The call is coming from inside the option

Rod Dreher has decided that none of the critics of The Benedict Option have understood him.  Either they are reading things into the book that he did not put there or they are working out obscure personal grievances. This is, of course, a risible assertion, not least since Dreher has written (and written and written and written) about the Benedict Option over the past several years. It is also in keeping with Dreher’s near-constant redefinition of the Option in the face of criticism. The idea is very simple: Christians have lost pretty much every political engagement they’ve fought over the past, oh, fifty years (draw a straight line between Roe and Obergefell, if you like), and they need to withdraw from society. But what happens when they withdraw from society? Dreher is convinced that most Christians possess only a watered-down faith. The problem, we think, is more serious than that.

Giving us a gentle ribbing, the blogger Subsannabit suggests that it is error to think that modern western liberalism is doing politics. Subsannabit, in an interesting post about true radicalism, also observes that most people simply do not do politics. Of course, Subsannabit may err by setting the bar for doing politics too high (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 4; Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co. & ad 3), but s/he is not wrong about the fact that modern western liberalism is not really politics in any meaningful sense, at least as the term is rightly understood. Certainly the liberal is not interested in applying practical reason to frame laws to make people simply good. Such a process would force a modern western liberal to concede a bunch of things he would be loath to concede. The modern liberal prefers to write laws to create in essence a neutral playing field on which everyone can pursue his or her personal good without much restraint or even much interference. The common good does not factor into this sort of thought. And, for this reason, this sort of liberalism is, of course, corrosive of the very idea of civil society (Grenier, 3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154, pp. 455–56). For proof of the thesis, one has only to open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

Such liberalism is, for most people, an omnipresent, omnipotent force. The law, we know, is a teacher, even if the lesson is a bad one. There is simply no escape from it. Some people can see the problem and even sketch proposals for a solution, but it is hard to imagine the implementation of such proposals without adverting to liberal ideas. After all, liberalism is, for most westerners, as natural as the air we breathe. And this is fundamentally the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option—and any number of similar proposals—retreating from society will do no good if you bring liberalism with you. Whatever polity or society you create will have the same flaw at its heart as the one you left behind. It is like the scene in any number of horror, science-fiction, and thriller pictures, when Our Hero or Our Heroine reaches a safe spot, only to discover that he or she is Not Alone. Or worse, when Our Hero or Our Heroine has asked the phone company to trace the menacing calls, only to be informed that the calls are coming from inside the house.

And Dreher, whether he understands it or not, wants to bring liberalism with him. Religious liberty, however helpful it may be to Christians at the moment, is the lynchpin of the liberal order. Once one puts truth and error on the same plane, the rest falls into place quickly. And it has the same consequences that liberalism always has. Leo XIII explained this admirably in Libertas praestantissimum (nos. 19–22). And this is, as it was expressed in Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate, a major problem for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, holding to the Church’s traditional teachings, even beyond those difficulties posed by the New Mass. To say then, that Christians, withdrawing from the most part from society, will remain politically engaged to the extent that it is necessary to defend religious liberty—which is what Dreher has said—is to say that Christians will carry with them the seeds of liberalism. This guarantees that they will get to their communities, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and turn around to discover that they are Not Alone. The menacing calls from liberalism are coming from inside the Option.

If you don’t like the analogy to popcorn flicks, consider the emotional climax of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Act Two of Die Walküre. Wotan’s long-suffering wife, Fricka, has demanded that Wotan do something about the incestuous adultery of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, despite the fact that Wotan was Siegmund’s father and teacher (“So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern?”). In point of fact, Fricka demands that Wotan do nothing when Sieglinde’s husband comes to settle accounts. Wotan hoped to raise a free hero who could recover the titular Ring, which, as one remembers from Das Rheingold, Wotan himself cannot touch, lest he break the contracts that give him his authority (“Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich”). Wotan then has to explain the situation to his daughter, Brünnhilde, and comes to the realization that in all his efforts to make a free hero, he finds only himself (“Nun einer könnte, was ich nicht darf”). That is, all his creatures are, just that, creatures, and they reflect him and his all-too-real flaws. The optioneers will discover, Wotan-like, that they’ve made communities resembling primarily themselves: good liberal subjects.

