Catholic Thought and the Challenges of Our Time

The early Church saw challenges to truths about God, the Reformation-era Church saw challenges to truths about the Church herself, and today’s Church is confronted by challenges to truths about man—the being made in the image and likeness of God whom the Church is tasked with protecting. This essay is based on Ryan T. Anderson’s inaugural lecture as the St. John Paul II Teaching Fellow at The University of Dallas.

 

The two-thousand-year story of the Catholic Church’s cultural and intellectual growth is a story of challenges answered.

For the early Church, there were debates about who God is (and who is God). In response, the Church developed the wonderfully rich reflections of Trinitarian theology and Christology. In a sense, we have the early heresies to thank for this accomplishment. Arius’s errors gave us Athanasius’s refinements on Christology. Nestorius’s blunders gave us Cyril’s insights. In truth, of course, we have the Holy Spirit to thank for it all. He continually leads the Church to defend and deepen its understanding of the truth, against the peculiar errors of the age.

A thousand years later, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church saw renewed debates about salvation—debates that built on those Augustine had waged with Pelagius, no less. Whichever side you favor in the debates of the sixteenth century, they left the Church as a whole with a much richer theology of justification and sanctification, ecclesiology and soteriology.

Debates about the nature of God, of salvation, and of the Church never disappear, of course. But today, the most pressing heresies—the newest challenges for the Church’s teaching and mission—center on the nature of man. The tribulations that marked the twentieth century and continue into the twenty-first—totalitarianism, genocide, abortion, and the sexual ideology that has battered the family and redefined marriage—have sprung from a faulty humanism. I don’t mean to equate each of these human tragedies with the others, but they all spring from faulty anthropology, a misunderstanding of the nature of man.

So, oversimplifying a bit, if you want to classify eras of the Church and challenges to the truth, you could think of it in terms of three periods. The early Church saw challenges to truths about God, the Reformation-era Church saw challenges to truths about the Church herself, and today’s Church is confronted by challenges to truths about man—the being made in the image and likeness of God whom the Church is tasked with protecting.

This insight about anthropology isn’t unique to me. In fact, I hope that none of the genuine insights in this essay are unique to me. If any are, it’s a sure sign that I’ve gone off the rails somewhere. I hope to simply be articulating perennial truths of the Catholic intellectual tradition that are particularly relevant to our moment.

So who should get credit for this insight? Karol Wojtyła. Before he became a bishop, a cardinal, and eventually Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła was an academic philosopher. He thought deeply about the crisis of culture then enveloping the West and determined its cause: a faulty understanding of the human person. Shortly after the Second World War, he wrote to a friend about his main intellectual project:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.

John Paul diagnosed his culture’s ills in terms of the mid-century political revolutions. If he were with us today, he’d undoubtedly extend that analysis—as he did with abortion—to apply it to the redefinition of marriage, transgender ideology, and various assaults on religious liberty.

If we are seeing in our own time challenges to the truths that we are created male and female, and that male and female are created for each other in marriage, it is because we have lost sight of the true nature of man as the Imago Dei. We must respond to false humanisms with a true humanism committed to the unique and irreplaceable value of each person.

The false humanism in John Paul II’s time was on powerful display in the political order, where totalitarianism grew. Today, blindness to the truth about the human person has led to a crisis of family, community, and opportunity. But then as now, we see clearly the Church’s latest intellectual and cultural challenge: not primarily the nature of God or redemption, but of man and human flourishing. Our task is to explain what human persons most fundamentally are, and how we are to relate to one another within families and polities.

Now, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve hedged in my phrasing when I said the challenges are not primarily about God or the Church, and that they are primarily about man. But today’s false humanism isn’t unrelated to modern beliefs about God. The crises of the twentieth century—world wars, totalitarian regimes, genocides, and labor camps—and now of the twenty-first—not only the sexual revolution’s continuing unfolding but also the political-economic thought that ping-pongs between atomistic individualism and centralized collectivism—are results of an atrophied rationality that itself is the result of man’s closing himself off from the transcendent. No one better diagnosed this reality than the French theologian Henri de Lubac when he explained that “atheistic humanism,” in its attempts to liberate man by abolishing God, resulted in chaining man to the whims of the powerful. The attempt to elevate man by ignoring God has led to man’s degradation. And we see the results all around us.

