Policing, torture, reasons of State, and our Christian mistake
Consider recent news. A generation or two ago, if I had described a government which jettisoned the natural law in favor of the desire for power, which tried to impose its vision of society through ever-increasing bureaucratic control, which ensured that the ideology of the ruling class was taught in all schools, which maintained police forces increasingly characterized by brutality against disadvantaged citizens, which embarked regularly on covert domestic and foreign operations justified by “reasons of state”, and which tortured its enemies to increase its security…well, a generation or two ago, you would have said I must be referring to either a brutal dictatorship or a totalitarian state.
You would have been right.
But now we hardly notice, and this teaches us something important about how societies can voluntarily drift into totalitarianism. With extraordinarily little exaggeration, I have just described the nature of government and society in most Western nations, and certainly in the nation I know best, the United States.
Modern totalitarianism: The futility of our politics
Paradoxically, modern totalitarianism is bred by Western liberalism. The philosophical root of liberalism is the conviction that the human person, and by extension the social order, is not dependent on God but instead may be perfected purely through human means. The two great means embraced by liberalism are: (1) Education; and (2) The organizing power of the State. The two go together, of course, because the State must control education as the first and best means of eradicating the kind of “backward thinking” (particularly traditional and religious thinking) which interferes with its vision of earthly perfection.
One of the great mysteries of liberalism is that it always tends toward a totalitarian project in the name of individual liberty. By progressively placing the atomized individual, devoid of relationships, at the center of its ideology, liberalism accomplishes two things. It undermines resistance to the massive power of the State; and it gives an illusion of freedom to its citizens by directly facilitating their “right” to sin. That is, liberalism seeks always to break the relationships in which people are naturally situated for their own perfection (such as the family), to dismiss these relationships as so many intolerable constraints, and to decry the very concepts of spiritual growth and moral virtue.
The result is that liberal societies always destroy the fundamental basis of social health, which consists in sound relationships, especially family relationships, and the exercise of virtue for the common good. This leads inevitably to the establishment of an ever-thicker regulatory shell, with ever-greater police powers, to shore up a social order which is disintegrating in plain sight. As long as this can be done in ways that keep society’s cultural and political elites satisfied, their power is used to continue it. In the end, though, an ideology divorced from reality must result in total collapse.
It finally happened in the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, and this example points to another peculiar fact about philosophical liberalism. It is perfectly capable of breeding totalitarianisms of both the left and the right. It has given birth to both liberal and conservative (often called “classical liberal”) political and social theories as we generally know them today. In addition to breeding today’s so-called soft totalitarianisms, liberalism can almost indifferently breed a Hitler on the right or a Stalin on the left—a Nazi or a Communist regime, a Fascist or a Marxist State.
As time goes on, in fact, the differences between the so-called left and the so-called right become increasingly illusory. Both are largely rebellions against a natural religious worldview. Within surprisingly few theoretical limits, both insist on man’s power to create utopia, and on man’s right to become anything he wants to be.
The so-called soft totalitarianisms are simply those into which a culture devolves with a greater degree of consent and a lesser degree of force. This can happen when the ideological distance between the “elites” and the “masses” is relatively small. It becomes increasingly likely in societies in which mass media and mass education (always controlled by elites) have replaced family and Church as the chief agents of personal formation.
Saints and martyrs: Transcending left and right
If it were not so serious, the vain posturing of so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” in the United States would be almost laughable. Liberals favor an ever-growing State bureaucracy, international tribunals and tax-based financial pressure to extend their values at home and abroad. Conservatives favor international corporations, a growing police presence and a strong military to defend and extend the “American way of life”, which is rooted in liberalism. Although some, but hardly all, brands of conservatism are more influenced by Christianity, conservatives and liberals collaborate in forging an embarrassingly naked public square, creating a power center from which religion is harried in all areas of life.
The core values are surprisingly similar, which is why conservative politicians, who resist the latest legislative and executive initiatives of their liberal counterparts, so frequently implement the same programs when they are in power. We never see a fundamental change in course. Nothing is ever rolled back, nor is any new vision ever introduced. Both sides tinker with the optimum balance between entrepreneurial activity, social toleration, and government intervention, as if this is the pivot point of a significant shift in worldview. Yet each year intermediary institutions are weakened, the family is further undermined, religion is relentlessly privatized, and more of those who insist on living their religious beliefs are forced out of business, fined and jailed.
About fifty years ago, a remarkable magazine of opinion named Triumph tried to introduce a note of Catholic sanity with a persistent emphasis on two important concepts. First, only Christ saves. Second, to make any sort of progress, we must transcend the left-right dialectic, building anew on Christ, redemption, nature, and the social teachings of the Church. It is instructive that Triumph began as a Catholic rebellion against the conservative National Review. Of course these ideas are really much older. Catholic social theory has been around for nearly two millennia and, in the distinct genre of the social encyclical, we have been relentlessly reminded of it for about 125 years.
Yet to this day, the vast majority of us still read Catholic social teaching primarily to determine whether each instance “favors” liberals or conservatives. We still see everything as either left or right, and we still respond emotionally to these relatively minor distinctions. Each group cherry picks what it most needs from each new encyclical to justify its existing position. Usually, in fact, we have no clue what the Church is saying. (On this, see again my review of Anthony Esolen’s new book: Surprise! Marriage is the foundation of Catholic social teaching.)
But my main point is that we cannot fight fire with fire. We cannot fight today’s liberalism with today’s conservatism, or vice versa. We cannot keep trading blows in the same mud puddle. Christ does not fit our paltry human categories, and there is no remedy apart from Christ. Social and political theories have no transformative power. But conformity to Christ produces holiness, clarity, courage, charity, evangelization, and martyrdom.
It is just here, I believe, that we finally grasp our great mistake as Christians. We have grown fat and lazy and even disingenuous. In the contemporary West, we have grown fond of substituting an argument for a way of life.
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Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Dec. 18, 2014 8:22 PM ET USA
As I said before-we live in a broken & sinful world. That doesn't mean we just give up/in. Live the faith in sickness/health/better/worse! We're not meant for this world alone. I'm not convinced a generation/2 ago things were really any better. We have instant information today that too many have not learned how to cope with yet. It seems there are also many more non-Christians in our Culture today than a generation or 2 ago. The difficulty is standing up for what we believe and not giving in.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Dec. 17, 2014 9:23 AM ET USA
"We have grown fond of substituting an argument for a way of life." That's the point, isn't it? The Catholic moral life is a rigorous counter-cultural discipline which alone can transform misdirected leadership into effective service to the least among us. The ideologues who refer to "our better angels" prompt us to choose between proportionalism (i.e., "lesser of two evils") and consequentialism (decisions based on outcomes), rather than on right and wrong as determined by the moral law.
Posted by: Vincit omnia amor -
Dec. 16, 2014 8:59 PM ET USA
"Moral judgment must condemn the plague of totalitarian states which systematically falsify the truth, exercise political control of opinion through the media, manipulate defendants and witnesses at public trials, and imagine that they secure their tyranny by strangling and repressing everything they consider "'thought crimes.'" Catechism "As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." St. John Paul II