The Catholic Thing
The Nanny State as Mother Church Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 31 October 2011

The modern state has for some time been trying to become a new universal church. It does so based on two large claims, one practical, the other moral. It gives the impression of being able to provide for everyone from cradle to grave. And it professes to welcome all groups and viewpoints. Both claims, of course, are nonsense, and more obviously so every day. It will be interesting to see if we learn anything from that realization – or will simply continue, towards disaster.

We have to appreciate the true scope of this problem. We talk about the “Nanny State,” as if what’s wrong is merely a set of meddlesome restrictions on smoking, unhealthy foods, and the environment. But the modern state has become much more than a starchy old fussbudget. This nanny likes to think of herself as something approaching Holy Mother Church.

People mistrust government just now. But don’t be fooled. The lack of trust is largely one with the belief that the state should, somehow, fix everything. If it does not, it’s only because someone, somewhere, is to blame. It used to be the barest wisdom that we live in a world often beyond our knowledge and control, and that we should be very wary of those who make unreal promises. Political campaigns today are largely, as you may have noticed, competing mirages.

Take the responses to the current economic crisis. Misguided state efforts to encourage people to buy homes and failure to monitor derivatives from those risky loans – sometimes also the result of malfeasance in the private sector – is well enough known not to need repeating here. Still, all that might have been manageable if decades of government spending and promises of future entitlements had not left us with little margin for error.

Last week, for example, the Social Security fund went negative for the first time in thirty years and will start to contribute to the already massive deficit. People who want to trim benefits in order to preserve the system for the truly needy in the future often claim that it was never supposed to guarantee income to virtually all the elderly – and certainly not for twenty or more years. It was a limited insurance program for the older poor.

It’s difficult to gauge that claim, but anyone with parents old enough to remember has probably heard a different story. They are almost all convinced that politicians promised them a bonanza, financed by their own contributions. The resistance among seniors to changes in Social Security, I’m convinced, is not selfishness (the changes wouldn’t affect them, anyway). It’s moral outrage at having been lied to.

Some analysts believe everything would have been fine if there had not been a demographic implosion here and in other developed nations, coupled with an increased life expectancy. Perhaps so. But the governments in those nations have also engaged in a crusade against overpopulation. If you think overpopulation is a problem, just wait until you see what under-population will do here and in Europe (and in China owing to its one-child policy).

           The signs do not lead in the same direction.

Is it really possible that, for decades, no one noticed the collision that lay ahead between these two large public aims? Or, more likely, is it just that democratic politicians find it easy to make promises and let others figure out how to make them work?

These breakdowns, and many more, however, fall only on the practical side in the modern state’s efforts to become a kind of church. On the moral side, the state professes openness, tolerance, multiculturalism, humaneness. All sounds welcoming and neutral, with the state standing above and embracing all.

The obvious problem – even more obvious than the collision between promises and costs – is that the neutrality is not neutral. There’s a definite creed behind this alleged openness. And its dogmas, backed by the police power, are not inclusive, as most modern Christians know.

The first sign was the legalization of abortion. Prior to the 1960s cultural revolution, abortion was widely stigmatized in the West because of our recognition of the sanctity of all human life. The state’s first duty is to protect everyone from internal and external threats. That’s why we authorize deadly force to defend the innocent via the armed forces and the police power. Once the state declared some persons outside that protection – for reasons of convenience – a new article was added to the modern state creed. Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are next.

But it hasn’t stopped there. The institutions that most directly nourish life – family, marriage, religion – and that, at least in America, still have some capacity to resist state dogmas, have come under heavy assault. Family and marriage were blithely redefined with no recognition of their roots in nature and reason.

We talk fervently about human activities that threaten “fragile ecosystems” and say we want to respect nature. But when it comes to human nature, we think we can remake marriage and family, experiment on human embryos (which is to say experiment on our own offspring), and deny or falsify our religious history, all in the name of humanity, tolerance, and “respect for science” – without consequences.

A single step of this sort might be taken as a mere error to be corrected. But we’re now seeing a coherent body of dogma emerge, a true creed, and with state power to enforce those beliefs. We’ve gotten used to authorities prosecuting “hate crimes” and “hate speech.” Now, even the U.S. military will be re-educating soldiers about homosexuality.

The churches and secular forces that object to this massive reorientation of our public life – in some cases turning what were recently crimes into aggressive new rights claims – are under threat and are being portrayed as sectarians for defending what was once mere common sense. They are likely to be squeezed more and more from the public square.

