This piece is a response to Michael Hanby’s essay “The Civic Project of American Christianity” in the February 2015 issue of First Things.
For some time now, the cultural crisis besetting the United States has been taking ominous political and legal forms that threaten the exercise of religious freedom and that otherwise call into question the character of American democracy, as that character is expressed in law and public policy. These are dangers that I, among others, have been warning about for more than twenty years, not least in explicating John Paul II’s social magisterium from Centesimus Annus (1991) through Ecclesia in Europa (2003). If word of that critique of contemporary American society and culture has not reached some quarters, well, given the gravity of our situation and Michael Hanby’s welcome admonition to keep our eye on the ball rather than conducting food fights in the bleachers, I suggest, with Hanby, that it’s time to move on.
The question is, how?
Answering the question about the Church’s relationship to the civil order, at any moment in history, requires us to begin with ecclesiology and to remember that the Church’s first obligation is to be the Church: the communio that witnesses to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, here and now. Those who witness to these truths “see” the world differently than others. In the image that C. Kavin Rowe uses for the title of his brilliant explication of Acts, the public confession of the lordship of the risen Christ creates what the world thinks of as a “world upside down,” but what Christians understand to be the world seen truly. By constantly reminding the world that salvation history is the interior, if you will, of world history, and that salvation history tells the world’s story in its full depth and against its most ample horizon, the Church does the best service it can do for the world, including that part of the world we call “public life.”
The Church, in other words, puts everything into proper perspective through its witness to the truth about the human person, human community, human origins, and human destiny. That truth, as the Fathers of Vatican II taught in Gaudium et Spes, is revealed in “Christ the Lord . . . Christ the new Adam, [who] in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, reveals man to himself and brings light to his most high calling.” It is a vocation that includes the construction of an earthly polis reflective of the truth about man. And in offering that true perspective, the Church does good service to the civic community, for by witnessing to the essential truths about man (the anthropological truths, in Hanby’s vocabulary), the Church is also witnessing to the truths that make solidarity and the noble human aspiration to freedom possible.
Idoubt that there is much disagreement on these basic points within the First Things family. But since Richard John Neuhaus launched the journal by reminding its first readers that the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the “first thing,” things have changed—and for the worse. We can describe that “worse” in any number of ways. I’d like to suggest that, inter alia, it comes down to Ockham’s Triumph: the de facto “establishment” in American public life of the notion that freedom is willfulness, and that willfulness can attach itself to any object, “so long as no one gets hurt” (which “no one” obviously does not include the aborted unborn and the euthanized, simply underscoring the confusions of the age). Ockham’s Triumph has intersected with another aspect of the “worse”: The metaphysical vacuum ably limned by Hanby has been filled by a new Gnosticism (chiefly but not exclusively embodied in the sexual revolution) that teaches that everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable and therefore subject to change by acts of will (like transgendering surgery). The intersection of these two Very Bad Ideas—Freedom-as-Willfulness and the New Gnosticism—produces what Joseph Ratzinger aptly described on April 18, 2005, as the “dictatorship of relativism.” And that dictatorship is the end of democracy, and indeed of any decent civic order.
With all of that in mind, permit me to make four suggestions in answer to the question “What now?” (or perhaps better, “Now what?”).
First, as I argued at some length in Evangelical Catholicism, the Church must discipline its public witness by resisting the temptation to comment on virtually every contested issue of public policy and by focusing primary attention on two key issues: the life issues and religious freedom. These are the points of maximum confrontation with the dictatorship of relativism; vigorously and doggedly contesting for life and for religious freedom in full can reopen the necessary public conversation about the moral and cultural bases of democratic order. And in that conversation, America could be reminded that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain habits of the mind and heart, to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is human flourishing, not human degradation. Advances on those fronts just might, as well, reopen the public conversation about the nature of freedom, offering opportunities to challenge the debasement of freedom into willfulness (license) and reconnecting freedom to the true and the good.
Second, as we press ahead on these priority issues, however, the leadership of the Church (which is not confined to those in holy orders) must also begin to prepare the people of the Church for the real possibility of a season of persecution. This means “equipping the saints” to be twenty-first-century apologists who can (pace Pope Francis) offer compassionate aid to the walking wounded of postmodern society, explain the truths about the human person that the Church believes are essential to a truly human political community, and, if necessary, hold fast to Gospel-based Christian moral convictions even if that means professional or economic distress. It is still possible, at the moment, to play good defense here, both in terms of public policy and in legally defending Church-based institutions from the assault of the dictatorship of relativism. But while playing good defense (and going on offense on the priority issues noted above), the Church must also be prepared to cut the tether to government funding when that funding requires compromise on (or abandonment of) core truths about the human person; to create parallel and self-funded educational, health-care, and social-service agencies and institutions where conscientious Christian professionals can exercise their vocations for the benefit of all and where the recipients of those services can be assured of their safety (physical and moral); and to support, in various ways, those believers who come directly into the line of fire of the dictatorship of relativism.
