The Quartodeciman Controversy

One reads St. John Henry Newman’s writings or the writings of Fr. Adrian Fortescue and one finds profound knowledge of and interest in the history of the Church, especially the Apostolic and Patristic periods. And this knowledge was not merely quaint antiquarian diversion, the way someone might know about small-gauge railroads in a given county at the turn of the century. These figures brought Church history to bear on questions of doctrine and practice that were live controversies in their days. Of course, their historical works are hugely entertaining and erudite as literary monuments, too.

By contrast—and let me say at the outset that I am as guilty of it as the next fellow—today we seem not to have the same interest in the history of the Church or the precedents of the Apostolic or Patristic eras. To be sure, their theology is often referred to. But one hardly sees discussions of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History with the same frequency one sees discussions of Augustine’s Confessions or City of God. This is too bad. In a 2007 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI praised Eusebius’s history as a source of “fundamental importance.” Benedict went on to make a startling statement, considering the lack of interest one sees in Eusebius, even among educated Christians:

Thus, Eusebius strongly challenges believers of all times on their approach to the events of history and of the Church in particular. He also challenges us: what is our attitude with regard to the Church’s experiences? Is it the attitude of those who are interested in it merely out of curiosity, or even in search of something sensational or shocking at all costs? Or is it an attitude full of love and open to the mystery of those who know – through faith – that they can trace in the history of the Church those signs of God’s love and the great works of salvation wrought by him?

Given the weight that a theologian and churchman like Benedict gave to the Ecclesiastical History, one feels compelled to crack open the dusty old Loeb (or Penguin) and cast around for scenes of interest. One such scene comes at the very end of Book 5 (5.23-5.25), where Eusebius recounts the Quartodeciman Controversy. One of the reasons why Benedict considered the Ecclesiastical History of such importance is because Eusebius preserved primary sources in his history for which he is the sole source. A particularly good example of this is found in his treatment of the Quartodeciman Controversy.

The dioceses of Asia held that Easter should be celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, following the definition of Passover and the preparation for Passover given in Leviticus 23. Naturally this may or may not be a Sunday, but regardless of whether or not it was a Sunday, that’s when the Lenten fast ended and Easter began. The opinion elsewhere was that one should not end the fast except on a Sunday—the day of the Lord’s Resurrection. The latter opinion, Eusebius tells us, was universal and was handed down by the Apostles themselves.

This matter became a live controversy toward the end of the Second Century. Synods were held in Rome, Palestine, Pontus, Gaul, and Osrhoene. Pope St. Victor presided over the Roman synod and St. Irenaeus presided over the synod in Gaul. (This will be relevant in a little while.) All of these councils reached the unanimous conclusion based upon the apostolic tradition: Easter is celebrated and the fast ends on a Sunday, not the 14th of Nisan.

The Quartodeciman bishops were, needless to say, unhappy that the judgment of Christendom had gone against them. Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus wrote to Victor, arguing in favor of their tradition. Eusebius quotes his letter at some length. In sum, he argues that the churches of Asia are decorated by saints asleep in the Lord, like St. John and St. Polycarp, all of whom maintained that Easter began on the 14th of Nisan, regardless of the day. Polycrates’s letter concluded in a manner perhaps not unfamiliar even today: he was not scared of threats and it is better to obey God rather than men.

Pope Victor was not altogether amused by Polycrates’s response, nor, insofar as we can tell, was he impressed by Polycrates’s stand on principle. He either excommunicated all the churches of Asia or threatened to do so on the ground of heterodoxy. Fortescue suggests that either he never actually published his decree excommunicating all the Christians in Asia or he withdrew the decree very quickly. We’ll come to that in a moment. What matters is that Victor’s initial reaction to Polycrates’s stand on tradition was to excommunicate not merely Polycrates but all the Christians in Asia.

Word got around. One doubts that this is something that happened all that often in those days. And other bishops offered Victor their views on the matter. By and large they did not think Victor was doing the right thing. Indeed, Eusebius says that they thought Victor ought not to do what he had in mind. In fact, the bishops asked Victor to turn his mind toward peace and unity and love, suggesting that they thought his plan to excommunicate the churches of Asia was contrary to peace and unity and love. Among the bishops who suggested that Victor had perhaps gone a little too far was St. Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was in a unique position in the controversy. Born in Smyrna to a Christian family, Irenaeus grew up around Polycarp, who had been cited by Polycrates as an authority in support of the Quartodecimans. And of course Polycarp himself was a disciple of St. John. By the time of the controversy, Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon in Gaul. However, one would be surprised if he did not have some insight into the Asian practice and the controversy. For his part, he reached the conclusion that Easter had to be celebrated on a Sunday notwithstanding the timing of Passover given in Leviticus.

