I’ve noticed some of the com-boxers talking about morality and obligation recently, and I think it deserves a closer look.
There are many atheists, agnostics, deists, pantheists, etc. who reject the idea of a God that creates moral standards, and then judges us according to those standards because to them the idea is simply reprehensible, incompatible with the moral wisdom humanity has supposedly attained since the Enlightenment.
Christopher Hitchens and others have compared God to Stalin and Hitler, a mad and petty dictator who demands complete and unconditional obedience and worship on pain of eternal suffering. Such a monstrous tyranny is incompatible with any sensible notion of good. Even if God did exist, one gets the idea that these folks would consider it the highest moral duty to follow in Satan’s footsteps and declare, “I shall not serve”.
I have absolutely no desire to insult or belittle anyone’s political views, but I can’t help but notice a similar, if not identical, spirit on the libertarian side of the spectrum. Anarcho-communists and syndicalists are quite open about “No Gods, No Masters”, but in America, where libertarianism and conservatism mix far more than they do anywhere else, God and classical liberal values still co-mingle quite a bit.
Is it completely out of bounds for an outside observer (outsider to conservatism and libertarianism, that is) such as myself to question what precisely the difference is between a rejection of governmental authority and a rejection of heavenly authority? It appears to me that at least one Pope, one of my favorites, Pius XI, saw the transition from the medieval social order into the one we currently inhabit – call it what you will, this spawn of the Enlightenment – as a rejection of authority on all levels:
“For there was a social order once which, although indeed not perfect or in all respects ideal, nevertheless, met in a certain measure the requirements of right reason, considering the conditions and needs of the time. If that order has long since perished, that surely did not happen because the order could not have accommodated itself to changed conditions and needs by development and by a certain expansion, but rather because men, hardened by too much love of self, refused to open the order to the increasing masses as they should have done, or because, deceived by allurements of a false freedom and other errors, they became impatient of every authority and sought to reject every form of control.”
What I wonder is, if God Himself says we have an obligation to serve the poor, and if a failure to do it results in punishment, possibly eternal damnation per Matt. 25, then is God’s logic no different than the State’s? Do the atheists have a valid point?
In the end I think we must remember, as Catholics, that for our most venerable teachers and the authors of our social doctrine, liberalism – and by this I mean classical liberalism, 19th century economic liberalism, which is alive and well today – is condemned as an error not only in itself, but also because it creates conditions that give rise to great inequalities, class conflict, socialist and communist ideology, and finally bloody revolution.
While they never go as far as Hobbes does, placing it at the center of their political theory, the immanent danger of social disintegration and civil war is still a serious concern for Catholic social teaching. And the role that great economic inequalities play in contributing to that disintegration is frankly acknowledged. The state must have the authority to curb this inequality for the common good. It doesn’t mean making everyone identical, but it does mean establishing a range beneath which no one may fall lest their human rights are violated.
To become angry at attempts to do so, seems to me, to miss a crucial point of Catholic social thought. For rarely do I hear specifics in the arguments against Obama, but far more general outbursts against the idea of the government doing anything whatsoever in the economy. On the specifics I may well agree that the actual policy is imprudent, but on the general idea I cannot agree.