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Building a Catholic “Civilization of Love”: A Response to Nathaniel Peters

Why must a “serious Catholic politics” tolerate a regime that worships the profit motive and carnal pleasure but recoil from one that worships the Blessed Trinity? Why is it sophisticated to ask the state to recognize truth of supply and demand but simplistic to ask that the state recognize the truth of the sacraments?

We thank Nathaniel Peters for his thoughtful engagement with our book, and we are grateful for this opportunity to respond. We see a great deal of agreement among us, especially regarding the nature of the virtue of religion, its relationship to justice, and the impossibility of neutrality. We believe that his concerns with our book are largely related to two matters: disagreements about the extent of the implications of our shared critique of liberal neutrality, and misconceptions about what a society ordered toward true religion would look like relative to secular liberalism.

One of the main purposes in writing It Is Right and Just was to make clear the radicalness of the claim that liberal regimes are not, and cannot be, neutral among competing conceptions of the good. Too often, even critics of liberalism limit this claim to the bounds of what liberalism conceives to be the proper domain of politics. Thus, for instance, many Catholic thinkers will say that the state cannot be neutral among competing views of what constitutes natural marriage, while leaving unconsidered the question of sacramental marriage. (One of us took up the necessity of sacramental marriage to society in a previous book, The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order.)

Our contention is that this artificially cuts off an entire realm of reality, leaving the critique of liberalism seriously incomplete. Here’s how we put it in this book:

The secularism implied by liberalism is, therefore, more than just wrong; it’s a kind of deceit, a sleight of hand. The very idea of a secular sphere, of a public space free from concern about the final good of mankind, is incoherent and impossible. Neither an individual nor a family nor a society can be neutral between God and not-God, between justice and injustice, between true religion and false worship.

This last sentence especially seems to us to be unanswerable, and Peters does not contest its central claim of the impossibility of neutrality. What he does suggest is that it is simplistic or unserious to ask that the civil authority choose God, justice, and true religion (which is, we all agree, an aspect of justice). But why?

Why must a “serious Catholic politics” tolerate a regime that worships the profit motive and carnal pleasure but recoil from one that worships the Blessed Trinity? Why is it sophisticated to ask the state to recognize truth of supply and demand but simplistic to ask that the state recognize the truth of the sacraments? Peters says that grace is unaccountable, and that is true, but the sacraments leave indelible marks on the soul—more real than those left by Social Security numbers and birth certificates.

The Teaching of the Church

It is important to observe that we aren’t deriving these notions independently. We are relying expressly on the teaching of the Church. Paragraph 2105 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Dignitatis Humanae, says: “The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially. This is ‘the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.’” We happily affirm the civil liberty with respect to religion defined in the Catechism and Dignitatis Humanae, while noting that both documents insist on limits to that liberty related to “the common good” and “the objective moral order.” Too often the Church’s teaching in these matters has filtered down to the faithful as a kind of social and political indifferentism, and this is simply not reflected in the documents.

Regarding this “objective moral order,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote with approval of “theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.” Here he refers to the order of creation itself, not any particular political order, but of course all authority ultimately participates in God’s authority. If that authority is to be just, it must reflect the divine order in which it, by the godlike nature and dignity of human reason, participates. Thus, again, we find ourselves choosing not between “theocracy” and a free marketplace of religious ideas, but between justice and injustice.

Now, it is true that modern societies suffused with Catholic faith and identity have often not fared well. However, the contexts in which the faith collapsed in Quebec, Iberia, Western Europe, Ireland, and so on, are so different that it’s difficult to draw a conclusion from them—unless the conclusion is that influencing politics and culture as anything more than a special interest group is intrinsically dangerous to the faith. But this claim contains an important unstated premise: that societies that never tried to be Catholic are doing better. Meanwhile, one of Peters’s examples of what is practical for Catholic politics in modern America is “cracking down on child pornography.” If this is the battlefield that generations of “prudent compromise” have left us to fight on, then it’s hard to see why we should prefer that strategy over alternatives.

