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The Catholic Church of the early twenty-first century is constantly being told that it must reform, both by those outside the household of faith and by many inside that ample house. In a sense, of course, that is always true, but the ongoing disagreements over Catholic reform between “progressive” and “conservative” Catholics—to use the conventional media markers—are disagreements on the surface of contemporary Catholic life. For the truth of the matter is that the deep reform of the Catholic Church has been underway since 1878. Then, Pope Leo XIII began a process of engaging modernity—including modern economic, social, and political life—through distinctive Catholic methods and with a distinctively evangelical goal: the more effective proclamation of the gospel.

These deeper currents of Catholic reform ran through the mid-twentieth-century Catholic intellectual renaissance in biblical, historical, liturgical, philosophical, and theological studies and in pastoral practice: a renaissance that eventually led to the Second Vatican Council. That Council has now been given an authoritative interpretation by two men of genius, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger played significant roles at Vatican II, and as bishop of Rome both men have driven the public witness of the Catholic Church into the hard soil of political reality with considerable effect.

John Paul II singularly embodied Catholic social doctrine’s capacity to bend history in a more humane direction through his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism—which, among many other things, put an end to the greatest persecution of the Church in two millennia. John Paul also pointed the social doctrine firmly into the twenty-first century in his great 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. There he brilliantly analyzed the dynamics of the threefold free and virtuous society composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture, while reminding our liberal age that the moral health of a culture is the key to living freedom nobly.

Benedict XVI has received less publicity for his contributions to the Church’s public witness, but they have been substantial nonetheless. The discussion of “human ecology” in his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, brought the line of development that runs from Vatican II through the social magisterium of John Paul II to a sharp point of refinement, firmly cementing the life issues into the thinking of the Catholic Church as social justice issues and making clear that there are not and cannot be “social justice Catholics” here and “life issues Catholics” there. Moreover, this discussion underscores, even as it develops, the teaching of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus on the moral truths that must be embedded in individuals, business enterprises, and law if the free economy is to function properly—a teaching whose empirical relevance has been demonstrated along a pothole-strewn via negativa during the world economic and financial crisis of the past three years.

Further, Benedict has repeatedly pointed out the threats to religious freedom that are now painfully apparent in democratic societies as well as Islamist and communist states, reminding the world that efforts to restrict religious freedom to the private practice of religion threaten the entire structure of human rights. Throughout his apostolic pilgrimages in the Western world, he has also taught, with patience but also urgency, that nihilism, skepticism, and moral relativism erode the foundations of the democratic project.

Despite these achievements, however, much of the Church’s public policy advocacy—from the Holy See’s commentary on world politics through the activities of national bishops’ conferences and their state or regional counterparts—is stuck in an older paradigm, drawn from the days when the Church was a political actor in the old-fashioned sense: a player among players in a political power game. It may seem a stretch to link the diplomacy of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, who sought to restore the Papal States during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, to the congressional and legislative lobbying of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and of state Catholic conferences across the country, but the link can be made.

And that link must be broken, so that a new paradigm of the Church’s public policy engagement can take hold: an approach to the social witness of the Church that is more faithful to recent development in Catholic social doctrine, more congruent with the basic evangelical mission of the Church, more in harmony with the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the vocation of the laity in the world, and more attuned to the new realities of public life in Western democracies.

The new approach must begin with the affirmation that life is fundamental. In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae , John Paul II analyzed the effects of legalized abortion and euthanasia on democracies, teaching in perhaps the strongest language of his papal magisterium that democracies that erect clear moral wrongs into “rights” risk becoming “tyrant states.” In the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate , Benedict XVI extended this analysis by teaching that measuring human persons in terms of their utility rather than their dignity damages the “human ecology” necessary to sustain decent, self-governing societies under the rule of law and shreds the moral fabric of society.

