Let It Snow

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Martin Luther, the earthy ex-monk and Reformation sparkplug, is said to have described the effect of grace on human nature as a snowfall on a dung pile. For a Catholic, this is theologically incorrect. We believe grace transforms the sinner, which is why we have many schools of spirituality. But give Luther this much: true human change in most cases happens very slowly, if at all. And grace often feels the way he thought of it, perhaps as he brooded over a wintry German landscape.

Washington lay under several feet of snow this week, which under the Lutheran dispensation was maybe still not enough to do the job. Besides bringing the city to a standstill, it brought out commentators saying that the system, too, is paralyzed. Even when one party the Democrats at the moment controls the White House and both houses of Congress, it is impossible to pass transformative legislation like healthcare reform. We have become too partisan, the pundits lament, and neglect the common good.

When the common good is invoked, Catholics should take note. If Catholics in a predominantly Protestant country like ours bring anything to the public square besides conviction about the sanctity of human life and the need to protect it in every nook and cranny of the law it is a well developed notion of the common good. Others may fret over state v. the individual, or public v. private goods. A Catholic may occasionally use such language, but it is not our way of parsing things. When we talk about the common good, though, we’re playing on our home field.

Catholic social thought sees persons, who have an individual dimension, as also necessarily interpersonal, deeply dependent on one another for development and flourishing and therefore social beings by nature. (Even the Christian Trinity, we believe, is a community of persons.) Whatever competencies we assign to public bodies, private associations, families, or individuals, we assume the need for both freedom and order, the compatibility of personal and social good. We can still disagree deeply on particular issues without falling into fundamental oppositions.

The recent history of healthcare reform illustrates the principle. Everyone in America agrees that the sick should be cared for, but how it will be done carries with it far-reaching implications, whatever side you take. To oppose the current bills which run to more pages than the Bible needs to inform us about our eternal salvation is not the same as opposing health care for all. A majority oppose those bills because of their unconvincing complexity, but also out of fear that they will fundamentally alter the relationship between government and people, and may therefore harm the common good.

We accept government’s monopoly over the use of force to protect us from domestic and foreign threats. That’s almost the definition of legitimate government, subject to careful specification and control. But once we get beyond some core functions, the questions rapidly become much more difficult.

We want all children to be educated, but should government do it? Government-run education, from grade schools to state colleges, became possible by eliminating the central purpose of all education not greater earning power, but formation of human beings in the most important things. If you think that schools and colleges exist primarily to help people get better jobs, increase GNP, and sharpen our technological edge over other countries, then what we have probably suits you fine.

Those of us with a more traditional view of education have been more or less told: It’s a free country. If you don’t like what we’ve got, set up your own institutions something we once did well, by the way. But this misses the point. Once state-run education becomes the norm especially at the point it most prides itself on, that it takes no religious or moral positions it subtly gives the impression that the most important sectors of adult life lie in a purely instrumental realm outside of religion and morals, a view both false and corrupting. And not at all neutral, to say nothing of the way that institutions supported by tax dollars make it difficult to create viable competitors.

Handing over medical care decisions to the government no matter how many pro-life battles we may win in the short run presents similar risks. And it’s been a failure on the part of Catholics that there has been virtually no attention paid to this longer-term institutional threat. Doctors trained in our value-free educational institutions now rarely take the old Hippocratic Oath. Why? Even the old pagan Greeks thought it contradicted the purposes of medicine to induce abortions. But that’s just for starters. Once a unitary medical system replaces the older order in which there was room for individual and institutional freedoms, we can be sure that things will move in a direction parallel to what has happened in public education.

Most Americans sense that there’s something threatening in the recent rush systematically to transform rather than incrementally improve the way we live. Hence the widespread anger. The Founders deliberately made it hard to pass sweeping legislation under the Constitution. They understood human nature and the temptation of majorities to tyrannize over majorities. They had not yet seen, but doubtless would have been alarmed at, the technological means that all modern states have to enforce central control over their populations and the rise of technocrats who regard resistance to their schemes as proof of the fecklessness of the people.

Yet Americans are the only people in the world who still have a living sense of the deep issues at stake in the struggles over public institutions. Our wariness about sweeping change shows not our immaturity and ignorance, but perhaps a residual Christian sobriety and wisdom. The president and members of Congress will meet this week to discuss healthcare. Will anyone speak these simple truths among the technicalities?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.