The issues that now put Catholics in opposition to secular public thought are too basic to ignore. The Church accepts God as our reference point, and views freedom to develop our relation to Him and act by reference to it as basic to our good and our dignity. In contrast, secular society has made our own outlook and desires our reference point. Those things make us what we are, or so it is thought, and freedom to follow them is considered the key to a good and dignified life.
That opposition leads to views of morality and justice in which drastically different claims and authorities carry weight. The Church values conscience, and accepts “this is right”—in general, this expresses the moral nature of a world that after all is God’s creation—as a claim that normally overrides other considerations. Today’s secular world values individual autonomy instead, and prefers the authority of claims such as “I want this” or “this is part of my identity as I define it.”
The contradiction is sharpened by conflicts in institutional loyalty. The Church accepts its hierarchy as the authority that defines, protects, and furthers the most fundamental human concerns. Secular society rejects that authority in favor of that of the state, with its courts, constitutional law, experts on human rights, and system of education and social welfare. At one time it was possible to reconcile the two by saying that they dealt with different matters, the Church hierarchy with fundamental spiritual and moral principles and the state with worldly practicalities and standards of conduct generally accepted as a matter of vernacular natural law (otherwise known as common sense).
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That view no longer works because of growing state absolutism resulting from the decline of transcendent religion and the sense of a natural moral order. All social institutions, including the family, are now viewed as state creations, so that determining what they should be in light of ultimate values such as equality and personal autonomy is considered a basic function of government. On such an understanding there is no room for the moral authority of the Church.
From the Catholic standpoint the claims the secular world treats as authoritative are weak. “I want this” is a reason for doing something, but a weak reason, and “this expresses the identity I define for myself” is not persuasive at all. We don’t make ourselves, and our decision does not determine the value or reality of what we choose or believe ourselves to be. To say otherwise would make radical self-assertion the foundation of morality, which is indeed the tendency of modern thought.
Secular society of course views things differently. From its standpoint the Church’s claims are not merely weak but outrageous. “This is right,” where “right” is presented as obligatory without regard to desires, chosen identities, or the needs of a public order that makes freedom and equality its supreme goods, is seen as an attempt to make the speaker’s outlook and preferences trump other people’s. There is no place for those who make such assertions—prolifers, gay marriage opponents, and so on—in contemporary liberal public discussion. Against that background secular society is coming decisively to view religion as a matter of private lifestyle and symbolism that should be strictly subordinated to a general system of lifestyle freedom, prominently including sexual freedom. The latter, after all, has fewer explicit public implications than religion, especially now that human life is understood technologically, and is therefore likely to be more manageable. And in any event there seem to be more people today, especially influential people, who care strongly about it.
It is important to understand how bad the Catholic view looks to people who accept the current secular view, which includes almost everyone who has been formed by present-day education and pop culture, and is well enough attuned to current attitudes and understandings to become respected and influential. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Windsor, which argued against the Defense of Marriage Act by treating marriage as a creation of the state and refusal to extend it to same-sex couples as simple malice, makes it evident that mutual respect is not to be expected.
It is also important to understand that the Catholic view is indeed the Catholic view, and is correct no matter what the ruling powers may think of it. The points at issue are too basic to be finessed, and we can’t deal with today’s world and our fellow citizens without making an issue of them. Otherwise what we say will either be treated as incomprehensible or absorbed into the current secular outlook. A call for mutual love, for example, will be understood as a call for affirming and supporting the desires and self-defined identities of all people just as they are, subject only to the principle of mutual tolerance.
To deal with the current situation of fundamental conflict we must abandon comfort, mediocrity, and the habit of blurring our views on fundamental issues. Once we do so we will have advantages that will ultimately tell. Our opponents have power, position, and self-assurance, but not substance or stature. Public leadership and discussion is at a low ebb today. A public orthodoxy that says that man and the world are what we make of them, which is what we have now, takes us out of the world as it is into a world of fantasy. Willful delusion has certain advantages when it’s in power—on its own terms it’s impregnable—but it eventually leads to defeat because the world refuses to cooperate with it. Contemporary understandings of family life, for example, have not led to more happiness or better outcomes for much of anyone.
So in the long run truth and reason win. But what do we do now? First, like Paul, we should preach the word in and out of season. People may not seem to listen or understand, but on some level they don’t really accept the official theory—it’s not the sort of view that can be held through and through—and we don’t know who will be ready to hear something different. Further, we should do so with clarity and intelligence. As Peter said, we should “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). So we should get beyond sound bites and soothing ambiguities, and present the best arguments we can for the Faith. Most people will shrug them off, but some will be looking for a better way of dealing with life and the world.
To prepare the way, we should insistently confront ingrained falsehoods and confusions wherever and whenever perpetrated. Black legends exist because there’s a demand for them, so debunking this claim about the Crusades or that one about Pius XII won’t register immediately with most people. Still, the truth should be readily available for the day someone is interested. We also need to take charge of the language of discussion, at least the language we use ourselves. Instead of talking about “banning same-sex marriage,” we need to talk about opposing the new requirement that everyone view a relation between two men as a marriage. Otherwise we are conceding most of the issue by our very way of talking about it.
Above all, we need to live like Catholics. There are much more important reasons to do so than the argumentative advantage it confers, but it remains true that in a time of moral confusion living well is the best offense. People know that the current order of things doesn’t help them lead good lives, and if they see someone who has something better many of them will eventually want to know more about it. We should live in a way that makes that the natural turn for their thoughts to take.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 12, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Reuters.)