Nevertheless, Irenaeus wrote Victor, urging him not to excommunicate all Asia. Irenaeus’s claim was that Victor ought not to excommunicate all these Christians merely for following their fathers’ tradition, which was, after all, itself unbroken. He observed that the dating was not the sole controversy, the fast was part of it. And there was much variation about the fast. But even if dating were the sole controversy, there was still insufficient ground to excommunicate them. Victor’s predecessors Anicetus, Pius, Hyginus, Telesphorus, and Xystus had all rejected the Quartodeciman position and kept the Roman Church free from error. But they had lived in peace with the Quartodecimans. Indeed, it was never suggested that this difference in calculation was a matter of heterodoxy rising to the level of severing communion.

Irenaeus made a particularly interesting point about the fast. It is worth dwelling on for a moment. Some kept the fast for a day, some for two days, others for forty hours. It appears—from Irenaeus and Tertullian—that the Lenten fast observed in those days was not universally the forty-day fast we know today. Within a couple of hundred years, the Lenten fast we know had emerged. At any rate, Irenaeus claimed that the variation in how the fast was kept demonstrated the unity of the Church, because all the people who kept the fast in various ways lived in peace with one another. In other words, diversity in practice among people who are at peace with one another is testimony to the essential unanimity of the faith.

Turning back to the date question, Irenaeus was particularly interested in Pope Anicetus’s conduct, which had a significant bearing on this question. Polycarp came to Rome during Anicetus’s reign. The matter of the dating of Easter came up. Anicetus and Polycarp simply could not agree on it. Anicetus could not get Polycarp to budge an inch: Polycarp stood on the tradition he received from St. John and other apostles. Polycarp could not get Anicetus to budge an inch, either: Anicetus had received a tradition from his fathers in the faith just like Polycarp did. However, this dispute did not result in a breach of communion between Anicetus and Polycarp, much less the sort of excommunication Victor had in mind. In fact, Anicetus made way for Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist according to his tradition.

Victor seems to have changed his mind: either he never issued the excommunication he threatened or he withdrew it at once. And as is the case of so many heresies in the history of the Church, the Quartodeciman position died out. Two bishops, Narcissus of Jerusalem and Theophilus of Caesarea, prepared a brief for the apostolic tradition of celebrating Easter on a Sunday and observed that the Church of Alexandria had maintained the same practice, with an exchange of letters annually to ensure that everyone kept the same date. In the way of this, Eusebius tells us, the Quartodecimans were rebutted and unanimity achieved.

The Quartodeciman Controversy is an interesting moment in the life of the Church. Two practices existed side by side for a period of time. Suddenly, it becomes a doctrinal controversy. Eusebius does not quite explain what set off the explosion. Something had to, but it is not clear what it was. The various churches held councils and arrived at an opinion founded upon the teaching of the Apostles. Except for some holdouts. The holdouts informed Pope Victor that they stood on the tradition of the Apostles and saints and martyrs of Asia and were ultimately responsible to God, threats or no threats.

Pope Victor responded by declaring the practice of the Quartodecimans heterodox and threatening to excommunicate all the Christians of Asia. A drastic measure, to say the least. Such a peremptory action even today would be a sweeping exercise of papal jurisdiction. It’s rare enough for the pope to excommunicate anyone, much less everyone in a province, even on grounds much more certain than the grounds offered by the Quartodecimans. Victor’s brothers in the episcopate urged him to reconsider, to abandon the course of excommunication in favor of other means of preserving the unity and peace of the Church. Irenaeus in particular wrote him about the practice of the Church of Rome, which had been to tolerate the diversity in this discipline, even as it held, from apostolic origin, another discipline, in which the other churches of the world concurred. And in the end Victor reconsidered his approach.

