On the Common Good
The first of these came at the midmonth National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington during the annual event's keynote address, given this year by the reigning pontificate's lead torchbearer among the nation's hierarchy, Archbishop Donald Wuerl.
Among the earliest European colonists to arrive in what is now the Northeastern United States were the pilgrims who landed on the coast of Massachusetts. Before they left the small ship, the Mayflower, and ventured to shore to establish what would be for them a new experience in living, they reached an agreement known historically as the Mayflower Compact. In 1620 these intrepid women and men seeking a life of freedom determined that they would recognize two principles by which their freedom would be guided: the law of God and the common good.Eight days later, a daylong conference at St Charles Borromeo Seminary here in Philadelphia devoted its focus to "Promoting and Protecting the Common Good." The annual symposium of the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology, four papers were presented on the roles of the various players in attaining the end: the individual, law and government, religion, and the media.
“In the name of God amen” they began this first written articulation of a political philosophy in the English Colonies that has served as an underpinning for the American political experience for almost four hundred years. At the heart of this formula is the understanding that God and God’s law – however it is known – is normative for human action and that in the application of that basic principle and its translation into positive civil law the common good would also exercise a normative function....
To explore the developments in the relationship of faith and public policy we need to begin with a recognition that in recent years we have witnessed a movement in some public opinion forums away from an appreciation of the basic religious values that underpin our laws – religious values accepted and expressed by a great variety of faith communities – to the assertion of the need to substitute a so-called secular frame of reference within which public policy should be articulated.
Yet the opposite conviction has long been a cornerstone of the American experience. It finds expression in our deep-seated conviction that we have inalienable rights from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Thomas Jefferson stated that the ideals and ideas which he set forth in the Declaration of Independence were not original with him, but were the common opinion of his day. In a letter to Henry Lee, dated May 8, 1825, Jefferson writes that the Declaration is “intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression proper tone and spirit.”
The development of American political thought from the time of the Mayflower Compact resulted eventually in a composite political philosophy which guided the colonists at the time of the Revolution. It is found in a multiplicity of sources such as the Bible, sermons, classics in philosophical literature, platform addresses, newspaper discussions, pamphlets, official pronouncements and directives, resolutions of colonial assemblies, colonial charters and constitutions.
Out of all of these many threads, there is woven one common principle that is formative of the American political experience. The belief in the binding character of moral law is fundamental to any understanding of American thought. Government must be guided by foundational moral principles. All human government must be limited.
The intimate relation of the law of nature to God’s law was stated in terms of identity by John Barnard in his Massachusetts election sermon of 1734 where he stated: “This voice of nature is the voice of God.”
The understanding of God’s law at work and discernable through our rational nature also finds resonance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which speaks not only of the foundational nature of the natural moral law but describes the commandments themselves as privileged expressions of the natural law.
We have become accustomed over centuries to the voice of the Church as the voice of conscience. Today the current debate on our military presence in Iraq is framed in no small part in principles rooted in Catholic moral theology. So is the question of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, physician assisted suicide and immigration involving Asian, Pacific rim and Latin American people.
As believers we look to our faith. We are both citizens of the nation and members of the Church. We should look to our most deeply held convictions when we address matters that affect our nation’s activities at home or abroad.
As Catholics we also look to our Church for guidance that can only come from God. We believe that the teaching of the Church represents for us an opening on to the wisdom of God.
Where the impact of well articulated faith-based principles most evidently helped to form public policy in the United States is in the area of human dignity and the working conditions that were a routine part of the American scene at the time of our grandparents and even parents. The Church brought to the debate the strongest moral voice even when she was not always welcome. Most of the social legislation of the 30’s and later finds its moral antecedent in the magisterium of the Church.
Catholic social teaching has traditionally marked as a milestone the publication of the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. This was the first focused and concentrated articulation of the Church’s understanding of the dignity of workers and their rights. It also provided a rationale for explaining the worth of human labor itself – not that this was completely new. Over many centuries, commentators on the Book of Genesis expounded on the importance of human work and its place in God’s plan.
