Skip to main content

Engaging Secular Modernity

November 18, 2021 36 min read
By Dr. Ryan T. Anderson President, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
The Capitol Rotunda

Ryan T. Anderson, PhD, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and founding editor of the Public Discourse, joined Msgr. James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary, to discuss secular modernity and his work engaging questions of the human person in the public square.


Msgr. James P. Shea (MShea): I’m so glad you could be with us today, and I was wondering if, to start, you could say a little bit about your early life and education, especially those individuals and institutions that really made a difference in your intellectual and personal formation.

Dr. Ryan T. Anderson (RA): My parents sent me to a Quaker school for 12 years, from first grade through twelfth grade. The school – the Friends School in Baltimore – was next door to our Catholic parish. I’ve since been disowned by my alma mater for my work. But the school is an important part of my formation story because the vast majority of my friends and classmates didn’t see the world the way that I did. I was one of a very small handful of people who went to church or synagogue on the weekends. There were some Christmas-and-Easter Christians and some people who had bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, but there weren’t all that many people who practiced any religious faith on a weekly basis, much less practicing Catholics. As a result of that, I was used to being part of a distinct minority on moral and theological questions. And that was helpful, especially when I arrived at Princeton.

After 12 years at the Friends School, I went to Princeton, which was actually the first time I’d ever really met devout Christians – both Catholics and evangelicals – who had integrated their faith with their reason. I don’t think many people go to Princeton expecting to encounter Fides et Ratio, but that’s what happened to me. I encountered people who scored 1600s on the SAT, had 4.0 GPAs, and also went to daily Mass and read the Bible cover-to-cover every year. I just hadn’t seen that before. It taught me that the integration of faith and reason isn’t only possible but is actually the ideal. That was deeply formative for me. Throughout my time growing up in Baltimore, my mindset had been more, “I happen to be Catholic, but it’s one option among many and other people have their own options. This is my personal truth. Live and let live.” And that was almost like a survival mechanism, because there wasn’t a critical mass. It wasn’t until college that I really realized that there is capital-T-Truth – that these truths have claims on all of us, and we have a duty to conform our lives, thoughts, beliefs, actions to the Truth. It was at Princeton that I took my first philosophy course and theology course.

It was also at Princeton that I met Robert George. I was never actually a student of his, but I saw him give lectures and read some of his books before eventually becoming his research assistant. He was very influential in my life.

A lot was going on in American public life during my time at Princeton, as well. The September 11th attacks in 2001 happened just before classes started during my sophomore year. A month before that, President Bush had issued his executive order prohibiting the federal funding of embryo-destructive stem cell research. Two years later, the state Supreme Court of Massachusetts redefined marriage in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. That was the first time marriage was formally redefined by the courts. So in addition to my discovery of the harmony of faith and reason and encountering a critical mass of devout evangelicals and Catholics, three questions of political morality appeared on the front page, so to speak: bioethics, just war theory, and marriage. College is a time when you’re thinking critically about the world and you’re taking on the Faith for yourself, so you have to make decisions and form conclusions. To have these questions appearing on the front page at that time in my life was deeply formative. I had to ask myself what I believed about life and death when it comes to bioethics and life and death when it comes to war. I had to ask myself what I believed about the nature of the family and human sexuality. I was fortunate during that time to have both classmates and professors who could help me to think through all of those questions. And the funny aspect of providence here is that it all happened at Princeton, which isn’t what I was expecting when I arrived there.

MShea: I was a young priest during that time, and I remember hearing rumblings about the Anscombe Society being formed at Princeton.

RA: I helped to start the Anscombe Society after I graduated. To close the loop I had started earlier, I was never Robby George’s student directly. I didn’t take either of the courses he offered.

I was a music major during my undergraduate studies, focusing on music history, music theory, and music composition. Performance was an extracurricular activity. I wrote my senior thesis on twentieth-century Catholic liturgical music. The subtitle could have been, “What happened?” We have this great patrimony of sacred music, and I don’t know what happened, because it’s not what Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Second Vatican Council called for. But the implementation under the influence of Cardinal Bugnini went off the rails a bit.

