At Public Discourse, the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal of anti-integralist thought, Hillsdale professor Korey Maas warns that, “[i]nsofar as prominent and influential Catholics insist that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal tradition, liberals will feel increasingly justified in reaching the same conclusion.” He goes on to say, “[a]ttempts to convince fellow Catholics that the ‘teaching of the Catholic Church, always and everywhere,’ idealizes the confessional state and sanctions religious coercion will inevitably convince many non-Catholics, liberal and otherwise, that this is indeed the case.” However, Maas’s argument has more to do, we think, with silencing integralists and other Catholics not committed to the Catholic liberalism of the late 20th century than with warning of any impending doom.
This is unfortunate. Instead of coming up with silly arguments for why integralism is dangerous or whatever, liberals like Maas really ought to be doing what illiberal Catholics have been doing: rediscovering their own tradition. And they should cast their gaze on more than the tradition of the United States. The fusion between Catholic liberalism and American conservatism has permanently damaged Catholic liberalism, especially as American conservatism has failed to deliver on its promises. For reasons we will get into in a moment, Maas probably does not care all that much about specifically Catholic liberalism, but that’s neither here nor there. Focusing on policing integralist (or, more broadly, illiberal) rhetoric does not create a compelling case for liberalism. If anything, it reveals that the case for integralism is more compelling than any actually existing case for liberalism.
Maas’s argument goes like this. In the 19th century, America was deeply anti-Catholic. We see today flashes of that old anti-Catholicism in the treatment afforded to Donald Trump’s judicial nominees Amy Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. Maas contends that the Church blunted some of that old anti-Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council’s openness to liberalism. This is a sort of skewed view, since there were openings to the postwar liberal-democratic order under Pope Pius XII. But to tell that story would be to take some of the focus away from the United States. At any rate, Maas thinks that the Church’s apparent turn toward liberalism—exemplified by John F. Kennedy’s statements during the 1960 presidential campaign—is what made the proud American tradition of anti-Catholicism seem silly.
After the story of anti-Catholicism, we get the customary parade of horribles. A fellow named Philip Primeau was very 19th century when discussing Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denunciation of any scrutiny of one’s religious views. Maas is aghast that Primeau thinks Rees-Mogg should have stood his ground on truth. Maas is also disturbed that Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has been so gauche to suggest that actually existing American liberalism may in fact be incompatible with orthodox Catholicism. Naturally, there is the stale lament about how First Things got radical for about two minutes. (Why Ryan T. Anderson, editor-in-chief of Public Discourse, has run so many pieces about First Things is a bit baffling, isn’t it?) Maas mentions, among other things, Fr. Romanus Cessario’s piece on the Mortara affair. He graciously declines to mention that R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, disavowed the piece subsequently. He also wrote at least one or two self-flagellating apologies before he disavowed it. No doubt Dr. Maas wanted to spare Reno from any further pain, though it would have been altogether more honest—even if less delicate—to have said that the Mortara exchange marked the end of First Things‘ flirtation with integralism.
We should be, once again, clear that the Church is fundamentally anti-liberal in its doctrine, no matter how unpleasant this may be to those committed to some flavor of liberalism. Maas cites Semiduplex for the proposition that the teachings of Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible and irreformable, including the 77th, 78th, 79th, and 80th condemnations of Syllabus. Why he didn’t simply cite John Joy’s brilliant essays is beyond us. But behind John Joy stands the great canonist F.X. Wernz, among others, who argue for the infallibility not only of Pius IX’s teachings but also Leo XIII’s explanations of those teachings. One can also read John Henry Newman’s great anti-liberal writings if one needs a literary and philosophical expansion of the Church’s anti-liberalism. Whether or not this is politic, it is true.
A young Catholic writer and friend is fond of saying that every disagreement about tone (or, we might expand his saying, rhetoric) hides a substantive disagreement. And it is clear, given what we believe to be the clear theological notes of the anti-liberal and integralist teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII, that Maas’s argument, superficially about the danger of illiberal rhetoric, hides a substantive disagreement. Maas clearly does not believe that the teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII are infallible and irreformable. Indeed, based on a quick Twitter search, it appears that Maas may be some sort of protestant, maybe even a Lutheran. It would surprise us very much, then, if a Lutheran (or any other protestant, for that matter) believed that these—or any other—teachings were infallible and irreformable. One imagines that the only Catholicism pleasing to Maas is a Catholicism that looks basically the same as Lutheranism or whatever. It would also be altogether more honest just to say that and leave it there.
But of course Maas doesn’t. He does, however, eventually come to his punchline: the rising tide of Catholic illiberalism might be taken seriously by liberals. Maas warns, “[t]he ‘last acceptable prejudice,’ instead of an irrational prejudgment, will increasingly be deemed a warranted conviction based on the rational arguments put forward by Catholic intellectuals themselves.” The old anti-Catholicism, flaring up in the Barrett and Kavanaugh hearings, will take root because the liberals will once again see Catholicism as an enemy. We hate to be so blunt, but this is just about the dumbest thing we could imagine. There is also a sort of sinister note to it, isn’t there? The protestant Korey Maas warning Catholics that if they do not do something about the integralists, there will be trouble. A brick through the window in the dead of night or a mural depicting the heroic Orangemen would be more effective, we suppose, but folks do the best they can.