There is perhaps a lesson here. Indeed, there must be. Benedict, in his 2007 address of Eusebius says, “Historical analysis is never an end in itself; it is not made solely with a view to knowing the past; rather, it focuses decisively on conversion and on an authentic witness of Christian life on the part of the faithful. It is a guide for us, too.” The Quartodeciman Controversy as presented by Eusebius is not merely an interesting historical highlight, made notable because the players in it are important for other reasons. His analysis of the situation serves therefore as a guide for us and ought to be approached as such.

One lesson is a lesson, as I said, that one finds written in the histories of many heresies that have afflicted the Church. Patient argument and the passage of time often resolve controversies more effectively than peremptory action. Narcissus and Theophilus analyzed the question relying on the apostolic traditions of their churches and came up with the case for the practice approved by the councils of the other churches, including Rome. Victor’s excommunication of Asia was ultimately not necessary. Once Narcissus and Theophilus had made their case, the Quartodecimans’ days were numbered. And today no one is a Quartodeciman.

Of course, the Quartodeciman Controversy has featured in various polemics between the protestants and the Church of Rome. In his splendid little book The Early Papacy, Fr. Adrian Fortescue makes some observations about this affair. Notably, no one suggests that Victor had not jurisdiction over the Quartodecimans. Second, Irenaeus does not say that Victor had not the power to excommunicate the Quartodecimans. Fortescue notes that Irenaeus (and the other bishops who wrote to Victor) merely holds that Victor should not excommunicate the Quartodecimans.

The question of the pope’s jurisdiction had been settled much earlier, when Pope St. Clement wrote to the Corinthians and commanded them to submit once again to their bishops. No one suggested then that Clement, who, as Fortescue drolly observes, was early enough that his name appears in the New Testament, had not the authority to command the Corinthians to do or not to do something. And no one, least of all Irenaeus, suggested that Victor had not the authority to declare the Quartodeciman opinion wrong. Irenaeus in fact thought it was wrong.

Nevertheless Irenaeus took Polycrates’s point and urged Victor to do likewise. The churches of Asia stood on a tradition no less venerable than the tradition of Rome. Victor’s predecessors, most notably Anicetus, had disagreed with the tradition, but had maintained peace with Polycarp, who held the position firmly and claimed to have received it from St. John himself. Ultimately the Quartodecimans were defeated not by a peremptory excommunication of the Christians of Asia but by the careful argument of Narcissus and Theophilus (and some others).

Fortescue points out that Irenaeus’s point is merely that Victor had better not excommunicate the Quartodecimans. It was not how this matter had been handled by his predecessors, who had, in fact, had occasion to consider it. However, Fortescue does not dwell on Irenaeus’s point about diversity in practice revealing unity in faith. Pope Victor was not wrong about the merits of the case nor was he acting ultra vires. Irenaeus simply pointed out that he was looking at it wrong. It was not a sign of heterodoxy for the churches of Asia to follow the practice of their fathers, a practice that stretched back through Polycarp to St. John. That Anicetus and Polycarp could be at peace was instead a testimony to the unity of the faith.

One finds in a few short chapters of one book of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History matter for much thought. Indeed, the passage throws some light on many modern controversies. How ought the pope to exercise his unquestionable jurisdiction? How ought one to relate to the pope when one thinks he’s making a mistake? What is the connection between doctrine and practice? Is there room in the Church for more than one practice? Obviously the answers these questions require more than one source, but, as Benedict says, Eusebius’s history is a source (and contains itself sources) of fundamental importance to begin to answer those questions.

A notable new book: Sohrab Ahmari’s “The Unbroken Thread”

I was delighted to receive a copy of Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread. I begin with a confession: I knew people liked his conversion memoir, From Fire, By Water, but I did not read it. I am not a convert or a potential convert to the Faith and, to my great shame, have not cultivated much of an interest in proselytizing or evangelizing or whatever the correct term is these days. Luckily I avoided any social settings where I would be expected to know conversion literature generally or Ahmari’s book specifically, so I was spared the consequences for ignoring the book. One of the benefits, I suppose, of living in southern Indiana.

The Unbroken Thread, however, was immediately more compelling for me, not merely because I got a copy in the mail. It is in short Ahmari’s brief for tradition against the modern age. As a Catholic and occasional participant in debates over Catholic political and legal thought, this is a topic about which I am indeed interested. Everyone is interested in tradition these days, either for or against. One has only to check a trusted (or not) source of news to see that tradition is one of the burning topics of the age.

