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What’s Happening to Civil Society?

The Marxist government of Nicaragua placed a Catholic bishop and several priests under house arrest last week and closed a half-dozen Catholic radio stations. It previously banned hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – groups we used to talk about as constituting “civil society,” i.e., the human networks where life, in normal circumstances, can take place in real face-to-face community, free of political interference. All Marxist or totalitarian regimes – from Nicaragua to China, Cuba to Russia – try to suppress and replace these natural formations, especially religion and the family (the basic cell of society in Catholic social thought) because they have real potential to resist encroachments by the State.

Banana republics can arise almost anywhere, as we’re seeing even in America these days. And we usually think of these sorts of problems as “violations of religious liberty.” But the deeper problem has remained mostly out of sight: the modern State’s efforts, almost everywhere, to usurp functions that properly belong elsewhere – particularly the shaping of moral and social behavior best left to parents, churches, (independent) schools, local communities, etc.

In Modern Catholic Social Teaching, these entities are the concrete embodiment of “subsidiarity” – constituents of a properly ordered social structure that limits the reach of the State, a traditional concept that came into renewed prominence in the 1930s with the rise of Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. Each of these ideological movements concentrated social power in a single group: in Communism, the Party; in Nazism, the German Volk; in Fascism, the Fascist State itself. The names change but the DNA of tyranny remains the same.

And we’re now seeing signs of such behavior even in the countries that fought those earlier totalitarian systems, i.e., America and Europe. One of the most astute observers of this process is Ryszard Legutko, a Catholic professor of philosophy and former editor of Polish Solidarity’s newspaper, who argued in his 2018 book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies that there was emerging a kind of liberal-democratic tyranny that, like the ideological movements in the past, demanded conformity to a single vision.

As a kind of confirmation of his argument, he was subsequently prevented from speaking at Middlebury College. As he described the event later [1], “This was the first time in my entire academic life that I was prevented from speaking because of my views, and the first time I was openly insulted by students with the tacit approval, or at least a désintéressement, on the part of the school authorities.” For someone who had lived through the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain, that’s quite a statement.

In the years since then, the main institutions of American culture – the universities, the media, popular entertainment – have, if anything, become even more rigidly authoritarian. But it’s also true that the fight is not over.


The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs has given rise to all sorts of leftist speculations about whether the court might next go after gay marriage, contraception, even inter-racial marriage (though Clarence Thomas, the Devil to progressives, is himself married to a white woman). Much of that speculation is meant to stoke fears about the reversal of many things courts gave progressives that could not have been achieved via the democratic process. But the common fear behind all the particular worries is that the state no longer has jurisdiction over contended moral matters that the American Left has tried to couch in neutral terms: e.g., “reproductive healthcare,” “marriage equality,” “gender identity.”

To take a recent example, the Biden Administration tried to strongarm – let’s speak truth – some Christian schools that won’t accept LGBT+ mandates of the Federal government by withholding school lunch funding [2]. Just yesterday they realized it was a bad idea, perhaps because they feared  what the courts might have to say about such moves, especially if it reaches the Supremes, who have a track record of accommodating religious schools and other institutions in such matters. In the meantime, public and non-religious private schools will be compelled to accept the mandates.

The large question here is whether the Constitution allows the Federal government to insert itself into various civil society institutions. Just as the Constitution says nothing about abortion, it says nothing about LGBT+. Its enumerated powers give the government no jurisdiction over the really crucial ethos-forming bodies in education, medicine, or culture – where moral and religious principles are very much in play.

For the past century, the government has awarded itself all sorts of powers via ruses like the Interstate Commerce Clause, which has led to the creation – and lavish funding – of all sorts of extra-Constitutional departments and agencies, which accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s: Health and Human Services (1953), Housing and Urban Development (1965), Transportation (1966), Energy (1977), Education (1979), Veterans’ Affairs (1989), and Homeland Security (2002). And this doesn’t even count dozens of new federal “agencies.”

Many people – including bishops and lay Catholics – have accepted all this as some sort of realization of “solidarity.” But the results tell a different story.

Talk about “the Swamp” is common these days. All this is not, however, some mass of vegetable matter bubbling under murky waters. It operates very much in the open and forms the very architectural pattern of Washington D.C. today.

There is no salvation in politics, but there is better and worse in mundane human terms. As Aquinas says in his definition of the first principle of the natural law that: “good [3] is to be done and pursued, and evil [4] is to be avoided.” (ST Ia IIae 94:2)

Now that the Supreme Court has opened up various questions for debate, it’s good to remember that there’s always the need to repel whatever evils may be rising – and something always is rising, given fallen humanity – and the even greater need not only to do good, but to go further and “pursue” the good.

That’s the principal task of all our civil society institutions today, which can only be carried out if we recognize their inestimable value and tirelessly defend them. And the Church, not only in places like Nicaragua but everywhere dictatorial state threats appear, should be a leader in that vital work.


*Image: The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas [5] (aka, Aquinas in Ecstasy) by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1598 [Museum of Fine Arts Seville, Seville, Spain]. Saint Thomas, lifted in glory, is surrounded by fathers of the Church: Saint Gregory, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, and Saint Augustine.

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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.