Turning the Corner | James Kalb | Catholic World Report
Catholics should not hesitate to bring Catholic beliefs and arguments into the public square.
In the last several months I’ve been discussing the problems Catholics face dealing with public life today. The recent election underlined some of them. The bishops and others made their pitch about threats to the family and the freedom of the Church, the Democrats stood firm, and most Americans—including most self-identified Catholics—voted for the Democrats. Not only does the world care very little for Catholic concerns, but it seems that Catholics acting as citizens care little for them as well.
So what should the faithful do? If the world’s against us, so it’s becoming harder and harder to act or even think as Catholics, should we retreat to monasteries? Return to the catacombs? Overthrow the government and establish a dictatorship run by a revolutionary vanguard? Such proposals have serious drawbacks, and something much more moderate would be more to the point. All we really need to participate with integrity in public life as citizens and Catholics is a society in which what is good—and not freedom, equality, or prosperity—is the highest standard. If we had that, discussions about goals that rise above who gets what would become possible, and Catholic concerns could become mainstream.
It seems that those concerns would do well in such a setting. Our social doctrine is consistent with natural law, which means that on the whole it follows a common-sense understanding of what things are, what’s good for them, and how they work best. So we should be able to get a lot of mileage out of talking about what’s good in human life as we find it, and how that can be respected and promoted. All that’s necessary is that people accept the good life and common sense as standards.
The problem is that appeals to those standards don’t work very well today. Modern public discussion doesn’t like common sense, even educated common sense. If something can’t be observed, measured, and dealt with by neutral professional standards, people think it’s rational to ignore it and do what they otherwise want to do. After all, they believe, if something can’t be nailed down and proved it’s a prejudice, a stereotype, or an attempt to spin the discussion, so it doesn’t deserve serious attention.
That skeptical approach to informal knowledge can be productive in the natural sciences, but it doesn’t work when applied to life in general. Basic human decisions require insight and judgment, and neither can be made exact or turned into academic expertise. If we limit ourselves to what can be made rigorous our decisions must either ignore reason altogether or base themselves on arbitrary default assumptions like equality. In either case, the results will defy common sense. For examples, look at what educators, architects, and legal thinkers have done to schools, cities, and the law. What now passes as expertise has led to results that are often completely at odds with normal ways of thinking, learning, and living.
Such an approach to knowledge and reason has nonetheless become established, and the result is that ideas of ultimate goals and natural patterns have more and more been driven out of public discussion.