In Catholic thought, religion is not just a term for a set of beliefs and practices pertaining to the divine, but an important part of the virtue of justice: the obligation to pay due honor to God as the creator and governor of all.
In their new book, It Is Right and Just, Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley argue that religion is not just a private virtue but a public one, and that the public virtue of religion is perfected in true religion: Catholicism. The authors urge readers to think and act beyond the confines of secularism, keeping Christ as the lodestar of the truth and striving to conform ourselves and our society to him. They also point out the ways in which contemporary secular liberalism is not a neutral ground for people of good will, but a religion that competes with Christianity.
As an exhortation to unapologetically living the Catholic faith, the book succeeds. Unfortunately, it contains too many generalizations, overstatements, and imprecisions to be a thoughtful guide to Catholic politics.
A Primer, Not a Nuanced Treatise
Hahn and McGinley argue that “the human social and political order fulfills its purpose best when it reflects the divine order of which it is an integral part.” This requires our own souls to be in order, which in turn requires the virtue of religion, rightly practiced. Since every society takes its shape from the prevailing object of worship among its people, the way we practice religion forms our societies. A rightly ordered society, therefore, requires “a communal commitment, supported by authority, to give justice to God.” Thus, they conclude that religious neutrality is ultimately impossible: if right religion does not order a society, wrong religion will.
Throughout the twentieth century, Catholic thinkers offered nuanced treatises exploring what the right exercise of the virtue of religion would look like in a modern, pluralistic society—especially one where Catholics were not in the majority. Hahn and McGinley, by contrast, see the question of religion and politics as straightforward, and their book is structured more as a primer that moves directly from premise A to conclusion B. Are the sacraments real and efficacious? they ask. If so, they conclude, our laws should reflect that.
Hahn and McGinley do not want the state to compel participation in the Catholic Church’s life, per se, but they want the civil order to recognize that reality is sacramental. They write:
To pretend that the sacraments are not what they really are—essential wellsprings of grace for the sustenance and renewal of individuals and the community—is to deny the very foundation of the common good of peace to which the civil order is committed.
What this means in practice is variable and prudential. It may mean privileges that come with the sacraments of initiation, recognizing and affirming the real change effected in the soul by Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. It may mean a public calendar organized around the liturgical life of the Church, which is itself a participation in the life of heaven, with commerce and civil affairs always taking a back seat to the Lord’s Day, feasts, and fasts. It may mean the public authority establishing, supporting, and preferring community celebrations that accord with true religion over those that do not. . . . While the Church can never coerce someone into receiving the sacraments, treating them as nothing more than peculiar sectarian beliefs or take-them-or-leave-them spiritual accessories isn’t a costless strategic accommodation to pluralism but a denial of their very reality.
Hahn and McGinley think that Catholics who balk at the idea of special privileges for the sacramentally initiated or some kind of religious establishment can no longer recognize which habits of thought are genuinely Catholic and which are coping mechanisms for living in liberal societies. The idea that holiness is just for individuals is a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” of liberalism, as they put it. “When we artificially limit the purview of the virtue of religion,” Hahn and McGinley conclude, “we teach ourselves and others that grace is likewise limited. Thus, we teach a lie.”
Overstating Their Case
This is simply false. There is no direct line between the reality of the sacraments and their recognition by the state, especially by states of countries without Catholic majorities.
In their zeal against secularist relativism, Hahn and McGinley overstate their case. First, sacraments are real, but so is sin. Receiving grace is no guarantee that one will become a more virtuous citizen or a more just political leader. No law or lawgiver can discern whether or not grace continues to be active in a person who has been baptized. Indeed, the past weeks have already seen a sacramentally initiated president of the United States issue executive orders that directly violate the tenets of the faith he claims to profess. This same principle is manifest in the levels of corruption and broken legal culture in Catholic countries throughout the world. Hahn and McGinley themselves note that consecrating his family and nation to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts didn’t keep the president of Peru from being ousted on corruption allegations two years later. Grace is real, but the law cannot predictably recognize its activity.
Second, establishing religion in law and cultural institutions does not guarantee its flourishing. It may, in fact, lead to a backlash against the faith. Since the late nineteenth century, either through a country’s internal laws or through concordats with the Holy See, nations have explicitly recognized Catholic sacraments—such as marriage or episcopal orders—or adopted the liturgical calendar on a national level. Unfortunately, in many cases those cultural and legal bulwarks have not maintained the faith. Getting All Saints Day and the Assumption off from work has not stopped France from becoming more secular than the United States. And the recent collapse of Catholic life in Ireland is due in no small part due to the Church’s abuses of her power in Irish society. Societies with thick Catholic cultures are beautiful, but those cultures do not guarantee the preservation of right religion. And when the Church aligns herself with a political party or leader, she is likely to lose many hearts when the strong men fall.
Third, the religious establishment that Hahn and McGinley seem to favor becomes all the more complicated in a society as pluralistic as ours. They do acknowledge the bare fact of religious and philosophical pluralism in America, but then dodge the question instead of giving it a serious answer. Pluralism is not the natural state of humanity, they write, in the sense that God did not create us to hold different religions in a common society. And given that “the universe is a theocracy under the sovereignty of Christ the King,” Hahn and McGinley conclude, “pluralism is revealed as a mirage.”
