On a whim, I decided yesterday to look at the “About Vox Nova” page for the first time since I joined as a contributor. At the top of the page are passages from documents of the Second Vatican Council and from several papal encyclicals that are meant to frame our goals around various aspects of modern-day Catholic social teaching. For me, the most striking passage was the last one, from Pope Leo XIII’s Tametsi Futura Prospicientibus:
Wherever Christianity rules over all without let or hindrance, there the order established by Divine Providence is preserved, and both security and prosperity are the happy result. The common welfare, then, urgently demands a return to Him from whom we should never have gone astray; to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and this on the part not only of individuals but of society as a whole. Christ our Lord must be reinstated as the Ruler of human society. It belongs to Him, as do all its members. All the elements of the commonwealth; legal commands and prohibitions, popular institutions, schools, marriage, home-life, the workshop, and the palace, all must be made to come to that fountain and imbibe the life that comes from Him.
These are very hard words, to say the least, and they should be the cause of profound self-reflection within each of us, whether we self-identify as “liberal” or “conservative.” They remind us that ultimately, if we wish to pursue a truly just and compassionate society, legal and structural reform is not enough. “Legal commands and prohibitions, popular institutions, schools, marriage, home-life, the workshop, and the palace, all must be made to come to that fountain and imbibe the life that comes from Him.” To put it bluntly, the societal dysfunctions that we seek to address are caused by sin. Whether we speak of abortion, poverty, war, or torture, all are the result of our human tendency, born of original sin, to live for ourselves and not for others, to place human institutions and ideals (markets, statism, or individualism) above Divine Law. This is not to suggest that social reform is not essential, but rather that it is ultimately futile unless it is accompanied by a true conversion not only of individual hearts, but of our societal consciousness as a whole. And such a conversion can ultimately be effected only by openness not merely to generic “religion” or “spirituality,” but to Christ Himself. Father Dwight Longenecker hit the nail on the head in his post on health care reform:
Any system is only as good as the people in it. Britain’s socialized National Health Service would be a dream if the people in it were honest, hard working, compassionate and self sacrificial. Likewise, the American private health care and insurance industries would work like a dream if the people within them were honest, hard working, compassionate and self sacrificial. Both systems are just systems[…]Systems are only made better when people are made better and people can only be made better by something called Grace, and grace can only be discovered through contact with the source of Grace, and that is why the Christian faith is not just an option, but a necessity.
- America is (and, Evangelical claims to the contrary, was founded as) a secular, pluralistic society.
- To the extent that America has a national version of Christianity, it is less a true version of Christianity and more of a civic religion that tends to put nationalism ahead of devotion to Christ, Who is for all nations and all times.
- When we look to history, we realize that so-called “ages of faith” were marked by just as much injustice and violence as our own secular age.
- When we look to Catholic teaching, we see that it is manifestly opposed to any kind of legal imposition of Christianity, since such imposition tends to dilute the transcendence of Faith and lead to insincere conversion and practice.
So what can we do? How can we accomplish not only social reform, but social conversion? Must we resign ourselves to seeking conversion at the micro level (i.e. one individual at a time) while focusing on legal and structural reform at the macro level (i.e. the level of public policy)? Or is there a way that we can effectively incorporate our call for conversion to Christ into our political advocacy, without making ourselves irrelevant, violating Catholic teaching on religious liberty, or repeating history’s mistakes? I’d love to hear from all of our contributors and regular commenters on this, both the “liberals” and the “conservatives.”