But anyway, Robby was on the President's Council on Bioethics under President Bush and was going on a sabbatical, and he was looking for a research assistant. And none of his own students agreed with him on many of his positions. So someone said to him, “You know, there’s a student in the music department who has read all of your books and agrees with you, so you might want to see if he would want to be your research assistant.” So for the next two years, I served as Robby’s research assistant. During that time, a group of undergraduates wanted to revive the Princeton pro-life group and do something on the marriage question, with all the debates over the definition of marriage and the constitutional amendments that were being proposed across the country. But even beyond those political questions, we wanted to address the hookup culture and all the consequences of the sexual revolution we saw around campus. So the idea came up that there should be a student group dedicated to questions of human sexuality, rather than having the pro-life group address it. And we didn’t think it should just be left to the campus chaplaincy, because it’s not just a Catholic issue. As we were forming the group, we decided to name it for Elizabeth Anscombe, due in part to her famous essay, “Contraception and Chastity,” where she argued that the virtue of chastity should undergird how we approach all these questions of sexuality. And she is arguably the most influential and important learned female philosopher in all human history! So she was the perfect person to name this group after. You know, people say there are three As: Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. But you really could add a fourth: Anscombe. She’s really at that level.

MShea: That’s great! I’ve never heard of the three As! So when you were working with Dr. George, he was serving on the President’s Council on Bioethics. That was chaired by Leon Kass, wasn’t it?

RA: Right, Leon Kass was the chair of that commission. Some of my earliest work for Robby was dealing with questions on embryo-destructive stem cell research and questions on abortion. Eventually, that morphed into work on the same-sex marriage question. That work was all hugely influential on how I thought about the public presentation of arguments, on the intersection of philosophy and science, and on the intersection of faith and reason. If you’re thinking clearly and researching well, there’s no conflict between any of the academic disciplines, and good theology won’t conflict with good philosophy, which in turn won’t conflict with good science. But those disciplines might seem to contradict if you’re engaging in any of them poorly. So it’s very important to recognize that there’s not actually a tension between the disciplines.

MShea: You’re singing our song! The whole question of the integration of the intellectual life is right at the heart of our project, both at Prime Matters and the University of Mary. I mention Leon Kass because he taught me when I was studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was on sabbatical in Rome and taught a course that was the manuscript of what would later become his book on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom. He was one of the greatest teachers I ever had.

So you went K-12 with Quakers, and then went to a college founded by Presbyterians. It took a long time to get you into a Catholic university!

RA: That’s right! I did my graduate degree at Notre Dame. I was in the political science department, and what I really appreciated about the way they approach political philosophy is that they take the history of political thought seriously. A lot of American political science departments were originally government departments that later got renamed as “political science” departments when people wanted to turn political science into an empirical science, and many departments have chosen to focus on number-crunching and John Rawls and his critics. The nice thing about Notre Dame is that we started with Thucydides and Herodotus and then read all the way up through Nietzsche. My comprehensive exams included ancient, medieval, early-modern, and late-modern thought, and more or less all the major thinkers of the Western political tradition.

If you’re thinking clearly and researching well, there’s no conflict between any of the academic disciplines, and good theology won’t conflict with good philosophy, which in turn won’t conflict with good science. But those disciplines might seem to contradict if you’re engaging in any of them poorly.

On top of that, the faculty was a mixture of Straussians – people who had learned from Leo Strauss – and Catholics, some of whom were Catholic Straussians and some of whom weren’t. And then there were some run-of-the-mill liberals – by that I mean people working within the liberal tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, rather than left-leaning Democrats, though they were that, too!

There was a great intersection of methodological commitments and substantive commitments, you know, people who thought Plato got it right, people who thought Aristotle got it right, people who thought John Locke got it right, and so on. There were people who had different approaches to political philosophy who had different bottom-line conclusions, which was really helpful as a student.

In my professional career since leaving Notre Dame, I haven't done a lot of great books scholarship per se, but I've drawn from the insights I've learned from the great books and applied them to contemporary questions that are disputed in the public square, whether it be about marriage, religious liberty, gender identity, or social justice. I ended up writing my dissertation on social justice debates. So my experience at Notre Dame and my exploration of the great books has been invaluable. I wish I could do my graduate degree again because it was such a good experience.

MShea: That really points to the terrific and irreplaceable value of education, doesn’t it? It gives you a foundation from which you’re able to work for the rest of your life, even as life gets busier with other commitments, work, and family. It forms a great well that you can always draw from.

RA: I like to describe it as a savings account. Education is like a high-yield, high-interest intellectual savings account. You make all these deposits early in life and keep drawing the dividends throughout life. And now, of course, I draw from this educational formation in my work at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an organization devoted, among other things, to applying the riches of the Catholic Social Thought within the context of the American political tradition.