This is, in part, why we have talked so much about a ressourcement of Aristotelian-Thomistic political theory, which finds its best modern expression in the magisterium of Leo XIII. Without a proper understanding of the polity, how just laws are framed, and a proper conception of politics, it is simply not rational to expect a withdrawal from society in any meaningful sense to spark a restoration of Christian life. One will most likely create enclaves of religiously flavored liberalism that rely ultimately on liberal concepts such as religious liberty to survive. Now, perhaps the withdrawals proposed are not withdrawals in any meaningful sense. Perhaps they are merely histrionics, designed to emphasize to secular liberals the age-old point “You’ll really miss us when we’re gone.” Such histrionics are understandable—as we say, draw a line from Roe to Obergefell—but ultimately not productive. Either way, no progress is going to be made against the forces of liberalism without rediscovering the teaching of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII.

Mosebach, the Extraordinary Form, and the Offertory

At First Things, Martin Mosebach, author of The Heresy of Formlessness, has a provocative essay reflecting upon the restoration of the Roman Rite under Benedict XVI. It is a long essay, and well worth reading and reflecting upon at length. We doubt that you’ll need much incentive to check it out, but we wanted to call your your attention to a couple of excerpts. (And to criticize, very gently, a statement Mosebach makes about the offertory in the Roman Rite.) He concludes,

The movement for the old rite, far from indicating aesthetic self-satisfaction, has, in truth, an apostolic character. It has been observed that the Roman Rite has an especially strong effect on converts, indeed, that it has even brought about a considerable number of conversions. Its deep rootedness in history and its alignment with the end of the world create a sacred time antithetical to the present, a present that, with its acquisitive preoccupations, leaves many people unsatisfied. Above all, the old rite runs counter to the faith in progress that has long gone hand in hand with an economic mentality that is now curdling into anxiety regarding the future and even a certain pessimism. This contradiction with the spirit of our present age should not be lamented. It betokens, rather, a general awakening from a two-hundred-year-old delusion. Christians always knew that the world fell because of original sin and that, as far as the course of history is concerned, it offers no reason at all for optimism. The Catholic religion is, in the words of T. S. Eliot, a “philosophy of disillusionment” that does not suppress hope, but rather teaches us not to direct our hope toward something that the world cannot give. The liturgy of Rome and, naturally, Greek Orthodoxy’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom open a window that draws our gaze from time into eternity.

Reform is a return to form. The movement that seeks to restore the form of the Latin Rite is still an avant-garde, attracting young people who find modern society suffocating. But it can only be a truly Christian avant-garde if it does not forget those it leads into battle; it must not forget the multitude who will someday have to find their way back into the abundant richness of the Catholic religion, once the generations who, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, sought the salvation of the Church in its secularization have sunk into their graves.

(Emphasis supplied.) We add that what is true of the Mass is true too of the Breviary and other time-honored forms of the Church’s liturgical prayer, like the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We are reminded of Bl. Ildefonso Card. Schuster’s observation, made near the end of his life (translated a couple of years ago by Gregory DiPippo at New Liturgical Movement):

I close my eyes, and while my lips murmur the words of the Breviary which I know by heart, I leave behind their literal meaning, and feel that I am in that endless land where the Church, militant and pilgrim, passes, walking towards the promised fatherland. I breathe with the Church in the same light by day, the same darkness by night; I see on every side of me the forces of evil that beset and assail Her; I find myself in the midst of Her battles and victories, Her prayers of anguish and Her songs of triumph, in the midst of the oppression of prisoners, the groans of the dying, the rejoicing of the armies and captains victorious. I find myself in their midst, but not as a passive spectator; nay rather, as one whose vigilance and skill, whose strength and courage can bear a decisive weight on the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and upon the eternal destinies of individual men and of the multitude.

(Emphasis supplied.) To join so many of our forebears in prayer is to begin to join them in other ways, and, bit by bit, to leave behind the blandishments of the modern world for the faith that they passed down to us.

Now, we cannot discuss the question of the traditional Roman Rite without engaging in some harmless antiquarianism and mild disagreement. And we found ground for disagreement in the way Mosebach characterizes the offertory and the necessity of the epiclesis in the traditional Roman Rite. This is, as you’ll see in a moment, a bit of a capital-T Thing. Mosebach observes:

This hope of restored liturgical continuity was connected to the concept of a “reform of the reform,” a notion Benedict had already introduced when he was a cardinal. What Ratzinger wished to encourage with the idea of reform of the reform is exactly what the council fathers at Vatican II had in mind when they formulated Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. They wanted to allow exceptions to the use of Latin as the common language of the liturgy, insofar as it should be beneficial to the salvation of souls. That the vernacular was presented as the exception only emphasized the immense significance of Latin as the language of the Church. They imagined a certain streamlining of the rite, such as the elimination of the preparatory prayer at the steps of the altar and the closing Gospel reading, which would have been highly lamentable losses without any noteworthy advantages, but which would not have damaged the essence of the liturgy. Of course they left the ancient offertorium untouched. These prayers over the bread and wine make clear the priestly and sacrificial character of the Mass and are therefore essential. Among these, the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit who will consecrate the offerings, is especially important. According to the apostolic tradition, which includes the eastern Roman Empire, this prayer of consecration is critical.