The reason Rerum Novarum is highlighted so regularly is because it was the beginning of a long series of papal encyclicals and statements constantly developing the theme of human dignity and social justice.
Today our struggle is to achieve the same success using Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, and the Church’s teaching tradition on the dignity of life in the defense of unborn human life.
Religious faith has played and continues to play a significant role in promoting social justice issues as it does in defending all innocent human life.
The dramatic shift that would substitute a secular vision of life for the traditional faith inclusive one disconnects us from our history.
The assertion that the "secular" model of society is the only acceptable way of addressing public policy issues causes us to look again at the place of religion and Gospel values in our efforts to build the common good.
What faith brings to our world is a way of seeing life and reality, a way of judging right and wrong, a norm against which we can see our life measured in light of the wisdom of God.
We simply cannot put aside all of this conviction of how we live and make important decisions and still be who we are as Catholics and as heirs to the American dream of personal freedom, faith and the common good.
While all the papers can be found (in pdf) at the Krol Chair website, two of these are of particular note. First, the intervention on religion, presented by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
Religious believers built this country. Christians played a leading role in that work. This is a fact, not an opinion. Our entire framework of human rights is based on a religious understanding of the dignity of the human person as a child of his or her Creator. Nietzsche once said that "convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." But that's false. Not even he believed that, or he couldn't have written a single book....and the intervention on the media, presented by Russell Shaw, the pre-eminent American commentator on things church and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Convictions can be the seeds of truth incarnated in a person's individual will. The right kinds of convictions guide us forward. They give us meaning. Not acting on our convictions is cowardice. As Catholics we need to live our convictions in the public square with charity and respect for others, but also firmly, with courage and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the moral witness we owe to the public discussion of issues. We can never serve the common good by betraying who we are as believers or compromising away what we hold to be true.
Unfortunately, I think the current American debate over religion and the public square has much deeper roots than the 2006 or 2004 elections, or even John Kennedy or the Second Vatican Council. A crisis of faith and action for Christians has been growing for many years in Western society. It's taken longer to have an impact here in the United States because we're younger as a nation than the countries in Europe, and we've escaped some of Europe's wars and worst social and religious struggles....
But Americans now face the same growing spiritual illness that Tolkien, Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini and C.S. Lewis all wrote about in the last century. It's a loss of hope and purpose that comes from the loss of an interior life and a living faith. It's a loss that we can only make bearable by creating a culture of material comfort that feeds -- and feeds off of -- personal selfishness. And no one understood this better than Georges Bernanos.
Most of us remember Bernanos for his novels, especially "The Diary of a Country Priest" and "Under Satan's Sun." Some of us may remember that he was one of the major European Catholic writers to reject the Franco uprising in Spain. He spent the Second World War in South America out of disgust with European politics, both right and left. He didn't have a sentimental bone in his body. He criticized Catholic politicians, Church leaders and average Catholics in the pew with the same and sometimes very funny relish. But he loved the Church, and he believed in Jesus Christ. And exactly 60 years ago, in 1946 and 1947, he gave a final series of lectures that predicted where our civilization would end up today with complete clarity. Regnery published the lectures in English in 1955 as "The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos." I hope you'll read them for yourselves. They're outstanding.
Bernanos had an unblinkered vision of the "signs of the times." Remember that just after the Second World War, France had a revival of Catholicism. Recovering from a global conflict and the Holocaust, the world in general and France in particular seemed to turn back -- briefly -- to essentials. It was during that hopeful season that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave us "Gaudium et Spes."
But Bernanos always saw the problems beneath the veneer. He wasn't fooled by the apparent revival of Catholic France. And so his work is a great corrective to the myth that our moral confusion started in the 1960s. As Bernanos makes clear, our problems began with the machine age -- the industrial revolution -- but not simply because of machines. They were the fruit of a "de-spiritualization" that had been going on for some time.