MShea: In the Convivio, Dante talks about the stupor that young people are susceptible to. It’s a time in life in which you can really learn so much and integrate it all into your imagination and into your mind. And that’s all a great way into the first question I wanted to ask you about your intellectual work. I was wondering if you could speak into how intellectual Catholicism can engage with a world whose intellectual institutions – colleges, universities, and public discourse itself – have embraced a variety of anti-rational strains.

RA: That’s a huge question, obviously, and part of my thought on this is to say what not to do, to exclude some errors.

I think one of the errors we need to avoid is writing off the possibility of engaging with secularity, even though so many universities have debased themselves in this regard – so much of social media is now click-bait, and so much of modern discourse is the emotivism that Alasdair MacIntyre talked about. Because as creatures made in the image and likeness of God – MacIntyre describes us as “dependent rational animals” – we can’t actually do away with our rationality. So it strikes me that for Catholic institutions that take our rationality seriously, there is actually an opportunity for us to show people what it looks like to engage some of these debated questions rationally. I think most modern Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. I don’t think many people are happy with the state of modern universities or the state of modern discourse. There’s a hunger for something better.

And related to that, I think that storytelling is really important. Your question was about rational discourse, but let’s look at what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t write philosophy papers or engage in Socratic dialogues. He tells parables – he tells stories. I think there’s something to be said for Pope Benedict XVI’s approach, which I paraphrase as, “It’s not the arguments of the intellectuals but the beauty of the artists and the holiness of the saints that win converts.” There’s something about the lived reality of the Catholic life that’s really attractive.

So for the Catholic intellectual tradition, I think we want to avoid the temptation on the one hand of dogmatism – this idea that we can find the complete answer to everything in the Catechism – but also, on the other hand, we want to avoid these theological explorations that pretend that there are no answers but that everything is about the search. We really have to avoid the notion that Vatican III is just around the corner, and Vatican III is going to enshrine all of my pet theological theories.

So it seems like the best thing you could do for students is to introduce them to some of the great theological discussions and debates between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, and not make it seem like St. Thomas Aquinas has all the answers. (Even if more often than not, he does!) But I think that you want students to see that Bonaventure and Aquinas are wrestling with similar questions and are taking slightly different approaches to those questions: that’s why they come up with slightly different answers. As Catholics, we should be thinking through these questions. So there’s something like an adventure to the Catholic intellectual life, because while there are certain answers, there are also topics that are open for theological discussion. We want to show students how to think through these different questions. We need to avoid viewing college education as just a thirteenth-grade catechism class while also avoiding the idea that everything is up for grabs. The best Catholic schools do this well: they show students that there is orthodoxy, but there is also something like a generous theological approach to orthodoxy. There’s a variety of schools of theology rather than just one. Even in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II noted that it’s important that we recover the philosophic tradition, but he also reminded us that the Church has no one philosophy of her own. It’s not as if Thomism is the official philosophy or theology of the Church, even though it’s very helpful.

MShea: If memory serves, it was Horace who said, “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will hurry back.” You began along the lines that human nature – our rational nature – is still intact, and that human nature doesn’t change. As Catholics, we’re convicted of that, which means that we can depend upon it in every age no matter whom we’re engaging with. And I’m grateful for that answer and for the tenor of it.

RA: I’ve reflected on that quite a bit as it’s applied to the transgender question. We can drive human nature out but it’s going to come back. We can’t escape it. And I think the same thing is true in the intellectual life. People are looking for answers because we can’t not look for answers. Jonathon Lear, an Aristotelian at the University of Chicago, wrote a book on this: The Desire to Understand. When I was at Princeton, I took a course on Aquinas. It was a walk through the Summa Theologica. Princeton hired an openly gay Episcopalian to teach a course on one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic tradition. It was one of the best courses I ever took. The professor was out and open about all this and it was an agree-to-disagree type of situation, but he was a wonderful theologian on a lot of the fundamentals. He had us read Lear’s The Desire to Understand as preparation, because he assumed correctly that many of the students in the course would be familiar with the Bible but not with Aristotle, and in order to really understand what Aquinas is doing, you have to have some background in Aristotle.

So at the bottom layer of what Aristotle is getting at when he says that man is a rational animal is that we have a desire to understand that is part of human nature. Right now, there are very few institutions that are authentically satisfying that desire. So in my mind authentic Catholic education is almost like a growth industry.

