What is the Christian Understanding of the Social Order?

By Thomas Storck
March 11, 2015

Last year two authors, Fr. Gregory Jensen and Nathan Gill, wrote articles for Ethika Politika taking issue with previous articles of mine dealing with the American social order and with religious liberty. Fr. Jensen wrote in response to my article, “The Catholic Failure to Change America,” and Mr. Gill was immediately replying to my answer to his yet earlier response to my 2013 article, “The Revenge of Religious Liberty.” Although my two articles were different in focus, they both were premised on the Enlightenment character of American culture and politics, and both Jensen and Gill take issue with this premise. Due to their similar outlooks the fundamental issue between each of them and myself is essentially the same, and I direct this reply to both writers.

In the article of mine to which Fr. Jensen was replying, I lamented the fact that, although millions of Catholics had immigrated to the United States, we have had little substantive impact on American culture, which remains essentially Protestant and Enlightenment. Fr. Jensen's article is a defense of American individualism, a qualified defense to be sure, but a defense nevertheless. He begins by quoting Robert Bellah that "individualism ‘lies at the very core of American culture.’" This I am afraid is true, but is this a good thing or not? Key to Fr. Jensen's argument is the assertion that, despite its faults, individualism offers "opportunities" to Christians, opportunities, for example, for anyone to embrace the Gospel and adhere to that ecclesiastical body that he considers correct. Fr. Jensen instances both myself and Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA (to whom he is also replying) as people who took advantage of the liberty offered by American individualism to convert to a different religion, Catholicism and Orthodoxy respectively.

But Fr. Jensen also appeals to the very nature of God. He writes,

What modernity highlights, or so it seems to me, is that God appeals to our freedom, to our love of liberty and our desire to be creatively self-expressive ... Aren't these, after all, qualities that reflect His glory? Aren't human freedom, liberty, and creativity part of the image of God in each and every single human being?

Yes, our free will, our freedom to choose among goods, is central to the image of God in us, but since we retain that freedom of choice in any and every circumstance of life, absent a state of intoxication or the like, this liberty has no political implications, or at least not the political implications often ascribed to it by upholders of the liberal state. Human beings always possess freedom of choice, but before the Enlightenment few political thinkers argued from that to the necessity or desirability of a regime that elevated political liberty to its highest principle.

The burden of my article was that Catholic immigrants to the United States, for various mostly understandable reasons, did not attempt any real conversion of American culture. If they had attempted that and had succeeded, that would have meant either the end or at least the significant modification of American individualism. Catholic thought does not see an individualistic social order as the ideal, but understands that society and even the political order must be evangelized and ought to reflect the teachings of the Gospel. But the individualism of American culture will not tolerate the notion that society can rightly propose any kind of transcendental vision of reality. Truth is always my own.

Long before this notion was pushed to its logical conclusion by postmodern thinkers, it was inherent in the religious situation in the United States. No one, no church, no religious body (it is held) can tell me what to do, for as a free American I have the absolute right to interpret Holy Scripture for myself and even, if necessary, to found my own church. The fact that many Americans, myself included, have converted to a faith that rejects significant aspects of this individualism is hardly an argument for social or political individualism. For, conversions occur in all kinds of political situations, and the original commission to preach the Gospel does not seem to have contemplated or required a liberal social order.

Let us turn from Fr. Jensen's genial article to Mr. Gill's very different piece. Gill devotes most of his articles to a critique of my interpretation of John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. I do not intend to address his argument in detail, because I think that in my previous reply to him I have already sufficiently done so. I said there,

If I could put my reply in a nutshell, I would say that Gill manages to avoid the obvious implications of Locke's theory, as that appears both in his own writing and as it is reflected in U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, and that moreover he has a defective and limited understanding of the relation of the political community to the good of mankind.