In this essay, I reflect on various aspects of our nature as the Imago Dei and how that anthropology helps us in responding to the challenges of our times.

Thought and Creation

The first place to focus in an essay on “Catholic Thought and the Challenges of Our Time” is on that word “thought.” Catholics take it seriously. Or, at least, we should. But increasingly we live in a thoughtless era.

Of course, you need not be Catholic to take thought seriously. The ancient Greeks, after all, initiated the practice of disciplined thinking that has come to be called philosophy, the love of wisdom. Ancient Greeks could reason from and about the intelligibility they saw in the world.

But an oddity of our time is that so many modern thinkers have undercut the foundations of thought. The Church has become one of the primary defenders of human reason and our ability to know truth. The Greeks worked from the ground up. From the intelligibilities they saw in physical matter, for example, they could reason to the existence of immaterial forms. Taking further steps, they could reason to an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause. The starting point for them was the manifest intelligibility of nature, which inspired the pursuit of explanations.

Catholic thought has taken on this approach from Athens, but has added to it a perspective from Jerusalem. Indeed, Catholics—following the Jewish people—have an additional reason to embrace reason: It has been revealed to us that Creation is rational. Here’s how Joseph Ratzinger put it in a lecture he delivered at the Sorbonne, later included as a chapter in his book Truth and Tolerance:

The question is whether reason, or rationality, stands at the beginning of all things and is grounded in the basis of all things or not. The question is whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity (or, as Popper says, in agreement with Butler, on the basis of luck and cunning) and, thus, from what is irrational; that is, whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality and floating in an ocean of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless; or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of Christian faith and of its philosophy remains true: “In principio erat Verbum”—at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason. Now as then, Christian faith represents the choice in favor of the priority of reason and of rationality.

Our faith commits us to the priority of reason and of rationality. It commits us to take thought seriously, to expect—and thus to seek—answers, reasons.

As a cultural matter, the revelation of the God of Genesis fundamentally reshaped the West, freeing it from superstition, determinism, and pagan religiosity. Prior to his lecture at the Sorbonne, in a series of homilies Cardinal Ratzinger delivered on the doctrine of creation, published as a slim but profound book, In the Beginning, he explained:

And in the face of any fear of these demonic forces we are told that God alone, who is the eternal Reason that is eternal love, created the world, and that it rests in his hands. Only with this in mind can we appreciate the dramatic confrontation implicit in this biblical text, in which all these confused myths were rejected and the world was given its origin in God’s Reason and in his Word. This could be shown almost word for word in the present text—as, for example, when the sun and the moon are referred to as lamps that God has hung in the sky for the measurement of time. To the people of that age it must have seemed a terrible sacrilege to designate the “great gods” sun and moon as lamps for measuring time. Here we see the audacity and the temperateness of the faith that, in confronting the pagan myths, made the light of truth appear by showing that the world was not a demonic contest but that it arose from God’s Reason and reposes on God’s Word.

Hence this creation account may be seen as the decisive “enlightenment” of history and as a breakthrough out of the fears that had oppressed humankind. It placed the world in the context of reason and recognized the world’s reasonableness and freedom. But it may also be seen as the true enlightenment from the fact that it put human reason firmly on the primordial basis of God’s creating Reason, in order to establish it in truth and in love, without which an “enlightenment” would be exorbitant and ultimately foolish.

As Ratzinger tells it, it was the Enlightenment brought about by God’s self-revelation that freed man from slavery to pagan gods and provided the ultimate foundations for both human reason and human freedom. Indeed, in a fascinating lecture delivered several years ago, John Finnis pointed out that on the fundamental metaphysical truths that undergird the West, the Hebrews got there earlier—and with greater clarity—than did the Greeks. That is, Biblical revelation arrived at philosophical truths earlier and more accurately than philosophy itself.

This understanding of the world, nature, as fundamentally creation, a contingent reality flowing from the reasonable and free choice of God to create, and this understanding of man as Imago Dei­, a creature possessing God-like powers of reason and will—literally awe-some powers—fundamentally changed the course of history. It provided the metaphysical foundations for the West. And this commitment to thought, to reason, is sorely needed today.