MShea: There’s a widespread rejection of classical first principles of the human person, of God, and of what the world is, and we’re breathing this in all the time. I’m not under any delusion that our students at the University of Mary are somehow protected from breathing in the air of the culture just because we’re in North Dakota, where the wind never stops blowing. And as Horace tells us, those first principles do hold, and they’ll come back. But at present, they’re widely disputed and undermined. So how does one build a vivid Catholic intellectual life in the midst of all that? Because we don’t want to live in a bubble.

The Statue of Liberty looks ahead

Educating Tomorrow's Leaders

Higher education plays a crucial role in our society's accomplishments and dysfunctions alike. Through civic education and the liberal arts, students are formed to live full lives as engaged citizens.

Educating Tomorrow's Leaders

RA: This makes me think of another person who was deeply influential in my intellectual formation, Hadley Arkes. Hadley was a professor at Amherst College and was Jewish at the time. He was a student of Leo Strauss. So Hadley was a Straussian, Jewish scholar who wrote some really important pro-life books using a natural law perspective, along with books on natural law and jurisprudence. One example that comes to mind was a book he wrote entitled Beyond the Constitution, where he explored the philosophical principles that undergird the Constitution. Another was entitled First Things – he published it before Richard Neuhaus used the same title for his journal.

What I remember most about Hadley was that he would engage secular progressive pro-choice political theorists at Princeton toe-to-toe when he was there for a year as a visiting professor. And I think that is something that could be really helpful to your students. We don’t want to live in a bubble, even though we realize that there are a lot of people who reject our first principles. In this case it wasn’t even the Catholic intellectual life but the Western intellectual tradition more broadly going toe-to-toe with Rawlsians and postmodernists. And he wasn’t just telling people that this tradition could engage with those who reject our first principles but was actually showing how to do it. I think that’s why so many people are intellectually attracted to Robert George’s work: he can engage Rawls, he can engage Ronald Dworkin, he can engage Michael Sandel and show at the level of reason where they’re going wrong.

So I think that ability to engage secular postmodernity with reason is step one. And step two is showing how faith builds on reason. I always cite Father Richard Neuhaus as the person who did this in my own life. It’s important that we show that bad philosophy can be answered by good philosophy, and bad embryology can be answered by good embryology, and good reason has an answer to bad reason. It’s so important for students to see how that exchange takes place. But we also want them to see that grace builds upon nature and revelation builds upon reason. We don’t want to seem like we’re just engaging in rationalism. We take reason seriously but we’re not rationalists in the heretical sense, and we are committed to the idea that there’s an integration of faith and reason. Reason can get you to the threshold of the Faith. Reason can show you that there are questions that reason itself can’t answer. Reason can show you that we should be open to the possibility that there would be revelation. Reason can show you that there’s a Creator God, and that the Creator God is most likely personal. I’m not sure how far reason can get us into the personal nature of God, but it can show us the high possibility of it. And that opens the question of whether that God has communicated himself to us. So I think reason can get us to the point where we take seriously the question of whether the personal Creator God has tried to communicate himself to us, and if so, we have to take seriously the question of which revelation is the true, authentic revelation. And I think that dynamic can be really exciting for students.

MShea: You talked about how attractive Robert George’s approach is. Your approach is, as well. You’re well-known in serious Catholic circles as a kind of cheerful, happy warrior, as a man of courage who is willing to wade right into the fray and engage with the most contentious questions of our time. So I want to ask you about what hopes you have for dialogue with secularity. We can talk about the theological virtue of hope, but I’m interested in the state of things now from your perspective as someone who is in the midst of it all.

RA: I’m a product of my teachers. I mentioned that for two years I was Robby’s research assistant. For the next two years after that I was an assistant editor at First Things for Fr. Neuhaus. We didn’t know it at the time, but it ended up being the last years of his life. Fr. Neuhaus had a rowhouse on the East Side of New York just five blocks from the offices of First Things, and he housed the junior fellows and assistant editors. So he had the ground-level apartment, and then a Lutheran pastor, Fr. Larry Bailey, had the apartment on the second floor. The third and the fourth floors were split into two apartments each, and that’s where all the young editors lived. We would pray evening prayer together each night in Fr. Neuhaus’s living room, and on Saturdays we would have a kind of revolving-door salon dinner, hosting whatever friend of Fr. Neuhaus’s happened to be visiting Manhattan that week. The two years I lived in that house were something of an unofficial master’s degree program.

