Before a parting of the ways

At Mere Orthodoxy last week, Jake Meador wrote a piece about “The Parting of Ways Among Younger Christians.” Despite being a protestant, Meador has followed Catholics’ discussions of integralism and liberalism fairly closely and is, unlike some other protestants, a fairly sympathetic observer. Meador is commenting upon a note by Alan Jacobs about the recent blowup over the Mortara case—particularly Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things essay defending Bl. Pius IX. Meador’s piece is well worth reading—Jacobs’s is not: it’s another entry in the genre of essays wondering how First Things could be so unecumenical as to publish a Catholic priest defending Catholic doctrine—not least because Meador sees this as the end (or nearly the end) of the ecumenical project of Catholics and some protestants working together. That is, as Catholics and various kinds of protestants explore their own traditions, there will be fewer and fewer ecumenical projects. Meador is not (at least he does not seem) brokenhearted by this. However, others may be.

We won’t waste your time by quoting from Jacobs’s piece at length. However, he is clearly hysterical at the prospect of a First Things in the hands of Roman Catholics who believe what the Church of Rome teaches. His overheated reaction is very understandable. For a long time, First Things represented one of the places where Catholics and some protestants met on grounds of broad agreement to defend a vision of liberalism against the encroachments of another vision of liberalism. What Jacobs does not understand—and what Meador understands very well—is that young Catholics, including young Catholics who write for First Things, have begun the laborious process of recovering the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. What this means is that some writers are less committed to any vision of liberalism, which has serious implications for the project altogether. However, other regular contributors, like George Weigel, remain as committed as ever, as near as we can tell, to the old First Things vision. Meador understands that, as the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is recovered, as it must be, the ecumenism made possible by the Church’s engagement with liberalism at the Second Vatican Council and its reception, especially by American conservatives under the guidance of St. John Paul II, becomes less possible.

Meador is not wrong to call this a parting of the ways. But before this parting of the ways, it is necessary, we think, to consider where we are and what the possible paths forward are. In short, Catholics are grappling with liberalism, the disastrous effects of which are on display in almost every walk of life, and the debate over liberalism is directly effecting the ability of Catholics to participate in ecumenical projects. There are two modes of engaging with liberalism in the Church today. One, inspired broadly by the Second Vatican Council, seeks to preserve the liberalism of the years immediately following the Second World War. This group has historically found much in common with protestants and those of non-Christian faiths, and it has historically sought to form broad coalitions aimed at preserving the “good liberalism” of the 1950s and 1960s. The other, inspired broadly by the Church’s preconciliar teaching, seeks to look beyond liberalism. Therefore, these Catholics tend to be more suspicious of ecumenical projects, especially, as Meador notes, the indifferentist aspects of ecumenical projects. Moreover, they are not nearly so interested in reestablishing the liberal consensus of the 1950s and 1960s. The fundamental tension between the two groups, we think, comes from the ongoing debate within the Church about the Second Vatican Council.



Fifty-two years and counting after the close of the Council, Catholics can question whether the Church’s engagement with liberalism worked. The enthusiastic opening to the postwar order contained, more or less, in Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, and Nostra aetate, among other documents, did not deepen the dialogue between the Church and the world. It resulted in liberalism receiving dogmatic status in the Church. Perhaps this would not have been the worst thing, if liberalism had remained what it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Certainly we see in sources as disparate as Ross Douthat and the Paris Statement, signed by such luminaries as Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, Roger Scruton, and Robert Spaemann, a desire to return to that initial postwar liberalism. In other words, for these thinkers, there was a moment before—let us call it the Moment Before—liberalism went wrong. If the slide can be arrested and the order reset to that moment, then the faults of liberalism will disappear. It follows, we think, that under such a notion, the Church’s engagement with liberalism is only contingently imprudent.

As we say, the Council and the major documents of the Council are at the very center of this discussion. Here, the Villanova Church historian and social-media genius Massimo Faggioli’s Twitter feed is essential reading. He argues, we think, that various Council documents, especially Dignitatis humanae, are clearly corrections of the Church’s prior illiberal teachings. In his view, the Council plainly brought the Church in line with postwar liberal democracy. To insist upon a more traditionalist reading of the Council documents, a reading that begins but does not end with Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity, in Faggioli’s mind, is to challenge the Church’s commitment to liberal democracy. Indeed, to insist that Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus remain valid teachings, along with Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei, Libertas, and Diuturnum, and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, is to come very near to what Faggioli somewhat breathlessly calls “Catholic fascism.” (That Pius XI also issued Non abbiamo bisogno and Mit brennender Sorge does not seem to figure much in Faggioli’s calculations.) In other words, the more political pronouncements of the Council and liberalism are inextricably linked, pull at one thread and the whole seamless garment, if you’ll excuse the joke, comes apart.

Now, there are problems with the anti-liberal argument that has Faggioli so panicked, which both traditionalists and alarmed liberals need to consider carefully. Notably, they need to consider what Leo XIII’s ralliement policy, as outlined in Au milieu des sollicitudes, means for the Church’s anti-liberal posture in the 19th and early 20th century. Obviously, the ralliement policy came off the rails during St. Pius X’s pontificate, as Vehementer nos shows. But it is not enough to say that practically Leo’s initiative failed. The implications for ralliement in the context of Leo’s anti-liberal thought ought to be considered carefully. The pope of Immortale Dei is the pope of Au milieu des sollicitudes, and the nature of the French Third Republic was well known to Leo. Yet Leo urged Catholics to support the Third Republic. Whether ralliement is enough to complicate the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine significantly is an open question. We have our doubts, but we are also not hugely interested in avoiding the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine.

