A Deathbed Reflection on Catholic Social Teaching & Our Future Prospects
There isn't much to see on Interstate 35 on the long drive from Wichita, Kansas, through Oklahoma and on down to Austin, Texas. Once I passed the tollbooth on the outskirts of Wichita, there were only miles of flat prairie, mostly fields plowed up for the spring planting. I had plenty of time to think about what I had been doing, and what I had been reading.
Seven days earlier, I had flown to Wichita to help my wife take care of her dying sister Phyllis. By many measures of the world, Phyllis had led a fortunate life. Her husband had a well-paying job that enabled them to live in a large, comfortably furnished house and send their son to an exclusive private school. But she had known misfortune as well. After she had borne two daughters, her first marriage ended in divorce. Phyllis's first husband was the kind of Christian who gives Christianity a bad name. When she divorced him, she also divorced organized religion of any kind and never looked back.
One of her daughters was now estranged from her mother. The other daughter led a life so troubled that Phyllis and her second husband became guardians of their first grandchild a month after he was born, and later adopted him. (He was the boy who was attending private school.) A few years ago, when she was in her late forties, Phyllis was diagnosed with a precancerous blood disease, and she underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Complications from that transplant plagued her ever since. And in January 2015, she was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer, which had already spread by the time of diagnosis. After months in and out of hospitals, Phyllis was finally at home for the last time, in hospice care, lying in a hospital bed set up in the living room.
During that week, the three of us—Phyllis's husband, my wife, and I—took turns sitting up with her. On Thursday, I drew the night shift. My wife said goodnight at about eleven. After she left the living room, all I had to do was listen to the sound of the compressor connected to the air mattress under Phyllis's failing body, and press the button on her pain pump every half-hour or so, whenever it permitted more pain medication to be administered through her IV.
Pope Leo's Diagnosis
Just before coming to Wichita, I received a book I'd ordered: Anthony Esolen's Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defense of the Church's True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State (Sophia Institute Press, 2014). Esolen is a Catholic professor of English who has a clear vision of the kind of spiritually healthy life that once prevailed in the United States, and of how society might recover from what appears to be a spiritual illness of several decades' duration. I ordered the book not knowing quite what to expect.
The book is a recapitulation of the writings and speeches of Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903), who is regarded by many as the founder of modern Catholic social thought. My limited impressions of Catholic social thought before reading the book agreed with the view of the author Robert Royal, who in 2012 wrote that while it is more than simply an activist, leftist political position, it often amounts to little more than that in practice.
But what Esolen depicts in his book amounts to a lot more than politics, although politics is involved. He envisions a vibrantly healthy body politic, one in which every major institution is guided by natural-law principles and all the various activities of the organs that make up a society are coordinated in accord with such principles. Esolen shows that issues of work and labor justice are only a small part of the comprehensive vision enunciated by Leo XIII; his vision also encompassed marriage, the family, and the proper role of the state in society. Most of the features of this vision are things that a Protestant of mixed background, like myself, would favor: a shrinking of the role of government in the spheres of family life, education, and commerce, and an expansion of the role of private associations and organizations in these spheres. I read the book when I wasn't sitting with Phyllis, and an analogy began to take shape in my mind.
My stay in Wichita wasn't my first experience of watching as someone lay dying. I had also been present at the deaths of my mother, one of my grandmothers, and my father-in-law. In a complex organism like the human body, health and life—and the contrasting conditions of sickness and death—are mysterious things. If you limit your view to a single body part or organ, the approach of death may not be evident until just before it occurs. Right up to the moment of death, most of the human body is still functioning more or less normally, and different parts die at different rates even after the entire person can legally be declared dead. The same is true of most illnesses—they rarely affect the entire body equally. Yet an illness that attacks only one vital organ can nevertheless threaten the entire body.
Esolen makes clear that, back in the nineteenth century, Leo XIII saw the early signs of a cultural illness that, if allowed to spread, would cause tremendous damage to Western society. Leo's primary concern at the time was with Europe, but since his time, the illness has spread beyond Europe to the United States.
Leo was a doctor whose diagnosis was not welcomed by the patient. His critiques of modernist trends in thought and his prescriptions involving Thomistic scholasticism were shrugged off by the increasingly secular societies of Europe. And today in the United States, Catholic social thought has relatively little influence outside the confines of Catholic institutions and organizations.