(Emphasis supplied.) While the loss of the traditional offertory was by no means something to be happy about, we should not allow ourselves to get carried away when lamenting its loss. Recall that Mosebach is talking about the restoration of the traditional Roman Rite, not a comparative study of the various liturgies with apostolic or patristic origins.

Mosebach’s first mistake is characterizing the offertory as “ancient.” In his article on the offertory in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, Adrian Fortescue observed:

Originally the only Roman Offertory prayers were the secrets. The Gregorian Sacramentary contains only the rubric: “deinde offertorium, et dicitur oratio super oblata” (P.L. LXXVIII, 25). The Oratio super oblata is the Secret. All the old secrets express the offertory idea clearly. They were said silently by the celebrant (hence their name) and so are not introduced by Oremus. This corresponds to the oldest custom mentioned in the “Apost. Const.”; its reason is that meanwhile the people sang a psalm (the Offertory chant). In the Middle Ages, as the public presentation of the gifts by the people had disappeared, there seemed to be a void at this moment which was filled by our present Offertory prayers (Thalhofer, op. cit. below, II, 161). For a long time these prayers were considered a private devotion of the priest, like the preparation at the foot of the altar. They are a Northern (late Gallican) addition, not part of the old Roman Rite, and were at first not written in missals. Micrologus says: “The Roman order appointed no prayer after the Offertory before the Secret” (cxi, P.L., CLI, 984). He mentions the later Offertory prayers as a “Gallican order” and says that they occur “not from any law but as an ecclesiastical custom”. The medieval Offertory prayers vary considerably. They were established at Rome by the fourteenth century (Ordo Rom. XIV., 53, P.L. LXXVIII, 1165). The present Roman prayers were compiled from various sources, Gallican or Mozarabic. The prayer “Suscipe sancte pater” occurs in Charles the Bald’s (875-877) prayer book; “Deus qui humanæ substantiæ” is modified from a Christmas Collect in the Gregorian Sacramentary (P.L., LXXVIII, 32): “Offerimus tibi Domine” and “Veni sanctificator” (fragment of an old Epiklesis, Hoppe, “Die Epiklesis”, Schaffhausen, 1864, p. 272) are Mozarabic (P.L. LXXXV, 112). Before Pius V’s Missal these prayers were often preceded by the title “Canon minor” or “Secretella” (as amplifications of the Secret). The Missal of Pius V (1570) printed them in the Ordinary. Since then the prayers that we know form part of the Roman Mass. The ideas expressed in them are obvious. Only it may be noted that two expressions: “hanc immaculatam hostiam” and “calicem salutaris” dramatically anticipate the moment of consecration, as does the Byzantine Cherubikon.

(Emphasis supplied.) Fortescue makes much the same point on pages 304 to 308 in the 1914 edition of his The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy. When Mosebach describes the offertorium—in the context of the traditional Roman Rite—as “ancient,” he is saying something simply not supported by the historical development of the Roman Rite. They’re old enough, but they’re not as old as the Canon Romanus itself. And the prayers of the offertory are not uniformly Roman; in fact, they’re mostly Gallican and Mozarabic. Perhaps this is merely traditionalist exuberance finding tremendous antiquity and Romanità in every corner of the traditional Roman Rite, as a very sharp friend of ours has suggested. However, writing a prose poem about the value of the traditional Roman Rite and then getting sloppy about the development of the traditional Roman Rite is something else.