So Hadley Arkes, Robby George, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus are the biggest influences on my personal approach to my own vocation. They are probably the three people who have had the biggest impact on my professional vocation. It’s interesting to me that you said “hope,” not “optimism,” because Fr. Neuhaus would always say when asked whether he was optimistic about something, “Optimism is a matter of optics, but hope is a theological virtue. We know how the story ends, and we know why we hope.”

So that explains the basic approach that I take. And it’s not so much that I’m either optimistic or hopeful about dialogue with secular modernity as such, because I think that most people who are deeply committed to various aspects of secular liberalism didn’t get there on the merits. Since they didn’t get there on the merits, dialogue is not going to lead them out on the merits. But I think that dialogue is really important for everyone else who is watching and listening. What I’ve found in my own professional work is that when I go somewhere like Harvard Law School to do a debate with one of their law professors about marriage, religious liberty, or transgender issues, it’s not so much that I’m going to persuade the professor that I’m debating or the student leaders of the campus LGBT group as it is that I’m going to get a hearing from everyone else. It’s the Christian students and the students who are middle-of-the-road and don’t really know what they think who come up to me afterward and say, “Thank you so much. I always knew we shouldn’t have redefined marriage, but I never knew why. I knew what the Bible says, I knew what the Church says, but you helped me to put faith and reason together.” And sometimes what has also been really gratifying is when liberal students come up to me and say, “Look, I still think you’re wrong, but I don’t know why you’re wrong,” or, “I still think you’re wrong, but now I know there’s actually a reasonable counter-argument. I had never heard the alternative perspective articulated in a way that wasn’t the Westboro Baptist Church.” I think that’s unfair on their part – they need to do their homework if they think the Westboro Baptist Church is the only alternative. But it’s also something on us – we need to speak for ourselves and not shy away from contentious issues or cede the playing field to the Westboro Baptist Church. And I think that can be important because if you think your political, cultural, or religious opponents are not just wrong but evil, you’re much more likely to have a fever-pitched disagreement; if you think that your opponent is not just wrong but is the modern-day equivalent of the Nazis, you’re not going to enter into reasonable dialogue with them. Unfortunately, we’ve been seeing people describe religious conservative Americans as the functional equivalent of the Taliban as this horrendous situation is unfolding in Afghanistan. We’ve had people describe their fellow Americans as the “American Taliban” because they think that their opponents are not just wrong, but evil. I think it’s going to be important that even if we can’t convince people that we’re right, we need to at least help them understand why we believe what we believe. And that’s going to be an important intellectual project for the Church when we think about apologetics and intellectual evangelism. Historically we thought in terms of outright conversion and of persuading people of the truth of the matter, but a preliminary step today may be laying the groundwork for at least acknowledging that there is a debate to be had.

MShea: In that light, you’ve spoken and written extensively on the topic of the human person. Could you speak into what you perceive as being the core differences between the classical, Christian vision and the vision of the human person put forth by secular modernity?

RA: There is a lot that could be said here. The first thing that comes to mind is that there is a form of body-self dualism held by secular modernity that undergirds almost all of the debates we’re seeing play out. It’s a form of Gnosticism that says that the real me is something other than the physical body. Whether it’s Platonic or Cartesian or Lockean dualism, the me is somehow like the psyche, or the intellect, or the mind, and the body is just a costume or a vehicle. And I think that the progressive conclusions on the abortion debate, the assisted suicide debate, the gay marriage debate, and the gender identity debate are all undergirded by this notion that the real me is a sort of immaterial self. So, for instance, the unborn physical baby who’s not yet self-aware isn’t a person, but instead is just the physical preparation for a person, and therefore abortion isn’t a big deal. And at the end of life, if someone is suffering from dementia or if their Alzheimer’s is severe enough or if they’re in a persistent vegetative state, we can end their lives because that’s not really grandma anymore; it’s just grandma’s living remains. That physical body no longer has grandma’s memories or personality, so it’s no longer grandma. And then with same-sex marriage, if the real self is the consciousness and the body is just a vehicle for expressing interpersonal romance, then there’s nothing intrinsically meaningful about two bodies becoming one flesh – if all of that is just poetic and metaphorical. And if all of that is true, then gender identities can be trapped in the wrong body. The most sophisticated gender ideologues have moved away from that language because they see the problems with it, but for a while they would say things like, “I’m a boy trapped in a girl’s body,” and vice versa. So there’s a deep form of dualism going on.