At any rate, a great debate could be had about Faggioli’s point, though Bishop Bernard Fellay of the SSPX is no doubt pleased to hear a prominent progressive theologian concede Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s point. Nevertheless, this is another reason why the furor over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things article about the Mortara case reached such a fever pitch. Cessario’s argument is clearly drawn from the tradition of the Church and—despite Nathaniel Peters’s valiant effort to mention only about half of the essential Thomistic sources—is essentially unanswerable. As such, it serves as a sort of confirmation of liberals’ deep fear that the openness to liberalism that Catholics have shown is not much older than 1965 and is not broadly supported in the tradition of the Church. In other words, there is a sense that if the Catholics start poking around too much in their tradition, if they start looking behind the copy of the documents of Vatican II on their bookshelves, they will find teachings incompatible with liberalism. Indeed, they will find that the Church, within living memory, was squarely opposed to liberalism. It will be impossible to articulate a Catholic vision of the search for the Moment Before when Catholics figure out that the Church taught, until fairly recently, that there was no Moment Before.

A couple of observations. First, the idea of the Moment Before has profited Catholics almost nothing. Despite fifty years of explanations of how Catholicism and the Bill of Rights in the federal Constitution are entirely reconcilable, every major social decision has gone against the Church. From Roe to Obergefell, the engagement of Catholics with the liberal American order has resulted in defeat after defeat. The American bishops have, in the face of increasingly draconian “anti-discrimination” laws, mounted a last stand on “religious liberty,” but it is unclear whether this battle will result in some breathing room for the Church. The idea of a Moment Before seems to involve resetting the clock, so to speak, to right before Catholics started losing all these important political and legal contests. However, it is only infrequently mentioned that these political and legal contests were fought and lost during a period when the Church was enthusiastically engaged in the liberal American order. In other words, the Church, inspired by the approach mapped out at the Second Vatican Council, was actively participating in and, more important, supporting American political life—and it still lost the debates. To put it another way, the idea of a Moment Before involves returning to the conditions that produced the current state of affairs.

Second, the tension between Catholic liberals searching for a liberalism that is truly liberalism and Catholic integralists delving into the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is inevitable. We have seen that everyone agrees, more or less, that liberalism and the Council are inextricably linked. Everyone also agrees that we are in the process of receiving, as they say, the teachings, such as they are, of the Council. The debates over the Council within the Church are going to inevitably implicate the posture of Catholics toward liberalism. Catholics seeking a deeper understanding of tradition, particularly on the social question, have begun to look back beyond the Council into the teachings of Pius XII, Pius XI, St. Pius X, and Leo XIII in particular. And in those teachings, as we say, they have found the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine. Things get extremely sticky from that point.


Things get stickiest along the lines Meador and Jacobs identify. If Catholics start receiving the political thought of the Church, it will turn out that the broad consensus represented by Evangelicals & Catholics Together was illusory. Or, more precisely, it was based entirely on the Church’s posture at the Council and in the wake of the Council, which was not the Church’s historical posture. What do we mean? Well, before the Council, the Church was opposed to liberalism, root and branch. There was no Moment Before when there was a good liberalism. There might be pragmatic reasons to temper active opposition to liberal regimes, such as the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe. But in terms of liberalism simpliciter, the Church’s judgment was clear. The Council then did something—some might say it made a pragmatic judgment due to the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe, some might say it corrected the earlier extremism of the popes—and opened itself up to liberalism. The agenda sketched out in Evangelicals & Catholics Together relies entirely on that openness insofar as the enthusiastic cooperation with the American order outlined in that document is enthusiastic cooperation with liberalism.

Other thinkers are challenging the idea of a Moment Before. Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, presents the idea—not a new one, necessarily—that the problems we see in the liberal order today are essentially baked into liberalism. Deneen’s book has brought out numerous responses, including an insightful review from Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule at American Affairs. Building on an essay in First Things some time ago, Vermeule argues essentially that integralist Catholics ought to consider populating elite institutions and, occupying positions of power, use their authority “to further human dignity and the common good, defined entirely in substantive rather than procedural-technical terms.” Where Douthat and others would say that Christians must engage with the liberal order to return to the Moment Before, Vermeule seems to argue that, first, there is no Moment Before to return to, and, second, integralist Catholics must engage with the liberal order to supersede it.

There are superficial similarities between the two approaches. Neither Douthat nor Vermeule retreats into gated communities or enclaves of Holy (Russian) Orthodoxy in the bayou, as Rod Dreher sometimes suggests and sometimes denies suggesting. Indeed, in both men’s visions, you will see intelligent Christians educated at elite schools entering the service of the regime. Some will go into government, some will go into the institutions the government serves, like finance, and others will go back into elite schools to prepare the next wave. In time, perhaps not a very long time, you will see the regime get better. But this is where Vermeule and Douthat’s visions diverge sharply. At a certain point, Douthat and the signatories to the Paris Statement and those who agree with them will recognize their Moment Before. Liberalism is itself again, they will say. Vermeule will say, simply, that we are well on our way to our goal.

To a certain extent, evangelicals like Meador, concerned by the rise of integralism among intelligent Catholics, should cheer Vermeule’s strategy. For the moment, it provides a way that integralists can remain part of the broader Christian conversation in the United States. Vermeule urges integralist Catholics to engage and populate liberal institutions and—and this bit is important—simply discharge their duties according to human dignity and the common good. There is, at least at the outset, little for Meador to be concerned about with respect to the intolerant integralist Catholics. The Catholic confessional state that he spends as much time as anyone worrying about would not emerge overnight. It might not emerge for a long time. Until that point, it would be exactly the sort of activity that the signatories of Evangelicals & Catholics Together would want to see. However, we would be surprised if Meador—or, for that matter, Alan Jacobs—would cheer Vermeule’s strategy all that enthusiastically.