Bernanos argues that the optimism of the modern West is a kind of whistling past the graveyard. The Christian virtue of hope, he reminds us, is a hard and strong thing that disciplines and "perfects" human appetites. It has nothing to do with mere optimism. Real Christian hope comes into play as the obstacles to human happiness seem to grow higher.
Bernanos takes it upon himself to show us just how high the obstacles to real human freedom have become, even in liberal democracies. He argues that our modern optimism is a veneer over a despair bred by our greed and materialism. We try to fool ourselves that everything will turn out for the best, despite all the evidence to the contrary -- crime, terrorism, disease, poverty -- and we even concoct a myth of inevitable progress to shore up our optimism. American optimism in particular -- Bernanos refers to the United States bitterly as "the Rome, the Mecca, the holiest sanctuary of this civilization" -- is really only the eager restlessness of unsatisfied appetites.
Two themes dominate these last essays by Bernanos. The first is man's eagerness to abolish, forget or rewrite his own history in favor of determinisms like liberal capitalism, which makes society nothing more than a market system, and Marxism. For Bernanos, the attack on human memory and history is a primary mark of the antichrist.
As Bernanos explains it, big ideological systems "mechanize" history with high-sounding language like progress and dialectics. But in doing so, they wipe out the importance of both the past -- which they describe as primitive, unenlightened or counterrevolutionary -- and the present, which is not yet the paradise of tomorrow. The future is where salvation is to be found for every ideology that tries to eliminate God, whether it's explicitly atheistic or pays lip service to religious values. Of course, this future never arrives, because progress never stops and the dialectic never ends.
Christianity and Judaism see life very differently. For both of them, history is a place of human decision. At every moment of our lives, we're asked to choose for good or for evil. Therefore, time has weight. It has meaning. The present is vitally important as the instant that will never come again; the moment where we are not determined by outside forces but self-determined by our free will. Our past actions make us who we are today. But each "today" also offers us another chance to change our developing history. The future is the fruit of our past and present choices, but it's always unknown, because each successive moment presents us with a new possibility.
Time and freedom are the raw material of life because time is the realm of human choice. Bernanos reminds us that the antichrist wants us to think that freedom really doesn't exist because when we fail to choose, when we slide through life, we in effect choose for him. Time is the Devil's enemy. He lives neither in the eternity of God nor the realm of man. Satan has made his choice against God and he is forever fixed in that choice. But as long as man lives in time, which is the realm of change, man may still choose in favor of God. And of course, God is always offering the help of his grace to do just that. If the Devil can sell us the idea that history is a single, determined mechanism, if humanity's freedom of will can be forgotten or denied, then man will drift, and the antichrist will win.
Incidentally, if he were alive today, Bernanos might throw an interesting light on the language of the abortion debate. When we examine "pro-choice" vocabulary, it really isn't about choice at all. Instead, it's phrased in terms of "what choice did I have?" "I couldn't choose not to have sex." "I couldn't choose not to kill the child." "You have no right to expect more from me; I had to have an abortion, and so I had a right to do it." In the abortion debate, pro-choice means agreeing to the fiction that nobody really had a choice. As for the Devil, rapid technological change very much serves his purposes in any bioethical debate by helping us believe that only the future matters and that there isn't time to consider fundamental questions.
Just a hundred years ago our material lives were not all that different from what they had been a thousand years before. Men walked and rode and tilled and sold. Suddenly, things have changed more in 100 years than they had in the previous 5,000. And we expect things to be different tomorrow from what they are today. What Bernanos says in his essays about the atomic bomb, we could say today about the technological tsunami that engulfs and submerges our lives. To a consumer culture that says we're essentially animals and smart monkeys incapable of restraint, technology has now given the most dangerous machines. Can they have come from God? Bernanos doesn't seem to think so.
One of my favorite passages from Frank Sheed is this:
"It's incredible how long science has succeeded in keeping men's minds off their fundamental unhappiness and its own very limited power to remedy their fundamental unhappiness. One marvel follows another -- electric light, phonograph, motor car, telephone, radio, airplane, television. It's a curious list, and very pathetic. The soul of man is crying for hope of purpose or meaning; and the scientist says, 'Here is a telephone' or 'Look, television!' -- exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying for its mother by offering it sugar sticks and making funny faces."
