Rebuilding Catholic Society

The Church is not part of the State. Nor is she simply a part of civil society set up by her members to advance their public and private goals. She is an independent society established by God to be a light to the world. As such, she has her own principles of existence, authority, and action.

Her mission does not normally imply direct involvement in politics. Catholics may campaign for social and political causes that they believe promote good ends, just as they may run businesses in accordance with Catholic principles. The main political contribution of the Church, though, is the view of man and the good life for which she stands.

Nonetheless, proposing that view calls for practical action that has social effects. The Church won’t be listened to unless she embodies something the world needs. To convert others we must first convert ourselves. For that reason evangelization must begin with the self-evangelization of the Christian community. That is a practical and social effort, and it means the leaders of the Church are fundamentally pastors, not philosophers, pundits, philanthropists, or outreach coordinators. The Apostle Paul preached the Gospel to the gentiles through half the Roman world, but his letters have to do with the promotion of Christian life within the Church.

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The single most important practical goal of the Church is for Christians to thrive as Christians. The primary way that comes about, of course, is for them to love God and neighbor and live accordingly, and for their pastors to show them how to do so by word, sacrament, and example. There is more to it than that, though. We don’t become good simply by deciding to do so, and even the best words, sacraments, and examples are not enough for most of us. We respond to our total environment, and most of us need all the help we can get.

So we are likely to do better in a setting that is as Catholic as possible. That is especially so in times like the present, when secular society is comprehensively organized and pervasively anti-Catholic. Evil communications corrupt good manners. If Catholics go home from Mass and spend the rest of their time awash in pop culture and studying or working in settings that trivialize religious concerns and enforce perverse conceptions of right and wrong, the strong will no doubt survive. Not all of us are strong, though, and sink-or-swim cannot be the right approach for the Church to take toward her members.

In addition to the Church as a divine institution, we need a Catholic social world that includes the Church as an institution but also extends to the ordinary affairs of life. In a previous column I called that world “Christendom,” and emphasized that when it’s not established as a matter of law we still need it as a system of habits, institutions, and attachments to which we are loyal and by which we can more readily live a Catholic life.

The Church must engage the world while remaining in some sense unworldly, so Christendom—the social world in which Catholics carry on their lives as Catholics—is an in-between sort of affair. It is far from watertight, since it accepts secular arrangements such as markets, modern science, and legitimate government authority. Further, it reflects the imperfections of Catholics. Even saints are not perfect, and the Church includes people who are far from saintly. The leaven of the Kingdom doesn’t work instantaneously among those who have begun to accept it, so the Church must maintain a place for those who are not specially holy or even specially serious.

Mediocre Catholics—who are most of us—contribute to the Church and to Christendom through what is Catholic in them and their aspiration for better things. A drama needs extras and spear carriers as well as heroes, and by their numbers they can help make a Catholic social environment a real though imperfect reality. For the sake of such people the Church must support a way of life that attracts them, leads them to stick with it and support it, and puts them in a web of influences that points toward God rather than the gods of the city.

At present that way of life and web of influences is in disarray, and needs to be pulled together. Many points are obvious. We need schools that are thoroughly Catholic in orientation. If sink-or-swim is bad for ordinary Catholics, it is a thousand times worse for Catholic children. We also need more universities, publications, and other cultural institutions that are authentically Catholic. The assumptions on which mainstream intellectual and cultural life are now based make networks of independent institutions necessary for Catholic thought and culture to maintain itself.

In recent decades Catholic institutions have tended to assimilate to the society around them. That trend is part of the current disarray. There are some Catholic homeschoolers who would like to send their children to the Catholic school across the street but can’t in good conscience because the education on offer is not actually Catholic. That tendency needs to reverse, and it seems likely to do so in the coming years, at least for the institutions that continue to matter. The reasons are intellectual, cultural, and educational as well as specifically religious.

Before the Second Vatican Council many people complained about the narrowness of the Catholic ghetto. The idea seemed to be that the life of the world was going on much more outside the Church than within her, and the Church should throw open her doors and windows and go where the action is. The attempt to apply that strategy may not have improved Catholic intellectual and cultural life, which to all appearances has gone downhill, but the secular culture has gone downhill even more. That’s no surprise: rejecting natural law, adopting a pragmatic attitude toward truth, and making choice the highest good is not a recipe for true or productive thought about the world. The conversion of Saint Augustine came at a time when the exhaustion of classical culture had made the Church the natural home for intellectual activity. If we are right that the Church has a better grip on reality than secular culture, the same seems likely to happen again.

We also need to make it possible to carry on the activities that claim most people’s energies in a more Catholic setting. For most people the greater part of social engagement takes the form of gainful employment. So we need to find and develop work environments that are not at odds with the Faith, either by reason of the employer’s purposes and activities or the view of man inculcated. That will have its complications. Anti-discrimination laws make it impossible to give an ordinary business of any size a specifically Catholic identity, for example by preferring employees who are committed to Catholic principles, or even preferring natural law understandings of human relations. Catholic business would have to be small and informal, perhaps taking the form of networks of independent contractors.

Catholics engage society in other ways, of course, and those should also be put on as Catholic a footing as possible. Charitable activity is an obvious example. In recent times Catholic charitable efforts have emphasized cooperation with government and other non-Catholic actors. The usefulness of that approach is doubtful when government is committed to an anti-Catholic conception of life that inevitably determines the orientation and operation of health and welfare programs in which it is involved.

And finally, Catholics need to engage in political action to defend the Church and Christendom. Government is now inclined to allow the institutional Church some degree of freedom, but to promote social goals such as unity and inclusion in a way that suppresses Christendom as a system of social life. Fighting that tendency will have to be the main focus of Catholic political efforts in the coming years if the Church and Catholic life are to thrive.

In spite of difficulties, the outlook is bright for Christendom, even from a human standpoint, because there is such a need for it. Life must go on, and people carry on as best they can. The rejection of natural law means that secular culture is becoming not only anti-Catholic but anti-reason and anti-human. It’s becoming less and less livable, and if we can offer an alternative that is more adequate to human needs and aspirations there will be takers. Doing so is the social challenge for the Church in the coming years.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 10, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a photo of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.


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