An Appointment with Modernity
by William Droel

Catholicism evaded its appointment with modernity for about 400 years. Not until Vatican II (1962–1965) did Catholicism open the door to dialogue with the modern world—not a wholesale acceptance of every modern trend, but an engagement conducted with patience and sophistication.

Catholicism opposed the Protestant Reformation because it was part of modern trends of individual standards, of sundry forms of worship and of authority structures unattached to Catholicism. Catholic officialdom was threatened by these and other emerging liberal values, including government autonomy, by professions that claimed their own independence and by secular culture. The violent anticlericalism of the French Revolution in 1789 justifiably added to Catholicism’s fears. When the French monarchy was briefly restored, many Catholic leaders embraced it with a right-wing, royalist mentality. However, by 1905 France firmly accepted modernity and its concept of autonomous society (laïcité).

The Catholic–modern dialogue proceeds in fits and starts. Even today, some Catholic leaders inappropriately revert to blanket condemnations, foregoing sincere encounter with those who disagree. Yet to be fair, on several topics Catholicism’s caution about modern trends has proved prophetic.  

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) inaugurated the formal body of Catholic social thought with his encyclical On the Condition of Labor. It condemned Marxism, a modern materialistic philosophy. To do so, Leo XIII reiterated a qualified approval of private property. As it turned out, communist collectivism imposed from above oppressed rather than liberated many. Leo XIII was likewise prophetic in his condemnation of the modern materialistic philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism—what people today call neoliberalism. An economy that spins with only the force of finance creates a hierarchical system in which the majority cannot meaningfully participate.

At its best, the Catholic tradition fosters a reasonable approach with which to argue intelligently and temperately with the world, as Fr. William O’Neill has written. Even with our differences over current issues, we still must respect the common rules of debate, he explains. Conversation and dialogue must be conducted with a shared grammar.

For example, meaning must be anchored to truth. Validating important matters solely with one’s opinion or feelings is inadequate. Truth is arrived at through evidence; truth-seeking is not a performance, an avenue for vindication, nor a way to process resentment. An honest dialogue about modern issues has to forego cancelling the speech of others, a view which Pope Francis has expressed. It has to be void of self-righteousness. There is room for multiple interpretations of facts, but there is no such thing as alternative facts. At the same time, everyone has to understand that while the rules of truth-seeking are permanent, tomorrow’s discovery or future evidence can change yesterday’s conclusion.

O’Neill also reminds us that rights are not the same as interests. An individual right is normally a claim mixed within other rights. That is, each right comes with duties or considerations. Contrary to neoliberal philosophy, a conflict of claims is not settled by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Decisions in the real world have to aim toward the common good, the good outcome that is only obtained if people cooperate. The decision-making process is informed argument, not outrage.

Finally, as O’Neill mentions, Catholicism or any other religion dialogues in the public square with reasoned language, not insider language. Sectarianism only isolates a religious voice. O’Neill uses abortion as an example. Catholicism opposes direct and purposeful abortion not as “one sectarian interest among others.” The opposition is not a Catholic position, per se. To influence the world, positions on abortion or other issues have to be expressed in universal terms. And so in a public dialogue O’Neill would put it this way: All people have a basic right to life and a right to the means of sustaining life—such as a right to basic nutrition and to adequate health care. The “strongest case against abortion,” he says, is an argument based on “upholding the rights of all.”

Catholic leaders and ordinary Catholics can be as strident as anyone else, indiscriminately maligning groups of people. They can also shortsightedly put their faith in authoritarians or phony media personalities or corrupt business leaders. They can hurt the innocent. They can wash away their public sins as mere failures in management. Yet with humble application of our social doctrine, Catholics can help improve business conduct, labor relations, social policy, care for the environment, respect for inherent dignity of each person, international affairs, the nurturing of children, and more. A Catholic contribution to the world presumes, of course, that Catholics know their social doctrine and are capable of strategically using it. ♦

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here), and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7).

Image: “Pope Leo XIII sends greetings to the American people through the phonograph,” The Phonogram, 1893.
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