Faith and Reason

Belief in Creation, by a God who is both caritas and logos, allows Catholic thought to be open to every discipline—every scientia—that can discover truth. For the Catholic has nothing to fear from science, or philosophy, or reason of any sort. In fact, the Catholic—like all people—needs reason in order to fully know truth. As John Paul put it in the opening lines to his masterful encyclical Fides et Ratio:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

Right now, we need to use every discipline at our disposal to defend the truth about man. My three previous visits to the University of Dallas have included a lecture on the redefinition of marriage, a lecture on religious liberty in the wake of the redefinition of marriage, and a lecture on transgender ideology. So I won’t repeat any of those arguments here. Let me just say that on these aspects of human nature we need all hands on deck. In addition to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, we need a philosophy of the body, and a psychology of the body, and a sociology of the body. We need philosophers and theologians. Psychiatrists and psychologists. Biologists and sociologists. And we need artists and saints, because our defense of the truth can never be a merely intellectual exercise.

In a world increasingly hostile to people of faith, people of faith will need to take reason all the more seriously, to be able to speak in terms and tones that our neighbors can understand. To help them see that there is no contradiction between reason rigorously applied, science properly conducted, and the revealed truths taught by the Church. To bad science, we need to respond with good science. To bad legal reasoning, we need to respond with better legal reasoning. To misguided philosophy, we need to respond with true philosophy. And then we need to build on good reason with authentic revelation, for grace perfects nature.

For even as we defend the lofty vocation of reason, being rational isn’t enough, for rationality itself points to the existence of truths that reason alone cannot grasp, truths that can only be known through God’s revelation, accepted by faith. In other words, man needs to embrace reason without embracing rationalism.

When reason concludes that there are truths about God and the universe that reason itself cannot ascertain, that man’s finite intellect cannot exhaust the infinite, this could open the door to legitimizing faith in anything—and everything. Which is why we must be wary of theistic thinkers who attempt to ground faith’s legitimacy in what amounts to little more than blind leaps. Modern thinkers from Kant and Kierkegaard to certain strains of contemporary American Christianity attempt to inoculate faith by detaching it from reason, by making the choice for faith lack foundations.

In the media circus surrounding Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, few commentators took the time to note that the main thrust of his remarks was criticism of European, not Islamic, thought. Criticizing those rationalists who castrated reason’s true scope, Benedict also challenged Christians to recover the traditions of philosophical theology, to reject the voluntarism that detached God from the rational order, and to see God as Logos. Our understanding of God should be informed as much by our reason as by our acceptance of God’s communication by way of Scripture, and that acceptance of revelation itself should be made for good reason, pointing to the reasonableness of the act of faith. In other words, man needs to embrace faith without embracing fideism.

Reason without rationalism. Faith without fideism.

Reason in Full

It’s not just that we need faith and reason. It’s also that we need the right type of reason. In criticizing the modern thinkers who have castrated reason’s true capacity, Benedict at Regensburg was continuing the critique John Paul offered in Fides et Ratio that modern rationality was artificially constricted. Ironically, or perhaps I should say providentially, we’re left in this cultural moment in which Catholics have greater confidence in the ability—and scope—of reason than secularists who have reduced reason to empiricism, scientism, pragmatism, and, ultimately, left us living in a technocracy. On the cultural and political implications of this, see Neil Postman’s prophetic book Technopoly. Here, I want to focus on the intellectual implications.

While the scientific method has provided mankind with many indisputably helpful discoveries, to embrace the instrumental, technocratic rationality at the heart of the scientific process as if it were the entirety of rationality is to narrow the range of realities accessible to rational inquiry. While the scientific approach can discover truths about empirical physical realities, it can provide little help in discussions of justice, love, and beauty—whether they be in earthly domains or transcendent ones. Only by broadening the conception of rationality beyond the empirically verifiable realm of the scientific can man arrive at the truths necessary to secure his full flourishing. In other words, man needs to embrace science without embracing scientism.

This was a key—and ignored—aspect of Benedict’s Regensburg lecture. Commenting on the reduction of human reason to science, and of science to empiricism and positivism, Benedict remarked:

If science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science,” so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology end up being simply inadequate.

For John Paul faith and reason were like two wings. For Benedict, Athens and Jerusalem, were akin to a “double helix.” That’s the image Tracey Rowland, an Australian theologian who has written a wonderful book on Benedict’s thought, uses to describe Benedict’s genealogy of the formation and then corruption of thought in the West. She explains that corruption as one “in which the Hellenic component of the culture was severed from the Christian and in which the Christian component was fundamentally undermined by the mutation of the doctrine of creation. . . . When faith in creation is lost, Christian faith is transformed into gnosis, and when faith in reason is lost, wisdom is reduced to the empirically verifiable which cannot sustain a moral framework.”