Mosebach makes a more serious mistake when he turns to the matter of the epiclesis. Indeed, Fortescue clearly establishes that Mosebach goes too far when he says “the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit who will consecrate the offerings, is especially important. According to the apostolic tradition, which includes the eastern Roman Empire, this prayer of consecration is critical” in the context of the traditional Roman Rite. It is, we submit, not “critical” to the Roman Rite by any stretch of the imagination, and we’ll see in a moment that it may not even be an especially Roman idea. In an appendix to The Mass (pp. 402–07, 1914 ed.) devoted to the question of the epiclesis in the Roman Rite, Fortescue argues that the Roman Rite originally had some sort of epiclesis (a point with which John Hunwicke might disagree, but more on that in a second, like we said), but that it was dropped from the liturgy as a result of patristic insistence on the words of institution as the form of the consecration. We don’t know, Fortescue says, what this primitive epiclesis looked like, as it disappeared before the various sacramentaries were prepared. But, according to Fortescue, the primitive epiclesis likely came at about the same place the Supra quae and Supplices come now. (And the Supra quae and Supplices came in essentially the same form and in essentially the same place in the Gelasian Sacramentary, as one can see on page 235 of Wilson’s edition. Likewise the Gregorian, viz. p. 3 of Wilson’s edition.) The upshot is that the epiclesis was so important in the Roman Rite that it was omitted very early on in order to avoid confusion over the form of the sacrament. Whether this prompted heartburn among the popes of the age is another question.

There is no question, however, about conflating the offertory with the primitive Roman epiclesis. In Fortescue’s judgment, this Roman epiclesis came after the words of institution. At any rate, the Roman offertory could not have been this primitive epiclesis, since, at the time when the epiclesis was purportedly part of the Roman liturgy, the offertory was simply the secret, with the congregation singing the offertory chant. (The prayer, Veni Sanctificator, included in the offertory prayers as codified by St. Pius V, was a much later addition from the Mozarabic Rite, as Fortescue notes.) Now, John Hunwicke would object strenuously (and did over a series of posts in 2015) at the idea that the Roman Rite had to have an epiclesis. He suggests that, theologically, the Quam oblationem is the quintessentially Roman prayer in this context. However, regardless of the theological question: he is manifestly correct: the primitive Roman epiclesis was omitted to avoid confusion about the form of the sacrament. The Roman Rite did not need an epiclesis, whether or not it had one in its early form.

And this does not take into account the orientalizing battles in the 20th century about the epiclesis. Perhaps it should, though. Mosebach talks about the conservative—organic?—reforms envisioned by the Council fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and then dives right into one of the favorite topics of the professional liturgists who hijacked the liturgy in what Mosebach characterizes as the “Spirit of 1968.” (We might quibble with that, too, and call it the “Spirit of 1910” or the “Spirit of 1955.”) Now, all of this might be harmless antiquarianism and mild disagreement, not to say waspishness or pedantry, but it goes to a point Mosebach tries to get at in his essay. He argues:

The time has come to set aside a widespread assumption in the Catholic Church that the liturgy and religious education are in good hands with the clergy. This encourages passivity among the faithful, who believe that they do not have to concern themselves with these matters. This is not so. The great liturgical crisis following the Second Vatican Council, which was part of a larger crisis of faith and authority, put an end to the illusion that the laity need not be involved.

(Emphasis supplied.) If the faithful are to involve themselves in the liturgy—especially with a view to defending the traditional forms of the liturgy against the professional liturgists who, quite unlike Wotan in Die Walküre, seem entirely thrilled to find only themselves in their creations—then the faithful must know the history and theology of those traditional forms of the liturgy.

“A certain mediocrity, superficiality, and banality”

Yesterday, the Holy Father addressed a conference at the Vatican commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy of the Sacred Congregation for Rites, Musicam sacram. While not as detailed as St. John Paul’s 2003 chirograph commemorating the 100th anniversary of St. Pius X’s great Tra le sollicitudini, it is still an interesting statement. Especially interesting is the Holy Father’s candid admission that:

Certamente l’incontro con la modernità e l’introduzione delle lingue parlate nella Liturgia ha sollecitato tanti problemi: di linguaggi, di forme e di generi musicali. Talvolta è prevalsa una certa mediocrità, superficialità e banalità, a scapito della bellezza e intensità delle celebrazioni liturgiche. Per questo i vari protagonisti di questo ambito, musicisti e compositori, direttori e coristi di scholae cantorum, animatori della liturgia, possono dare un prezioso contributo al rinnovamento, soprattutto qualitativo, della musica sacra e del canto liturgico. Per favorire questo percorso, occorre promuovere un’adeguata formazione musicale, anche in quanti si preparano a diventare sacerdoti, nel dialogo con le correnti musicali del nostro tempo, con le istanze delle diverse aree culturali, e in atteggiamento ecumenico.

(Emphasis supplied.) We will leave it to you, dear reader, to obtain a machine translation of the text, unless you have better Italian than we do. (And almost anyone does.)

