A Catholic Response to the Demise of Rational Public Discourse

To follow the news today is to get the impression that public life, in the sense of rational discussion oriented toward some reasonable understanding of the common good, has come to an end. Everyone notices the partisanship, the bad faith, the indifference to truth, and the substitution of entertainment for hard news. Catholics in particular notice the disappearance of natural law reasoning, even in the informal everyday form that had always upheld principles such as the natural family and the protection of unborn children.

The dominant view seems to be that things mean whatever those with position and power can get people to accept, and claims to the contrary are rhetorical attempts to put something over on people. Such views are held not only by cynics, flacks, and operatives, but by many who hold positions of intellectual authority.

In some respects the disappearance of rational public life is not surprising, although the willingness to deny the reality and intrinsic authority of truth does seem odd. Substantive public life is far from universal. Public discussion always has limits, and in most times and places has hardly existed at all. There’s not much of it in the average apartment complex, business corporation, traditional Middle Eastern city, or third world dictatorship. Nor does the lack reflect any special pathology. Most of us find our own interests and understandings, and those of people closely connected to us, far more pressing than those of people to whom we are only distantly related.

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Something special is needed to overcome such tendencies. In particular, public life requires strong mutual loyalties to make it rise above propaganda and maneuvering. People need to believe that who they are is intimately tied to the political society of which they are part, so that they see the public good as part of their own good. It also requires a public culture with enough substance to support intelligent discussion and enough respect for the life of the mind and autonomy of truth to allow the discussion to be fairly free.

For those reasons public life was found at its most intense in pre-modern city states. The citizens of those cities shared a common history and faith, they were joined to each other in the risky business of political independence in an unstable world, and in the most famous cases their piety was balanced by a love of intellectual adventure that found itself at home in republics that were at once commercial and aristocratic.

A great achievement of Catholic Christendom and the European and Western Civilization that followed it was the extension of productive public life to a national and even continental scale. The Church, with its councils, synods, writers, and preachers, has always had her own public life. When Europe became Christian that life gave rise to the public life of Christendom, expressed in institutions such as parliaments and universities. After the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the nation state put an end to the Res Publica Christiana, European public life continued in various forms—the Concert of Nations, the Republic of Letters, the civilization of the West—based on shared history and elite culture together with residual public Christianity. There was also of course the interconnected public life of the European nations. The plays of Shakespeare suggest the strength of English national feeling at the time, which approached that of the Italian and classical city states, and other nations of Europe also developed their own national literatures, universities, and institutions of self-government.

Such things seem more and more to belong to the past. The heirs of the civilization of the West who now run our major institutions have rejected residual Christianity and traditional elite culture, and their emphasis on cultural diversity negates the importance of shared history. Nonetheless, they want to maintain public life, and extend its principles to more and more settings, while at the same time depriving it of substantive cultural content and making it ever more completely technological and utilitarian. The project is to be based on a common faith in science and human rights, common acceptance of institutions like the European Union and the United Nations, ever greater reliance on market and bureaucracy in place of traditional arrangements such as family and religion, and a common historical narrative having to do with the progressive global advance of freedom, equality, and enlightenment.

The project can’t be successful. A diverse inclusive multicultural society can’t have free, active, and intelligent public life, because the principles, habits, and loyalties people are expected to have in common are too few and too abstract. They don’t take enough into account or speak to enough aspects of human life to permit free and intelligent discussion of public affairs. Current discussions of public issues related to the family provide an obvious example. It is now criminal in some Western countries to assert that some ways of organizing sexual life are better than others. If that is so, how can family life be discussed intelligently?

So instead of discussion we have spin, snark, propaganda, bogus claims of expertise, and extremes of partisanship, with political correctness trying to keep a lid on the mess so people don’t realize how much at odds they are. We have the highest positions occupied by people like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, all of whom are entirely unfitted to the positions they hold and entirely unaware of their deficiencies. In the absence of public reason, we have financial policy based on short-term stopgaps and foreign policy based on supposed expertise combined with complete indifference to the specifics of the local situation. We even have proclamations by those responsible for public principle at the highest level that support for marriage as a natural institution with natural functions is simply hate.

So what do we do? One goal of the Second Vatican Council was to help the Church engage in dialogue with the world, and a major goal of Catholic leaders and thinkers has been a seat at the table so they can carry on the initiative. A problem with that project under present circumstances is that the world is less and less interested in dialogue, discussion, or even thought. It’s run by a combination of propaganda, ideology that grows ever simpler and more intolerant, and self-seeking elites responsible mainly to themselves. Under such circumstances what worldly powers look for from the Church is not dialogue but surrender or silence.

So dialogue may be less effective than hoped. If that is so we need not be silenced, because proclamation—and above all integrity—remain possible. Either way, what we need most of all today is clarity. We need it for the sake of Catholics, who for decades have been fed confusing and ambiguous formulations and as a result hardly know what the Church teaches or why. We also need it for the sake of non-Catholics, who are stuck in a cultural world that grows ever less livable, and need to know that there is a real alternative. And we need it for effective dialogue, if that turns out to be possible, since effective dialogue requires distinct positions to be set forth clearly.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” was painted by Briton Riviere in 1872.


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