 

The Ecclesial Reality of Human Nature

In the end, though, our book is not really one of strategy, at least in the short term. Rather, it’s an attempt to articulate the deep, ecclesial reality of human nature and to draw out its implications for our societies. In this regard, it is not dour, as Peters suggests, but hopeful! (We certainly had a joyful time writing it!) The book is an invitation to the faithful to allow themselves to desire something more than what liberal modernity offers them, and to embrace the Great Commission as a universal and ongoing vocation, not a wistful fantasy rendered obsolete by progress and pluralism.

The last words of the risen Christ in Matthew’s Gospel are a counsel of boldness, of confidence, of fearlessness. Further, they present an explicitly social mandate.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:18b–20)

The object of our evangelization is “the nations” of the world—or, perhaps better, “the peoples,” since the Latin is gentes and the Greek ethnos. Here is how we formulated it in the book:

After all, it doesn’t make sense to want sanctity for yourself but not for your spouse; for your spouse but not for your children; for your children but not for your neighborhood; for your neighborhood but not for your city; for your city but not for your nation; for your nation but not for the world.

This is just another way of describing the spiritual common good shared by all mankind. We understand and acknowledge that people may not be coerced into participating in this common good, but, yes, the civil authority may take prudent action against practices that disturb this good.

This does not mean banning the worship or otherwise violating the dignity of non-Catholics. Besides Dignitatis Humanae, there is a long practical tradition of Catholic religious toleration—including, as Peters notes, the counsel of Aquinas regarding Jewish worship. But, just as we expect our government to take action to protect public health and safety, we should expect it to protect the spiritual commonweal from threats, such as sacrilege. All regimes punish sacrilege in some way; they just disagree about what is sacred, and what is profane. Numerous commentators and politicians described the January 6th Capitol riot as a “sacrilege,” for example, and the participants will be charged with more serious crimes than they would have if they had ransacked a Wal-Mart—as they should be, because in its role in pursuing and securing the common good, the institution does have a sacral quality!

 

Broadening the Horizons of the Possible

We simply do not recognize the dark, anti-social, and intellectually oppressive portrait of a Catholic society that Peters presents. We acknowledge a certain vagueness in our prescriptions for our preferred regime, but drawing up blueprints was not the point of the project. We’re still in the conceptual stage, even the pre-conceptual stage, trying to broaden the horizons of the possible and the desirable for our readers. Even so, we see no reason in the book or in theory to assume that a Catholic society would be bereft of shared discourse and political friendship—certainly any more than our disintegrating society already is.

The foil for our vision is not an idealized liberal regime, with broad prosperity and an intellectually fertile academy and dozens of weekend inter-ideological, inter-religious salons in every city. It is our current regime, with wildly disparate prosperity, intellectually stultifying universities, and roving online gangs of groupthink. If anything, in a society where commitments are clear, rather than obscured by the veil of neutrality, we expect discourse and political friendship would be freer, more honest, more intimate—and not just among Catholics. Indeed, for a Catholic society to be true to itself, it would have to be a catholic society. The temporal common good, after all, includes everyone, regardless of what they think about the spiritual common good.

Ultimately, as the Church has always taught and Pope St. John Paul II emphasized, the foundation of civilization is love. This is something that, by cooperating with grace, we bring into being—but it is also built into the very nature of creation:

When we . . . live the fullness of truth in justice to God and man, we reveal the civilization of love not just as a possibility but as the deep reality of creation itself. We have been brought into being and are sustained in being by the God who is Love. Therefore, love is not the exception, not a foreign input to an otherwise sterile cosmos; love is the very grammar of existence that gives meaning, rooted in Jesus Christ, to everything we see and hear and touch.

If liberal neutrality really is a fraud, as we and Peters seem to agree, then the choice is not between an inclusive liberal politics and an exclusive Catholic politics. It is between a liberal politics that excludes the civilization of love out of hand, and a Catholic politics that is open to the possibility that, through grace, we might make it manifest in our time. As John Paul II put it: “Yes, the civilization of love is possible; it is not a utopia. But it is only possible by a constant and ready reference to the ‘Father from whom all fatherhood on earth is named.’”

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