“I believed myself to be doing good”

Yesterday, Edward Pentin ran a lengthy interview with Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, about his new book about chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia. It is a stunning interview, especially given Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s role as one of the Church’s top lawyers. In fact, as we read it, we had the sense that it was going disastrously and, what’s more, the participants knew how badly it was going. An excerpt:

Isn’t it better to try to stop the situation of sin completely?

How can you stop the whole thing if that will harm people? It is important that this person doesn’t want to be in this union, wants to leave this union, wants to leave, but cannot do it. There are two things to put together: I want to, but I cannot. And I cannot — not for my own sake, but for the sake of other people. I cannot for the sake of other people.

If the two can live together as brother and sister, that’s great. But if they cannot because this would break up the union, which ought to be conserved for the good of these people, then they manage as best they can. Do you see? That’s it. And it seems this whole complicated thing has a logical explanation, motivation. If others depart from other points of view, they can also arrive at other conclusions. But I would say there would be something missing of the human person. I can’t damage a person to avoid a sin in a situation that I haven’t put myself into; I already find myself in it, one in which I, if I am this woman, have put myself into without a bad intention. On the contrary, I’m trying to do good, and, at that moment, I believed myself to be doing good, and certainly I did do good. But maybe if, already at the beginning I had known, if I knew with moral certitude that this is a sin, maybe I would not have put myself in that condition. But now I already find myself there: How can I go back? It is one thing to begin, another to interrupt. These are also different things, no?

(Emphasis supplied.)

In keeping with our Lenten suggestion, here is a passage from St. John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (no. 81), which seems to be relevant to this idea:

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) John Paul went on to teach (no. 82):

Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

(Emphasis supplied.) Consider the full effect of what John Paul taught. First, one cannot, by means of “trying to do good” and believing oneself to be doing good, transform an objectively evil act—like adultery—into a good act. The most they can do is make it less evil. Moreover, an intention to do an objectively evil act, even, one suspects, if it is a convenient or congenial intention, cannot be a “good intention.” In other words, the intention to do an objectively evil act does not lessen the evil of the act.

In any event, it is an open question for us whether one could reasonably believe that one acted with a “good intention,” though we know that that belief would be objectively mistaken, if one intended to do something objectively evil. Again John Paul, discussing conscience (no. 58):

 The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man. Saint Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force”. Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience. “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man”.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.)

 

Aristotle, Thomas, and the “City of Rod”

Rod Dreher has released his book, The Benedict Option, setting forth one more time that which he has set forth many, many times in various essays and blog posts. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a leading voice among Catholic leftists, has reviewed the book at great length and, frankly, panned it. Dreher has responded to Bruenig’s review at equally great length, and you can read the whole exchange at the links above. (We will not bore you by summarizing all of Bruenig’s critiques and Dreher’s responses.) However, our attention was grabbed by one passage in Dreher’s response:

As I say in the book, Christians have to stay engaged in ordinary politics, if only to protect our religious liberty interests. (I believe we have to stay involved for other reasons too, but even if you don’t agree, you can at least agree that religious liberty is absolutely vital.) But we cannot put as much trust in politics as we have in past eras. The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) For someone who claims—as Dreher does—to be encouraging Christians to recover a premodern tradition to fight the corrosive influence of liberalism, this is a stunning statement. Indeed, it constitutes nothing less than a rejection of the premodern tradition regarding politics. Let us put it another way; Bruenig is not the most stringent critic of Dreher on this point—Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are.

A very brief review of the relevant points is perhaps in order. You no doubt know, dear reader, that Aristotle taught that man is a political animal and that the state arises from nature (Politics I.1, 1253a3–4). Aquinas follows this teaching when he observes, in the context of the natural law, that it is proper for man to know truths about living in society (ST Ia IIae q.94 a.2 co.). And this point remains noncontroversial in the tradition. Leo XIII, for example, reaffirms that it is natural to man to live in society in Immortale Dei. The great pope further reminds us that, in nature, rulers are necessary for the direction of society, even if a particular kind of ruler is not necessary (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 co. & ad 3). And the ruler makes laws in order to make the members of the society good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.2 co.; Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–28). Finally, politics, Aristotle tells us, is simply the practical art of making good laws (Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–25, 1181a22–b1; cf. ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co. & ad 3).