We can drive human nature out but it’s going to come back. We can’t escape it. And I think the same thing is true in the intellectual life. People are looking for answers because we can’t not look for answers.

The Aristotelian and Catholic perspective, on the other hand, is hylomorphism, which is the understanding that the person is a dynamic unity of form and matter. In the Catholic tradition, apart from prime matter, you never get formless matter. This is the Catholic emphasis on the Incarnation, right? Jesus wasn’t playing dress-up. Jesus wasn’t just pretending to be human. He really became human and became man. This is a core part of the Faith. So I think body-self dualism is one of the most important differences.

I also think expressive individualism is related to that. It’s the idea that I am supposed to discover the real me, the inner me, and give expression to it, even to such an extent that my body is a mere instrument of the expression I give to my individualism. This all suggests that there’s no objective external truth, good, or end (telos). There’s no objective account of what human flourishing looks like or what the human good looks like, and there’s a purely inward turn. That’s different than the Augustinian or Christian inward turn, because that was an inward turn in order to then turn upwards toward God. In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor says that Augustine is really the source of the inward turn, but that’s very different than the modern inward turn. Rousseau in his Confessions is very different from Augustine in his Confessions. Carl Trueman, a Reformed theologian and historian, and one of our newest Fellows at EPPC, is helpful on this question in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

The last difference I would point to is voluntarism, which combines with nominalism to say that there is something arbitrary about morality. We can go back to William of Ockham on this and even John Duns Scotus, who presented the idea that even the commands God gives us are somehow arbitrary and come purely from God’s will rather than from his intellect. Aquinas, on the other hand, would argue that God created human nature, and given that nature, there are certain ends that are perfective of our nature and therefore the natural law is a participation in the eternal law. So that means it emanates from God’s reason. It also emanates from his will: Aquinas understands there to be a dynamic interplay of reason and will, both for the divine and for the human. But it’s not merely a matter of voluntas, of something that’s just a command. Both the substance of the command and the obligatory aspect of the command are grounded in reason and nature – both the substance of what’s good for us and the prescriptiveness of what’s good for us.

I think there’s more that could be said, but if I were structuring a course on the deep philosophical undercurrents of contemporary moral debates, those are the three areas I would spend some time on. And I think all three of them go together: body-self dualism, expressive individualism, and voluntarism and nominalism.

MShea: And those three principles have been playing themselves out with some consistency throughout all these different contemporary moral questions. As you look forward the next decade or so, is there more that will develop along these lines? In other words, are there any new unexpected challenges we should anticipate, or are you seeing any promising new developments?

RA: Let me start with something I see as a promising development. I’m thinking now of some aspects of transgender ideology, especially as it’s being pushed on children and the utterly extreme ways that it’s threatening to entirely erase women and erase their privacy, their safety, and their equality. I think there are some promising developments around that because there are people who don’t agree with us on anything else that are partnering with us on some of those issues. They won’t go all the way with us, but instead will say something like, “If he is of a certain age and wants to be a woman and isn’t going to violate the privacy or safety of biological women, then that’s fine.” But they will side with us against these debates concerning school bathrooms and locker rooms, the use of puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones for teens, double mastectomies for high school girls, and so on. So even if these people are not particularly religious or conservative, there are some hopeful signs there for agreement across the political divide.

In terms of something to be concerned about on the horizon, I think some of the biotech stuff has been developing under the radar. The last time we really had a public discussion about bioethics was in the early 2000s around embryo-destructive stem cell research. So it’s been about 20 years since we’ve had those public discussions, but scientists have not stopped doing their jobs in the meantime. An example that comes to mind is CRISPR, which is a gene-editing technology. Two years ago, a Chinese scientist created genetically modified embryos and then implanted those embryos and brought them to term for the first time ever. So there were two live-born human beings who had been genetically modified. I think that’s a huge issue we’re going to need to be thinking about. We talked about Leon Kass earlier, and there’s a quote of his that I’ve used in some of my own writing on this: “As bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God's image, it might be very much worse to be creating them after images of one's own.” In general, I think reproductive technology is highly problematic, and in most cases it’s objectively immoral, as it involves separating the creation of new life from the loving embrace of a mother and a father. Children should be welcomed as gifts that supervene upon the conjugal act of husband and wife rather than as products of technical mastery and manipulation. Some of the genetic engineering and gene editing as applied to the creation of new life is going to pose serious intellectual challenges for sound bioethics. We have a lot of bioethics that focuses on killing, but we don’t have as much bioethical attention focused on creating and modifying and enhancing. So I think that’s going to be on the horizon soon.

