Political holiness? More on Gaudete et Exsultate!
In my essay on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on holiness (Challenge yourself with Gaudete et Exsultate!), I promised to write separately about the Pope’s emphasis on the equality among all moral issues. Francis wrote that it was wrong to use attention to grave bioethical issues (such as abortion) as an excuse for dismissing the seriousness of other kinds of injustices, such as poverty, human trafficking and the plight of migrants. He also wrote that it is wrong to reflexively dismiss the social engagement of others in ideological terms as “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist” (cf. nos. 101 and 102).
Stated so baldly, I am quite sure all of us can see that this is very wrong indeed. We can also see, by his examples, that the Pope once again wishes to apply moral pressure to those whom we typically designate as “prolifers” or “conservatives” or “orthodox”. If you doubt this interpretation, then you must ask why Francis did not say (and never does say) that it is wrong to use commitment to the dominant secular culture’s acceptable range of social reforms as an excuse for neglecting the grave bioethical issues—which are so pressing precisely because they fall outside that acceptable range.
The simple and the complex
They are also frequently matters of life and death, but that is not the case I wish to make here. Instead, I wish to argue that there are inescapable aspects of what we call the “social issues” which make it very difficult for good Catholics to take clear and effective positions on them. Let me illustrate by highlighting the nature of the bioethical issues as a contrast. Abortion is a social issue as well as a bioethical issue, of course, as are euthanasia, assisted suicide, gender change, and sterilization, to take the more prominent examples. What we are really attempting to distinguish, when we set bioethical issues against broader social issues, is the difference between intrinsic evils, on the one hand, and other kinds of human suffering on the other.
In my earlier essay, I said: “Nobody can do everything, and the moral issues we choose to emphasize must inescapably be determined in part by their specificity, their severity, their pervasiveness, and the clarity of their solution.” Grave bioethical evils are certainly specific, severe and pervasive enough to merit our attention. But their chief claim to our uncompromising attention is their clarity of solution. Here I do not mean a solution to the problem of why so many people want to commit these sins. That solution calls for a lifetime mission of conversion. I mean the solution to the problem of what sort of political measures should be taken to eliminate these evils.
Talk about “clarity of solution”! Here we have seriously evil practices which, simply by criminalizing them, can be largely eliminated. The percentage drop in their incidence would be as great as it is ever possible to achieve in human affairs, and the law itself would become a good teacher. Would there still be vast amounts of work to be done to create a culture of life which honors the family as the indispensable foundation of a healthy social order? Certainly! But no other social evils come close to these “grave bioethical” issues in terms of “their specificity, their severity, their pervasiveness, and the clarity of their solution.”
In contrast, other kinds of social problems, in the vast majority of cases, do not consist of intrinsic evils that can be effectively criminalized. Most of the rest of them have two inescapable qualities which make it very difficult for good Catholics to take clear and effective positions in response to them. First, their causes are typically very diverse and complex. Second, their solutions are exceedingly unclear.
Poverty, migration, disease, climate change
The poster children for social awareness in our world (and to some extent in this pontificate) are poverty, migration, disease, and climate change. The first point to notice about these issues is that they are conditions, not moral actions. It is true that all four can and do have contributory human moral causes, but overall, in terms of their causes, (a) we do not fully understand them; (b) we mostly cannot control them; and (c) insofar as we can mitigate them, we must do so prudentially, balancing human needs, the effectiveness of various proposed solutions, available resources, and conflicting claims.
Now Pope Francis is absolutely right—and always has been absolutely right—in insisting that we address such major solutions, to the best of our understanding and ability, from the essential posture of love for Christ in all who suffer. I do not pretend that “good Catholics” always do this. I do not pretend that we are incapable of salving our consciences by dismissing proposed remedies in ideological terms (as the Pope claims) without giving them a fair hearing—without, in fact, wanting to be “bothered”. I suspect many of us have seen the proof of my admission in that an issue often does not seem very important to us until we or some member of our family is afflicted in some way—and then we think something “ought to be done about it.” Here the Pope offers, I think, a fair warning.