What was the essence of the pope's diagnosis? It was that secular societies and their governments have rejected the truth about humanity: the fact that people are made in the image of God and cannot find their true purposes outside of him. A society that rejects this truth may coast along for decades, or even centuries, just as a sick person can live with his disease for a long time. But everyone who has suffered a chronic illness knows the difference between sickness and health, and how much better it is to be healthy.
As I read Esolen, another voice rose in my memory: that of the late philosopher Dallas Willard, who devoted one of his last books, Knowing Christ Today, to contemplating how secular institutions have redefined knowledge in such a way as to eliminate religious knowledge in general, and knowledge of Christ in particular, from consideration and propagation.
Historically, education was designed to prepare young people for life—for all of life, not just a specialized position as a cog in a post-industrial society for a few years. But, writes Willard, "the accepted institutions of knowledge today have nothing to say—and certainly no knowledge to offer—with reference to the primary questions of life." Questions about purpose and meaning are simply too broad to fit into the multitude of specializations that constitute the academic world today.
Indulging a Fantasy
The light on the pain pump came on. By the dim nightlight, I looked at Phyllis's features. She was beyond talking, so the only way I could tell whether she was in pain was by the expression on her face. Her brows were furrowed and her mouth slightly open. It was time for another dose from the pain pump. I pressed the button, and almost imperceptibly, the expression on her face eased slightly. It was all I could do. Then I sat down and tried to keep from falling asleep. Finally, the digital clock on the table read 6:30 a.m. That was when my wife said I could wake her up. My shift was over, and Phyllis had survived another day.
I was able to be in Kansas that week in March only because it was my university's spring break. I had to drive back to Texas at the end of the week to get ready for the following week's classes. So on Saturday morning, well before dawn, I loaded up my car, said good-bye to my wife, took a last glance at Phyllis, and drove away into the darkness.
Dawn was breaking around the time I stopped at the tollbooth. My thoughts turned back to Esolen's book. How much longer did we in the United States have before the illness killed the patient? And could we do anything to reverse the progress of the disease?
At the very end of his book, Esolen indulges in a brief imaginative story of what life would be like if our nation's institutions once more admitted that God is really there, and that obeying him is better than going our own way—for individuals, for families, for communities, and for the whole nation. It's a brief, simple scene that he presents, with sights like these: "I see a baseball club, a shooting club, weekly card tournaments at the Knights of Columbus. . . . I see ordinary human life, if wise and restrained laws, and wiser and self-restraining virtues, give it room to flourish." But Esolen refrains from proposing any detailed plans about how we could get from where we are today to some semblance of a truly just society under God.
So driving through the barren cornfields that day, I began to indulge in a little fantasy of my own. The first thing I saw was that God would have to be behind the fantasy if it were to have any chance of coming to pass. But assuming that to be the case, I went ahead with it.
The first thing that came to my mind was tithing. Wouldn't it be nice if tithing—defined as giving away ten percent of one's disposable income—became as popular as, say, not smoking? What if people felt as guilty about not tithing as they seem to feel about sneaking outside more than twenty feet away from the nearest building entrance to have a puff?
Sure, it sounds silly. But what sounds silly at any given time is a culturally determined thing. Imagine traveling back to 1955 and trying to convince any adult of that era that, by century's end, all the cigarette ads will have disappeared and smoking will have changed from being a normal and popular social activity to one so stigmatized as to be virtually equivalent to spitting in public. True, a lot of solid scientific evidence was available even back in the fifties showing that smoking was bad for you, and that second-hand smoke was harmful as well. But there is plenty of evidence today that shows that people who train themselves to be generous benefit both themselves and their society. Maybe tithing just needs some good publicity to become popular.
If more people gave money to private organizations voluntarily, a lot of the organizations benefitting from such generosity would be churches and religious groups. And if such groups had more money to spend on the good works they do, they not only could compete with intrusive state bureaucracies—which threaten to take over every aspect of our lives—but they could win, too.
Pictures of Private Programs
Take the example of prison reform and recidivism. After former Nixon aide Charles Colson served time in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up, he founded Prison Fellowship, an organization devoted to bringing Christian hope to prison inmates. In the 1990s, Prison Fellowship developed an experimental "saturation" faith-based prison program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), and implemented it at a prison in Richardson, Texas. Afterwards, an independent study of recidivism rates was done for both those who completed the three-phase IFI program and another group of inmates with similar backgrounds, but who did not participate in the program. The results showed a marked difference between the two groups: For those in the non-IFI group, the rate of subsequent incarceration within a two-year period after release was 50 percent—about half of them ended up in jail again. But for the IFI graduates (those who not only attended the program, but completed it), the re-incarceration rate was only about 8 percent.
