December 2008 Print

Starting from Zero, Part 3

The first part of this series discussed scientism and liberalism. The second outlined a more adequate view of knowledge that is capable of supporting a better way of life, and argued that the teaching authority of the Church would be at the center of any basic improvement.

But how more specifically can we put things on track? The answer, I believe, is to work from the inside out: convert ourselves, and then the world. Philosophical arguments are good and necessary, but arguments do not save us, and they will not be effective with many people unless they are part of a way of life that works. So beyond fighting the intellectual battles we must, for the sake of others as well as ourselves, pay attention to how we live.

Prayer and Fasting

Each must start with himself. The reconstruction of Catholic order includes things as simple as turning away from what is wrong, trying to live rightly and well, and going to confession and trying again when we fall short. We prepare the way for a social revival by living like Catholics.

Most basically, though, Catholic order depends on God. It cannot be willed into existence, and the practices that make it what it is must reflect its basic nature. In particular, they must include prayer and fasting. Modernity makes our knowledge self-contained and our satisfaction the goal of what we do. Social action becomes social engineering, so that internal conversion becomes irrelevant. Prayer and fasting are a direct denial of such a view and are indispensable to rejection of modernism. We cannot restore our relation to the true and the good or establish a better social order without them. For similar reasons, we cannot do those things without liturgy.

Intellectual Culture

Building a Catholic order requires turning the mind around as well as the spirit. We have traced the problems of modernity to the inadequacies of modern reason. Our current predicament thus has an essential intellectual aspect: how can we dig ourselves out of the conceptual hole into which we have fallen that makes it impossible to deal intelligently with our other problems?

An adequate response would require a whole theory of education, but a few comments that are particularly relevant to our situation may be helpful. I will mainly borrow them from Plato, the first great theorist of education and in many ways an anima naturaliter Christiana.

In the Republic, Plato gives a penetrating discussion of the cave of material appearance and socially-accepted error that he believes holds most men prisoner. To escape from that cave he emphasizes the importance of personal conversion—of standing up and turning away from error—and also of attention to two things that are visibly present in our world but also point to non-physical realities: mathematics and beauty.

Mathematics studies non-material realities that order the world around us. Its central position in modern natural science gives an edge to the Pope’s question at Regensburg: if science can tell us about the world by reducing it to rational order, then the world must be intrinsically rational. But what is the source of that rationality? The place in science of something as purely rational as mathematics is a problem for scientism. Catholic education should highlight both the strengths and the limitations of science. Mathematics is key to both.

The place of beauty in human life is also a problem for scientism, one that is likely to be more relevant to common experience and so easier to make clear to most people. A defect of technological modernity is that it knows nothing of beauty. On the scientistic view, it is just a matter of taste or preference: as the utilitarian moralist Jeremy Bentham noted, from his point of view pushpin (a children’s game) is as good as poetry.

The problem with such a view is that it is not true to the world as we find it. Beauty forces itself on us as something that cannot be reduced to personal taste or preference. Our perception of it depends on personal taste, just as our perception of truth depends on personal intelligence, experience, and good sense, but the presence of a personal element does not make a perception simply subjective.1 The dogma that excludes from reality what is difficult to analyze and impossible to measure cannot deal with our actual experience of the world. Beauty is not an add-on but part of how things are. An adequate view of reason—of reality and how we grasp it—must give it the importance it deserves.

Beauty knits the world together by connecting it to something above physical fact, and it gives us pleasure doing so. It attracts and pleases as well as illuminates and sustains. That is its power. Although it gives pleasure, it is no less at odds with the technological spirit than prayer and fasting. You cannot force beauty. Technique can serve it but cannot create it. You have to wait on it and let it be what it is.

An emphasis on beauty is necessary not only for Catholic education but for Catholic culture generally. It gives us an immediate perception of the presence of something transcendent that is worthy of our love in the world around us. As such, it is an image of the Incarnation. Catholics have more right than anyone to that perception and image. When Catholics lack a sense of beauty their faith can seem less an absorbing way of life that discloses the reality of things than one pursuit or faction among others—a matter of rules and team spirit and not much else. When they have it, and their faith becomes beautiful, it becomes visibly what it is.

Catholic Community

Our efforts cannot be merely individual. Our life as Catholics is essentially social. To be Catholic is to be part of the Church. In addition, our surroundings affect us, and sometimes they do not leave us alone. Little Greek boys used to grow up knowing Homer. I grew up knowing cigarette jingles, because that is what was around me. So in addition to trying to be Catholic ourselves, we have to build Catholic communities pervaded by Catholic understandings and sensibilities.