Today, therefore, there should be no question that the life issues are not only genuine social-justice issues; they are the priority social-justice issues. The defense of life expresses both the evangelical bedrock of the Church’s social doctrine and engages the most fundamental issue being contested in the Western world today, the dignity of the human person. The bishops of the United States recognized this in their 1998 national pastoral letter, The Gospel of Life, which replaced the paradigm of the “consistent ethic of life” with the metaphor of “the foundations of the house of freedom.” Every house needs a firm foundation, the gospel teaches; thus the bishops have taught for more than a decade that the American house of freedom must be built on the firm foundation of a respect for life embodied in both culture and law.

Catholic public policy advocacy must therefore recognize and proclaim that defending the right to life from conception to natural death is the civil rights issue today. Catholic pro-life activists are the heirs of the Freedom Riders whose fiftieth anniversary America celebrates in 2011, the heirs of those who marched on Washington in August 1963 to claim equality before the law as the American dream, and the heirs of those who walked across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to claim for all Americans their voting rights as citizens. A genuinely reformed Catholic public advocacy will make this clear, insisting, like the civil rights movement, that the defense of the right to life is rooted in the first principles of justice, principles that can be known by reason and that form the basis of American democracy. Anyone—and especially Catholic politicians when they make this spurious claim—who says that Catholic advocacy of the sanctity of life imposes a sectarian view on a pluralistic society should be told politely, firmly, publicly, and relentlessly that they are ignorant, malicious, or both.

Clarity about the sanctity of life must be linked to an equal clarity about the totalitarian temptation that besets democracies detached from moral truth. While it is tempting to think that totalitarianism is something that happens to others, the temptation toward totalitarian control seems to be built into modern politics. Initially displayed in the first of the modern utopian political revolutions, the French Revolution, it emerged as a defining tendency in twentieth-century public life.

Various political monsters followed in the wake of Robespierre: Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky, and Stalin; Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich; Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pot; Ceau?escu, Honecker, and Hoxha. German National Socialism defended its brutalities and its vision of the human future by crackpot racial theories; Marxism-Leninism did so by crackpot economic and historical theories. These wicked systems and their offspring were determined to remake the human condition by remaking human nature as theory required and to use the coercive power of the state to effect that remanufacture.

We fool ourselves if we imagine that the democracies of the West are immune to the totalitarian temptation to remake human nature by coercive state power. Attacks on biblical morality and moral reason are now a regular feature of the European Parliament and other bodies of the European Union. The Star Chambers known in Canada as “human rights commissions” or “human rights tribunals” have imposed monetary penalties on evangelical Protestant pastors who dare teach publicly the biblical understanding of marriage. The same desire to stamp out the influence of Christianity—always for the sake of new “rights” that require the suppression of old truths—is evident in the United States in the debate over the state and marriage.

What is at stake here is nothing less than the future of democracy: limited constitutional governance, based on the truth that the state is at the service of civil society. The current attempt to define marriage as something it manifestly is not, and cannot be, reflects an attempt to remake a natural, prepolitical institution by means of law and to enforce that remanufacture by coercive state power. The entire exercise does grave damage to the civil society that the state is intended to serve, for if the state can redefine marriage and enforce that redefinition, it can redefine the relationships of doctor and patient, lawyer and client, parent and child, confessor and penitent, and virtually every other relationship natural to civil society. If the state attempts to do this—and in many places in America today it is—it is indulging and enforcing what Pope Benedict XVI has aptly termed on several occasions the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Catholic public policy advocacy must name this soft totalitarianism for what it is. And Catholic public officials who cannot be persuaded to recognize this soft totalitarianism for what it is should be informed by their bishops that they are in a defective state of communion with the Catholic Church. When politicians turn their backs on the Church’s social teaching, they must be made to understand that there are costs involved.

The bishops who do their evangelical duty in confronting this soft totalitarianism and its Catholic fellow travelers must be given the full and unstinting support of those who work in their name in the field of public policy. That support is deficient when, licking their wounds after defeat on basic questions of moral truth, Catholic public policy agencies assert that there are other issues on which they can work happily with politicians who have succumbed to the totalitarian temptation. When the Church’s witness and advocacy fail on core issues, those failures are not compensated for by modest victories on other fronts.

