As we can see from the founding document of the Catholic Social Teaching Tradition, P. Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the Church’s understanding of society, based on natural law, is one in which individuals are members of society first by being members of natural families: father, mother, children. This family is the basic social unit. Families make up communities, communities are served by the State. “Society” is not the “State,” society is families united in communities.

The recent election season recently concluded here in the U.S. demonstrated that this is no longer the only accepted view of society — and in some spheres may not even be the predominant view. According to Joan Frawley Desmond’s analysis in the National Catholic Register, “2012 Election Year Offered Dueling Visions of Society,” the national election results can be understood in terms of two radically different understandings of the nature of society.

Last May, the Obama-Biden campaign rolled out an online slideshow, “The Life of Julia,” that explained “how President Obama’s policies help one woman over her lifetime.”

The narrative does not feature a boyfriend, let alone a husband, but Julia benefits from free birth control, letting her “focus on her work rather than worry about her health.” But if Obama is defeated, Julia could be denied the same health-care benefits because “Romney supports the Blunt Amendment — which would place Julia’s health-care decisions in the hands of her employer.”

Julia decides to have a child

This fictional Julia is presented as the typical American who benefits from Obama’s leadership, and apparently she represents the self-image of enough Americans that Barack Obama was favored in the elections over Mitt Romney, identified with the traditional understanding of family.

Ask Catholic scholars and commentators to distill the message of the Democratic presidential campaign, and they may well cite “The Life of Julia.” That’s in part because it presents the government as a reliable placeholder for spouses and families, but also because it elevates the right to free contraception over First Amendment conscience protections.

 “There really are competing irreconcilable visions of society on offer in this election,” said Gerard Bradley, a constitutional scholar at the University of Notre Dame who has spoken out against the HHS mandate.

“The Obama campaign’s ‘Julia’ ad sums up the president’s vision” of the individual as “basically alone in society,” noted Bradley, editor of the newly released Challenges to Religious Liberty in the Twenty-First Century.

“Julia has no family and evidently no religious community to support her,” Bradley said. “She does have a set of aspirations and goals, and the government is her financial angel — Uncle Sam as Daddy Warbucks, if you will.”

This view of society as atomistic individuals connected only through the State is clearly at odds with the view assumed by Rerum Novarum. Frawley goes on to cite analysts who fault Mitt Romney for failing to present with adequate vitality the competing, traditional understandings of society, the individual, marriage and family. 

“The questions about life and marriage were effectively sidelined by the Republican Party in the interests of making the election about stewardship,” agreed Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things.

With the election now decided, he said that “one of the most important things Catholics can do is set about reforming the Republican Party so that is a more effective vehicle for Catholic social teaching.”

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