Liberalism and Community

That creates special problems today. The greatest strength of the current order—a strength that enables it to maintain itself with minimal use of overt force—is its ability to destroy all order other than that established by markets and bureaucracies. It infects and paralyzes its victims before it swallows them. It does so in a variety of ways:


  • The development of the social services state radically undercuts the function of local institutions and networks of mutual assistance.2

  • In particular, the social services state has absorbed or at least thoroughly colonized education and the rearing of children, which are becoming ever more socialized and professionalized.
  • The liberal conception of nondiscrimination and human rights has led to a pervasive regulatory network that makes it all but impossible for institutions of any size to be anything but liberal. To avoid lawsuits, they must all “celebrate diversity.”

  • Multiculturalism, together with “tolerance” and “inclusiveness” as supreme goals, have deprived informal cultural standards of authority and so rendered them nonfunctional.
  • Equality demands reversal of the benefits of informal cultural standards. If they lead to better family life that means success, it is unjust and something must be done about it!
  • In any event, feminism and gay rights have deprived the family of specific purpose and structure. It is no longer an institution but only a name for a variety of purely private arrangements, none of which can be treated as better than any other and none of which has any authority.
  • What the state begins, technology and commerce finish—or vice versa. Electronic entertainment, fast food, and the automobile replace family life. Television and the Internet make every point on earth equally present to every other point and so abolish privacy, particularity, and settled connections. And pop culture and advertising propagandize self-indulgence and consumerism as the highest goods.
  • Under such conditions, Catholics seem to have a choice among sectarianism, individualized religion, or assimilation to something radically anti-Catholic. Of those possibilities, sectarianism seems the least bad. Assimilated or radically individualized Catholicism is nothing much, and something is better than nothing.

    Catholic Communities and the World

    So it seems that in their community life Catholics are likely to have two major tasks in the decades to come. The first is establishing a separate Catholic social order, with its own customs and institutions, within an anti-Catholic and increasingly anti-human public order. Catholics in non-Catholic countries used to live in such an order; they need to do so again, since the attempt to do without one has failed. The second is minimizing the disadvantages of such a separate order, for example intellectual isolation and inability to speak to outsiders.

    On both points, the decline and corruption of what passes for our public order is likely to be very helpful. In liberal theory Catholic institutions and communities should not be allowed to exist at all—they can exist only by discriminating against what is not Catholic, and liberal theory demands that all significant social institutions be inclusive. Nonetheless, a corrupt and inefficient public order with a stated commitment to diversity is likely to leave some scope for their existence.

    The triumph of Christianity came when paganism could no longer support social cohesion or sustain intellectual life, and first the state and then the top thinkers became Christian. The same could happen again. Secular life grows increasingly nonfunctional, and our rulers need society to function at least minimally. That need may motivate some degree of toleration and even cooperation with Catholic institutions. We already see that tendency in connection with Catholic schools. In addition, the siren song of secular intellectual, artistic, and social culture that often distracts Catholics from Catholic life is likely to be increasingly muted in the years to come as liberal culture continues its decline into incoherence.

    Catholicism in a Non-Catholic World

    While Catholic life has to maintain its integrity, it cannot be completely separate. It must be supported by practical efforts to change the orientation of politics and social life generally. Such efforts are our duty as Catholics and as citizens.

    Political action is partly a matter of self-defense. Liberalism is very rational in its way. It has its own logic that it is inclined to pursue without limit, because in the long run it has no place for informal restraints like common sense. That logic can lead to strange and sometime frightening results. There have been proposals, for example, to treat teaching your children Christianity as child abuse.

    Political Involvement

    Political involvement is therefore a necessity. Our political efforts should include


  • An attempt to change the principles on which public life is carried on, at least to the extent of making them less aggressively liberal.
  • Defense of centers of Catholic life, and so of the right of families and religious and community institutions to run their own affairs. The defense of homeschooling would be an example.
  • A defense of whatever traditional order is still present in social life generally. That would include life issues and the defense of marriage.

    A great deal can be said on each of these topics. Each of us has something to add, and none of us knows it all. I will make my own contribution by commenting on a very few points.

    Public Principle

    Of all these goals, the most basic is the first. Liberalism imprisons thought, so if public principles change and become less rigidly liberal, the range of possibilities can broaden immensely.

    To change public principles, the most important single measure is to present an alternative clearly and forcefully. We need to put modernist reason in question. To do that we must clarify our thoughts, keep them clear, and wake others up.