Achieving this clarity about the Church’s witness in the public square will require a new and disciplined focus. The Church’s “contribution to the political order is,” Blessed John Paul II taught in Centesimus Annus , “her vision of the dignity of the person, revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word.” Because of the distinctive nature of what the Church brings to the public square, the Church has no economic or political “models to present” but offers her social doctrine as “an indispensable and ideal orientation.” In two earlier encyclicals, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Redemptoris Missio , John Paul similarly taught that the Church has no “technical solutions” to offer in the field of public policy.

This modesty about the public-policy competence of the Church as Church reflects her basic doctrinal convictions about her nature. It also flows from an appreciation of what the Church uniquely knows about public life and what the Church uniquely brings to the public-policy process.

As to what the Church knows in our American context by virtue of her work among the poor and vulnerable and her intimate knowledge of the social realities of contemporary America (a knowledge that is arguably deeper and more extensive than in any other institution in America), the Catholic Church knows, in a distinctive way, what is working, and what isn’t, in our culture, our economy, our society, and our polity. Because of this grassroots-based knowledge, the Church is well qualified to ring the alarm bell, to identify what is wrong and what must be fixed, and to challenge the consciences of both citizens and public officials to address real problems. That, for example, is how the Church helped shape the American civil rights revolution in its classic period.

The Church does not, however, have the competence as Church to offer technical solutions to those who have taken responsibility for the common good. What the Church does bring to the process of formulating public policy is a clear understanding of the “first things” of public life in a free and virtuous society. These first things are mediated through the four core principles of Catholic social doctrine: personalism, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. This is what Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI mean when they teach that the Church’s social doctrine offers a principled framework for thinking through the challenges facing society.

This sense of the limits of the Church’s competence in advocating specific policies has not been fully embraced by various continental, national, or state episcopal conferences and their public-policy agencies. As these bodies have evolved since the Second Vatican Council, they have tended to function on the model of other all-purpose public policy lobbies—what one observer has aptly styled “pro-life PIRGs.” This must change.

The self-imposed discipline in the magisterium’s teaching that it is not within the Church’s competence as Church to get down into the weeds of technical public-policy questions does not reflect reticence or a lack of passion about the problems of society. Rather, it embodies a clear understanding of what the Church is and of what the limits of the social doctrine of the Church are. It also reflects, far more than does the PIRG model, both the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the vocation of the laity in the world and recent papal teaching on the New Evangelization.

The Second Vatican Council, John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio , and the late pope’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici all teach unambiguously that the laity have the primary responsibility to bring the gospel and the social doctrine of the Church into the culture, the economy, and the political community. The bishops and, by extension, those who work in their name are to speak on issues of first principles. Their address to the public square is intended primarily to shape the contours of the public-policy debate, bringing the leaven of moral reason and the insights of Catholic social teaching’s four core principles into what might otherwise be merely arguments from utility.

Properly catechized, formed, and informed lay men and women—serious Catholics who are serious citizens—are the Church’s principal agents in the legislative process. Those lay Catholics who work in state Catholic conferences and in the public policy offices of the USCCB are not “the laity” at work in “the world” as envisioned by Vatican II and the authentic papal interpretation of the Council. They are, rather, agents of the Church’s chief pastors, and the restraints the social doctrine imposes on the pastors apply to their public-policy agencies and those agencies’ staffs as well. Catholic public policy agencies are not acting in accord with the settled self-understanding of the Church when they become simulacra or imitations of other all-purpose political lobbies and thus assume (or even usurp) the role the Council envisioned for the laity.

The postconciliar tendency of Catholic public policy agencies to take a position on almost everything also distorts the social doctrine of the Church. The Church does not have plenary competence in the public sphere. She cannot state that the American presidential-congressional system is preferable to the Westminster parliamentary system, or that a bicameral legislature is superior to a unicameral legislature. The Church has no competence to declare that legislative action should or should not be subject to judicial review, or that there are “implied powers” in any executive office, or where the prime rate should be set, or on which side of the road driving should occur.