Ahmari tells us that The Unbroken Thread began its life as an idea to do a book of reporting about traditionalism among the young. This is a popular subject. Matthew Schmitz and Tara Isabella Burton, to take two examples, have drawn a lot of water from the well of upwardly mobile young people who like the traditional Latin Mass or anarchocommunists who own copies of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ahmari’s agent kiboshed the idea, suggesting that Ahmari really wanted to write the case for traditionalism, which is precisely what Ahmari has done. Thank goodness for Ahmari’s agent. A book about Ivy Leaguers in New York City who own well-thumbed copies of the Liber Usualis or the Antiphonale Monasticum and Das Kapital would have been too much to bear.

And, really, Ahmari has written a much more interesting book than the one he initially wanted to write. He begins by reproaching his youthful exaltation in self-definition and remaking himself. He has found in the west today the same obsession with autonomy and reinvention. With this, Ahmari has gone straight to the heart of the problem with modernity. The French-Canadian theologian Charles de Koninck explained it in his Principle of the New Order. The project of the so-called enlightenment has been to reject the primacy of the speculative and exalt in man’s practical reason. Man turns away from what is best in himself—indeed what may be called superhuman (cf. Metaphysics A, ch. 2; Nicomachean Ethics 10.7)—and finds emancipation through the organs of practical reason: his hands and his tongue.

De Koninck notes that the exaltation of practical reason results in saying and writing things one cannot think. So long as one follows the rules of grammar, one can write or say anything, even if it is deeply irrational. He finds a connected phenomenon: the disconnection of history from prudence. Historical events can be judged “objectively,” in the light of “cold facts,” without the historian needing to make right judgments about human behavior. In this particularly pointed passage, De Koninck notes that this phenomenon allows “the adulterous man to cry out on the public place: this woman was taken in adultery!”

Of course, all this is nonsense. Our Lord tells us, as De Koninck reminds us, that we shall be accountable for all our idle words on the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36). We must, we are told, take the beam out of our eye before we can hunt specks in our brother’s eye (Luke 6:42). Ahmari understands, like De Koninck, that the project is nonsense. It has promised freedom and endless self-invention, but a quick look at cable news or social media suggests that no one feels particularly free. We have made man the measure of all things only to find that humanity is concept harder and harder to comprehend. Ahmari is right to be dissatisfied. Instead, Ahmari finds in the sacrifice of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who established a monastery in Nagasaki and died in Auschwitz, true freedom and true humanity.

It is against this backdrop—and Ahmari’s understandable anxiety for his young son, Maximilian—that Ahmari sets out to find in tradition the answer to the failed promise of the so-called enlightenment. In tradition, he argues, one finds true freedom and true happiness, as opposed to the shabby substitutes on offer today. To make the case, Ahmari structures his book around twelve questions, such as “Is God Reasonable?” and “How Must You Serve Your Parents?” and “What’s Good About Death?” Each chapter takes a look at the question through the lens of a thinker in the traditions of the world, setting them in their historical context. Ahmari deftly blends history, biography, and philosophy to propose answers to the questions he sets himself. I am reminded of Clive James’s excellent Cultural Amnesia. Both men make serious points about tradition and our culture without becoming pedantic or leaden. In and of itself, this is an accomplishment.

Ahmari is the opinion editor of the New York Post and a regular contributor to First Things among other publications. But The Unbroken Thread suggests that he has a real talent for biography and popular intellectual history. In an age of monumental biographies like Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle, Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, or John Röhl’s Wilhelm II, there is much to be said for Ahmari’s sketches. Not everything needs to be a spiritual heir to Henri-Louis de la Grange’s Gustav Mahler or Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson. It is altogether possible to give a sense of a man and his thought—and his influence on the most important questions of the age—in less than five thousand pages and a forest of footnotes and endnotes and bibliographies. (Though Ahmari does cite his sources.)

It is worth noting as well that Ahmari does not limit himself to any one tradition. The rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in Czarist Poland and working in the United States, sits alongside Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s favorite—for a time. Certainly some of his choices recommend themselves by the sheer extent and force of their influence: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Confucius. But he also draws upon figures who probably are not household names, like the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman and the philosopher Hans Jonas. And he looks across the political spectrum. One does not necessarily expect to see Andrea Dworkin marshaled in a case for traditionalism, but here she is.

