Clothes Make the Man: Christianity and Public Life
The ongoing discussion of how to deal with public figures who oppose Church teaching is tangled up in America’s schizophrenic approach to religion. For a large number of secularists, religion is tolerable in private life but public life must be protected from its peculiar, parochial and often pernicious influence. For an equally large number of Christians, religion is of great value in the home but does not warrant extension into the public square. Metaphorically speaking, one scarcely knows how to dress when one goes out. Do clothes make the man?
Pearls before Swine?
In the 16th century, when Protestant religious sects were proliferating like poppies in the heady years following Luther’s revolt against the Church, one particular sect was named for its imitation of Nicodemus, the Jewish elder who would visit Jesus only secretly, at night. These Nicodemists took as their text Matthew 7:6, the caution against casting pearls before swine. They held that believers were obliged to dissemble so that non-believers would not be aware of their pearls of Christianity. Of course, this habitual hiding of the Faith resulted in the death of the sect within a single generation.
This is a true story but it is also a cautionary tale. The failure to live the Faith publicly is so crippling as to cause the Faith to be lost. To the precise degree that Faith is limited to private practice, opportunities to show the relevance, inspiration and power of the Gospel are eliminated. This has two disastrous consequences: First, the social order is robbed of the graces, ideals and convictions which are essential to its health; second, individual Christians must dissemble, hiding their Faith in public, and thereby undermining their spiritual identity.
The Tension between Faith and Action
Let us consider the second point first: Failure to publicly express the Faith undermines a Christian’s identity. This is basic psychology. There is an inevitable tension between what we believe, think and feel “inside” and what we express outwardly, and this tension has an impact on our character. To take but one example, insofar as the fear of punishment prevents us from giving in to certain temptations, we are gradually habituated to virtue.
But this can also work the other way. If we are constantly intimidated into failing to speak or act on what we know to be true and good, then the true and the good will gradually lose their influence on our character. This process will accelerate if we become convinced that this failure to speak and act is morally required of us, that it is wrong for us to “impose our morality”. Now we become voluntary dissemblers, and we end by permanently snuffing the very candle we so carefully attempt to hide.
I think it probable that most of those who accept what we may call the Nicodemist theory in our own time simply adopt it as a cover for their own lack of courage and conviction about right and wrong. Nonetheless, there is so much confusion on this subject that it is hard to imagine that all of it is insincere.
Perfecting the Social Order
Unfortunately, though cowardice and deliberate complicity with evil are manifestly worse, sincere confusion is likewise as deadly to the social order as it is to the self. In either case, the goodness, truth and beauty which arise from a proper understanding of man’s relationship with God have no opportunity to improve our public life. Our customs and civility erode; our entertainments degenerate; our educational institutions decline; our laws become progressively less just.
All of these failures further undermine the faith and values of the individual persons who make up the social order. They become less good and, indeed, less happy. This downward spiral marks the decline and eventual destruction of true civilization, which loses the power to sustain and develop itself from within. At a certain point, only a major impetus from outside can reverse the trend. One such outside impetus is large-scale immigration, hopefully of a more vibrant group with stronger values, but here there are no guarantees.
The other possibility is religion, because authentic religion is always revealed and engraced from outside. Authentic religion is first of all transcendent. It originates beyond human culture and it therefore enables us to refuel and regenerate even when the surrounding civilization is barren. The price of authentic religion varies, but most often religion can do its work without violent upheaval in anything but our own souls. God offers us, again and again, both the chance to take Him seriously and the infusion of spiritual energy necessary to act seriously.
Certainly, prudence is needed. Certainly, a hundred questions must be answered about the best way to proceed in the diverse fields of education, the arts, entertainment, business and, yes, politics. But there is little point to either the questions or the prudence unless we are first convinced that we can act – that our action has not been ruled out by some higher loyalty or some fundamental conceptual mistake.
Our dignity as children of God means that, first and foremost, we must express ourselves as moral actors. At the same time, our actions profoundly influence who we are as persons, both in the first instance and through the social order we shape over time. As persons, we are clothed by action, and these clothes do make the man.
It is high time we got dressed.
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More resources on Christianity and public life on CatholicCulture.org:
- Pope John Paul II, Promote the Social Doctrine of the Church to Improve the Social Order, 2001.
- Pope John Paul II, Centissimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), 1991.
- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), 1891.
- Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio), 1987.
- Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), 1967.
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