Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.This is another perfect example of trying to understand politics from philosophical principles, rather than from history. Because that sounds to me like a much better description of medieval than modern politics. Modern politics has tended to be full of moralizing, and medieval politics had a lot to do with ambition and group interest.
Theoretically-minded people -- not just conservative Catholics but libertarians, communists, and others of that ilk -- like to sit down in their studies and reason out how different philosophies ought to work in practice. Conservative Catholics think that their faith sets a much higher value on human life and dignity than secular liberalism does, since they see in their fellow men the image of God, and therefore they think that Catholic societies ought to be more devoted to human welfare and the good of the community and so on. But instead of reasoning, they should look out the window. Actual Catholic societies — medieval Europe, 18th-century Mexico, Franco's Spain — have not shown any special devotion to human welfare. They have at times endorsed slavery, onerous serfdom, wife-beating, genocidal warfare, the torture of heretics, and whatever other governmental sin you care to think of. And then this:
Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.Again the assertion is made that since Catholicism sets a higher spiritual value on human souls than secular thought, it ought to be more conducive to real equality. On the contrary, equality is a thoroughly modern and secular idea, not much practiced in any society between the Bronze Age and the 19th century; most of the societies in between, including just about all of the Catholic ones, have been aristocratic, with huge differences in wealth and status.
Right now in America conservative Catholics have worked themselves into a fearful lather over the decline of Christian civilization, the demise of the religious world view, and a coming era of intolerance that will effectively banish religious people from public life. They are filling the internet with essays like the one I quoted from, arguing that without faith in the divine nature of human souls something terrible on the scale of Hitler or Stalin is bound to happen. The level of anger and fear is great and seems to be rising.
At the philosophical level I have nothing to say to this. I can't offer any strong philosophical defense of secular morality, and I can't offer any metaphysical reason why people ought to care about each other. I find, though, both in my own head and in my society, that metaphysics seems not to matter very much. I can't explain why I care about my fellow humans, but I do. There is simply no evidence that believers are more ethical than non-believers (or the reverse). Some modern, secular societies (Denmark, e.g.) have shown a regard for every human life far greater than anything achieved in more overtly religious eras; others (e.g., Stalin's Russia) have achieved an almost complete disregard. Certain Catholic societies (18th-century Haiti) have been as bad as any modern totalitarian state. Of all the factors that go into making a society or a government good or bad, religion seems to be a minor one.
What I want to say to worried believers is to stop fretting about theoretical problems and consider the actual situation. Does America really look to you like Soviet Russia? Instead of worrying that assisted suicide will lead to a devaluation of all human life, look into our hospitals and see that we work far harder to keep dying people alive than anyone else in history. Instead of fretting about religious intolerance, glance at any thriving church and see how freely the people come and go, and how loudly they sing their hymns. At the moment gay marriage is an ugly flash point, but that is partly because certain believers have accorded it an importance far greater than it deserves; it does not represent some sort of watershed transition from a Christian to a secular society. Divorced from all that theoretical superstructure, it is simply a political problem to be worked out, like any other. Yes, our society has problems with inequality and brutality and corporate dehumanization; instead of philosophizing about their deep connection to ideas about the soul, work to make them better. You might find a lot of secular people willing to help.