Such results would encourage anybody who is not dead-set against religious-based activities to support the IFI approach over the standard government-sponsored approaches to recidivism. One thing that likely contributed to IFI's success is the fact that it was a small, local effort, unencumbered by bureaucracy. This illustrates a principle of Catholic social thought called subsidiarity. Subsidiarity embodies the idea that charity begins at home, or as close to home as possible. The aim is to keep the path from caregiver to recipient as short and direct as possible. Not all efforts will succeed as well as IFI did, but the principle of subsidiarity is a sound one.
Take another example: the case of homeless people. What would it take to organize a flexible, portable program that churches and synagogues—and yes, even mosques—could participate in to tackle homelessness in their community? In Houston, Texas, a nonprofit called Coalition for the Homeless has single-mindedly focused on the problem of homelessness since 1982. Leveraging a variety of private and government community resources, they have coordinated and monitored efforts to reduce homelessness in Houston and have seen steady progress in recent years. Their yearly counts show that the number of homeless people in Houston has fallen from about 8,500 in 2011 to 4,500 in 2015. The community has given special attention to homeless veterans, with the result that all but about 200 of the 563 homeless veterans they could find in 2015 were either in transitional housing or about to move into such housing. Similar efforts in cities such as New Orleans, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City have succeeded in finding places to live for virtually all of their homeless veterans. This shows that locally managed efforts augmented by government support can make a real difference.
Yes, there are already programs to alleviate homelessness and nearly every other type of social pathology you can think of—crime, poverty, unemployment, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, and so on. Many, if not most, of these programs are run by government agencies, and heretofore, the focus of much conservative effort on these problems has been to reduce the government's share of them. But the focus in my fantasy is on leaving the government alone and concentrating on implementing private and locally operated programs that compete with it so well that those in need will voluntarily choose a private option over the government one.
Education & Philosophy
As I neared Tonkawa, Oklahoma, my thoughts turned to education. If the illness infecting the body politic has a focal point, that point is probably higher education. Dallas Willard thinks that the main reason Christian teaching is not considered knowledge is that "the universities . . . have rejected (as knowledge) the answers from the Christian past." At the same time, he continues, they
have been unable to develop cognitively defensible answers of their own. This is very largely because, in their effort to be in control of knowledge, they have redefined knowledge, through "specialization" and "professionalization," in such a way that it cannot deal with these questions. [emphasis mine]
There is an old saying, "Nature abhors a vacuum." While physics has shown this saying to be false in a general sense, it still has its uses in the realm of human knowledge. Whether or not students learn the meaning of life in their classes, they must deal practically with each day as it comes along. The result of removing the theological and philosophical foundations of Christianity from institutions of higher education is that an individual's choice becomes sovereign on a personal level, even if that individual later comes to hold great power over others. The vacuum left by the removal of religious authority has been filled by the ever-expanding power of administrative agencies and the courts, to the extent that the U.S. Supreme Court now exercises indirect but real control over wide arenas of life.
Nearly all U.S. law schools have long since abandoned any pretense of believing that the law has anything to do with God—or indeed, anything higher than man. In practice, this means there is no law higher than that decreed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This purging of the transcendent has occurred in most other disciplines as well, but the legal profession is the only one whose rules govern everybody else. So the secularization of the law has had far-reaching effects that make it difficult for anything like a society in keeping with Catholic social thought from coming about except in small, isolated cases. And so it will be until most members of the legal profession once again acknowledge that law ultimately comes from God, and not man.
For that to happen, a fundamental reorientation must take place in the legal profession, starting with its educational institutions. While the situation at present looks pretty hopeless, there is a promising precedent in the case of a related discipline: philosophy.
Philosophy was the seedbed of the secular trend that eventually came to dominate the academy; thus, it is not surprising that the typical U.S. philosophy department in the mid-twentieth century had virtually no Christians—or if it did, the Christians kept their faith private and rarely allowed it to influence their professional philosophical work. But in 1978, the Society of Christian Philosophers was founded, and by 2002 it was the largest single special-interest group in the American Philosophical Association, comprising some 12 percent of the APA's members.