So many of the Enlightenment’s political efforts were directed at securing man’s liberty, and yet the twentieth-century results yielded more bondage than ever. The gamble was on supposing that a “Dictatorship of Relativism” (as Ratzinger put it) provided a more secure ground for human liberty than the “Splendor of Truth” (as John Paul put it). Only if man is capable of knowing truth—including moral and spiritual truths—can he be capable of freely directing himself toward ends freely chosen, away from evil and toward goods that are to be pursued. If man is ultimately the measure of all things, if man purports to create good and bad, right and wrong, rather than discern these naturally existing realities and respond accordingly, then what at first seemed like unlimited freedom results in stultifying nihilism. If whatever I decide upon is good, then the significance of the choice is eviscerated.

Freedom untethered to truth in the political realm truly does lead to dictatorship, either of the despot who gains power through force or of the majority that imposes its will without justifying reason. For if reason is unable to arrive at truth, what can a political community appeal to when organizing common life? Those who ground democracy on relativism undercut the very foundations that support democratic institutions in the first place: a proper concern for the authentic good of each member of the community and a respect for each member’s ability to participate in this process of discernment. Indeed, even human rights become redefined according to majority preference.

Recovering the sapiential dimension of reason that considers the big questions regarding the meaning and destiny of human existence and the significance of human action is a key part of recapturing a more robust conception of human rationality. Reason can ascertain the existence of God and certain key aspects of his nature, and it can also discern objective standards of right and wrong, good and evil.

Freedom for Excellence

The capacity to know right and wrong, good and evil, is key to recovering today a sound understanding of freedom. For the liberty on offer in many post-Christian liberal societies today is not the liberty of the ancient Greeks, Romans, or Christians. For them, the most important freedom was freedom from slavery to sin, freedom for self-mastery. Today we face two competing conceptions of freedom, in what the Belgian-born Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers has termed a freedom of indifference and a freedom for excellence.

On the modern conception of freedom, freedom is indifferent to what is chosen. What matters is simply that I chose it. Whether I chose to degrade myself or to respect my dignity is ultimately irrelevant, provided that I freely choose either way.

The more traditional understanding of freedom flowed out of a different conception of human nature. If freedom is grounded in man’s rational and animal nature, and in how such freedoms allow man to flourish given his nature, then freedom is directional—it has a purpose, an end, and thus has limits. It is not primarily a freedom from something, but a freedom for something. A freedom for excellence, a freedom for human flourishing.

The nineteenth-century Catholic thinker Lord Acton put it this way: “Freedom is having the right to do what we ought.” Think of freedom in music. All the rules, exercises, scales, and arpeggios can seem like barriers to our freedom. Yet, properly understood, these “rules” create the context in which we can exercise our freedom, make choices about melodic phrasing, articulation, rhythm, and so on. Just banging on the piano keyboard—“choosing whatever you want”—is not real freedom. It’s slavery in ignorance and inability. Fr. Pinckaers describes it thus:

Of course anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom. It cloaks an incapacity to play even the simplest pieces accurately and well. On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. He can play whatever he chooses, and also compose new pieces. His musical freedom could be described as the gradually acquired ability to execute works of his choice with perfection. It is based on natural dispositions and a talent developed and stabilized by means of regular, progressive exercises, or properly speaking, a habitus. Aristotle’s and St. Thomas’s prudent or good man in the moral sphere is like the good pianist in the artistic sphere; and is therefore the truly free man.

“Freedom for excellence” requires us to develop habits of virtue. We are created beings; as such, we have to operate within the truth of the created world in which we live. In doing so, we have to develop a love for living in the real world, a world in which we exercise our freedom to love. This involves education. We need educating as to what really is good. To a certain extent, our conscience knows this inherently. God has placed it in all of our human hearts. But, being fallen creatures, our conscience is less than perfect, and in need of formation.

