For discussion: back to basics

For discussion: back to basics October 1, 2009

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.

Of course, that’s all well and good. What becomes thorny is when we start to discuss how in the world we can bring this ideal of a societal conversion to reality. This is difficult for several reasons:

  1. America is (and, Evangelical claims to the contrary, was founded as) a secular, pluralistic society.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

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  • David Nickol

    It seems to me there is such a diversity among even devout, practicing Catholics that it would not turn the United States into a paradise even if everyone became a Catholic. Politically conservative Catholics do not see eye to eye with politically liberal Catholics on the role of government. Even without the issue of abortion, do you really think that politically conservative and politically liberal Catholics would agree on an issue like health-care reform? Would they agree on how to deal with illegal immigrants?

    When was this golden age that Pope Leo XIII seems to be referring to?

  • Precisely what David said. Pope Leo XIII should have been asked to give a name of the Catholic country that was just Camelot to live in for more than a decade. We need Popes to face cross examination of the idealized statements they make. They do not face such cross examination by the press in a time now when CEO’s of every corporation do expose themselves to cross examination. In that sense we are partly theater…nice to read at first glance until one thinks. Benedict’s first letter to China stated that the Church does not seek to overthrow governments but to have a place in rational discussion….more idealization. Sounds nice until one realizes that George Weigel in “Witness to Hope” already inadvertently told the Chinese intelligence (who would have read it) that the Church to some degree toppled the Marcos’ in the Phillipines and Communism in Poland. What must China then think of Benedict’s nice letter about not toppling governments? Do they see him as standing for truth? or fiction?

  • Mickey writes “America is a secular, pluralistic society. America was founded as a secular, pluralistic society.” The phrasing is a little difficult for me here. America seems to be more than a society–I think it would be more coherent to speak of America as a nation or, more specifically, we could speak of “American society” or the “American form of government”. If it is said “American society is pluralistic” I could buy that. If it were said “American society” is secular, I’d argue that the secular part of it was mostly secular, but sometimes I wish it were a little less more secular, and that the religious part was religious to a degree, but I wish it were more religious and less secular. I trust that clears things up a bit, or perhaps muddies them terribly.

  • “Conversion to Christ” is a really ambiguous phrase. So many Catholics think they have been converted to Christ and it’s clear that they have no idea who Christ was and is. “Christ” is a name that Catholics, sadly, fill with whatever they please, if they even make reference to Him at all.

    I also very much disagree with Fr. Longenecker’s quote. Systems are indeed just systems. They all stand under the judgment of Christ. But some systems are better than others. They are not neutral structures.

  • Michael Enright

    What do you mean by a “legal imposition of Christianity”? Would the use of Catholic teachings in crafting marriage and divorce laws be the imposition of Christianity? How about using Catholic ideas in creating labor laws? Do you think that teaching religious ideas in the schools would violate religious liberty? Surely American concepts of religious liberty prohibit these things, but do Catholic teachings on religious liberty prohibit them?

    I think that your ideas on religious liberty are too extensive.Clearly it would be wrong to use the force of the government to prohibit other faiths. However, religious liberty wouldn’t prevent a state church in a country where it is practicable. Nor would it prevent the use of religious ideas in crafting all of the institutions of society and placing them under the rule of Christ the King.

  • Ronald King

    Conversion takes place through action first. Human beings are influenced through the senses first. Christ cared for others and then taught why He cared. He acted first. He teaches us that being human is a tactile experience first and for those who have been given the Grace of God to know Him, we are, therefore, given His path to follow. This path requires us to form a community of those who have been given this Grace whether they are believers or non-believers. “We are known by how we love one another.” There are no labels that determine who belongs to this community, there is the evidence of Love that is revealed through actions that determines members of this community.
    From this starting point the action of Love identifies the needs of those who are suffering and the plan is set in place for the movement of Love throughout the known world. Love operates where It Wills and is not exclusive to one particular group. Love determines the formulation of the system and requires the sacrifice of the lover.
    The question is “What does it mean to give up everything and follow Him?”.
    The human relates to other humans first through the senses and the reaction of the brain to this input. The brain is conditioned by thousands of generations of violence to protect itself from harmful appearing stimuli, but, it also retains the basic function of responding to love which is its source of well-being. The soul who inhabits the brain craves love and it is on this human level that every soul will see evidence of pure love and be attracted to it or the soul will see through the senses a lack of love and be influenced by fear to seek the substitute for love which is self-protection and tribalism.

  • dpt

    “Or is there a way that we can effectively incorporate our call for conversion to Christ… repeating history’s mistakes?”

    When I hear the readings from the Old Testament and listen about the unfaithful episodes of the Jewish people, I cannot help but to think that here we are again.