The Church does have the competence to teach that taxation is just, for to pay taxes is a matter of exercising one’s responsibility to the common good. The Church has no competence to suggest that its social doctrine contains clear instructions on what constitute just rates of taxation, and it demeans its social witness (and misapplies its own social doctrine) when it does so through agencies of its pastors.

The Church has the right and the duty to teach that a just society makes provision for the elderly, the sick, and the severely handicapped who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot care for themselves. The Church has no competence to pronounce on whether that societal obligation is best met by state-mandated and tax-funded programs, by private- and independent-sector programs, or by some mix of the two.

To suggest otherwise not only overestimates the Church’s competence; it also tends to obscure her priorities. When the Church’s chief pastors or their public policy agencies intervene in the public policy-process on a vast array of matters that do not, except in the remotest sense, touch on questions of first principles or on areas of the Church’s special competence, they inevitably suggest that all issues are equal in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This lack of discipline dissipates energies that could be better applied in a more focused way.

It also overestimates the Church’s political throw-weight in the public policy arena. The Catholic Church simply does not have the same political heft across the spectrum of public policy questions, and it is both self-deluding and politically counterproductive for Catholic bishops and their agencies to think that it does and act as if it does. The Church most effectively speaks truth to power in the public policy process when it defends and promotes the dignity of the human person, religious freedom, and the integrity of civil society. It dissipates that effectiveness when it speaks definitively on other subjects.

In public policy advocacy, less can be more and leaner can be meaner, as any number of effective efforts to change hearts, minds, and laws demonstrate. Less-is-more will strengthen the pastors’ credibility as teachers, and it will give the Church a fighting chance to have the moral framework proposed by Catholic social doctrine received by Catholics, by the general public, and by public officials.

No doubt we all have our work cut out for us. Even on questions of first principles, the Church’s public advocacy has been weakened by the secularist tide throughout Western society, by two generations of ineffective catechesis that have produced many Catholic politicians and voters who are baptized pagans, and by the scandals of the past decade. It is folly and delusion to imagine that the Church’s pastors have, in real political terms, the authority they enjoyed in the past (however well or poorly they deployed that authority). The same holds true, by extension, for those who represent the bishops in national and state legislatures. Everyone knows this. State Catholic conference officials see this every day, as do at least some USCCB officials. The question—to borrow a phrase from a most unlikely source, Lenin—is “What is to be done?”

What is to be done is to effect a shift, both in perspective and in action, that is demanded by political reality and mandated by the Church’s teaching that the social doctrine is an integral part of the New Evangelization. The shift required is from conventional advocacy on a host of issues to a focused approach on priority issues expressive of Catholic teaching on the “first things” of public life.

If the authority the Church and its pastors once enjoyed is no longer available, and if the Church does not have the financial resources that many advocacy lobbies have, then the conventional lobbying model makes less and less sense. Unless public officials are already formed by or at least in sympathy with the Church’s teaching on the life issues and marriage—to take two crucial sets of questions—they are unlikely to listen to the bishops or their public policy advocates, because they have concluded that there is no point to listening and no cost to not listening. Furthermore, the ambient culture is instructing them not to listen and is threatening retribution if they do listen.

If the gospel truths and the moral reason that are the Church’s patrimony are to be brought to bear on questions of first principles in Congress and in state legislatures, both the USCCB and the state Catholic conferences must restrategize their work and redeploy their resources. If the only things that many public officials understand are money and power, the bishops conference and the state Catholic conferences—as well as individual bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and lay catechists—must focus intensified energy on educating the Catholic people so that the people of the Church, when first principles are at stake, are capable of bringing real pressure to bear on their representatives: political pressure and financial pressure. State Catholic conferences must also develop more sophisticated means of communicating the local bishops’ concerns to the Catholic people of a state, allowing them to explain why these concerns are the Church’s priority concerns and how they touch questions of first principles. This gives the Church the mechanism to bring those concerns directly to legislators who need Catholic citizens’ votes in order to remain in office.

