From Vermeule to Newman

Former Catholic and amateur butter importer Rod Dreher has criticized Harvard Law professor and current Catholic Adrian Vermeule for his insufficiently critical stance toward Pope Francis. Dreher, currently in communion with one of the several Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, argues that Vermeule’s ultramontanism stems from Vermeule’s Schmittian priors. You can read the blog post and decide for yourselves. However, Dreher’s screed follows hot on the heels of a general meltdown over Francis’s decision to canonize Pope Paul VI. Additionally, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò continues to publish statements about his allegations regarding the handling of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s case. All of these things have us thinking about the correct mode of criticism and the need for crucial distinctions.

In some circles, it seems that the default position on Francis is one of criticism. This is true both. in traditionalist circles and mainstream conservative circles. Michael Brendan Dougherty just had a cover story at National Review setting forth “the case against Pope Francis.” Likewise, Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a lengthy book, which is in some respects very critical of Francis. Other voices from more traditionalist circles, like H.J.A. Sire and Peter Kwasniewski, have been heard, raising issues personal and theological about Francis and his pontificate. Speaking purely for ourselves, and going purely on impressions, there seems to have been a shift in the criticism of Francis from raising questions about particular acts toward a general opposition to his pontificate.

We would not pretend that there are not serious questions about Francis’s pontificate. John Joy, for example, has set out an (unanswerable) argument that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is infallible and irreformable, despite Francis’s decision to declare it “inadmissible.” We have discussed on innumerable occasions the debate over Amoris laetitia, which seems for the moment to have died down. (Francis’s insistence on the independence of episcopal conferences seems to have cut both ways in this case.) There are other issues that have cropped up, and the ongoing Youth Synod has been a flashpoint for still other issues, including same-sex attraction, contraception, and even the ghost of liturgical reform (a ghost that has gotten long in the tooth and whose shroud is moth eaten by now).

The doctrinal issues are, to our mind, somewhat separate and apart from the ongoing crisis roiling the American Church. The current iteration of the sex-abuse scandal has led to the downfall of not only Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but also Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl. It appears that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a RICO investigation into the Church in Pennsylvania. This will, no doubt, please those Catholics who were calling for greater state intervention into the Church in the wake of the latest abuse revelations. (For our part, we are far from sure that this will end as well as the voices calling for intervention think it will.) The American crisis follows on the heels of the protracted, frankly embarrassing affair in Chile.

One might say, perhaps not unreasonably, that the default position toward Francis in these circles is critical because there is so much to be critical about. However, it seems to us that a fundamental principle is lost when the default position toward Francis becomes one of criticism. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that there is an inversion of the right order of things when this is the case. Here we could discuss Thomas, who held that fraternal correction is a matter of virtue and therefore subject to all the requirements for any act of virtue. There have been magisterial interventions, both by the Plenary Councils of Baltimore and by Leo XIII, about the duties of Catholics commenting on current events. To our knowledge, no one has collected these interventions in one place for serious study. Hopefully someone more inclined to careful research and scholarship will do so.

But maybe they don’t have to.

It may not please Professor Vermeule to know that, in all of this, we are reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman, who, in a sermon preached October 7, 1866 (somewhat before Pius IX called the Vatican Council, when the infallibility debate reached its fever pitch), said:

[W]hat need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is,—not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties,—but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.

The whole sermon is well worth reading, not least because it treats at length of the Papal States and the union between the Church and state power. However, for our purposes the extract here is sufficient.

Recall also Newman’s so-called biglietto speech, given May 12, 1879, upon the formal notification that Pope Leo XIII, who had been elected pope just over a year before, had raised Newman to the dignity of cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” Newman went on to say on that occasion,

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Perhaps the current criticism of Francis is not quite Newman’s loathed liberalism in religion. However, it is not so far off as one might like to imagine. Certainly the right to express one’s opinions of Francis—good, bad, especially bad, or otherwise—is implicit in all of the criticism of Francis swirling today. Therefore, it seems to us that there is something profoundly illiberal in Newman’s insistence in 1866 that, in the pope’s religious acts, Catholics “must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side.” This view rejects, fundamentally, that every opinion ought to be expressed. Indeed, it holds that basically no opinion ought to be expressed, except, of course, opinions supportive of the pope’s rule over the Church.

Consequently, Professor Vermeule’s position seems to us to be an entirely reasonable anti-liberal position. One of the leading opponents of liberalism of the 19th century adopted a position no less deferential to the pope than Vermeule’s apparent ultramontanism. Of course, there are other explanations, including the notion that Professor Vermeule does not think Francis is as disastrous as his critics do. But given his thorough anti-liberalism in other respects, it is at least plausible that his attitude toward the Pope is motivated by distrust and dislike for liberalism.

Dreher is not wrong when he notes a fundamental tension in this position; that is, Francis seems a committed partisan of political and theological liberalism and it therefore is bizarre to adopt an anti-liberal attitude toward criticizing him. This, we think, is a misreading of Francis’s pontificate. It is far from clear that Francis is the liberal that has been advertised. Certainly in political and environmental terms, he is no liberal. Indeed, as Rusty Reno noted, Francis is as suspicious of liberal modernity as Pius IX ever was. And there’s a case to be made that Francis thinks that liberal modernity has rendered us incapable of strenuous moral life. This is, in fact, far bleaker than anything Pius IX ever held. And it is, of course, debatable. Highly debatable.

Even if Francis is a liberal, it is far from clear to us that the proper response is liberalism. This, then, is the crux of the problem. Barring the Head of the Church returning, there will be other popes. Perhaps some will be, in the words of the great Louisiana philosopher and theologian I.J. Reilly, good authoritarian popes. Perhaps some will be liberals. However, the anti-liberal position works as well with a good authoritarian pope as it does with a liberal pope. Indeed, it works even better. And it has the advantage of avoiding a perpetual oscillation between ultramontanism and neo-Gallicanism.