In a homily John Paul delivered at Mount Sinai, he explained:

The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical Lord. They were written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place. Today as always, the Ten Words of the Law provide the only true basis for the lives of individuals, societies and nations. Today as always, they are the only future of the human family. They save man from the destructive force of egoism, hatred and falsehood. They point out all the false gods that draw him into slavery: the love of self to the exclusion of God, the greed for power and pleasure that overturns the order of justice and degrades our human dignity and that of our neighbor. If we turn from these false idols and follow the God who sets his people free and remains always with them, then we shall emerge like Moses, after forty days on the mountain, “shining with glory” (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 230), ablaze with the light of God!

To keep the Commandments is be faithful to God, but it is also to be faithful to ourselves, to our true nature and our deepest aspirations.

Later on in the homily, John Paul proposed a radical way of thinking about freedom: “The Ten Commandments are the law of freedom: not the freedom to follow our blind passions, but the freedom to love, to choose what is good in every situation.”

John Paul was developing a theme recently highlighted by Patrick Deneen in his book Why Liberalism Failed. It’s not just that we have two different conceptions of freedom, but these conceptions of freedom flow from competing anthropologies, and thus give rise to different polities and cultures. John Paul stressed the need to be educated for freedom—where the Commandments serve as a pedagogical tool to authentic freedom. Deneen points out that for the state of nature liberal theorists, man is born free. A thinker like Rousseau would add that we’re born free and yet everywhere in chains—with law and culture inhibiting our freedom. That’s not the Catholic view. As Deneen lucidly explains, “Liberty is not a condition into which we are naturally born but one we achieve through habituation, training, and education—particularly the discipline of self-command.” He makes this point in a chapter on the liberal arts, a liberal arts education classically understood as an education for liberty. You’ll receive that sort of education here at UD. But it shouldn’t just be a matter for four-year colleges. Ideally, the entire culture—including law and policy—would cultivate freedom for excellence.

And so we’re left with two rather different understandings of culture—one in which it constrains and one in which it cultivates. In reality, it constrains in order to cultivate. Cultures cultivate human nature.

Social Persons

Which, of course, leads to another important aspect of Catholic thought for our time: We’re not isolated, atomistic individuals; we’re social, communal persons. One aspect of being created in the image and likeness of God is that we participate in God’s own triune nature. As God is understood as a community of persons in relation to each other, so too should we understand ourselves as a community of persons in relation to each other. And it is in community that we develop authentic freedom and flourish. The culture in which we find ourselves will cultivate our natures—for better or worse.

What I’ve said so far tonight has largely been a riff on the dignity of the human person, one of the first key principles of Catholic Social Thought. It is the social nature of man that brings to the fore three other key principles: the priority of the common good, and the demands of both solidarity and subsidiarity. All three of these principles flow from a proper understanding of human nature. And all three speak directly to the challenges of our time.

My Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Neither Liberal Nor Libertarian: A Natural Law Approach to Social Justice and Economic Rights.” At the heart of that argument was the claim that both of the contemporary American ideologies get property rights and duties wrong. This is partly because almost no one talks about duties, partly because whenever anyone does talk about duties they assign them to the state, and partly because the leading accounts of property rights on offer are too absolute, without corresponding accounts of property duties incumbent upon property owners.

For any of this to make sense, a sound conception of common good would have to be advanced. But without a shared understanding of objective goods, no shared understanding of common good is even possible. How could we have goods in common, or even a common good that we all share—and all participate in—if human fulfillment is simply desire-satisfaction or utility maximization, where individuals have their own private desires and separate utility functions?

This is why the Catholic emphasis on reason’s ability to grasp the truth, including the truth about human goods, is so important. For without an understanding of objectivity in the realm of goodness, there can be no common good—only private, individual goods that are then aggregated. This, of course, is how the dominant methodology of contemporary liberalism—both Right and Left—approaches the question. Be it in terms of GDP growth or redistribution of income, the focus tends to be aggregates of private goods.

Little attention is paid to the institutions of civil society that facilitate our flourishing—and how our various practices and policies impact those institutions. Nor is there any attention given to the duties that we owe to those institutions. This is ironic, given how much the phrase “social justice” is thrown about today. Sadly, we pay little attention to its original meaning: that man is a social creature, that societies other than the state have real existence, and that we have real duties to these societies.

Let me unpack this.

Some people think social justice is a twentieth-century invention of progressive thinkers, but this starts the history of social justice midstream. To understand its true meaning, we must look further back to its real historical origins.

