The Catholic Thing
Obama’s Obliviousness Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 06 February 2012

One of the first texts Great Books students are often asked to read is Plato’s Meno, a clever dialogue in which Socrates shows a friend how even an uneducated slave boy can be led, by the right kind of questions, to unchanging geometrical propositions, almost as if he were remembering timeless truths learned in a previous life. Unlike us, some ancients believed that discovering unchanging truths amidst the ceaseless flux of life was not a sign of the merely mechanical and material, but of something deathless and divine.

Truths like those can be read, at least in part, in two ways. It’s sort of like an algebraic equation: x2 = 4, where x can equal either +2 or -2, seemingly opposed answers. But in fact, both are real truths, without either getting in the way of the other, properly understood. In our time, we typically regard such propositions as only part of the natural, neutral world. But there’s a lot to be said – and lots of pagan philosophers, Jews, and Christians said and are still saying it – for also taking seriously what it means that there are eternal realities perceptible in that world and that we have minds capable of knowing and marveling at them. 

Which, as I’m sure you can already see, leads us directly to current political controversies.

A lot has been said and written recently about the Obama Administration’s encroachment on religious liberty by forcing religious institutions to violate their beliefs in healthcare coverage. At the most immediate, superficial level, the administration’s claim that this is the right “balance” between respecting conscience and making “preventive” care available is absurd – and stands a good chance of being overturned in court.

But a deeper question – one long smoldering in American public life – lies behind the immediate controversy. Some Americans think that providing education, healthcare, and poverty relief is a merely secular function. (Let’s leave for another day the crucial point whether our Constitution authorizes federal involvement in these questions.) For many of us, however, teaching the uninstructed, healing the sick, and comforting the poor is also a religious obligation – as even the president seemed, for obvious political purposes, to concede the other day at the National Prayer Breakfast – one carried out better by intermediate institutions like religious bodies and not discharged by delegating the responsibility to the state.

There are two main reasons why this is so. First, governments are not good at dealing with such issues. We’ve had over a century of experience with how these functions, once almost exclusive realms of religious institutions, are carried out by large bureaucracies. It would not have surprised Plato that governments – which are after all run by elected politicians not philosopher-kings – create fury at failing inner-city education, fights over health “systems,” and the poor showing of the “war” on poverty. The results flow almost automatically from the instrument used.

And that because of a second problem. We often hear that public policies must be neutral between religions, as well as between religion and non-religion. But our current practice fails a simple test. To take just one possible example:  Say same-sex “marriage” comes up in a high-school civics class. What if the teacher came out and said, as some have, that he or she is a Christian who thinks homosexual activity wrong and gay “marriage” unequal to traditional marriage? Even if that teacher respectfully engaged other views in the classroom discussion, how long would it be before the local board of education got slapped with a lawsuit? The same teacher could easily take a pro-gay-marriage stance and suffer no consequences, indeed have his right to speak stoutly defended.

Such questions have become harder to resolve, given where we now are as a culture. Many of the things we once thought could be defined as neutral public activities are, on closer inspection, not so neutral at all. Chesterton once remarked that there was a Catholic way to teach the times table, which seems a stretch until you remember that Plato and many other people, like the great modern French philosopher Simone Weil, have claimed that geometry has good practical uses, but is even more useful for teaching contemplation.

“Neutrality” claims on many issues are something of a smokescreen. Traditional values have been increasingly restrained in public and alternatives protected by law, sort of like suppressing one meaning of the geometrical figure or one solution to the quadratic equation. Such neutrality is not neutral or liberal a friend of truth.

The best way to remove partisanship masquerading as neutrality would be to remove education, healthcare, and other key culture-defining activities from government involvement entirely. Or at least to enable various institutions to carry them out in different ways, even though different groups may account for that service differently. This takes a certain social tact that we used to be able to manage in America.

The principle here is to respect different ways of contributing to the common good without requiring a single definition of that good. That would put government in the position of imposing an ideology. But such loose ends bother authoritarians of all stripes.