    People who reject religion or assimilate it to liberalism feel entitled to presume reason is on their side. Richard Dawkins and others want to call atheists “brights.” The courts overthrow traditional understandings that are as basic as recognition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman because (they say) there is “no rational basis” for them.

    It may be difficult to convert people who take such positions, but their power depends on the acquiescence of people who are much less committed. We should therefore insist that counterarguments exist, and if our rulers want (as they say they want) their decisions to be based on reason, and if they want them to be accepted, they should make arguments for their views that take the counterarguments into account.

    To put them to that task, we have to present a better view of reason in every possible setting. Natural law and reason are Catholic but not only Catholic. Others can understand them as well, and we should learn to present them lucidly and in terms others can understand. In learning how to speak to others we question our own habits and assumptions, which are often implicitly liberal and modernist, and so convert ourselves and solidify our faith.

    The modern understanding of reason cannot meet human needs. The point to push, therefore, is that people should consider whether the answers modernity gives them are adequate to their actual experience of life. Rather than engaging liberals by accepting their stated principles, which invariably lead back to scientism and liberalism, we should point out the real principles by which they live, which always smuggle objective goods back in to make their system minimally workable.

    Changing something as basic as a conception of reason is not easy. If we preach the word in season and out of season, however, people will get used to hearing what we have to say even if it takes them a while to understand what it means. And if they do understand it, and it makes sense to them, first the discussion and then the possibilities of social order can change radically.

    A New Apologetics

    The Left has made a practice of attacking the remnants of traditional order at their weakest points. We need to do the same. The difficulty of silencing all discussion in modern society, and the stated preference for reason, present obvious opportunities. We live in a target-rich environment with a thousand fora in which we can present views based on a version of reason at odds with the one established.

    We can counter the Left’s one-liners (“Freedom!” “Equality!” “Tolerance!” “Reason!”) with comebacks of our own, backed by serious theories about man and the world. There should be a conscious effort among Catholics to organize for and carry on such exchanges. There is no reason the Left should always be on the attack and individual Catholics should be left each to himself to fumble around for responses to sophistry.

    Why, we might ask, do we do anything at all? Because we feel like it, or to take part in a larger pattern? If the former, discussion is at an end; if the latter, what is the pattern? Such questions are always relevant and can be brought into every setting imaginable, for example:


  • What is education? Is it purely technological or does it connect us to a larger world of tradition and value?
  • If it is purely technological, just a matter of getting what we want as efficiently as possible, why all the indoctrination?
  • If it is about values, what values and whose? Liberal values are values too!

    People try to shrug such questions off or rule them out of order. You can tell when a question is a good one: nobody wants to deal with it. The key is to keep raising issues as many ways as possible, until they cannot be shrugged off and others start raising them on their own.

    Defense of the Local

    As always, clarity and forthrightness in principle need to be combined with caution on practical issues. Not all grand principles can be put into effect directly. Practicalities and particular arrangements intervene. Also, you cannot force compliance with the good, beautiful, and true. It is important to make them present, but their effect has to grow up largely of itself: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation” (Luke 17:20).

    We must give the good, beautiful, and true a place to act, however, one not fully integrated into the liberal world order. Defense of Catholic life therefore requires opposition to globalism and the all-competent administrative state. It requires decentralization, limited government, and localism.

    Such concerns touch on a contrast between European and American traditionalism. The former grew up in a still comparatively rooted society in which the ideal of the confessional state was quite realistic. It has therefore been receptive to the idea of strong paternalistic government. Statements of the social teachings of the Church, as well as Church support for such institutions as the European Union and United Nations, often seem to follow the Europeans on that point. Memories of the Roman Empire and its would-be Medieval successors may also play a role in ecclesiastical attitudes.

    American traditionalism grew up in an explicitly liberal public order devoted to liberty, prosperity, and security as the highest public goals. That history has made American traditionalists less receptive to the allure of big government. (American conservatives, or people calling themselves that, have sometimes been overly receptive to the allure of big business, but that is another issue.)

    The American view may be less complete in itself, to the extent it tends to treat the highest goods as nonpolitical and therefore perhaps essentially private, but today it is more realistic in practice. For Catholics to favor wide-ranging government involvement in social life under present circumstances is madness. Why should they want education, medicine, and the care of children and the elderly to be run by a government based on the principles of present-day liberalism? As long as governments are run on their present principles, we should want their activities to be very narrowly restricted. “Catholic libertarian” is no doubt an oxymoron in principle. As a matter of what institutions make sense now, though, it cannot be altogether dismissed.