Understanding Social Justice

The first known use of the phrase “social justice” is by a Jesuit Thomist, Luigi Taparelli, in his multivolume work published between 1840–1843 titled Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact). I want to emphasize two arguments Taparelli highlighted by coining the new phrase “social justice”: first, that man is social by nature and belongs to many societies and, second, that man has natural duties to others in justice.

Taparelli created the phrase “social justice” to highlight that there are societies in between individuals and governments. He wanted to avoid both the individualistic and the collectivistic temptations. He wanted to point out that the truth was somewhere in between. He wanted to highlight that, as a matter of nature, man is a social being and that this places duties on individuals—duties people have to their family, to their church, to their community. It also places limits on government—that government is limited by the reality of the natural family, that government is limited by the prerogatives of religious communities, that government is limited by the authority of civil society.

But so too that government has duties to support—not supplant or attack—these communities. This is where our most challenging problems lie in the United States. How can we be in solidarity with our neighbors, while also respecting the demands of subsidiarity to empower them, not replace their own initiative? A big part of the challenge here requires us to be able to think about what common goods are at stake. For if we can recover a sound understanding of common goods, and recognize the demands of both solidarity and subsidiarity, we’d recognize the extent of our problems.

“The American Dream is dead,” candidate Donald Trump famously announced on the campaign trail, to the astonishment of many beltway elites. Their disbelief was understandable, given how thick their bubbles are. From their perspective, things were great. The Great Recession had ended. The economy was growing. Unemployment was plummeting. The stock market was at all-time highs. How could anyone seriously claim that the American Dream was dead?

The elites don’t only have thick bubbles—they have thick communities. And inside the protective cocoon of community the American Dream is alive and well today. But for many Americans, Trump was the first politician to articulate their reality. And as Tim Carney points out in his new book, Alienated America, when one studies the electoral map and looks at which counties went strongest for Trump in the primary elections, it was the counties that lack what the social scientists call “social capital.” Where churches are shuttering. Where marriage rates are declining. Where single-parenting and absentee dads are the norm. Where suicides and opioid overdoses and deaths of despair are shockingly high.

In short, certain geographic regions in the United States simply lack actual community. And where community is lacking, so too is opportunity. And where opportunity is dead, so too is the American Dream.

To these social problems, we are offered material solutions. But liberal government redistribution programs and libertarian universal basic income (UBI) schemes do little to support meaningful community. In many cases, they end up making the problems worse.

But those are the leading alternatives among our intelligentsia today. And in a cycle of mutually destructive perverse incentives, both radical individualism and collectivism grow together. As American community falls apart, another government solution crops up. As that government program metastasizes, institutions of civil society are crowded out, regulated into oblivion, and shut down (frequently in violation of religious liberty) because they don’t share the government’s liberal values. As those institutions of civil society disappear, another government program is proposed. On and on the cycle continues, decimating what Edmund Burke called the Little Platoons, what Tocqueville described as America’s rich associational life, and reducing us to atomistic individuals and centralized government.

But only at the bottom. When you look at the top—when you look at the college-educated, upper-middle class—you see thriving communities, robust social capital, and a way of life that facilities the American Dream. That is why so many elites have been entirely blind to the struggles of the lower and middle class—struggles that have been documented in books with titles such as Coming Apart, The Fractured Republic, Hillbilly Elegy, and Alienated America. America is divided. Not primarily along racial lines. Not primarily along religious lines. Not primarily along partisan lines.

America is divided along community lines—between those who have rich familial, religious, and civic connections and those who do not. Those who do are thriving. Those who do not are failing. The fault isn’t primarily globalism, or technology, or trade—though those all play a role. The problem is that without social capital and a rich web of civil society Americans can’t navigate the pathway through these changing times.

So now the question is what can be done for working-class families, especially for workers who find their skills less and less marketable in ever-changing markets because of the forces of globalization and new technology. Appeals to Enlightenment rights or utilitarianism will not allow us to think well about how to the justice in the distribution of costs and benefits of the creative destruction of free trade and how best to smooth out the rough patches. We need to think through the appropriate roles of various institutions. What does justice require of families and churches, of workers and business owners, of civil society and charitable organizations, of local and national governments? What rights and duties do these various individuals and societies have?

In a certain sense, the social and economic challenges I have mentioned can be classified as partly the result of deindustrialization making way for the knowledge economy. If Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which inaugurated modern Catholic social thought, was a response to the industrial revolution, what we now need is a response to the de-industrial revolution. What to do is a question for policymakers. That we need to think about what to do is a demand of justice, and the principles of natural law should inform how we think about it.

