At the close of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI noted that the Council had displayed an unparalleled desire “to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives.” That desire reflected a constant goal of the Church, to make her message effective by bringing it to men where they are. Modern man had become centered on himself, so perhaps the Church could reach him, and start the process that would eventually bring him to God, by joining in the concerns and movements of the day.
It’s been a bumpy ride, and some have suggested course corrections. The journey is not over, though, and to the extent the Church does reach and persuade people, they will become closer to her. As men are, so are their institutions, so ultimate success of the Second Vatican Council would mean that society and its institutions become Catholic. That should be no surprise, since the Council reaffirmed “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”
But what would it mean for society and its institutions, including government, to become Catholic? The idea seems silly and wrong to many people. However things may have seemed fifty or a hundred years ago, it now seems ridiculous to speak of such a thing. Here in the West we’re losing whatever public influence we once had, and if we manage to stay legal while retaining our doctrines and something of our way of life we’ll be doing well for ourselves.
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Beyond such immediate practicalities, many people have raised basic objections to the idea of a Catholic society. All societies are unjust, they say, so no society can be Christian. If a society claims to be Christian, then Christianity and power become entangled and Christianity becomes corrupted. Also, not everyone is Catholic, and that situation won’t change, so a Catholic public order would unjustly force a particular religion on those who disagree with it. And past societies that have called themselves Catholic have put most of their efforts into other and less lofty goals. So the idea is impractical, tyrannical, and hypocritical by its very nature. The Constantinian idea of a Catholic empire was a bad one, and good riddance to it.
But does any of that make sense? Bl. John Paul II, following Leo XIII and others, “repeat[ed] that there can be no genuine solution of the ‘social question’ apart from the Gospel.” According to much current thinking, he could not have meant the Gospel that is integrally tied to the Church. He must have meant some other gospel that the New York Times and the European Court of Human Rights could sign on to.
Such a view seems unlikely. The Gospel is the Gospel, and to mention it is implicitly to bring in whatever is necessarily connected to it—including the Church. With that in mind, the principled objections to a Catholic society don’t stand up to much thought. All men are unjust, except maybe a few saints, most actual Catholics put their main efforts into worldly goals, and harsh things could be said about the Church as a human institution. It is nonetheless right for believers to think of themselves and their communities and institutions as Catholic, even though there may be some less-than-saintly things about them.
Life must go on even though men are imperfect. Individuals and societies need some sort of guiding principle, and the guiding principle they accept helps define who they are. That remains true even when they abuse and fall short of their principles, as they quite generally do. A bad Catholic is a Catholic, he’s just a bad one, and if he calls himself Catholic and his commitment makes some difference to how he acts he’s doing as well as most of us. The same would be true of an imperfectly Catholic social order, which any social order calling itself Catholic would no doubt be.
Nor is there ever unity as to what principles should be held publicly or how they should be applied. Disagreement on basic matters is simply the human condition. In the actual world in which we live, the nature of a society is defined not by principles everyone agrees on, which don’t exist, but by those its leaders and decision makers feel entitled to appeal to as they carry on their activities. If those principles are liberal, so that judges feel free to rewrite the law in favor of abortion and “gay marriage,” politicians go along with them, and respected commentators mostly approve the result, then the society is liberal, even though some citizens think the changes don’t go far enough and others reject them with horror. Indeed, popular opposition to the direction of change is likely to be treated by social authorities as a disorder to be dealt with by firmness, education, and various formal and informal sanctions rather than as a reflection of legitimate concerns that call for respectful compromise.
Times are bad for Catholics now, but times change, other people have problems too, and we don’t know how things will look in fifty or a hundred years. Politics have not always been liberal, and won’t remain so forever. I’ve argued that the Catholic view is likely to be more enduring and resilient than the liberal one, simply because it’s more adequate to reality. If that’s right, and social leaders generally come to adopt more and more of the Catholic view and look to it as a way of understanding their jobs, society will stop being liberal and become Catholic. Why would that development be something for a Catholic to object to?
To say a society is Catholic is not to say it has no room for anything else. Catholicism is less a collection of rules than an understanding of what the world is like that helps us deal with it in ways that make sense. So if some people are not Catholic, others aren’t as good as they should be, and many concerns are much the same for Catholics and non-Catholics, it helps deal with that state of affairs as well.
A Catholic society could, for example, be liberal and democratic in many ways. Liberal goals and institutions are often good, but only up to a point and not as the highest standard. So the judiciary could be independent, accused persons could be tried by jury, high officials could be chosen by popular vote, and there could be extensive freedom of discussion and belief. The point is that pure choice would be limited by the public good, as it always is in one way or another, but the public good would be determined in a Catholic rather than techno-hedonistic sense. So actions and utterances at odds with Catholicism would likely be treated much as practices and utterances at odds with advanced liberalism are treated today. To pick an example, instead of worrying about hate speech the authorities might worry about gross impiety, and look for a sensible way to respond to it while respecting other concerns.
None of these speculations, of course, has immediate application. Earl Warren XII is not going to convert to Catholicism, get appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, and start reading papal encyclicals into the Constitution any time soon. Nonetheless, Catholics need an understanding of what would make the most sense socially, if conditions were favorable and realization were possible, so they can remain oriented to ultimate goals in the confusion of daily life. And it is assuredly the belief of the Church that she is the bearer of a public revelation with implications for the whole of human life, including those having to do with politics. It follows that the ultimate goals of the Church necessarily include evangelization of public life and thus a Catholic society.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared June 3, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.