    Reaching Out

    Provocation can be useful on occasion—it can wake people up—but clarity must often be combined with the search for common ground. Political action is likely to be more productive if you can make use of what is already on the scene: Catholic prolifers need the help of Baptists. And on a more basic level, the world is more likely to listen if you seem to wish it well. It helps conversion to show that what you propose is implicit in what is already believed.

    With that in mind, we should emphasize that “Catholic” and “American” are not at odds with each other as long as the proper priorities are maintained. As each is traditionally conceived, the American Way is thought to be at odds with the Catholic way. Still, the “American way” is simply the way Americans have lived together, and as such it is not captured by its rhetorical formulations. It could not exist at all if the good, beautiful, and true were not present in it. If evil is a deficiency, then what is best is what is most real in it.

    So why not denounce and debunk the formulations and present a better version of America? Many American institutions, like federalism and voluntary local action, are consistent with Catholic principles like subsidiarity. We should build on that. Catholicism, we can say quite truly, is a better and truer American Way that brings to fruition what is best in American tradition. It did not make the Greeks less Greek or the Romans less Roman. Why should it make Americans less American?

    Obviously you have to avoid the reverse approach, the claim that Americanism is a better and truer Catholicism. There is a tendency to define America as an enterprise, cause, or religion, or at best as a legal order motivated by freedom and equality, rather than a country or people. To the extent that tendency prevails, Catholic support for “America” cannot be counted on. Also, modern ways of thinking have a genius for invading, colonizing, and transforming other traditions, and the genius of America has been its ability to assimilate. Catholics must resist those tendencies.

    Still, the Church has always been willing, when possible, to baptize local customs. Liberals have been able to sound moderate while steadily advancing their cause. Can Catholics learn from them? If we are very clear on fundamentals, we should be able to be flexible on presentation and political tactics. Until recently, perhaps, whoever has not been with us has been against us. When the tide turns against scientism and liberalism, because of their intrinsic failures, the reverse will hold, and when that reversal comes we should be ready to take advantage of it.


    When things are at their worst there is the most room on the upside. Even today, in the world of Obama, McCain, and MTV, we can work to clarify the situation and show the way to something better.

    Our advantage is that the truth will out. Liberalism seems all-powerful, but it leaves out too much and cannot last. Victory makes it increasingly corrupt. If getting your way is the ultimate reality, there is no basis for the sacrifices even ordinary honesty requires. For illustrations, look at news stories about corruption in Brussels and at the UN.

    It is hard to live happily or well as a liberal. Crude measures like surveys of reported happiness and charitable giving show as much. There are too many things the outlook cannot deal with. The future belongs to people with children, for example, and liberalism does not fit well with family life. Liberals do not have children.

    In contrast, to live as a Catholic is also to live for others. That is true even for a hermit in the desert. Even on the purely natural level, people will notice if the way we live is better for its adherents and more helpful to others.

    To put the issue in marketing terms, there is a big gap in the intellectual and lifestyle products now on offer. What is being sold is flashy and claims to solve all problems, but it does not work. If established views do not clear the way for a good way of life, people will look for something better. If we live well ourselves, we will offer them what they need.

    We cannot expect fast results, but we have good reason to be confident in the ultimate outcome. It can seem like we are getting nowhere, but it is not possible to know that. Pour water into a bucket full of sand, and it looks like nothing is happening, and then the bucket overflows.

    The Soviet Union looked like it was going to last forever, but did not. The same is likely to be true of liberalism. Basic issues cannot be suppressed forever, and they can reassert themselves very quickly when the wind changes. The realization that the emperor has no clothes is sudden and changes everything. And as Catholics we have ultimate assurance that the gates of Hell will not prevail.

    The question is how we should live now, and what there will be to pick up the pieces left by the ultimate disintegration of liberalism. The fall of communism in Russia has meant mafia rule and collapse of life expectancies. I hope things do not go so badly in the liberal West, and that we can do better when the present order falls apart. Our task, as citizens as well as Catholics, is to prepare for that day. The more the issues have been thought through, and the better the available alternatives, the better things will go for ourselves and our country.


    James Kalb is a New York attorney, a Catholic convert through the Traditional Latin Mass, and a widely published commentator on the history of liberalism. He holds a B.A. in mathematics from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Yale Law School. His book The Tyranny of Liberalism is available from ISI Books. This article is adapted from a speech given at the Roman Forum’s 2008 Summer Symposium.



    1 For a ground-breaking study of the objectivity of aesthetic value by a scientifically-trained architectural theorist, see Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (Berkeley, CA: The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002–2004).

    2 The writings of family scholar Allan C. Carlson are very helpful on this point.