Recent events have found Catholics grappling with what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a liberal democracy. To what extent do Catholic teachings apply in secular society? Should law explicitly support the practice of the Catholic faith? Or of any faith? Is it even possible to be Catholic and support liberalism?
Catholics see an American social and political framework that is becoming increasingly incongruent with Catholic moral teaching. From abortion to marriage, from racial justice to conscience protections, there are often irreconcilable conflicts between the demands of the Catholic religion and secular norms. Moreover, for a variety of reasons, not least of which has been the Church’s own moral failings and inability to evangelize effectively, secularism is expanding in scope, claiming ever more cultural ground. The contrast could not be clearer in the United States, where a CDF statement prohibiting the blessing of same-sex unions only fueled the flames of a broader debate on the “Equality Act,” a proposed bill that secures additional rights for LGBT while threatening religious freedom.
As detailed by recent popes, including Pope Francis, our world needs faith. Without orientation to a truth that exists outside ourselves, the state is subject to the vagaries of public opinion and to the calculus of power. Without orientation to the truth lived prudently in daily life, society can never make true progress. On this point, Pope Francis wrote, “If society is to have a future, it must respect the truth of our human dignity and submit to that truth” (FT 207). This topic was also the framework of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, in which he wrote,
Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. (11)
The dangers of a society that lacks orientation to the truth were also well-stated in a recent article by Shadi Hamid. Hamid recognized that when people leave a church or leave a faith as an operating principle—as many have in the US in recent years—they don’t lose religion; rather, their religious impulses are simply redirected elsewhere, into various forms of secular religion. Unfortunately, whereas the bonds of true religion bind up everyone through history in the pursuit of common ends rooted in charity, the bonds of secular religion cannot. These secular bonds cannot withstand the tension of opposing factions in a society. Inevitably they break, and when they do, society fragments.
For the sake of the Church and for the health of broader society, various Catholic thinkers have proposed solutions to bring faith back to the public square. Some integralists have questioned liberalism itself, preferring instead a more authoritarian or confessional Catholic state, while others have defended liberalism, recognizing that this often means tolerating grave evils. In one sense, the debate is over the level of urgency with which we should seek to reform the state. The dangers are so severe and the challenges so large that some Catholics seek, as a primary objective, to obtain the power necessary to immediately re-orient the state toward the truth as revealed by the Church.
One example of that skepticism directed toward liberalism is Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley’s book, It Is Right and Just. Hahn, a noted theologian and prolific author, was joined by McGinley, Catholic writer and speaker, to produce a “pre-conceptual” work aimed at exploring weaknesses in liberal society and the need to oppose it. Writing for Public Discourse, Contributing Editor Nathaniel Peters reviewed the book while defending the merits of liberalism, after which the three authors exchanged responses. This conversation is important, I believe, because it helps to illustrate some key fault lines and, hopefully, the possibility for a new consensus.
Hahn and McGinley reject liberalism, as shown in a passage from their book quoted in their article responding to Peters:
The secularism implied by liberalism is, therefore, more than just wrong; it’s a kind of deceit, a sleight of hand. The very idea of a secular sphere, of a public space free from concern about the final good of mankind, is incoherent and impossible.
Hahn and McGinley’s main point would seem to be that one cannot be truly Catholic and pro-liberalism, and that to be a Catholic in a liberal society means to reject liberalism’s basic premises and seek to bring the fullness of Catholic teaching to bear in the secular realm. If grace is real, as Hahn and McGinley argue, then society should reflect that. One cannot be “neutral between God and not-God.”
Responding to Hahn and McGinley, Peters rejects the conclusion that liberalism must be jettisoned. As Peters writes, while grace is real, its effects are not easily seen. There is not a one-to-one correlation between the reception of grace via the sacraments, and the manifestation of grace in consistent attitudes and activities. The problem, as Peters points out, is sin. A society incapable of accounting for the reality of sin in its institutions, laws, and policies will fall victim to excess. It would be preferable, in Peters’ view, to keep a separation between the Church and the state, knowing that the state will fall short of our high standards. At the same time, it is the Church’s responsibility “to work tirelessly to evangelize and persuade, even when our arguments seem to fall on deaf ears, making political compromises that support the good as much as we are able.”
The main sticking point between the two views seems to be this: Is it better to work from within a liberal state to better align it with the vision of the common good as revealed by the Catholic Church (Peters’ position), or is it better to start from the confession of truth and goodness which is foundational to virtuous living (Hahn and McGinley’s position)? The question is highly theoretical in the American context, as the reality is that our pluralistic society—which is rooted deeply in the principle of religious freedom—would never accept a “top-down” implementation of Catholic moral teaching or theology.
Nevertheless, there is common ground. It is important to note that both sides of this argument agree regarding the primacy of faith and the importance of religion in public life. As Peters writes, “Catholic citizens can of course hope for a society where the faith is more broadly shared, and where that could be prudently reflected in political institutions.” It is one thing to say that the Church and state are separate. But a liberal society goes astray, all these authors would agree, when it views religion itself as a threat to its own survival.
Pope Francis, for his part, accepts the reality of pluralistic liberalism, but he is clear that society rejects “fundamental values” at its own peril. One of those values he mentions is the dignity of human life, citing common societal prohibitions against murder. Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti, “Once those fundamental values are acknowledged and adopted through dialogue and consensus, we realize that they rise above consensus; they transcend our concrete situations and remain non-negotiable.” In this statement, we hear the echoes of both Peters and McGinley/Hahn. On the one hand, dialogue in a plural society is as essential as it is a drawn-out, highly-fraught process of consensus-seeking. On the other hand, we must never abandon those values that are so essential to the “good functioning of society,” as Francis puts it.
For better or worse, there are no explicit provisions within the law that mandate that the liberal state must keep society oriented toward the good and true. That’s precisely the point of liberalism. While Hahn and McGinley believe it would be better if there were, the reality is that it is the Church, not the state, that has primarily failed in its responsibilities here. The state needs religion, but the predominant religion in America (Christianity) arguably exchanged evangelical zeal for the protection of its rites and doctrines and for the preservation of its own power and influence. Indeed, this was partly McGinley’s point in his recent book, The Prodigal Church: bourgeois attitudes, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, were insufficient to inspire the Church’s evangelical mission through the cultural upheaval in the second half.
The faith ought to impel the Christian outward to the community and society at large, transforming it through the power of love. Without this zeal and the inspired activity of Christians in the world, a second-rate politics ultimately fills the vacuum. Perhaps the aggressive atheism Hahn and McGinley perceive in liberalism is, rather, a liberalism that has expanded into the spaces willfully ceded by Christians—for just one example, the space where truth claims are made, discussed, and defended in charity.
Francis insists, “There is no need … to oppose the interests of society, consensus and the reality of objective truth. These three realities can be harmonized whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue.” Whether we favor integralism or liberalism—or something else entirely–the solution is the same: work to reorient society to the truth. To do this, we must reclaim the kerygma which lies at the heart of Christianity. We must disentangle the Gospel from self-serving political ambition and bring the fullness of the good and beautiful to bear in dialogue with others. What liberalism needs most of all is faith, a virtue that is nurtured by the love of God through prayer.