You don't need a Ph.D in philosophy or an STD in theology to be a good Catholic. Knowing a little about both helps you better explain the faith to the heathens. If you embrace Christianity then that commits you to certain philosophical views: the existence of good and evil, and an objective standard of morality for example. The perennial debate within the Catholic Church for the last few decades is to what degree, if any, we should embrace modern philosophy and use its language to spread the Gospel. Bl. John Paul II did this a lot as he was schooled in phenomenology. He took the slogan of the French Revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity - and attempted to put a Christian spin on it. I don't object to this in principle but in practice it can easily lead to certain problems. A Facebook friend of mine put it well: modern theology is like a beta male orbiting around philosophy, showering it with love in the hopes that philosophy will offer it a few scraps of attention.Last month, I suggested that the most important thing for Catholics to do politically is to present, argue for, and act on the Catholic understanding of human life. We are defined by our faith, which has to do with an understanding of God, man, and the world, and our goal as Catholics is to live that faith and make it available to others.That principle applies to public as well as other aspects of life. It may not seem an effective way to make things happen, but taking obvious public success as the standard means aligning ourselves with the principles on which public life is currently based, and that means certain defeat.
One of the criticisms of the pre-Vatican II Church is that its theology was too ossified to be meaningful to modern man. I've always found that complaint to be too subjective if not outright frivolous. Can theology manuals make for dry reading? Sure. But that can be just as much the case with something written by Rahner or von Balthasar as it is with Suarez or Garrigou-Lagrange. Catholicism is not a garbage recycling plant where you can deposit any old philosophy you like and out comes a perfectly orthodox new product that will finally make that elusive modern man batter down our doors demanding to be baptized. Aristotelian and Thomistic Realism have stood the test of time because they provide the best explanation for the faith and the world. One can go wrong by turning them into closed systems and thus unable to deal with issues that never occurred to either Aristotle or Thomas. But that doesn't mean they should be abandoned wholesale in favor of Kant, Husserl, or Heidegger.
The principle upon which our public life is currently based is liberalism. Liberalism concerns itself with this world. It asserts that the existence of a life after this one is impossible or unknowable and in any case a matter of private belief with which the State need not concern itself. Liberalism posits that the purpose of the State is the equal satisfaction of the desires of the free and equal superman, self-created through his own reason and will, freed from the fetters of unchosen restraints such as ethnicity or gender. Desires conflict and liberalism has no adequate means of resolving these conflicts, so it portrays itself as an impartial arbiter between competing worldviews. The only desires it considers illegitimate are those that conflict with liberalism. The American political system is divided between left-liberals and right-liberals, the latter mostly occupied with impotent grumbling about the more catastrophic consequences of liberalism without ever questioning liberalism itself.
The solution is for Catholics to reject liberalism as inhuman and false. This means we will also have to reject public and institutional respectability. God does not ask us to be successful but he does ask us to be faithful. If success means compromise with evil then we must renounce worldly success. Kalb mentioned the HHS mandate. As a strategic matter, the US bishops chose to argue against it as a matter of constitutional law. It violated the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom they said. I believe this was a prudential error on their part. Most non-Catholic Americans - many Catholics for that matter - consider our teachings about contraception to be bizarre and archaic. The bishops should have based their strategy on asserting that artificial contraception is sinful and that no power on earth was going to make them comply with a sinful act.The most important single thing to do toward that end is to understand what our own position really is. That’s surprisingly difficult. As a practical matter, recent attempts by the Church to reach out to the secular world have meant accepting the ways of thinking that define that world at a time when they were becoming more single-mindedly anti-Catholic and anti-human. The result has been an increasing inability to present the Catholic view of things in connection with principles that make it comprehensible.So Catholic social teaching is thought to be something other than what it is. To most people it has come to seem identical to liberal progressivism, with residual hang-ups about sex tacked on at Vatican insistence. Those who notice a problem have often responded by merging social Catholicism into American or free market triumphalism, combined perhaps with a plea for personal piety and good works and an emphasis on the damage done to the poor by excessive state action.
If Catholics are going to wage this war then our personal conversion is paramount, as always. Study the Angelic Doctor. Read the great social encyclicals of the popes. Train yourself to recognize liberalism for what it is and be prepared to call liberals out on their errors. This doesn't mean you should be a jerk - although there can be a time and a place for that - or go out of your way to pick fights. Not everyone is temperamentally or intellectually suited for direct combat against the heathen culture of death. Contemplative religious brothers and sisters locked away in their monasteries before the Blessed Sacrament are doing far more good in this world than I ever will clickety-clacking away on this insignificant blog. But if you have determined that God wishes you to remain in the world, and you have the intellectual or temperamental aptitude to engage in this sort of combat, then you have a duty to use your gifts in service to God.