The Speed of Change in the Republic of Rights

“I grew up in Kansas. When I began my book Render Unto Caesar in 2006, I had in my mind the America I always knew—or thought I knew. But that America, I admit, has been passing for fifty years, and probably longer.”
—Charles Chaput, September 2010

The Catholic thinkers, in the past century or so, argued that the Church’s tenets and principles are basically compatible with the intellectual framework of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, contrariwise, they argued that the American Founders discovered their basic principles, knowingly or not, from the Catholic tradition. One can dispute this assumption. Many of the founding principles, on further examination, were modern in origin even though they could look like holdovers from the earlier traditions of ethics, law, and metaphysics. Moreover, the present understanding of American culture has little to do either with the founding fathers or classical tradition.

Nothing is more volatile than the word “rights” and basing one’s political philosophy on its shifting premises. The intellectual “justification” for current and increasing attacks on the Church, insofar as they have any substance, is founded on this charge: the Church is against human “rights.” The word’s modern usage is from Hobbes, not Aquinas. It means that, because of individual autonomy, for whatever I need or want, I have a “right.” Since everyone else has the same “right,” yet disparate “rights” conflict, government is set up to adjudicate who gets what. The government’s own criterion for enforcing this or that “right” is based on the same principle: whatever it decides is law. The failure to notice the dangers of such an understanding of “rights” is coming home to haunt us.

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Many writers and thinkers are struck by the rapidity with which the Catholic Church itself, from being relatively comfortable in Zion, has suddenly come under fire as the object of ever-increasing government control and cultural ostracism. It finds itself having to resort to “freedom of religion” and “freedom of speech” in a world in which such “freedoms” are either ignored or simply contradicted. The reason for this change is that the Church is now perceived as the principal obstacle to establishing a fully “rights-oriented” political society. This is evidently the goal of the Obama administration as revealed in its ever more invasive “decrees.” In this “rights” republic, in lieu of any dramatic action of the Supreme Court, the sole arbiter and definer of what “rights” mean is the state and what it decrees and enforces.

Many Catholics profess to be surprised by this sudden drawing of the logical conclusion to what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk.” Many Catholics so want “rights” to mean what they claim it means that they blind themselves to what the intellectual history of the word does mean and imply by this enigmatic term. All through recent decades, the provisions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been used against the Church. It was held to be against free speech and free religion. The irony today is that it is the Church that finds itself appealing to these standards over against an administration which claims the same standards. The decrees that the Church finds contrary to “rights” are precisely the ones said to be based on “rights”—abortion, contraception, sterilization, gay marriage, the works.

Numerous writers in recent years have pointed to the decay of the American family. Since the time of Aristotle’s response to Plato’s famous proposal of communality of wives and children, the family has been looked on as a bulwark, not enemy, of the political order. But there has always been in modern utopian and Marxist thought a strand that saw the elimination of the family as the key to a successful social order. What would take the place of the family?–schools, health agencies, bureaucratic employment institutions, welfare under another name. Most of these extreme notions are proposed in the name of common good and human dignity.

We’re All Rome Now

In his essay on Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, Allan Bloom remarked: “The corruption of the people is the key to the mastery of Rome.” We need only to change the name of the capitol city to suspect that this observation applies to almost every democratic entity, including our own. And what is striking is that it is precisely a corruption that in almost every way concerns, touches upon, or affects the family by the institution of policies that are put forth in the name of modern “rights.”

I began these remarks by citing a brief comment of Archbishop Chaput. What struck him was the rapidity of the change in this country from the land that he “thought” that he knew. It is said by several historians of civilization that once the core principles of a culture are corrupted, the decline of that society is precipitous. The will to acknowledge the problem or the failure to see the consequence of “rights” once put into effect portend a paralysis of the good.

Since much of the culture has now accepted as “human rights” the issues that the Church has taken a firm stand against as themselves unnatural and immoral, it follows that the effects of these “rights” will henceforth dominate the public order. Single parent families, in virto families of one or another parent, free “health” service to effect abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and fetal experiment will all be available. Opposition to these issues will not be seen as “free speech,” but as “hate language.” No discussion will be allowed largely because the government understands implicitly the tenuousness and lack of validity to its own positions. The government will claim the “right” to define what religion is.

Many, if not most, religions will go along with this cultural pressure and fact. To oppose it invites marginalization and probably legal persecution. In any case, in the name of “human rights,” the government will assume control of both the public and familial orders. No longer will we find any recognition of an order of truth that is independent of the state’s own definition of itself.

Is this concern for the rapid decline of the culture far-fetched? I think not. Even a year ago, few would have suspected the rapidity with which the Church has become an object of direct political concern over its own teachings and doctrines. It will get worse if the present government and its general principles remain in power. This observation goes against the grain of many, especially of those who agree with the government’s principles and decrees. But the logic of decline and fall is already in place. We cannot stop erroneous principles from taking effect except by acknowledging their falsity. Otherwise, they carry themselves and those who hold them to their logical conclusion.

The Speed of Change

It can be delayed, but not stopped until we recognize where the problem lies. It lies in the rejection, implicit or explicit, of the nature and centrality of the family. In a sense, we have here an ancient issue. But it is now ever so present. The Catholic Church is admired for what it stands for. The Catholic Church is hated for what it stands for. The reason for this paradox lies in the logic of reason.

Etienne Gilson remarked that once we lay down our first principles, we no longer think as we may but we think as we can. We are seeing the “logic” of “rights” being carried out before our very eyes. The undermining and elimination of the family are no accidents. They follow from certain premises, the premises that place our private good at the center of reality. The rapidity of change means, I suspect, that “it is later than we think.” We are not at the beginning of the change but, as Archbishop Chaput intimated, at the end. That is why is seems so rapid. Little is left to oppose it.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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