A Nanny State? Nannies were never so intrusive – or ruthless.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Yezhov, October 31, 2011

Congratulations. You just came up with the answer to Stalin's question: "How much does the state weigh?"
written by Ray Hunkins, October 31, 2011
Excellent, Dr. Royal. As Abraham Lincoln said, "You cannot build character and courage by taking away people's initiative and independence". The corollary is that by taking away peoples initiative and independence, the nanny state is destroying its citizens' character and courage. The restoration of character and courage will solve a lot of our society's ills.
written by chris, October 31, 2011
As Chesterton warned us, the State cannot become the Universal Provider without becoming just another big shop.
written by Brian English, October 31, 2011
What I find amazing is that after seeing what happened in Europe in the 19th Century, with powerful secular governments trying to force religion completely out of public life, the Church hierarchy in this country was at best indifferent to, and often very supportive of, the vast increase in government power over the past 80 years.
written by Manfred, October 31, 2011
You laid out a very clear synopsis of the politial ills affecting modern man. Have you solutions? I thought it was splendid how the American bishops came down like a ton of bricks on Gov. Cuomo the Catholic following his just issued call for nationwide same-sex marriage and the overthrow of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That is the type of leadership the American Catholics in the pews desperately need. After all, why bother being conerned about "natural family planning" when the married "couple" (two males?, two females?) next door, don't have to give it a thought. This gives American Catholics time to focus on the really important items such as Communion in the hand and female altar servers.
written by Martial Artist, October 31, 2011
Mr. Royal,

You write
"The resistance among seniors to changes in Social Security, I’m convinced, is not selfishness (the changes wouldn’t affect them, anyway). It’s moral outrage at having been lied to."
From my perspective as someone who will receive his first SS check in November, I can assure you that you are partially correct. You have however, missed the other half of the explanation. It is not simply about being lied to, although that was documented by the man considered by many as the chief architect of Social Security, J. Douglas Brown, who admitted in a Sunday WaPo interview piece two weeks before he died, that all of the members of FDR's committee, himself included, knew that the system would go bankrupt.

Further, he had the nerve to assert that "the only mistake that the committee made" was in underestimating the increases in the rate of change of life expectancy—they failed (quite understanably) to predict that life expectancy would increase at a more rapidly accelerating rate than it had in prior decades. He thus shows the ignorance (to put it charitably) of that subset of analysts you cite as thinking Social Security might have worked, except for ….

No, the aspect you have missed is that, lied to or not, we had nothing (zero, nada, nichts) in the way of a choice. The money was expropriated by the government under threat of criminal prosecution. And even when we thus became aware of the fraud, that threat prevented us taking any meaningful action about the theft. When your other readers add that forced participation to the lies, they may begin to have some appreciation why I, and many of my peers, harbor such vehement opinions concerning Social Security.

In praise and defense of your analysis, I would agree that the more likely explanation is as you stated—"that democratic politicians find it easy to make promises and let others figure out how to make them work." Thank you for an honest, direct and forthright discussion of the dilemma the world faces.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Tony Esolen, October 31, 2011
Add another piece of responsibility the Tyrananny shoulders: that is, once it has eviscerated the Church, there is absolutely nothing left that can actually unite people except (superficially) for sheer brute force. Witness the utter divisiveness of secular politics, now divorced from even a residual memory of examination of conscience, admission of guilt, shame for failures prudential and moral, and forbearance for enemies. We are seeing the rise of Caesar, rendering to Caesar all things, God's, the family's, the locale's, the school's, everything. And Caesar will brook no partner.
written by Manfred, November 01, 2011
Following up on my, Martial Artist and Prof. Esolen I would add that I don't perceive a Nanny State taking the plsce of Mother Church at all. I see a totalitarian state as others do as well. When one reads the background happenings at the time of Vat. II, one is shocked at the tremendous pressure put on the pope and council fathers to change the Church's teaching on contraception. Actual bribes were offered the pope by people such as Rockefeller to allow the one billion Catholics to contracept. The war goes on, and make no mistake, as one can see from Obama's speech at Notre Dame. He and his ilk are not backing down and we just don't have the clerical leadership to oppose it. Just look at the numbers of Catholics who are projected to vote for him again in 2012. Always remember, HITLER WAS ELECTED.
written by Wsquared, November 01, 2011
Interesting and very cogent piece, Mr. Royal. Incidentally, your expounding on how the Nanny State is trying to be Mother Church ties in very nicely with a critical piece that the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus wrote for First Things on "America as Church." It also offers connections with essays that discuss the effect of relegating religious belief to the subjective, which is nothing new, or at least it's about 500 years old. To quote another essay linked from the NCRegister, "heresy gets things done." And look at what it's wrought.
written by Ann, November 02, 2011
C.S. Lewis said, "We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful." What is it we expect from the modern depravity?
written by Denverite, November 03, 2011
I am constantly reminded that this world is (by design) a great saint making machine.

The Holy Spirit raises up great saints in every era, speaking to the particular needs of their time and place. My recurrant question running just below the surface of any cultural critique is, "What then will the great saints of our era look like?" and then following closely on the heels of that question comes the inquiry that matters most, "Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life..."

The world (the culture / the state / the nation) does not *ultimately* need better arguments or more information. The world needs witnesses. Martyrdom, white or red, is a reality of the Church in the world, and while we do not seek it, we should be able to read the signs of the times and prepare ourselves for difficult trials ahead.

Read Abp. Chaput's book, render unto Caesar.

Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

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