In his latest pieces, moreover, Gill has not only the same penchant for misunderstanding Locke, but for misunderstanding me as well. Throughout, Gill is confused about the basis of my quarrel of Locke, whom I criticuze not for wishing to base government on natural law (as Gill continually asserts), but rather on "purely secular arguments [and] the consideration of purely this-worldly motives." This is not natural law, at least not as classically understood. It is mere worldly self-interest, a limitation of government's concerns to man's purely temporal needs and desires. It is true that at the end of my article, in a direct response to Gill, I do discuss difficulties that might arise in considering natural law as the sole foundation of government.  But that is not the basis of my critique, and I say many times that Locke's error is his limitation of the legitimate concerns of government to merely external and this-worldly matters.

When Gill writes that with regard to the Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. United States I suggested "straight-facedly that the justices should have tried to save the defendant's soul," we have another misunderstanding or perhaps a misrepresentation. What I said was that "the U.S. Supreme Court showed no interest in theological arguments about polygamy or about George Reynolds' eternal salvation, but made sociological and political arguments as to why plural marriage was undesirable." In other words, following upon Locke's political theories, the justices showed no interest in the theological argument that the defendant Reynolds made; indeed, no interest in whether theological truth even exists, since it considered such questions as outside its legitimate area of concern. As in Locke, all governmental policies and decisions are to be based solely on considerations of external earthly goods. The polity is to conduct itself as if God did not exist, or at best, as if the question of his existence was of no interest to the community.

As to Gill's criticism of my exposition of Catholic doctrine on religious liberty and his citations from the Second Vatican Council, it would take too long to explain to him and to other readers the complexities of this debate. I will merely note that one still finds in official sources, for example in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a doctrine on the duties of society toward religion quite unlike that proposed by John Locke or incorporated into American law.

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."  By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them "to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live" (2105).

Moreover, a fact generally overlooked, the footnotes in the Catechism cite the 19th- and early 20th-century encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI, and even Pius IX's Quanta Cura, the encyclical that accompanied that pontiff's Syllabus of Errors, all of which teach the traditional doctrine on religious liberty that Mr. Gill supposes has been discarded. (See notes to 2105, 2108 and 2109.)

But in the end, most of what I have discussed is secondary to the main question, for the real issue in dispute between Fr. Jensen, Mr. Gill, and myself is what is the Christian understanding of man and society. Are we by nature essentially a-political, even a-social? Is the original state of men one "of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man," as Locke wrote? Or are we by nature social animals, naturally members of a community, and hence of a political order, a polis?

If the former, as Fr. Jensen and Mr. Gill seem to think, then the state and society are merely contrivances devised to safeguard and facilitate individual choice, and the more choice the better. But if the latter, then it follows that there are social goods in addition to individual goods and that our natural state is not one of solitary independence.

The natural man is not Robinson Crusoe, but a member of a polis, a community organized politically, and from the beginning involved in the intricate web of obligations and rights, authority, and subordination, which are aspects of any community. This community profoundly affects each of us on every level, and if as individuals we recognize the authority of God, then it is surely strange to deliberately restrict the serious business of the state to purely this-worldly concerns, to (as Locke put it) "life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." This is not even the natural law discerned by the pagans, but, as I said above, a concern with purely worldly matters and a clear path to the hedonism of the modern secularist.

Ultimate truth concerns both the community and each and every one of its members, and if we limit its business to those matters enumerated by Locke, we are harming our own souls and the souls of those whom we should regard as our brothers. It is probably worth adding that my advocacy of this conception of society and government is not an advocacy for persecution. There is a big difference between persecution and the attempt "to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures" of society, and the latter can exist in varying forms and degrees.

Historian Louis Hartz noted in his 1955 book, The Liberal Tradition in America, that in the United States Locke is a "massive national cliché" who "dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation." Thus it is very difficult for most Americans to think outside a Lockean framework, to see that the quest for truth does not stop at the level of the individual, but concerns the community as a whole. Long ago the prophet Jeremiah said to the exiles in Babylon, "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (29:7). As exiles from our own true heavenly city, we do well to follow Jeremiah's counsel, remembering, however, that it is more than our "life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things" that is bound up with the welfare of the earthly commonwealth.