Third, “what now” must also include some decisions about the grammar and vocabulary of the Church’s civic engagement. Hanby uses the grammar and vocabulary of metaphysics and philosophical anthropology to diagnose our maladies; and in certain venues that is appropriate, for the people in those venues know what he’s talking about. But “metaphysics” means nothing in American public life today, and after three decades of trying to explain the Christian “anthropology” of John Paul II to various audiences, I am still being asked what “anthropology” is, and what the behavior of primitive tribes has to do with Christianity.
There’s no answer to this dilemma of the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for articulating the Church’s social witness in a deracinated society. But I would like to suggest an ecclesial approach to the problem. What Hanby describes as a “metaphysical revolution” and an attendant “revolution in fundamental anthropology” can also be called the Return of Gnosticism—or, as I’ve come to describe it publicly, as a grave deficiency in reality contact. A Gnostic culture cannot help us see Things As They Are. Indeed, a Gnostic culture denies that thereare Things As They Are, that there are givens in the human condition, including moral givens. The new Gnosticism is like a defective pair of glasses; we can’t see reality clearly through its warped lenses. So what is the antidote to this Gnostic myopia and astigmatism? The answer is seeing the world through biblical lenses, through lenses ground by the biblical depiction of the human condition, which the people of the Church can come to know by effective biblical preaching that, like the expository preaching of the Fathers of the Church, allows the people of the Church to see clearly—themselves, their neighbors, this historical moment, and this moment’s place amid the in-breaking kingdom.
In a culture that has lost contact with reality, a Church in America equipping its people to be the missionary disciples they were baptized to be (a vocation that includes responsible citizenship) must, in its preaching and catechesis, help its people reestablish that contact. In circumstances as philosophically impoverished as ours, appeals to “metaphysics” and “anthropology” are likely to fail, save with a very small remnant. Similarly, attempts to fight the new Gnosticism with the weapons of logic deployed in service to moral truth are almost certainly doomed to be frustrated, because public life is not, in the final analysis, an exercise in logic alone. But offering the people of the Church a new way to see Things As They Are by looking at the world through the lens of biblical faith might offer a way forward. N. T. Wright puts what I’m trying to say succinctly when he argues that the entire burden of the Pauline letters is to teach new Christians to “think within the biblical narrative, to see themselves as actors within the ongoing scriptural drama: to allow their erstwhile pagan thought-forms to be transformed by a biblically based renewal of the mind” (emphasis added).
Our problem, of course, is that we’re not dealing with “erstwhile pagans,” but with Christians who, under the influence of the cultural revolution Hanby describes, have adopted a pagan cast of mind. But Wright’s point still remains valid. In any event, it’s an approach that seems to me worthy of a lot more discussion, even as, through appeals to public moral reason in the legal and political worlds, we try to save what can be saved.
Finally, within communities like the First Things family, committed to the public witness of the Church, we ought to try and map the contours and boundaries of an authentic pluralism. Reading the diaries of Dietrich von Hildebrand from the late 1920s and early 1930s, I was powerfully struck by how the disdain of continental European Christian intellectuals for the messy pluralism of liberal democracy made too many of those thinkers vulnerable to the siren songs of the monism proposed by German National Socialism and Italian fascism. Some fell more deeply into the trap of imagining that pluralism could be written out of the script of history than others; some remained mired in that trap longer than others. Yet when one reads about von Hildebrand’s fierce arguments with German Dominicans and others enthralled by the National Socialist “alternative” to Weimar, a shiver goes down the spine. For the answer to the messiness of pluralism, when it risks turning into the full-blown dictatorship of relativism (or other forms of dictatorship), is not to construct monistic castles in the sky—an effort in the twenty-first century that will, like similar efforts in the 1930s, come to grief, and from both left and right.
The answer in America is to revitalize a civil society rooted in the moral truths embodied in human nature. Only a civil society so rooted is capable of sustaining pluralist democracy without imploding into chaos or sinking into the dictatorship of relativism. And it is likely that only the Church, among American civil-society institutions, can lead in that long process of national civic renewal.
This article was originally published on First Things – February 2015 issue