Catholic thinking on these questions strives to strike a balance. It is sensitive to the role that markets can play in fostering initiative and innovation, creating jobs, and lifting people out of poverty, but it is not blind to the damage that market activity can cause. Natural law arguments look to the demands of justice and the ways in which liberty can both foster and undermine the common good. They take seriously the rights of private property owners but also their duties in stewarding their wealth. This, in turn, provides an intellectual framework for thinking about both the justifications and the limits of economic liberty—and the reasons that we might be concerned with market failures and excesses.

I don’t have space to develop this point here, but let me note that this is not just a challenge to Catholic thought, but to living. How do we live the realities of our social nature? And what can we do to assist in the replanting of civil society so that more people can live them?

Courses

Let me conclude with a few words about the courses I’ll be teaching as the St. John Paul II Teaching Fellow in Social Thought at the University of Dallas.

This May, I’ll teach an intensive course on natural law and public affairs. The class will start with a basic introduction to natural law theory, and then it will immediately move into disputed questions of public life where natural-law thinking can provide needed clarity. It’ll cover debates about killing—abortion, embryo-destructive research, capital punishment, and just war theory—for example. It’ll cover debates about sex—marriage, gender identity, gene editing, and the creation of children in the lab. And it’ll cover debates about political authority—the nature of the political common good, morals legislation, religious liberty, and economic justice.

In January, we’ll look more deeply into natural law theory—or theories, I should say. This intensive course will consider traditional approaches to natural law, most recently developed and articulated by thinkers such as Ralph McInerny, Russ Hittinger, J. Budziszewski, and Ed Feser, as well as what has been called the “new natural law theory” developed and defended by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Robert George and others. The class will consider the first principles of practical reasoning, the epistemology and metaphysics of the natural law, action theory and how to think about intention, moral norms and principles of justice, and the final end of man, among other topics.

The following May, I’ll teach a course titled “The Crisis of Modernity.” The first half of that course considers specific topics of interest. We’ll explore modern love, science, media, technology, markets, politics, and education. Then we’ll turn to several over-arching narratives that try to explain the modern condition, that offer an intellectual genealogy of the who, how, and why, or that at least narrate what has happened. Is John Locke to blame? Is William of Ockham? Is Scotus? Luther? Calvin? Various thinkers have offered competing declension narratives and intellectual genealogies to account for our current condition. By the end of the course, students should have a better appreciation of both the costs and the benefits of modernity, and a more nuanced understanding of a variety of causal pathways that have brought us here. Because most of our intellectual culture highlights the blessing of modernity, the course will tend to focus on the negatives, but largely with an eye toward thinking through how to make the best of modern life and how to flourish in the conditions of modernity.

And then, the following January, I’ll teach a course on John Paul’s and Benedict’s social thought. To a certain extent, this essay highlights many of the themes that that course will cover. We’ll read many of the major encyclicals, as well as some of the books that each pontiff published prior to and while holding the chair of Peter. This class will be of particular help in exploring how these two modern popes engaged modernity.

John Paul and Benedict wanted the Church to benefit from the advancements of modernity, but they also wanted our modern world to benefit from the wisdom of the Church. It was to be a two-way conversation, and they had little patience for those who proposed either the progressive or traditionalist monologue—the world setting the agenda for the Church with the Church remaking herself accordingly, or the Church imposing herself on a modern world without reading the signs of the times to discern what of modernity was good and what was bad. This critical engagement entailed speaking to the modern world in terms it could understand and on topics that lay at the heart of contemporary life. Human freedom, its social preconditions and metaphysical foundations, took center stage.

And that brings us full circle. A major theme throughout the most recent papacies has been the centrality of sound anthropology. Pope Francis warns us of what he calls “gender ideology” and the attempt of developed nations to impose this on the rest of the globe in a new form of what he calls “ideological colonization.” The four courses I’ll teach at UD all aim to equip students to rise to meet the challenges of our time. Just as previous generations of the Church rose to meet the challenges of their ages—challenges to truths about God and truths about the Church—so, too, does our generation need to rise to the occasion to defend truths about man. It has been a wonderful experience to get to work on these issues as a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and it is a true honor and privilege to begin working with students on these questions as the St. John Paul II Teaching Fellow at UD.

 

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