At any rate, Maas cannot really mean that because of some debates among Catholic professors, writers, and WordPress bloggers, liberals will suddenly realize that Church is doctrinally opposed to liberalism. We are flattered by the idea that Dianne Feinstein and Mazie Hirono read Semiduplex and decided to keep our influence out of the federal judiciary. But we are not so silly as to believe that that’s true. Democrats gave Barrett and Kavanaugh a rough time because Democrats achieved a bunch of policy victories in the federal courts—e.g., Roe, Casey, Windsor, Obergefell—and they are not interested in Donald Trump’s judicial nominees taking them away. Stare decisis is, after all, not in the Constitution. What Harry Blackmun and Anthony Kennedy gave, John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch can take away. That’s what the fight over Trump’s judicial nominees is about, not Quanta cura and the confessional state.
Moreover, it is clear that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the trajectory of modern liberalism, not because Catholicism holds that the confessional state is the ideal or that heretics may be punished by the state, but because modern liberalism is fast going off the rails. Media outlets across the political spectrum report daily of cases where deviation from left-liberal consensus is punished severely. College campuses are unrecognizable, with even once-radical figures like Camille Paglia being shouted down for their problematic views. Major corporations are following the money and implementing the left-liberal consensus in various ways. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case shows that left-liberal activists are willing to weaponize state institutions, like the Colorado civil rights commission, in order to coerce individuals into accepting the views of others. Maas may not realize it, but prominent Catholic thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule devote a fair bit of time to discussing these trends, too.
In contrast, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council is hopelessly reactionary. Maas might not know this, but even Catholic liberals cannot accept same-sex “marriage” or abortion. (Even Fr. James Martin, SJ, one of the loudest pro-gay voices in the Church today, is a regular, staunch defender of the unborn on social media.) There are no signs that Pope Francis, regularly accused by friend and foe of reinvigorating the spirit of the Council after the perceived setbacks of 1978-2013, intends on retreating in any meaningful way from the Church’s positions on those issues. He also gives few signs of willingness to retreat on the question of women’s ordination—though after the interventions of Paul VI and John Paul II, it is clear that he could not change the Church’s teaching on that, even if he wanted to. Any one of these positions, which are held even by liberals like those at Public Discourse, would be enough to get the Church “canceled” as the kids say. To hold all three? Unforgivable.
And it is simply not clear that defending liberal toleration will achieve even tactical objectives in the current climate. For one thing, the people who are loudest about problematic views on college campuses, on social media, and in various boycott campaigns are simply not all that liberal. They themselves do not recognize a meaningful “right” to profess unacceptable opinions. Indeed, as Professor Paglia recently discovered at the University of the Arts, these unacceptable positions are seen as actual violence. We are simply unconvinced that pleas for liberal toleration will have much success with people who view one’s opinions as actual violence. The anti-Catholicism Maas professes to be worried about is already here, whether it is overt or not, and it is based on issues entirely unrelated to the confessional state and the use of state power to coerce heretics. Just ask the Pennsylvania state legislator who harassed teenagers praying outside a Planned Parenthood. Dollars to donuts, he wouldn’t know integralism from a load of coal.
However, the specter of coming anti-Catholicism is rhetorically useful for Maas. The implicit point of his article is: if things get bad, it will be the integralists’ fault. From here it is only a short step to arguing that integralists must be silenced before they make things get bad. In a sense, Maas’s essay concedes the wild success of integralism in the terms that actually matter (i.e., doctrinal and forensic), and mounts a last-ditch defense by ginning up the specter of anti-Catholicism as a response to Catholic illiberalism. Sure, he cites some of his fellow Public Discourse authors like Robert T. Miller, who have argued gamely and wrongly that integralism does not have the theological note that the integralists think it does. But these pieces have not been all that successful, for a variety of reasons ranging from “They’re not right” to “They’re boring.” There is no sense waiting for the liberals to mass and make a compelling counterattack. Instead, Maas makes the only play available: he retreats to warning about the inherent danger of illiberal Catholicism.
This is a pity! For our part, we believe that the only way liberalism is going to make a comeback among Catholic thinkers is by abandoning the tedious connection with American conservative politics. Instead, it is necessary to argue for the sort of postwar Christian democracy that formed the core of the European project. To be sure, it went wrong like American liberalism. It is awfully hard to see the ideals of the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s in the micromanaging Brussels bureaucracy or the smug condescension of contemporary European leaders like Guy Verhofstadt. Nevertheless, it is in the Christian-democratic project that liberalism’s best hope lays. This will no doubt be a grief to Catholic liberals who have long seen Catholicism and American conservatism as two peas in a pod, but they will be more grieved by far if they continue to see liberalism slide into irrelevance.