s] associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” So it’s not a bureaucratic or centralizing principle, but one that facilitates the legitimate activities of each particular agent and thus tends to decentralize the life of society. Nor is it radically egalitarian, since it accepts the legitimate particularity of intermediate institutions like private property and the family. To pick a current example, redefining marriage to include connections that lack the features that give marriage its fundamental role in human life makes it impossible to articulate and justify what is due marriage according to its nature and vocation. It follows that “gay marriage,” on a Catholic understanding, is radically at odds with social justice.
Such a view has very little presence in public life, to put it mildly. Almost no one understands it, or is even aware of its existence, and our first political task must be to change that situation. But how?
The most important single thing to do toward that end is to understand what our own position really is. That’s surprisingly difficult. As a practical matter, recent attempts by the Church to reach out to the secular world have meant accepting the ways of thinking that define that world at a time when they were becoming more single-mindedly anti-Catholic and anti-human. The result has been an increasing inability to present the Catholic view of things in connection with principles that make it comprehensible.
So Catholic social teaching is thought to be something other than what it is. To most people it has come to seem identical to liberal progressivism, with residual hang-ups about sex tacked on at Vatican insistence. Those who notice a problem have often responded by merging social Catholicism into American or free market triumphalism, combined perhaps with a plea for personal piety and good works and an emphasis on the damage done to the poor by excessive state action.
Both views are seriously flawed, because both are based on an understanding of the social order as a mechanism for the efficient and reliable conversion of resources into satisfactions. The one side, which emphasizes equality and security, thinks bureaucratic controls are the best way to advance that goal. The other, which emphasizes efficiency and innovation, prefers markets and enterprise. The ultimate goal is basically the same, though, because both sides assume that the point of life can only be to get what we want.
It is impossible to avoid such a view if we accept current understandings of man, the world, and the nature of reason. The industrialization of social life and pervasiveness of mass electronic culture make it hard for people today to avoid those understandings, so if we want to convert others we must first convert ourselves. That conversion has an intellectual as well as a spiritual and moral component, so we need to re-educate ourselves. We need to learn about natural law, read all the social encyclicals, consider how to understand them, study Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic and classical thinkers, and become much more critical of the principles we pick up from our surroundings—from official and popular culture, from the ever more intrusive mass media, and from expert pronouncements and our own formal education.
Once we’ve re-educated ourselves, and developed a more Catholic understanding of the world, we need to speak clearly in accordance with that understanding. That means, of course, that we have to give up the quest for prestige and even acceptability. Those are no doubt good things, but they cannot come before faithfulness and truth. It also means giving the real reasons for what we want, so that our positions will hang together and people will be able to understand what they are and why we hold them.
The HHS mandate provides an example. However important the freedom of the Church may be, the primary reason we don’t want to pay for contraceptives is that contraception is wrong. If we don’t say that, but just claim institutional freedom and freedom of conscience, we are not that different from a business that conscientiously objects to paying taxes because its owner doesn’t like government in general. For our objections to be taken seriously, we must present serious arguments on the substantive point at issue, the moral status and social effects of contraception. (The ability to present such arguments in good faith will of course require additional self-conversion.)
We shouldn’t simply be argumentative, of course, and should do what we can as a direct practical matter to promote social goods. Saint James tells us that faith without works is dead. Practical effect does not, however, trump faith and truth: we cannot make success the standard when that means cooperation with evil. The temptation to do so can seem overwhelming to those involved in active life, especially in a pragmatic and technological age like our own, but must be resisted. It was, after all, the devil who offered Jesus an opportunity to solve the problems of economics, politics, and natural necessity. Jesus turned him down on the grounds that serving God comes first. We should do the same.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 03, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.