But these are huge and largely intractable problems about which it is not at all clear what we can do. Moreover, in the form in which these problems are typically presented to us, they are proposed as political problems. As such they require political action to shape laws and policies in a secular state where, by the time any law is passed, it will always combine a good dose of natural evil with the good it intends. It is not just difficult to figure out how to solve these problems; it is closer to impossible to work through modern Western governments to accomplish good without releasing serious evil as a byproduct. This arises from the faulty moral and spiritual notions which animate our dominant culture today.
For this very reason, one of the things I particularly liked about Gaudete et Exsultate was Pope Francis’ emphasis on the beatitudes as the school of holiness, and on our personal response to, treatment of, and relationships with those we meet in everyday life. The apostolic exhortation is not at all primarily about our engagement with the political order. The political policies we support, unless they are very clearly evil (see the bioethical issues again), are not likely to be the litmus test by which we are judged. While we must not intend or promote political evil, and while we must be good in everything we do, holiness not only can but must be separated from politics. It must not be conceived in political terms.
It really does take a village
One of the truths about the endemic social issues is that they are always made worse by the breakdown of the family. We can nearly always do more for the common good by attempting to shore up marriage and family life than by working to change immigration regulations or environmental rules (unless, perhaps, the rules are essentially non-existent). Moreover, under present circumstances, the chances are that we will be more effective by directly and thoroughly helping one family at a time than by advocating particular regulatory programs. In fact, the first rule of social development is the protection and promotion of the family, and the second is the active cooperation of families in communities, forging strong bonds for mutual assistance and common outreach.
I would argue that our modern mass societies are, by their very nature, consistently inimical to the common good. The mammoth, bureaucratic, regulatory State marks a kind of end to a certain sort of civilization, and it is an end which intrudes so pervasively into ordinary life that two things happen: (a) People come to think that they cannot work to solve their own problems, but must depend on political solutions imposed from the top; and (b) Even if they want to work locally to help each other, they often find themselves forbidden to act in many constructive ways because of the regulations they must meet to be “approved”.
There are far worse regimes in various places, but there is nothing quite so much like a farce as the modern Western “democracies” today. All of this is exacerbated by the loss of common values, so that even people in local neighborhoods can no longer forge close friendships or work together for common ends. Most of us, in fact, no longer really trust our neighbors, and we have many good reasons not to. Moreover, we owe a great deal of the destruction of trust and common values to the depredations of the bureaucratic secular State, operating especially through the public schools, from pre-school through the giant universities.
The endemic problems which the Pope speaks about, and which I broadly enumerated above, are in fact very difficult to address outside of the collaborative creativity and shared work of cohesive communities built on strong families. This is the context in which people can genuinely effect improvements in the common good, and in the factors which shape or hold back their own region. Outside of this context it is extraordinarily difficult to make significant progress, and it always has been. We must do our best at all levels, certainly, but more than half the time we will be attempting to process solutions through a bureaucratic State which is gradually sinking under its own weight, and which very frequently enacts policies more harmful than good.
It is one thing to draw attention to endemic problems like poverty, migration, disease, and climate change, but it is quite another to understand their causes, or to identify effective solutions, especially through a dominant culture which is generally inimical to family life and responsible moral values. Worse still, the modern State will often create dependent classes for political gain rather than foster strong local communities. Sadly, the secular ideologies which drive the West in our time tend to destroy far more than they create.
A far more appropriate course would be to eschew what we might call political holiness in favor of that fundamental relational holiness which should animate our families and our parishes (and which, to Francis’ credit, is the primary focus of his apostolic exhortation). It seems to me that we have entered a time in history when we must focus on our own families and on that network of Catholic families that we have within our own parishes, working to help first and foremost “our own”, as the early Christians did. If we are persecuted, let others see our courage. If not, let them see that we take care of our own better than does the State.
This, at least, is something we can do. And in so doing, let others be drawn out of the perpetual cold into our warmth. I mean let them be drawn into love and hope and faith. Let them be drawn into Christ.
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