Increasing concern about government and the social order

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 25, 2020

I find it both instructive and hopeful that Catholic opinion is experiencing a fresh interest in the nature of society and its appropriate governance. Most readers may already know, for example, that the political philosophy of Integralism is making a comeback. This is the theory, long thought discredited, that the principles of the Catholic faith ought explicitly to guide not only private piety but public affairs. Exactly how this is described, of course, varies with both individual theorists and the relative strength or weakness of the Catholic population in each place.

At its best, Integralism could simply be a restatement of Gelasian dualism (named for Pope Gelasius, the late fifth-century pontiff who articulated it). Gelasius recognized that there were two fundamental authorities in human affairs, the spiritual and the temporal. The spiritual authority was the Church and the temporal authority was the political government in each region. The temporal government is charged with the political ordering of temporal affairs, including all the prudential decisions which that involves. But the Church alone has the spiritual authority to determine the legitimate ends of temporal rule, as well as the morality of the means adopted to achieve those ends.

In practice, however, Integralism is rarely called “Integralism” unless it involves more than Gelasian dualism and the principles of Catholic social teaching. It frequently exhibits a tendency to turn Catholicism into a system of secular rule. This cannot be done, of course, and the effort often leads to distortions, especially with respect to the difference between what is rightly taught by the Church as truth and what is prudently legislated and enforced by the State, a difference which depends on many factors, including the characteristic perceptions and needs of various populations in different times and places.

But concern about the big Catholic picture of human governance is not limited to resurgent Integralists. For example, I am currently reading two books which accord more space to politics than one would have expected, given their authors. One is Fr. Daniel Maloney’s book entitled Mercy: What Every Catholic Should Know, published earlier this year by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press. It is actually one of the delightful features of Fr. Moloney’s treatment that five of the sixteen chapters deal directly with the exercise of mercy in the political order, especially with respect to rule in general and punishment in particular. The rest of this fine book deals with topics the reader would be more likely to expect.

More directly oriented toward government is a new book by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley, soon to be published by the St. Paul Center. (I’m reading it in a pre-publication PDF file because I was kindly asked to write a promotional blurb for it, which I am inclined to do if I can finish it in time.) At present the title is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, so clearly the question of the relationships among religion, morality, justice and governance hold a central place in the text. In opposition to the individualistic prejudices of the modern West, one of the first arguments made in this book is that it is not only individuals who owe everything to God. Rather, families, peoples, societies, and politically-organized territories are also truly natural entities, made up of real people, which in their own collective identity owe a great debt to God (as, for example, the Old Testament makes very clear).

“Religion” is, of course, the virtue of giving to God what is His due. It is, moreover, a virtue which is our first obligation under the larger category of “justice”.

American approaches

In the United States, another form taken by this resurgent concern over the nature of society and governance is that of defending and re-proposing the principles of the American founding. Phil Lawler explored one aspect of this in his commentary on Robert Reilly’s recent book, America on Trial, a book which is a direct response to Integralism’s critique of our Founding Fathers (see Phil’s assessment of the issue in An answer to Catholic critics of the American Founding).

Not too long ago, Robert Marshall, who sometimes writes for us on political affairs, authored a strategic book entitled Reclaiming the Republic, which I was more than happy to review. Marshall has proven himself very adept at focusing on principles and recommending strategies that can work in American politics.

To some extent, however, the defense of the American founding mystifies me. This is mainly because I think that ship has sailed. The principles operative at the founding no longer have broad appeal, and I doubt they can be recovered by referring back to a particular time and place for essentially patriotic reasons. Many people disagree with me, seeing in this approach a way to increase understanding, to expose errors and, more pragmatically, to rally voters.

I have already mentioned that Marshall does this very well, and that Reilly is interested to a considerable degree in reconsidering the American Founding not only to get the analysis right but to expose the errors and distortions which are so commonly associated with the Integralist critique. Marshall, Reilly, Lawler and, yes, even Mirus share what I regard as a very important recognition: Nothing in human affairs is perfect; and, especially in the political order, the quest for “perfection” is often a dangerous enemy of the Good. This is in many ways the theme of our present distress; nor is it unknown in certain strains of “Catholic” political thought.

It is true, of course, that the American founding generation still inhabited a Western world which prized important principles that we need to recover. But it also failed (as does every generation) to recognize some very serious evils which are obvious to us today. The problem is that judicious cherry-picking is needed at the levels of both theory and policy—as would be true of any human enterprise to establish a new nation with a new constitutional order. For my part, I simply no longer expect the tactic of explaining and defending America’s founding principles to bear significant fruit.

Recognizing that the Church is the arbiter not only of Divine Revelation but of what God reveals through creation in what we call the Natural Law, I am more inclined to want to get the natural law right, to study Catholic social teaching with great care, and to develop a political party that combines the best and most comprehensive recognition of the corresponding principles that ought to animate both the social order and government itself. Readers might get my drift more easily if I simply state that it is a mystery to me that there is no party in America willing to wrest the dubious claims of liberty and compassion from both Republicans and Democrats by developing a platform firmly rooted in reverence for God, respect for virtuous populations in ordering their own affairs in accordance with the common good, and compassion for those who need more help than others in participating in that good.

But readers might well be correct if they believe this is even more far-fetched than harkening back to 1776.

Is Rethinking in the Water?

At this point, of course, I hope that the bug for rethinking the relationships among religion, politics, government and mercy is thoroughly mixed into the air we breathe and the water we drink. The entire Western world is well into a personal spiritual and moral collapse, with a corresponding social collapse that starts with the family and ends in government and law. Change must necessarily begin with thought, and perhaps even with imagination. Even as resilient as human societies tend to be, it can only be described as folly to believe we have unlimited time in which to right the ship.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: srmajic8648 - Aug. 25, 2020 7:34 PM ET USA

    You mentioned the need for a political party that would be a solid choice beyond the Republication and Democratic Party. The American Solidarity Party seems to fit your description. I only know of this party through their internet information. I believe they are founded upon Catholic social teaching and reverence for life. Their beliefs and platform are readily available at American Solidarity Party.