I accepted the invitation — a man has to make a living — but I do not see any reason to hope for any modicum of political unity, or even broad rational political conversation.
We have little hope of articulating principles of moral or political unity to the broader culture, because we don’t even know what that looks like within the Church. In the U.S., the typical Catholic is more comfortable talking morality and politics to a non-Catholic person with whom he otherwise identifies politically than with his or her Catholic brother or sister with whom he does not.
This is the case for at least two reasons. First, we have forgotten, if we ever knew, the language of the Catholic moral life. Second, we have reduced moral commitments to political identity, and political identity to party loyalty. Thus, our moral and political lives are more likely to be formed by partisan identification than Christian discipleship. The “non-like-minded people” with whom we are disunited are more likely to be our Catholic brothers and sisters than they are to be their secular counterparts.
To distill the problem to its essence: We talk and act more like liberal Protestants than Catholics.
By “liberal” I mean the basic moral anthropology that animates the entirety of the political spectrum in the U.S., from the far left of the Democratic party to the far right of the Republican party. It is radical personal autonomy and atomistic individualism, spoken in a language of individual rights-claims as the basic moral foundation.
The result is the the privatizing of morality.
By “Protestant,” I mean tendency to identify the Church as yet one voluntary institution among others, created by nothing other than the wills of its members and, thus, answerable only to its members.
This is the faith of a very large number, if not the majority, of American Catholics — and it makes us not unlike orphans or castaways.
In The Nutmeg of Consolation — fourteenth of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels — Captain Aubrey’s ship arrives on a small Melanesian island on which the entire population, save two young girls (later named Emily and Sarah), has died from smallpox.
Dr. Maturin takes the girls, about ages 4 and 5, on board the ship, with the hope of placing them in a foster or adoption home.
When they arrive in England after about 18 months at sea, Emily and Sarah “had entirely forgotten the langue of Sweeting Island, apart from counting as they skipped, but they spoke perfect English, quarterdeck with never an oath or the much more earthy and emphatic lower-deck version, as occasion required.”
We American Catholics are Emily and Sarah.
We have learned to speak the language of liberal Protestantism (either the Democrat or Republican dialects), but other than rote words and phrases, we have forgotten how to speak, or even think, Catholic. In turn we unwittingly justify the language of liberalism in terms of our supposed Christian faith, subordinating the latter to the former.
Because we have forgotten our own language, we do not have the moral vocabulary to object to a polity that is the inevitable result of the language of liberal Protestantism. We accept the liberal Protestant privatizing of morality but are shocked by a political culture in which morality is privatized. As C.S. Lewis put it in another context, we castrate the stallion and bid the gelding to be fruitful.
Or, as Stanley Hauerwas has explained: “It was assumed,” in American liberalism, “that in making ‘morality’ a matter of the ‘private sphere’ . . . it could still be sustained and have a public impact.” But this failed to take account of the necessity that the morality of which, for example, the founders referred, must be sustained through a community of language, or else it will be forgotten. And, of course, as with Emily and Sarah, it will be replaced by dialects of a different language: one for the quarterdeck and one for the lower decks.
What then can we do?
To start, we must begin to take the moral language that we use with one another more seriously. We must begin to learn to speak a language formed by the staples of Catholic Social Doctrine, which—when properly articulated, understood, and applied—provides an alternative moral grammar, consistent with the full demands of the Gospel. This encompasses the entirety of our moral commitments, not just those suggested by the party platforms that largely form our lives. Dignity (properly understood), solidarity, subsidiarity, and common good are the moral dialects that we must learn before we can think about the political unity of the Church, still less of the broader culture.
Until we can learn to speak to a common language to one another, we cannot hope to be a consistent witness to the truth of that language.
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