Steven P. Millies

Catholicism and the common good

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama published his book “The End of History and the Last Man” (Avon Books, 1992). The book followed his much-noted 1989 article in National Interest where Fukuyama wondered whether, as the Cold War ended, we had reached what he called the end of history. In plainer language, when the ideological alternatives to American-style Western democracy seemed as defeated as the Soviet Union, Fukuyama suggested that our political values had been vindicated so thoroughly that no one ever would question them again. We had reached the end of the argument about the best sort of politics. Western democracy won.

Western democracy challenges us to find and share common ground over our differences. It was born out of the ashes of the wars of religion that followed the Reformation in the 17th century. For the first time, Germans and Dutch and English had to imagine how to remain a united political community despite holding different convictions about God, Scripture and the moral law.

Our American constitutional system has the same ambition. A nation of immigrants, we represent different cultures while, tolerating every sort of religious belief, we must try to develop law and public policy that most people will support. It is a tricky challenge to retain our ethnic and religious identities, political and faith convictions, while also committing ourselves to life in a shared community with others who are not like us. Sometimes failing, always struggling, we have done that for 230 years.

I was a Loyola-Chicago undergraduate in 1992 when Fukuyama’s book appeared. My adult life and professional attitudes took shape amid the same certainty that we find in Fukuyama’s book, across the 2½ decades of stability that preserved the postwar world order and America’s global dominance. There has been little reason to question whether some version of Western democracy represents the best politics we can hope for. After all, with the Second Vatican Council, even the Catholic Church agreed.

Being a practicing Catholic, I have an even more comfortable sureness about finding unity amid diversity. Every parish is different, every diocese is different and there are many distinct, ethnic flavors of Catholicism. Beyond that, 23 Eastern churches are in union with Rome, celebrate different liturgies and use different languages. There are many, many ways to be Catholic, and they all retain the bond of unity amid their differences.

Like our Western politics, all our differences seek unity and move toward it. We engage one another in dialogue, we seek the truth together in good faith. After all, whether we mean the justice sought by politics or the salvation promised by the Gospel, we all are searching together for something bigger than all of us. Then came 2016.

Fukuyama’s book has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, and (full disclosure) I have written some of it. As much as I share his faith in Western democracy, there is something a little too confident in Fukuyama’s presumption that would plaster a “The End” sign on history. It invites derision. But the truth is that Fukuyama made an altogether excusable mistake. He believed his eyes, trusted the evidence he saw in the world around him. So did we all for a long time.

Consider a few sentences from his 1992 book: “The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the 20th century has been the revelation of the enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships. … And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal [that is, Western-syle] democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and different cultures around the globe.”

In the world of 1989 or 1992, gazing back across two centuries that seemed to press forward relentlessly toward American-style democracy, who could blame Fukuyama for his confidence? Matters look different today. Our global politics increasingly is driven by the stubborn strength of authoritarian governments or by the theocratic aspirations of terrorists.

The most remarkable development of the past 25 years has not been a victory lap for Western democracy but the emergence of nationalist movements in the world’s most established democratic states. Britain brexited. France stands poised to elect a nationalistic president. And, in the United States, our politics have taken on a nationalistic character not seen here since before World War II. Many citizens of these states seem to have lost interest in tolerating diversity or negotiating across differences. Doors are closing, not opening.

The political claims of Western-style democracies are rooted in much older Christian convictions about the dignity of human persons. We claim individual rights and expect to participate in governments that represent us only because people are at the heart of politics. Democracies express the value we place on persons. Especially as Catholics, we cannot afford to abandon our confidence in Western democracy so easily.

Catholics can — and should — be leaders in the recovery of confidence in Western democracy. To do so, however, requires that we must first recover our own confidence in what our faith teaches us about the value of each human person, the toleration of different points of view and the goodness of governments that draw their authority from the consent of people, seeking the common good of every member of the political community.

This also means we must overcome the differences in our own church. We must value persons more than our instincts to condemn one another, become a church that models something better than what we see in American politics. We can disagree without rancor. Pope Francis has called on us to do that, to prefer dialogue over division. This is a demanding path that requires us to “pool our resources and talents, and … to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.” In other words, we must live as witnesses to the Gospel.

What works in our church can work in our politics. In his 2015 address to Congress, Pope Francis said so, calling us to “a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good through the history of the United States.”

Western democracies are not perfect. John Paul II and Benedict XVI explained to us how even Western democracies can devalue human persons through abortion, euthanasia, the moral indifference of the free market or carelessness about our environment. We must be alert to those problems. Still, the world is better with strong Western-style democracies than without them. Strong democracies permit robust arguments about the best ways to protect human persons. Authoritarian regimes are not interested in such arguments at all.

Every indication is that democracy is in for a bumpy ride, at least in the near term. We all will feel those bumps. Still, this moment in history can offer us useful lessons if it can remind us about why our commitments to individual freedom, the toleration of differences and the common good are so important in the first place. To affirm and preserve those values will be the work of Catholics, especially, in the days ahead. History is not over yet.