Catholicism and public order

Another part of the appeal of Catholicism today (apart from its truth) is a sort of this-wordly extra ecclesiam nulla salus: outside the Church there’s no satisfaction now and no hope for the future.

The problem can be stated briefly: the West now stands publicly for secular liberalism. The latter has reached a philosophical, moral and social dead end that manifests itself in things as diverse as the state of popular and high culture, the collapse of the birth rate, and the devolution of Europe into the EU. Our official teachers, the writers, scholars, statesmen, educators and mainstream religious leaders of the West, can tell us only to respect “diversity” and “tolerance”: do what you want, but stay away from each other’s throats. Young people have nothing to look forward to but insecurity or the treadmill of career and consumption, mitigated by the sentimental hope for love and the more solid availability of various dissipations. Meanwhile, Western civilization has become world civilization, and emptied of humanly sustaining goods propagates itself everywhere through global markets, electronic communications, and the whole apparatus of international politics and law. The secular totalitarian ideologies that once resisted it have effectively disappeared, leaving local tyranny, corrupt nationalism, and totalitarian Islam as the remaining principles of opposition.

Such a broad-brush gloom-and-doom picture can be questioned in various ways, but I think there’s something to it. After all, one aspect of man is that he is a broad-brush thinker. He needs to see himself as part of a world with an overall nature that he can grasp to a degree and so orient himself. Notwithstanding claims as to the power of the “invisible hand” and such-like, it seems that some sense of objectively valid purpose is needed for the longterm well-being and even survival of social order. After all, if the public order has no purpose other than making it possible for me and others to do what we feel like doing, why support it when times get tough? And no matter how scientifically things are managed, times do get tough on occasion.

The problem, then, is that the current Western way of life is radically unsatisfying, unless we suppress fundamental human qualities in ourselves, and unlikely to last indefinitely. Since it can’t offer us what we need, it is natural to look for something else. But what?

The non-Western alternatives are decadent, fanatical or otherwise unappealing, and so can’t offer anything better. Within the West there’s New Age thought and liberal Protestantism, but those are useless. The problem with secular liberalism is that it rejects the notion of objectively valid purposes, but New Age and liberal Protestantism do the same, at least in effect. Judaism claims objective validity, but only for a particular people, and therefore can’t satisfy a non-Jew who is troubled by the world and his place in it. While relatively orthodox Protestantism does claim public validity, it can’t do so persuasively because it lacks a publicly authoritative way to decide doctrinal issues. The same is true to a much greater extent of every non-ecclesiastical philosophy that proposes objective goods. All of which leaves Catholicism as the sole practical basis available to us now for the substantive public moral world that we need.

13 thoughts on “Catholicism and public order”

  1. Aren’t the creeds, the Bible
    Aren’t the creeds, the Bible and tradition/orthodoxy adequate for the purpose of the (public authority) need that you discuss in your last paragraph?

    The Eastern Orthodox have done without a Pope, right?

    • I don’t think so
      The creeds etc. don’t interpret themselves, and in an extensive, complex and literate society there are going to be differences in basic interpretation that aren’t going to be resolved by discussion. You need an authoritative decider, which implies a hierarchy and some sort of final decisionmaker. Otherwise things will end up the way Protestantism has ended up, in the loss of any idea of specifically Christian public truth.

      The EOs recognize ecumenical councils as legitimate final decisionmakers, but I have my doubts. I think it’s important for example that there’s no such thing as an EO university. It seems to me they’ve relied on intellectual stasis, and on a tendency toward either mysticism (and thus loss of cognitive content) or domination by the state in default of an adequate internal structure of authority.

      • How about “credal
        How about “credal fundamentalism”? I thought the basics were decided by the creeds and were pretty clear (excepting for Rome’s exclusive claims to “one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”)

        In our complex, literate society, Catholics seem to argue and have a hard time deciding what the Pope and the Magisterium actually say.

        • I want to echo that
          I want to echo that sentiment. The Word and the Universal Creeds are enough to define my faith. Recent Catholic scholarship is always available to me if I need its learned guidance, as is a variety of Protestant scholarship and shared Catholic tradition; I’ve taken some advantage of both. Protestant differences and similarities have helped me understand why doctrinal differences exist. I rather prefer the ability to choose denomination largely on a cultural basis (assuming the church doctrine is Biblically rooted, which increasingly they are not). I may be blind to Protestant denominations’ uselessness because I don’t pay much attention to its types of pomp and methods of socialization, though they do tend to have low standards for clergy.

          I prefer schism over heresy, and reasonable discussion over either. Maybe that’s because I’m ingrained with Protestantism and American conservative stubbornness. (Yes, I think highly of Luther’s catechism, and I’ve always been encouraged to read such documents critically.) That seems to counter charges of secular liberalism, despite treating competing denominations like a commodity market. Or maybe that was the point: the separation of the culture from the doctrine. But I don’t know Catholic culture well enough to respond to that.

        • If the creeds are enough, why
          If the creeds are enough, why are the Protestant churches as they are? They accept the creeds, as a general thing, but in the long run that hasn’t been enough to prevent disintegration. As to Catholicism, we shall see. I think the corner has been turned.

          • Since we believe that the
            Since we believe that the Church is something less tangible than a particular communion headed by an particular individual I guess I don’t characterize my church’s condition as disintegration.

            Regarding public authority, I don’t see why one decisionmaker is a requirement. Liberalism doesn’t have one. From your writings on what liberalism actually is, I’d think that public authority is largely derived from what the oligarchs/elite believe and disseminate.

            Islam has texts instead of one decisionmaker and it has public authority.

          • sic aut non
            I think you need a decisionmaker because eventually conflicts appear that can’t be resolved by discussion and you need some way to resolve them if the tradition is going to be rational and stable in the long run. I don’t think things are going to be that way with liberalism. Ditto for Islam: it’s prone to factionalism and relies too much on mere assertion.

          • I might add that Roman
            I might add that Roman Catholic countries have lost any idea of specifically Christian public truth. Is it much better in Italy and France?

            Our Churches are in rotten shape because Christianity is gross superstition to the modern mind not because we do or do not have a Pope.

          • There’s obviously a lot that
            There’s obviously a lot that goes into how things are in a particular country at one time or another, and lots of different things can go wrong. So having a pope is not a cure-all. All I claim is that it’s necessary in the long run.

      • Mr. Kalb writes:
        “You need an authoritative decider, which implies a hierarchy and some sort of final decisionmaker. Otherwise things will end up the way Protestantism has ended up, in the loss of any idea of specifically Christian public truth.”

        Isn’t this why we’re given the Holy Spirit?

        1 John 2:20, 27

        But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things

        But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.

        Also: 1 Corinthians 2:12-14

        Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

        • I suppose the issue is
          I suppose the issue is whether the guidance goes to and through the Church as a whole, at least in part, or whether it’s purely an individual thing, in which case the Church seems to dissolve into a simple aggregate.

          • I guess I don’t understand
            I guess I don’t understand but that seems suspiciously like a false dichotomy. “Either there’s a Pope or it’s purely individual.”

            You write about intangible systems that lack a singular, animating intelligence but are “thinglike.” I don’t see why something of the sort can’t apply to the Church and the way the Holy Spirit works on and through it.

  2. Beautifully succinct
    Beautifully succinct statement on a truth I’ve been trying to express in my own mind for the past few years. It reminds me of Walker Percy’s comment about why he was a Catholic given all the other choices he had (Buddhism, secular humanism, etc.): “What else is there?”

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