The trend of increasing recognition of religious perspectives in departments of philosophy is encouraging, but we should not forget that it can take several generations for an idea to move from being promoted by a few individuals to becoming popular among many and influencing political action. Still, the increased interest in religious matters in schools of philosophy may be the first sign of a trend that will spread to larger numbers of people and to other disciplines, including the law.
The presence of a few vigorous Christian universities that concentrate on producing graduates who can compete with the best products of secular schools is also encouraging. Places such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), Hillsdale College (Michigan), Regent University (Virginia), and Grove City College (Pennsylvania) produce graduates who have benefited from the presentation of a coherent worldview embraced by their institutions, and some of these graduates are prepared to rise to positions of responsibility in powerful professions such as law and business.
The situation we are in today resembles that of the Middle Ages, when much of the heritage of ancient wisdom and knowledge was preserved in a few monasteries in Europe, where monks transcribed and passed on the knowledge from which Christendom grew. Now it is Christendom itself that is preserved in a few relatively powerless and isolated institutions. But preservation is the first step toward propagation. It may take a century or more for institutions that acknowledge Christianity as a valid form of knowledge to regain influence. But God is patient, and those who are faithful to preserve the truths of Christianity will someday see their faith rewarded—if not in this life, then in the world to come.
Close to noon, I reached the northern outskirts of Oklahoma City. As in most cities, its tallest buildings were built by businesses—an international oil-and-gas firm built the tallest building in town in 2009, the 50-story Devon Energy Center. Cities have always had large, central public structures that stand in marked contrast to private homes. But until a couple of centuries ago, the tallest buildings were sacred or religious structures, not buildings devoted to commerce.
Esolen makes no detailed economic recommendations in Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching. Instead, he states a simple principle: The economy should serve the family, not the other way around. This is not the case today. But what would it be like if it were?
As I drove on, I found it hard to imagine a state of affairs in which a typical CEO of a large corporation might say, "I think we're big enough, and I have a large enough salary. Let's keep things going at about the size we have now, but keep getting better at what we do and make this a better place to work." For this sort of attitude to be the norm, and not a headline-grabbing exception, many things would have to change. The way potential CEOs were trained would have to change—education again. The expectations of shareholders and shareholding institutions would have to change. There are some encouraging signs of this already in the establishment of "responsible" mutual funds that invest only in firms whose activities are consistent with the beliefs of the investors. And the way the United States dealt with the rest of the world economically would have to change too, in unpredictable ways.
If my fantasy were ever to come to pass, the reordering of economic life in this nation would probably be one of the last changes to occur, because attitudes toward wealth and business are deeply rooted, and those with the power to resist changes that threaten the economic status quo have the ear of governments at every level.
The Example of Poland
But as recently as forty years ago, we saw a nation throw off an oppressive economic yoke when Poland overcame the Communist regime. What seemed inconceivable as late as 1985 came to pass less than a decade later, largely due to the inspiration of Pope John Paul II.
Some trace the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain to John Paul's famous nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979, his first to his homeland since becoming pope. After witnessing decades of economic and political privation under Communist rule, the pope might have been tempted to use his new pulpit of the papacy to lash out at what was wrong with the current system. But as George Weigel points out, "the pope didn't mention politics or economics once. Rather, John Paul spoke the truth about Poland's history, its culture, and its national self-understanding, saying . . . 'You are not who they say you are. Remember who you really are, own the truth of your history and your culture, and you will find tools of resistance that totalitarianism cannot match.'"
The United States was founded on principles that, for a few decades in the mid-twentieth century, allowed a society to flourish that came close to the ideal envisioned by Catholic social teaching. That period was not perfect—it was marred by racial discrimination, for one thing. But it was also enlightened by its understanding of basic truths about the human person, truths that have been obscured since then by malign cultural and social trends. In many ways, we now live in a society that is sick. Just as in Phyllis's dying body, there are many regions in the body politic where the sickness is not yet evident, but the body is ill nonetheless.
Phyllis died the Monday after I left. She was alert until the last, and as her family gathered around her, she managed to mouth "I love you" before the end came.
Unlike the individual cells in a body, each individual citizen of the United States has a conscience and a will. If we can recall the best of who we are as citizens of the United States under God, and if we teach those coming after us the truths that are self-evident, perhaps—just perhaps—spiritual health can be restored to this nation. God is willing. May our wills and acts align with his. •
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