With these very basic principles in mind, the extent of Dreher’s error becomes obvious. Man participates in politics, either as ruler or ruled, naturally (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 1). The notion that man could withdraw from politics naturally is ridiculous (cf. Politics I.1, 1253a4–6). The notion becomes more ridiculous when one considers that the civil power comes from God, regardless of the political mechanism for its exercise and transmission. We won’t beat this dead horse further by discussing the duties of the state to God and true religion, to say nothing of the indirect subordination of state to Church. The bottom line is that the idea that a Christian could—much less should—limit his or her political engagement simply misunderstands what politics is. Now, one may say that one ought to express his or her engagement in a given way—a Catholic may vote for a pro-abortion politician only in certain circumstances when his opponent’s position on another grave matter requires it—but if that is what Dreher means, you could have fooled us.

Especially because Dreher goes on to say:

Right now, a lot of Christian conservatives believe that we dodged a bullet with the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I agree that things aren’t as dangerous for us now as they would have been under Clinton. But it’s simply delusional to think that Trump is going to turn things around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that. As Bruenig makes clear early in her review, there is increasingly little space for us Christians, at least those who don’t go along with the latest iteration of liberalism, in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus hoped that we would have a place there. That project has failed, it seems to me. What now? Yes, we still have to be engaged in politics, but what happens when and if we lose? We don’t suddenly cease to be Christian, or to have the obligation to serve Christ, even if we have to suffer for it. How are we going to do that? How will we find the faith and the courage within us to know when we are being asked to believe or to accept something that we cannot if we want to be faithful? Where is our “Here I stand, I can do no other” line? How will we know when we are being asked to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, living as we must as resident aliens in Babylon, and how will we find it within ourselves to go into the furnace singing, as did Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

(Emphasis supplied.) Given all of this, it is passing hard to imagine that Dreher simply meant to say that we have to temper our engagement, while remaining politically active as nature requires.

It is, however, not hard at all to see how Dreher loses the thread. A sharp friend of ours has observed that Dreher’s work as a journalist has influenced his thinking on this point. Recall what he said a little bit before what we just quoted:

The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) In essence, Dreher’s complaint is that American Christians are bad at politics. One does not have to be a journalist reporting on politics and culture—like Dreher—to see that the deal that conservative Christians have cut, knowingly or not, with Republicans has not been a good deal historically. This is obvious. And we will not bore you with all the ways in which it is obvious. You can recite them as well as we can. But it is clear that Dreher’s reporting on this situation has affected how he thinks politics work in general terms.

And this, of course, is the great temptation for a traditionally minded or integralist Catholic (or Christian more broadly): the culture—political, popular, and otherwise—of the United States is undoubtedly disordered. Part of this disorder is the hostility to Christians generally and orthodox Christians specifically. But it extends far beyond that. And confronted with this, the temptation for a serious Christian is to react to the situation itself. But this is ultimately the wrong approach. St. Thomas tells us that law—and therefore politics—is an exercise of reason ordered to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.2 co. & ad 1). While there is certainly room for the application of discretion and judgment, consistent with the common good and the divine and natural law, in given circumstances, one must be careful not to jettison the conclusions of reason itself based upon those circumstances.

Dreher falls into just that trap. He observes correctly that the culture of the United States is bad, and he reacts to this situation by deciding that Christians should participate in politics only on limited terms. No. Dreher is right that the way out is by recovering the premodern tradition, but recovering the premodern tradition means understanding that political participation is natural to man.

A suggestion for Lent

As you may know, dear reader, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We are sure that you have all manner of mortifications and penances planned for your spiritual improvement. We would not presume to suggest to you anything in addition to those mortifications and penances you have planned for yourself. But we do wish to suggest a Lenten exercise of an altogether different sort: take some time this Lent and read John Paul’s 1994 Encyclical “On Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching,” Veritatis splendor. Increasingly we are convinced that a knowledge of Veritatis splendor is absolutely essential for this moment in the Church. More than that, it provides a crash course in freedom and the moral law, which seems especially appropriate for a penitential season. It is lengthy, but manageable if, say, one reads a little bit of it over forty days or so.

An Ash Wednesday reflection

Matthew Walther is one of the funniest writers working today. If you have not read his columns for the Washington Free Beacon about the 2016 presidential election, you have missed a great treat. (It’s not too late, though!) He is also a very serious, traditionally minded Catholic. Today, at the Catholic Herald, he has an excellent column about his return to the Church, sparked by T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. It would be unfair to excerpt it, so we will say instead that you should read it there.

We observe, in passing, one bit in particular from Walther’s essay: the music at the Ash Wednesday Mass he attended was in Latin. And his is not the only story we have read in which the majesty of the Church’s liturgical tradition has drawn Catholics back to the Church or made converts of non-Catholics. (If anyone validly baptized can be said to be a non-Catholic.)