It may be that pluralism is not our eschatological destiny, but it remains our present state. Since Catholic politics is concerned with how to live life in our present state, it must take pluralism as a reality and not a mirage. Catholic politics should also recognize that post-modernity is not Late Antiquity. The way pre-literate, monarchical Christian societies were established under Constantine or Charlemagne is not the way they could be established today. As numerous theologians and philosophers have noted, in contemporary, literate, pluralistic democracies the common good cannot simply be imposed from the top down; it must be embraced from the bottom up.
Persuasion, Not Coercion
Serious Catholic politics recognizes that the solution to the problem of pluralism is not simply dominating non-Catholics and imposing our view of the good on them. We cannot simply wish them away—especially when orthodox Catholics are a political minority. Rather, we must work tirelessly to evangelize and persuade, even when our arguments seem to fall on deaf ears, making political compromises that support the good as much we are able. After all, there are many non-Catholics who would support cracking down on child pornography and giving workers a true day of rest on Sunday and holidays.
Hahn and McGinley argue that when our society treats religions as equal competitors in the marketplace of ideas, it espouses “political polytheism,” which ends in “an idolatry of the individual religious sense.” This leads us to despair of any real religious truth. It’s not clear whether Hahn and McGinley think that a confessionally Catholic society that simply favors the Church would both better safeguard the reality of religious truth and allow for a broad religious liberty, or if they want restrictions on non-Catholic worship. Such a lack of clarity is one of the book’s weaknesses. Either way, the truth is that we can believe both that Catholicism is true and that people of different religions should practice the virtue of religion as their consciences dictate.
The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty does not engage in polytheism, political or otherwise, when it claims that true religion subsists in the Catholic Church and that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” As Robert Louis Wilken has shown, such convictions go back to the earliest days of the faith. The Council Fathers note that by its very nature, the exercise of religion must be free and, given the social nature of human beings, lived out in community. They conclude that the government should favor the free exercise of religion, “since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.”
Many Catholic thinkers in the twentieth century recognized that persuasion accomplishes what coercion cannot. Tolerance of erroneous convictions is rightly grounded not on relativism, but on the desire to help others embrace the truth of one’s own convictions. As Etienne Gilson noted, “tolerance does not consist in accepting all philosophical statements as more or less probable, but, being absolutely certain that one of them is true and the others false, in letting everyone be free to speak his own mind. This applies even to matters of religion.” When Aquinas taught that the Jews should be allowed freedom of worship, it was not because he thought their faith might be truer than his own.
Gilson further argues that tolerance is ultimately “a moral and political virtue, not an intellectual one.” We put up with the wrong ideas of others because “these men are our fellow countrymen with whom we have to live in peace just as they themselves have to put up with us.” In other words, “tolerance is nothing else than a particular application to the needs of political life, of the moral virtue of friendship.”
Not Despair, But Joy
Gilson’s insight helps clarify that arguments like Hahn and McGinley’s come from both a zeal for religious authenticity and a despair of the possibility of political friendship. Such despair perhaps explains why this book lacks the evangelical joy and excitement that filled Scott Hahn’s previous books on Catholic faith and liturgy. But divisive politics do not change the fact that we are citizens of this particular earthly city as well as a heavenly one. The hostility of secular liberalism doesn’t remove our obligation to pursue the good with our fellow citizens insofar as we can and to build a society where Catholics and non-Catholics alike can flourish.
Hahn and McGinley frequently quote Pope Benedict XVI’s warning about the danger of a dictatorship of relativism in our times, but they omit a deeper consideration of his thinking on the Church and her place in civil society. In 1992, when he became a member of the Institut de France, then-Cardinal Ratzinger outlined the public task of Christian churches in the present world:
It accords with the nature of the Church that it is separated from the state and that its faith may not be imposed by the state but is based on convictions that are freely arrived at. Origen made a fine comment here, which unfortunately has not received the attention it deserves: “Christ does not win victory over anyone who does not wish it. He conquers only by convincing, for he is the Word of God.”
In another essay around the same time, Ratzinger wrote that the Church remains outside the state in order to “exert itself with all its vigor so that in it there may shine forth the moral truth that it offers to the state and that ought to become evident to the citizens of the state.” (Note that the goal is not to convince the state to recognize and legislate on supernatural realities.)
In saying this, Benedict was not a slave to unnatural modern separationism or liberalism, but a prudent pastor thinking about how Catholics can serve a hostile society and lead it toward the truth. Such leadership requires the bold, free exercise of faith in speech and political action.
As an exhortation to these things, It Is Right and Just is to be welcomed. Hahn and McGinley are correct that we should hope for an America with a robust Christian, even Catholic, culture. But the road to renewal lies not through unrealistic claims for coercive power, but persuasion and prudent compromise—through the winsome case that the Catholic faith is a joy to embrace and the example of lives that back that claim up.