MShea: I wonder if we could pivot to the question of society and family. Because as we’re talking through all these questions, someone might raise the challenge that what we’re really dealing with are contrasting visions of the human person that are ultimately subjective, or that at the very least we should live and let live. So why are questions like gender identity and same-sex marriage important? Why do we engage them in the public square? What’s the real impact?

RA: The simplest answer is that the sexual revolution has been an utter disaster in terms of human flourishing. It’s been an utter disaster for the millions of unborn babies who have been killed as a result of abortion. It’s been a disaster for the millions of women who have been used and abused by bad boyfriends and bad husbands who cheat on them and abandon them. It’s been terrible for the many men who have become addicted to pornography: the term is “failure to launch,” referring to the men who get stuck in their parents’ basements playing video games in their pajamas. It’s been terrible for the many children who were born without a meaningful relationship with their fathers. It’s been terrible for the many children now being told by adults that they might be trapped in the wrong body and could have their sex reassigned.

The outcome of getting the human person wrong – of getting human sexuality wrong – has been broken homes, broken hearts, and human misery across the board. I’m glad we have equality, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of getting rid of chastity as the governing virtue and getting rid of the institution of marriage as a normative institution.

To my mind, marriage is the key social justice institution, and if you care about human flourishing you can’t draw a wedge between “social justice Catholics” and “pro-life Catholics” or between “social justice Catholics” and “marriage-and-family Catholics.” These things are all intimately related. If you think about these questions in terms of the human life cycle, you see that we are going to flourish and social justice is going to be achieved when we are conceived within the loving union of mother and father and are raised by our married mother and father. Where those things fail to happen or where they fall apart prematurely, that’s where you see social problems, that’s where you see poverty, that’s where you see increased crime, that’s where you see increased loneliness, that’s where you see the deaths of despair that so many social scientists have documented. The past year-and-a-half – with the pandemic and the lockdowns – has been rough on everyone, and it’s been particularly rough on people who don’t have communities, especially thick family communities. It’s been incredibly isolating and incredibly lonely for people who are single, people who are divorced, and people who don’t have meaningful familial connections. That’s where you’ve seen increased rates of substance abuse, suicide, and so on. This is all to say that we shouldn’t be naïve about how much the family mediates our flourishing. The importance of the family for our flourishing is apparent at every step along the way, from the time you were conceived and born to how you were raised, to how then you as an adult will get married or not, form your own family or not, and then how you age and die. Family is going to be vitally important for whether you flourish or fail to flourish. It’s vitally important. It's why I'm so honored to be leading a DC think tank unabashedly committed to the truth about the family and promoting policy that supports the family.

A Mother and Her Children

Reality is Not Arbitrary

Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, joined Msgr. James P. Shea to discuss her work in the pro-life movement and the March for Life.

Reality is Not Arbitrary

MShea: What in your mind, then, would be the root of the antipathy that the modern secular vision has to traditional, long-standing ideas about the family? I think people in the midst of the pandemic see the importance of the sort of thick interpersonal connectedness and family that you’ve mentioned, so what’s at the root of this hostility?

RA: I think there is a lot going on there. Part of it is an explicit ideology that’s being pushed by activists who are committed to this very different worldview. I don’t think this is a bottom-up phenomenon: I think this is very much a top-down reality originating from critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Wilhelm Reich, who explicitly held an alternative vision for human sexuality. So first there was an ideology, and now activists have been promoting it.

But at the same time, from a more grassroots, bottom-up movement, virtue is difficult. Virtue requires short-term sacrifice for long-term flourishing. That’s why we need institutions that habituate people in the virtues. It’s actually really hard to be virtuous on your own. MacIntyre is good about describing why we need communities of virtue. But we’ve slowly lost those formative institutions, and institutions have come to be seen as platforms for self-expression rather than molds to form us, as Yuval Levin noted. Those are two radically different ways of thinking about what institutions are. So this ideology promises immediate gratification, immediate satisfaction, immediate liberation from what the ideologues say are outdated and misguided constraints on your happiness. But really what they are attacking are the practices and the institutions that make long-term happiness and flourishing possible.

So there’s both a top-down and a bottom-up dynamic that’s happening together, which makes that antipathy you mentioned particularly difficult to respond to.

