Catholics: Increasingly a Dissident Minority

Pro Deo et Patria is the motto of the Army chaplaincy, and an English version of the phrase is part of the Boy Scout Oath and the Girl Scout Promise. The phrase is well chosen for those organizations. It’s a call for loyalty to the particular society in which we live, and to the moral and cosmic order that gives that society its setting, orientation, and meaning.

The effect of such loyalties is to create a public order guided by substantive goods we are all assumed to revere. Something of the sort seems necessary for rational public discussion and decision, since the latter require something to attach us to the particular society of which we are members as well as to common goods that have enough content and particularity to support usable common standards. Nonetheless, the phrase is out of keeping with current demands for diversity and individual autonomy, because it suggests that specific concrete loyalties take precedence over individual and minority preferences. Whose God are we talking about, if we insist on talking about God, and what are the features that attach us to our country and make it what it is? Don’t different groups have different views on such matters? Who has the right to tell people what their loyalties have to be?

It’s hard to make sense of a call for particular public loyalties in a country that is increasingly understood less as a concrete community united by history and culture than an abstract legal order devoted to security, choice, tolerance, and physical well-being, with no connection to any particular cultural or religious tradition, and no loyalty to any history other than the history of the growing coherence and dominance of a governing regime that abolishes all other social loyalties.

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Tensions between the implications of phrases like “God and Country” and the demands of the political outlook now dominant have therefore grown to the breaking point. The Canadian Girl Guides recently redid their promise as a “promise … to be true to myself, my beliefs and Canada,” and similar changes have been made in Australia and the United Kingdom. At the same time military chaplains have come under increasing pressure to fall in line with the new orthodoxy, and been slapped down for now-heretical statements such as “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

Instead of loyalty to a particular worldly and transcendent order the current orthodoxy puts self-determining subjectivity at the center of the moral and social world. Will and desire—“choice”—is the ultimate standard, and principles like equal freedom and equal satisfaction are expected to give all choices equal status. Instead of “God and Country,” the new order might choose as its mottos “access” and “free to be you and me.”

The new outlook seems uniquely right, just, and reasonable to those who hold it, but it leads to very serious problems. At bottom it’s a political manifestation of the religion of me, and not surprisingly researchers have found that its rise to dominance has been accompanied by a growing tendency toward narcissism. It is nonetheless a religion, which makes it something greater, and more troublesome, than simple narcissism. It has a conception of the holy in the deification of the other as well as the self, and a corresponding moral ideal that requires treating every me as an equal co-deity. Those conceptions have been found to require the radical transformation of all social relations by elimination of what now counts as discrimination and oppression, a transformation that is thought to trump all other considerations.

The scheme nonetheless runs into problems. When there are millions of equal deities there are sure to be conflicts, and in the absence of a transcendent principle to decide them they can only be resolved arbitrarily by whoever is in a position of power. The need for a power capable of deciding winners and losers can’t be recognized, because it contradicts the claims of freedom, equality, and supreme rationality, so the power must hide its face and put itself beyond discussion. It does so through claims of inscrutable expertise and by blackening its opponents as bigots and the like.

The results in public life include a tendency toward irrationality, willfulness, and cutting discussion short, all of which are made necessary by the impossibility of discussing the hierarchy of goods when all goals are simply a matter of will and desire. Examples include the constant use of claims of personal offense to silence debate, the treatment of children as adjuncts to adults, so that the right of an adult to acquire a child is thought to override the child’s interest in normal family life, and the claim that reluctance to force conscientious objectors to bake cakes for same-sex weddings or pick up the fifteen or twenty dollar monthly tab for other people’s contraception is a war against women and sexual minorities.

The new order also radically transforms the relationship between citizen and government. Instead of the citizen as participant we get the citizen as client. It’s all about me, or rather about millions of mes, so concern for personal obligation and the functioning and integrity of government gives way to concern for personal experience and the delivery by government of goods such as equality of esteem that bring with them endlessly proliferating demands. Under such circumstances government becomes viewed as a sort of self-generating public service provided by experts that’s somehow part of the nature of things and can therefore be taken for granted while we all pursue our bliss with public support.

In fact, government is not part of the nature of things. In a world in which honest and effective government is difficult to achieve it’s not sensible to assume that politics can be replaced by expert administration. Nor is it sensible to assume that a government that abandons substantive public reason in favor of radical subjectivity as its ultimate principle will remain functional and concerned with the public good, or even its stated goals of equal freedom, equal satisfaction, and multicultural sensitivity. It is more likely that those who run it will be more impressed with their own will and desire than that of their millions of charges, and concern themselves initially with the efficiency and coherence of the system that puts them in power, and eventually with their own personal advantage and that of their families, friends, and allies.

Wherein lies a lesson. American Catholics have tended to think of politics as participation in a common project shared with all citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Current trends may force us to rethink that view. Respected and authoritative forces in our society support trends that hollow out political self-government, so it is increasingly difficult to think of politics as a common project of the citizens. A Supreme Court decision or propaganda campaign carried on by media figures is not a citizen project, and such things increasingly determine how we are ruled. In addition, the political society in which we live increasingly expresses an ideological project rather than natural law or natural community. Some citizens may buy into that project, but given its nature Catholics can’t do so. So to maintain our integrity in a period in which traditional conceptions of God and Country don’t apply, it seems we must find our way as an indigestible dissident minority.


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