At Vatican II, few Fathers believed that a coherent theory lay behind the document on religious liberty, though many thought affirming religious liberty in the face of modern governments was essential nevertheless. The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray described even our own American arrangements as “not articles of faith but articles of peace.” They could be made to work tolerably well – if all parties were well intentioned.

But they rarely are. The Obama Administration has shown itself particularly oblivious to both the superficial mechanisms and deeper meanings on which it is now treading. Under the guise of greater freedom and fairness, it is leading us into a world narrower and nastier. It’s too late for them to go back and contemplate, even with a pagan like Plato. God help us all. 

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.

© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 06, 2012
I could not disagree more

Religion is comprehensively, inclusively pertinent to the human condition. The neutral, secular state is an illusion for, such is human nature, it invariably becomes the ethical state.

The notion that religion can somehow be protected by separating “religious society” and “political society,” each autonomous, is to accept that the state can be self-sufficient in the sense that it can be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice and to collude, by implication in the liberal privatisation of Christian faith

As Maurice Blondel reminded us in a similar debate, 100 years ago, “It is only in the spirit of the Gospel that we find the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity."
written by Robert Royal, February 06, 2012
Michael I agree with you, but with a qualification. The point of the Plato comparison is that there are two dimensions of the truth. But there is an asymmetrical relationship between them. You can see this in those who lean to one side or the other. The believer can admit the claims of a secular realm that is not closed off to the divine (a nation "under God"). The seculars do not return the favor.Similarly, a believer can see the claims of science while putting them in a larger context. Regrettably, the scientists often don't see the other use of reason. It's tricky, but we do better when we follow Christ and Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but no more, which can also protect the things that belong to God. We've had a long tradition of this dual vision in Catholicism going back to the ancient world. That's being threatened now by an imperial secular state that's assuming elements of the divine.
written by Jacob R, February 06, 2012
Do you think Christ would want us to give our support to a country that works to destroy the Church?

I always wonder why religious groups in this country are so cooperative with the beaurucrats who are gunning for their extinction.

Truly religious people, if there are any of them young enough in this country, need to cloister together if they're going to survive. The arrogance of thinking that we're fanning out to reconvert the secular masses is going to kill the Church in this country. Most older Catholics don't really seem to mind though. They're too busy gossiping with each other to worry about the fact that there are no children over 12 years old and no young adults in church on Sundays.
written by Dan Deeny, February 06, 2012
An interesting and learned article. But just a minute, this program is being put forward by a Catholic. Why write about Obama all the time? Why not Sebelius?
written by Brian English, February 06, 2012
"Truly religious people, if there are any of them young enough in this country, need to cloister together if they're going to survive. The arrogance of thinking that we're fanning out to reconvert the secular masses is going to kill the Church in this country."

This option is not open to us. We would no longer be the Church Christ founded if we did this.

"Most older Catholics don't really seem to mind though. They're too busy gossiping with each other to worry about the fact that there are no children over 12 years old and no young adults in church on Sundays."

You need to find a new parish. I see plenty of both at mine.

written by Chris in Maryland, February 06, 2012
If the Church in the US ever wakes up, we would be forced to admit to Christ that we have failed Him in fighting the spiritual war that He demands of us. As we have been reminded here at CT over the past few months...Jesus expects the Church to be "on offense."

There is a fundamental rule of warfare in Tsun Tsu: "If you are too weak to defend - you must attack."

Of course, spiritual war has a means empty chairs at the Al Smith Dinner; no Medals of Freedom for Presidents of Catholic colleges; no electronic transfer payments from the Federal Govenment.
written by Peter, February 09, 2012
Great article, however a tiny point of clarification: x2=4 has one and only one answer.
written by Peter, February 09, 2012
Perhaps you meant x^2=4
written by Robert Royal, February 09, 2012
Peter, somehow our program will not accept a superscript. It's simple algebra, of course, that it's x squared that can equal either +2 or -2. We're working with our tech people to fix this limitation. Thanks for pointing out the problem.

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