MShea: I appreciate the richness of this conversation, which I think will be tremendously helpful to a lot of people. As we wrap up, I’m hopeful that you could help me to think through something. At the University of Mary, we’re brimming with all kinds of young, high-hearted men and women who want to make a real difference in the world. We also have a lot of people who find their way to us because they want to play NCAA athletics or they are pursuing particular degrees and were attracted by the reputation of a particular department but perhaps lack a particular set of convictions around some of these questions. But we do have a chance while they’re here – and this is the dream – to awaken that sort of vision and conviction. It would be really wonderful if we had a lot of graduates doing the sort of work you’re doing, engaged in the public square, articulating first principles in winsome and compelling ways. Yet I sense within this rising generation a profound and growing aversion to anything like being involved in political philosophy. The politics part of it tends to turn young people off because they’re not seeing a lot of good modeling of what it’s like to have engaging discourse. So how can faithful, intellectually serious young people find a home in the discourse that’s happening in American politics? How can that happen?

RA: It’s a great question, and it’s entirely understandable that young people would decide that the last thing they want to do is get involved in politics because of how nasty it is, because of how much bomb-throwing there is, because of how much red-meat pandering there is, and because of how little progress actually seems to be made. So it makes sense to me that while many young people feel an aversion to politics, they feel a deep pull toward something like becoming a FOCUS missionary. Because for someone who wants to live a meaningful life, that’s a great way to give of yourself for two years and make an immediate difference, helping young college students connect and grow more deeply with Christ. So I don’t blame young people for their aversion to politics and desiring instead to engage the world in other ways.

To answer your question, then, I think the first step is helping people to see what politics could be or what a vocation in the public square could be, and why if lived well it could make a difference that matters. Holding up someone like St. Thomas More, patron saint of statesmen, and going through the history of statesmen and political leaders and thinkers who made a difference can be powerful. And then we can also look at contemporary examples and say, “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there were more people who engage that way? If you who have the potential to go about this the right way are going to sit it out, then we’re ceding the playing field to those who do it in the way that turns you off.”

Not everyone has the temperament or the vocation to be doing this sort of work, and you need to have the vocation, but we can encourage people by holding up role models and helping people to see the need for this sort of engagement. We need to show people what it could look like and how it can be done. I like to think that your students can look to my colleagues at EPPC as models for this.

The second step, then, would be to equip those people who have the right skill set. If we want to prepare people to be effective campus missionaries, we make sure they take the right theology courses and the right pastoral ministry courses. The same should apply to preparing students to engage in the public square: we need to make sure that we are giving them the skills they need to work effectively on Capitol Hill or at a newspaper or magazine. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that a vocation to engage the public square only applies to politics in Washington, DC. There’s a lot to be done at the state and local levels. We need people to be engaged in state capitols: look, for instance, at what’s happening at the state level with school choice legislation, at what’s happening with religious liberty legislation, at what’s happening with marriage tax policy, and so on. I think some young people don’t even know that those are things to be concerned about.

So I would say that we have to show people why this all matters and how it could be done well, and then equip them so that they’re able to do it well. Then those people that have the vocation will see why it’s important and be ready to engage. And then maybe they will throw their hat into the ring and try to make a difference.

MShea: I could spend a lot more time exploring these questions with you. I’m very grateful for your generosity with us. I know your insights here will make a big difference for our students and our readers, and it’s made a difference for me. Your answers have been so succinct and clear, and clarity is really the pearl of great price in these sorts of conversations.

We at the University of Mary and Prime Matters really admire your work and all you’ve done in the public square. You have our prayers and our support. I was so eager to meet you for such a long time, so I’m glad I was able to meet you and your beautiful wife at the Napa Institute’s Summer Conference.

RA: Thank you! This was fun. I appreciate the conversation and hope I can make it to your campus soon.

MShea: Ryan, thank you.

Related Articles

A bird flies over the beach

Living the Lord's Joy

Chris Stefanick
Founder, Real Life Catholic
Msgr. James P. Shea
President, University of Mary
Learn more about Living the Lord's Joy
A banjo player in a field at sunset

Why We Play

Conor Kennelly
Law Clerk, United States District Court for the District of North Dakota
Learn more about Why We Play
The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica rises over statues of saints on the colonnade

Why Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Are Not Absolute Values

Most Rev. Robert Barron
Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles
Learn more about Why Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Are Not Absolute Values