Is Pluralism a Threat to Catholic Survival?

With few exceptions, American Catholics have given up on the dream of a Catholic society. Instead, they have come to aspire to a seat at the table: a respected position in public life that lets them bring their insights and values into public discussion within a pluralistic system.

At first glance the aspiration seems sensible. A Catholic social order can’t function if there is no consensus in favor of Catholicism among people who run things. We are a long way from such a situation, so the best we can hope for today is to be able to propose our views in a setting that does not presume we are wrong. “A seat at the table” seems to describe that situation, and if we want a seat for ourselves it seems only right to accept that others get the same.

In fact, though, the arrangement has turned out to mean that the only social and moral outlook that can have any practical effect is pluralism, together with the liberalism of which it is part. “Pluralism” can be used in different senses, some harmless and some less so. In a harmless factual sense it can be applied to any complex and extensive society. The world of the Bible has many religions and cultures, for example, and the position of Jews and then Christians in such a setting is a recurrent concern for the sacred writers. Even after Christianity became the state religion, there were a variety of social and religious tendencies at work, and non-Christians normally had some sort of accepted presence and position.

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That inevitable kind of pluralism has been dealt with, well or badly, through negotiation and the balance of power and convenience. The result has sometimes been mutual accommodation, sometimes boundary-drawing, and sometimes, when something basic was at issue on which agreement could not be reached, permanent division or outright hostilities.

Today pluralism has become doctrinal as well as factual. As a doctrine, it claims that separation and hostility can always be avoided if people are minimally reasonable, because there is a principled way to deal with basic disagreements while giving due credit to all sides. The key, it is said, is to give those who hold all views on basic issues a right to equal participation in public life, as long as their views are reasonable in the sense of accepting the pluralist system.

That sounds like a sensible basis for articles of peace in a situation of fundamental disagreement. Nonetheless, accepting it has serious adverse consequences for everyone except pluralist liberals. It means that discussion can’t be about deciding issues, since a decision would deprive opinions that accept the system of their equal seat at the table. Instead, the point of discussion becomes mutual understanding for the sake of maintaining equal self-expression. Free to be you and me is the goal, and to bring that about we all have to celebrate the rainbow.

That too might seem a reasonable way of handling a situation in which agreement can’t be reached. The problem though is that if opposing views relate to basic issues, and every position has to be treated equally, very little can actually be expressed. All that can really be expressed freely are the principles of pluralism, together with views that don’t much affect other people and are presented not as principles but as matters of personal taste. Otherwise, opposing views will confront each other directly on basic matters, and some of them will lose out and become marginalized and subject to at least informal suppression.

The basic problem is that pluralism can’t possibly be pluralist. It proposes a particular form of society with a definite system of law and custom. That form of society bases its unique legitimacy on the claim that all other forms of society, including Catholic society, are at odds with freedom, justice, and the dignity of man, because they suppress and discriminate against reasonable opinions on ultimate issues. In good conscience those who are in charge of such a society must do everything they can to keep such views from affecting social life and thereby causing oppression. They do so by insisting that views such as Catholicism stop being social views and become strictly private opinions. So pluralism turns out to be as unitary and dedicated to suppressing alternatives as any other outlook. The difference is that it believes it can legitimately avoid having to argue for its own particularities by claiming it allows all views to flourish freely.

In spite of the evident problems, there have been resolute attempts by sincere and intelligent Catholics to bring Catholicism within the pluralist system, not simply as a matter of factual necessity and bowing to superior power but as a matter of Catholic as well as secular principle. Not surprisingly, the energy and ability of those favoring such attempts have failed to overcome the innate self-contradictions, and the efforts have gone nowhere.

The more principled attempts did try to maintain a leading role for Catholicism. One leading formulation, for example, called for “the Roman Catholic Church in the United States [to assume] its culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.” It was never clear what that would mean. The public philosophy couldn’t be Catholic social teaching, because “American experiment in ordered liberty” meant it had to be religiously pluralist and include at least Protestants and Jews on equal terms. (It was never clear how Muslims, Hindus, and the irreligious would fit in.) Nor, it seemed, could it be natural law. Natural law claims to be a philosophical position that can be developed and defended without regard to religion, so it does not seem to be religiously informed. But if the public philosophy could be neither specifically Catholic nor generally philosophical, and it had to offer equality to a variety of quite different views, then it couldn’t have much content. It could be a system of inherited habits and expectations, but those have dissipated. Or it could be a list of points generally agreed upon, like “abortion is bad,” but not their basis or exact implications. So it would be more like a collection of slogans than a public philosophy.

The project may have seemed more plausible than it was because of the ambiguous status of natural law. Philosophy is not neutral. Ideas about God, nature, and reason depend on each other, and it seems natural that classical natural law is mostly a Catholic tendency and those who come to accept it are likely eventually to become Catholic as well. So a natural law public philosophy might well be viewed as religiously informed, since it evidently has some connection to religion without being explicitly religious. Still, the religion to which it has a connection is specifically Catholic, and that makes it a non-starter in a society that insists on principled pluralism.

So what to do? The West is pervaded by an ideology and method of social organization that is becoming ever more dominant and well-defined, and that rejects God and natural law on principle. If you don’t enthusiastically favor those tendencies you’re considered irrational, oppressive, and a threat to public order. Under such conditions we should be thinking less about a seat at the table and more about survival.

Survival is of course not enough. Life has meaning, and survival is for a purpose. What Catholics today need most of all politically is to start a new discussion based on an understanding of man and the world oriented toward reconstitution of public life on a basis that makes more sense. For Catholics, that basis would be Christianity, and getting that discussion started is what we should be thinking about today.


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