This is important, not least in the context of ongoing political debates in the United States and elsewhere. Tradition, Ahmari reminds us, is not the sole property of the west or of Christians or of the right. There are valuable insights in other traditions. One runs a risk, of course, of turning this into the liberal arts ideology. That is, by exploring all these traditions, you get a set of intellectual skills that allows you to solve modern, meaningful problems. That is to say, these traditions serve mostly to produce a neutral technology that has market value. I do not think Ahmari falls into that trap, since he emphasizes the ultimate ends toward which man is ordered. But I think The Unbroken Thread would have benefitted from a direct response to the liberal arts ideology.

The breadth of Ahmari’s book will appeal first and foremost to a general audience—by design, I imagine. However, aspects of the book cannot help but touch upon narrower debates. For example, Ahmari’s chapter “Does God Need Politics?” goes to the very heart of the ongoing debate in the Catholic (and more broadly Christian) right about the common good. Ahmari is himself in some large part responsible for sparking the debate, along with the Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule. In a First Things essay and a series of debates with David French in 2019, Ahmari called for a reorientation of what is broadly called the culture war.

An aside first, though. While Ahmari has certainly done much to reinvigorate a debate about the goals and means of political Catholicism, The Unbroken Thread is not really a polemic in that debate, except secondarily. While Ahmari sets for himself questions about politics, his scope is not narrowly political. A reader who wants a barn-burning political tract—a rehearsal of the arguments against David French, for example—is probably going to be a little disappointed by Ahmari. To put it another way: it is not a Twitter thread against the libertarians expanded into book form. But a book that argues that one finds happiness and freedom through tradition is going to have political dimensions.

Ahmari called for a renewed focus on the common good, even if it requires state power to establish and promote, in opposition to the broadly libertarian approach taken by French. Vermeule put the case in more concrete legal terms in an early 2020 essay in The Atlantic, calling for a common-good constitutionalism to replace the worn-out judicial philosophy of originalism. This debate has consumed Catholic political thought for the last eighteen months or so. A very recent conference arranged by Ryan T. Anderson at the University of Dallas shows that there is still a lot of energy in this debate.

One of the key issues in the debate is the question of the common good. Liberals, for whatever reason, usually begin by mystifying the concept. What is the common good? What is peace? What is happiness? Who decides? So on and so forth. They hope, I think, that by making the common good an impossibly difficult concept, they can take some of the rhetorical force out of the concept and make it as vague as the concepts they rely on, such as freedom and democracy. In “Does God Need Politics?” Ahmari offers a solution to the problems the liberals raise.

The chapter is a reading of St. Augustine’s life and De civitate Dei. Ahmari turns to Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., and his brilliant reading of Augustine several times throughout the chapter. Though, having played some small part in these debates and being familiar with Waldstein’s work on Augustine, I was less struck by that aspect on my first reading. Instead, I was struck by how vivid Ahmari’s portrait of Augustine was. Certainly everyone knows the broad strokes of Augustine’s life, especially if, as most educated people have, they have read the Confessions. But Ahmari, perhaps finding some special kinship with Augustine (though that is mere speculation), draws a remarkably engaging picture of Augustine and the circumstances under which he wrote De civitate Dei.

At any rate, Ahmari presents Augustine’s vision of Christian politics in this chapter. In Augustine’s critique of Roman politics and society, Christians find for themselves an approach to politics in accordance with reason and the divine law. This is especially true for questions like the common good or peace. Book XIX of De civitate Dei has extended treatments of these questions, which have informed the tradition of Christian political thought for fifteen hundred years. As I have insisted on several occasions here (and elsewhere) these concepts have content that we are not altogether free to provide. When we talk about peace, for example, we are not totally free to redefine it for ourselves: we follow, for example, Augustine’s treatment of peace and those who have followed Augustine.

Ahmari does not provide a definitive, scholarly study on this question—or any of the questions he discusses—and I do not have the sense he is especially interested in doing so. Neither, of course, did Clive James in Cultural Amnesia. What he does do, especially if one is not familiar with the figures he discusses, is urge one to seek the figures out for oneself. Someone who might be familiar with the debate over the common good from Twitter or the various web and print articles at various outlets but who might not have read De civitate Dei may well be inspired to seek out a copy and read Augustine for himself. On this basis, The Unbroken Thread succeeds at its task.

Frederick, Aquinas, and sacrilege

Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi present an extremely expansive view of royal power. Among the most famous—or infamous—provisions is the law that no one was permitted to dispute the judgments, laws, deeds, and counsels of the king (I.4). Indeed, to do so was, under the law, similar to sacrilege (ibid.). It has been argued that Aquinas’s approach to the law represents a rejection of Frederick’s centralizing, totalizing approach. One would assume, therefore, that Aquinas would reject Frederick’s decree that questioning his official acts was similar to sacrilege. But this is not quite what happens. In his treatment on sacrilege, Aquinas adopts a position very similar to Frederick’s (especially as it was interpreted)—and, we shall see, other sources in the classical legal tradition.

It is worth noting, of course, that Frederick did not invent this law. It was initially a constitution of King Roger II, dating to the middle of the twelfth century, which Frederick then took up into his great code for Sicily in 1231. But a closer examination of the law reveals even more interesting dimensions. Kenneth Pennington has observed that this provision of Roger’s was drawn from an even older source: Justinian’s Codex (9.29.2). But Roger edited it in interesting ways. Justinian stated that it was only forbidden to dispute the judgments (Disputari de principali iudicio non oportet) of the emperor. This was the likeness (instar) of sacrilege for Justinian. Roger expanded to prohibition to all the official acts of the king, not merely his judgments, but declared that it was only similar (par, from pars) to sacrilege (Est enim par sacrilegio disputare). Pennington notes that Andreas de Isernia, the commentator on Frederick’s Constitutions, picked up on the change from instar to par by Roger and Frederick and suggested that the change meant that it was permissible to petition the king to amend something he had done if it was against the common good.

In other words, while Justinian’s provision in the Codex was narrower than Roger’s, covering only the judgments of the emperor, it was understood as an absolute prohibition: it was the likeness of sacrilege to question the emperor’s judgments. Roger expanded it to cover all the official transactions of the king, but commentators like Andreas de Isernia understood another slight variation in the language of Roger’s law (later Frederick’s) to relax (slightly) the rigor of Justinian’s law. If the king’s decision was contrary to the common good, a subject did not commit sacrilege by questioning it and petitioning the king to amend it.

Just a brief look, therefore, changes the complexion of Frederick’s expansive provision. For one thing, it was not an innovation by a centralizing, totalizing dictator. Frederick was merely restating a century-old law of Roger II. Ernst Kantorowicz, in his wonderful Frederick the Second, describes the conditions of lawlessness that preceded Frederick’s accession to the throne. Restating Roger’s laws, therefore, was a necessary part of restoring order in Sicily. More than that, Roger was simply adapting the much older law of Justinian for Norman Sicily. And far from signifying the expansion of royal power, a subtle—but, Pennington argues, obvious—linguistic change was understood to moderate the force of the law. But whether questioning the acts of the king is the likeness of sacrilege or merely similar to sacrilege, and whether there is an exception to the prohibition, it is still strange to modern sensibilities to describe it in those terms.

One point, raised by Alasdair MacIntyre and others, is that Thomas Aquinas implicitly rejected the expansive legislation of Frederick II and Louis IX in favor a decentralized, natural law approach. I have previously questioned this claim: I think MacIntyre is wrong about some of the historical contingencies, including Frederick’s imperial legislation (as opposed to his Sicilian legislation), and wrong about Aquinas. In fact, one finds some support for the seemingly very expansive statute of Frederick (and Roger and Justinian) in Aquinas’s treatment on sacrilege (ST II-II q.99).

The first objection in Aquinas’s treatment of sacrilege is that sacrilege seems not to be the violation of a sacred thing, since Gratian (C.17 q.4 d.p.c. 29, added in the second recension) notes that sacrilege includes questioning the ruler’s decisions and appointments (ST II-II q.99 a.1 obj. 1). The claim is that the ruler’s decisions and appointments seem to have nothing to do with sacred things. Thus, if questioning the ruler’s decisions and appointments is sacrilege, sacrilege has nothing to do with sacred things. Obviously, for Aquinas, sacrilege is irreverence for sacred things (ST II-II q.99 a.1 co.). How, then, to answer the objection?

It would be easy, perhaps, to say simply that there is nothing sacred about the ruler’s decisions and appointments and therefore questioning them is not sacrilege. But this is not what Aquinas does (cf. ST II-II q.99 a.1 ad 1). He observes that Aristotle holds that the common good of the nation is a sacred thing (Ethic. I.2, 1094b10). Aquinas explains this elsewhere, noting that care for the common good has a likeness to God’s rule over the universe (In I Ethic. L.2). Therefore, irreverence for the sovereign and his decisions is called sacrilege by a kind of likeness (ST II-II q.99 a.1 ad 1). In other words, Aquinas answers the objection not by holding that the ruler and the ruler’s acts are not sacred, but by holding they are—through their connection to the common good.

Now, obviously, one may say that the common good exception is a significant exception, but that itself requires some examination. To escalate all questions to questions of the common good is itself opposed to the virtue of prudence. For one thing, the ruler and the subject do not have the virtue of prudence in precisely the same way in all cases (cf. ST II-II q.47 a.12). Indeed, Aquinas notes that we ought to defer to the undemonstrated conclusions of prudent men to the same extent as the demonstrated conclusions (ST I-II q.95 a.2 ad 4). But the natural law does not require the same law for all: the conclusions of practical reason are not the same for everyone (ST I-II q.94 a.4 co.). In other words, a question of the natural law is more serious and more obvious than a mere case of disagreement with the conclusions of the ruler. The exception does not seem then so large.

In this regard, Aquinas follows his contemporary Andreas de Isernia’s commentary on Frederick’s statute (I.4). While Aquinas avoids the question of instar and par, preferring the formulation secundum quandam similitudinem sacrilegium dicitur, set up by Roger’s variation on Justinian’s Codex, he ultimately lands in the same place: questioning the decisions of the ruler is called sacrilege by a kind of similitude, except (implicitly for Aquinas) where they do not serve the common good. Indeed, it is because the ruler’s acts are connected the common good that they assume a sacred character for Aquinas—following Aristotle.

And Aquinas’s argument shows how widespread the claim was, really. We have seen that Frederick merely restates Roger’s law, which was an adaptation of Justinian’s Codex. Aquinas notes that Gratian’s dictum following the canon Si quis suadente (C.17 q.4 c.29) sets forth the same rule, but more absolutely: it is sacrilege to dispute with the judgments or appointments of the ruler. This is an interesting observation, since Si quis suadente, a famous decree of Innocent II at the Second Lateran Council, establishes the privilegium canonis—the personal inviolability of clerics and religious, violations of which were reserved specially to the Apostolic See, except in cases of penitents in articulo mortis. Gratian’s dictum notes that there are more components to sacrilege than merely laying violent hands on a clerk or monk (C.17 q.4 d.p.c. 29).

In other words, the entire legal tradition from Justinian to Roger to Frederick, passing through Gratian, Aquinas, and Andreas de Isernia, holds that it is akin to sacrilege—and sometimes sacrilege simpliciter—to question the official acts of the ruler. This goes back to Aristotle and is founded upon the ruler’s responsibility to pursue the common good in his official acts.

Another debate over integralist law

A thousand years ago, which is to say in February, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, I wrote a piece for The Josias about integralist penal law. I characterized the piece as fragmentary, intending to point out topics for further discussion and research rather than to outline a coherent “Penal Statutes of the Empire of Guadalupe” (or whatever else one might have in mind). Fundamentally, there are still questions that have to be answered. Indeed, the ground upon which those questions have to be asked remains, for the most part, uncleared. There must be a project of recovery and clarification. The work at Ius & Iustitium that I am pleased to be able to contribute to is, I think, a necessary first step in such a project. But much remains to be done.

Recently I saw on Twitter a thread inquiring about what an integralist would say to a non-Christian about the juridical status of non-Christians under integralism. Such a thread seems to implicate necessarily some of the points I raised in my Josias “fragments.” Certainly in matters of religion, non-Christians may not be coerced into accepting the Faith (ST IIaIIae q.10 a.8 co.). And in general their rites ought to be tolerated, except insofar as they are contrary to the common good (ST IIaIIae q.10 a.11 co.). The question of political office is a little more complicated in Thomas’s thought (cf. ST IIaIIae q.10 a.10). And, of course, the Church herself has more recently than the 13th century taught on these topics in documents such as Dignitatis humanae, though precisely what the Church has taught in Dignitatis humanae is occasionally disputed.