The tidal wave of our toys, from iPods to the internet, is equally effective in getting us to ignore history and ignore our own emptiness.
The struggle for real human freedom depends upon the struggle for human history. Unlike the ideologies that deny the importance of the past and the present and focus on the illusions of a perfect future, Christianity sees the most important moments of the human story to be the past event of the Incarnation and the present moment of my individual opportunity to love.
The Catholic faith is grounded in what God has done. Our love is what we choose to do now, and our hope is founded in God's past acts of love and our present ones. Without history, there is no Christianity. So the fundamental question, for Bernanos, is "whether history is the story of mankind or merely of technology." Modern man must be convinced again that he is free, that he can really choose in this moment of time between very different paths to very different futures. In the act of choosing, we regain history as our own.
But part of the reasoning needed to convince man of his freedom must include reaffirming sacred history. And that must include remembering and retelling the fundamental choices made by Adam and Eve and Mary and Jesus and all the intermediate choices for or against God in that history. In hearing our Catholic faith narrated, it becomes recognizable as a history of choice, leading us to the present moment of choice, right here and right now. So the first requirement in regaining human freedom is to regain human history, to tell the human story as a chronicle of free will.
For Bernanos, the act of remembering the love of God and the history of our salvation begins the only kind of revolution that matters. In the words of Bernanos, "It is a question of starting tomorrow, or even today, a revolution of liberty which will essentially also be an explosion of spiritual forces in the world, comparable to the one that occurred 2,000 years ago -- in fact, the same."
During the last hundred years or so there has been an ongoing evolution in the Church's official thinking about news media. Chadwick holds that Leo XIII was the first pope to understand "that the press, even when it was Catholic, was a fourth estate, and to begin to treat it accordingly." With ups and downs, this way of thinking gradually spread throughout the twentieth century. Pope Pius XII -- grandson of the co-founder of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano -- played an especially notable role. He expressed appreciation for the press, praised the service of the press to society, and, famously, even recognized the necessity of public opinion in the Church.Ditto especially to that.
As with so many other things, the great turning point was the Second Vatican Council. Its Decree on the Media of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica, is commonly dismissed as the weakest of its sixteen documents. Even so, in a passage addressed to civil authorities, it says "the progress of modern society" requires "a true and just freedom of information."20 It also directed that after the council a pastoral instruction on the means of social communication be prepared. This turned out to be Communio et Progressio, which was written by a team of experts under the supervision of the Pontifical Commission (now, Council) for Social Communications and published in 1971. I quote just a few passages, under the heading "Access to the Sources and Channels of News," that suggest the document's approach:Modern man cannot do without information that is full, consistent, accurate and true. Without it, he cannot understand the perpetually changing world in which he lives.Concerning the press and the Church, the pastoral instruction says: "Since the development of public opinion within the Church is essential, individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church. In practice this means that communications media must be available for the task."...
Society, at all levels, requires information if it is to choose the right course. The community requires well-informed citizens. The right to information is not merely the prerogative of the individual, it is essential to the public interest.
Those whose job it is to give the news have a most difficult and responsible role to play.
I close this brief sketch of news media and the Church with something the Pastoral Instruction for Social Communications says:The modern media of social communication offer men of today a great round table. At this they are in search of, and able to participate in, a world-wide exchange of brotherhood and cooperation. It is not surprising that this should be so, for the media are at the disposal of all and are channels for that very dialogue which they themselves stimulate. The torrent of information and opinion pouring through these channels makes every man a partner in the business of the human race. This interchange creates the proper conditions for that mutual and sympathetic understanding which leads to universal progress.How realistic this picture is I leave to you. But even if it can never be entirely realized in this fallen world of ours, it continues to be a noble ideal that we must strive to accomplish.