This new paradigm for the Church’s engagement in public policy thus places much more emphasis than has been customary on developing a political ground game, which is the only way, in our current situation, to make Catholic efforts to bring moral first principles to bear on public life in an effective way. In twenty-first-century American politics, light often follows heat. And since the Church cannot (and arguably should not) buy influence the ways others do, the only way to build a political ground game and generate the needed heat on politicians in need of enlightenment is through the education of Catholic citizens: from the pulpit, through the Catholic press, and through the virtually unlimited possibilities of the Internet and social media. To adopt a very mixed set of metaphors, education builds muscle, and muscle persuades.

That muscle is badly needed. It is needed to prevent further encroachments from the culture of death and, beyond that, to build an America in which every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. It is needed to build an America in which the elderly and the severely handicapped are regarded as men and women of immeasurable dignity and value, not “problems” to be “solved” with technological fixes. That muscle is needed to build an America that is both hospitable to the stranger and committed to the rule of law; an America that lives within its means; an America that does not burden future generations and imperil its strategic future with unredeemable public debts; an America in which the public and private sectors work together, as Catholic social doctrine suggests they ought, to provide quality education, health care, and a secure old age.

Political muscle is also needed to defend religious freedom domestically. The pressures on Catholic institutions to conform to the canons of the culture of death will continue to intensify until the concrete political effect of the Catholic ground game matches the force of the Church’s convictions about the culture of life. And given what has already happened in the debates over the life issues and marriage, no one should doubt that a season of persecution could be at hand. Its first chilly winds are already being felt when the truths the Church bears are described with impunity in the mainstream media as examples of irrational bigotry; when Catholic health-care professionals fear for their licenses to practice the arts of healing with a clear conscience; when the bishops who have the courage to speak truth to the power of political correctness are lampooned; when local tax authorities are used by legislative bodies to bring pressure on the Church; when campaign finance laws are structured in such a way as to muzzle voices of religiously informed conscience; when the Church is driven out of the work of foster care and adoption placement.

The Catholic Church in the United States is not, yet, in as perilous a situation as its brethren in Canada or Europe: No American pastor has been fined for preaching the biblical truth about human love, and no American Catholic magazine editor has been fined for editorializing about the truth of the abortion license. But as a matter of good defense as well as good offense, a radical change in the work of the Church’s public policy agencies is imperative.

This deep reform depends, ultimately, on the Church’s bishops. Over the past half decade, the bishops of the United States have been steadily developing a new approach to their individual and collective work, one that emphasizes the integrity of Catholic identity as an essential feature of the New Evangelization. This stress on the imperative of clear Catholic identity is not a matter of winning an argument or of asserting power; it is a matter of giving effect to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the priority of evangelization. Vatican II was the moment at which the Leonine reform begun in the last decades of the nineteenth century came to fruition, the moment at which Counter-Reformation Catholicism began to pass from the scene and Evangelical Catholicism, intensely focused on the Lord’s Great Commission to the apostles, came on stage in the leading role.

The transition from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to Evangelical Catholicism has been neither smooth nor easy. It has required rethinking old paradigms of ecclesiastical life. It now requires rethinking the nature of the Church’s engagement with public policy. Above all, that transition has challenged the entire Church, including the lay members of the Church, to take with utmost seriousness the application of the Council’s vision by John Paul II in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, where the Pope taught that the Church does not have a mission, the Church is a mission.

The Church exists for the proclamation of the gospel; that mission measures everything and everyone in the Church. Or, as John Paul II put it in Novo Millennio Ineunte, his apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Church must leave the shallows of institutional maintenance and put out “into the deep.” The New Evangelization requires a Church sure of its identity and confident of the truths it bears, which include the truths of its social doctrine. So there cannot be “identity Catholics” here and “social justice Catholics” there.

If, as the papal magisterium has taught for three decades now, the social doctrine is an integral part of the New Evangelization, then there is only one Catholicism, in which clarity of Catholic identity and practice serves both the proclamation of the gospel and the Church’s work for justice. Given the dynamics of deep Catholic reform that have led to the New Evangelization, and considering twenty-first-century political reality, a reform of the Catholic Church’s encounter with the American public square is essential, both in fulfilling the Great Commission and in doing the works of justice.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. This essay is adapted from his July 2011 address to the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors.