Thursday, June 24, 2004

Bushels and Gates

Rob Vischer and Michael Scaperlanda are engaged in a fascinating discussion of the role of Christians in the culture vis a vis the increasingly hostile environment created by the totalitarian left. I lean more toward Scaperlanda's position (but read both posts before you decide):

Where I disagree with Rob is in the response to the growing totalitarian trend among certain defenders of liberalism. Rob says that this "underscores my previously expressed view that religious voices may need to focus more on carving out spheres of community and individual autonomy for themselves, rather than seeking to impose their vision of the common good on a society-wide basis.

I am extremely uncomfortable with this proposed remedy for two reasons. First (and pragmatically), if this brand of intolerant liberalism takes hold and dominates, it will not (indeed, cannot) allow those of us who claim that a particular religion is objectively true the space to raise our children in our religious faith.
Second (and more importantly), our Catholic faith calls us to engage the world, not bargain for separation from it. It is not that we seek to "impose" our vision of the common good on the rest of society. Rather, our task, as I see it, is to "propose" our understanding of the nature of the human person and our vision of the common good. Since we believe that good Catholic anthropology corresponds to the deepest needs of the human person for truth, beauty, and justice (Giussani), our vision ought to attract some fellow travelers and we can begin to build a Culture of Life, much of which will reside in the civilization at large and some of which will come to be reflected in our laws.

I have made both arguments elsewhere, but I wanted to note that the tentativeness with which he makes the second point is not fully warranted. To be sure, in a deliberative culture, such as should exist in all healthy democracies, the Christian is constrained to propose rather than impose his views. But that is a constraint on human use of force, not on divine authority. One of the aspects of the Christian faith that Scaperlanda no doubt acknowledges, but does not mention, is that Christ promises that the church will prevail against the gates of hell. This will be the case, provided that the church does not hide its light under a bushel; in other words: refrains from following the course suggested by Vischer's [first] post. [He has since clarified that this was not his intent.] Gates, it will be noted, are passive architectural constructs not offensive weapons. They can be used to exclude Christian activity from the public square or contain it within a private ghetto, but Jesus' metaphor does not allow interpret them as tools of our oppression. Rather, if we are to prevail against them, we must be seen as taking the active role.

So, the scope for Christian involvement in society is more complex than either the term "impose", suggesting an imperial model, or "propose", suggesting a market approach, implies. By our prayers, we can have confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work undermining the vain works of the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Our job is to speak prophetically when we lack power and to establish justice in the land when we have it, but in both cases we must understand that we are still sinners under the authority of God and subject to his laws and limitations.

Deciding which issues merit the use of force, as demanded by justice, and which can be relegated to the use of persuasion is a difficult task, but there is plenty of guidance in scripture. I would argue, for instance, that the Social Right is correct in seeking to forcibly prevent abortion because innocent human lives are at stake. But persuasion is indicated in the case of homosexual sins, because scripture seems to have repealed the original death penalty for victimless, sexual offenses in favor of excommunication (1 Cor 5:1-11). This is a topic that requires further argument than I am prepared to make at the present, but I think the distinction is clearly defensible. [Vischer seems to agree with this analysis, although he makes his case on more of a Natural Law model than I would be comfortable with.]

UPDATE: Ron Vischer responded between the time I began writing this post and the time I went to look up the links for reference. I have acknowledged his clarifications in brackets above.

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