By the same token, however, the Second Vatican Council teaches, in Gaudium et spes, that “political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good—according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established” (#74). More than this, it ought to be remembered also that “the political community and public authority are founded on human nature and hence belong to the order designed by God, even though the choice of a political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free will of citizens” (ibid.). Jean Cardinal Danielou emphasized that religion is part of the temporal common good (cf. Gaudium et spes #75). This has unavoidable consequences, especially when the Council teaches that it is for the leadership of the state to order the state to the common good, thereby preventing it from tearing itself apart (Gaudium et spes #74).

None of this is especially obscure information. But, ever since the Mortara affair, over two years ago, despite the fact that Aquinas and the writings of the popes are freely available on the internet, it has been clear that few of integralism’s interlocutors intend on doing the reading. One must therefore return always to the same couple of sources to set forth a few very simple principles. Now, of course, these discussions are not really debates about technical juridical questions or indeed broader questions of jurisprudence. They are, at best, requests to be reassured that integralism and liberalism have no meaningful differences and, at worst, attempts to prove that integralism and liberalism have meaningful differences.

Of course, it ought to be frankly and cheerfully conceded that integralism and liberalism have meaningful differences. As a political theology, liberalism is radically and absolutely opposed to the Church and her teachings, to say nothing of an authentically Catholic politics. There will be unavoidable conflicts. How this cashes out in terms of a specific juridical question is, however, not obvious in every case. Nor can it be. The demand for universal, a priori juridical structures is fundamentally opposed to prudence as Thomas, for example, understands it (cf. ST IIaIIae q.47 a.8 co.; IIaIIae q.50 a.1 co.). Framing laws, after all, requires concrete considerations relating to a given state (ST IaIIae q.96 a.1 co.). One might say, perhaps provocatively, that the compulsive demand for universal, a priori juridical structures is connected in a fundamental way to the political theology of liberalism.

We do not always discuss how serious a problem this is. In De civitate Dei, as I cannot help mentioning, Augustine takes up Cicero’s definition of a commonwealth (De civitate Dei 2.21, 19.21). For Cicero, the commonwealth requires a consensus of right and common utility—“res publica res populi, populus autem non omnis hominum coetus quoquo modo congregatus, sed coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus” (De re publica 1.39). Even Augustine’s alternative definition in De civitate Dei 19.24 requires fundamentally some kind of agreement; the citizens of that commonwealth make a commonwealth by agreeing—indeed, agreeing harmoniously—upon the objects of their love. The dissensions that liberalism necessarily engenders cannot be neutralized indefinitely through means of liberalism’s political theology, as we see over and over again.

This is why the project of recovering the classical legal tradition is so important. The perennial jurisprudence of the Church—and of Christendom—avoids the traps posed by liberal concepts and the rotten political theology underpinning those concepts. To put it another way, keeping in mind the Church’s teachings as explained by St. Thomas and the Second Vatican Council, the integralist state, which also follows the classical legal tradition, avoids the totalizing impulses of liberalism to craft a one-size-fits-all approach that may well not serve the common good of a particular state. Prudence forbids that sort of approach, even if it might be rhetorically helpful in the context of a Twitter debate.

There are, for example, in addition to things like the Summa and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, magisterial pronouncements like Innocent III’s decretal Novit ille and Boniface VIII’s bull Unam sanctam, both of which set forth the power and authority of the Roman pontiffs in temporal matters and the circumstances in which the popes have indicated that they may exercise that authority. More than that, we have the strongly suggestive statement of Thomas in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard that the pope stands at the summit of both spiritual and temporal powers (In II Sent. d.44 q.2 a.3 exp. text.). To be sure, any question of integralist law is bound up extremely closely with the question of the pope’s temporal authority and how the state interacts with that authority.

This is to say that a serious response would be that, while the liberal may demand an immediate juridical concept that would be applied mechanically and universally, the integralist ought to consider the extend to which offering such a concept would be to give the game away to liberalism. Even setting to one side the question of bad faith rhetoric, the classical legal tradition simply does not trade in jurisprudence unmoored from concrete considerations—that is to say, unmoored from the virtue of prudence.

The hour of the lawyers

Today a new blog, Ius & Iustitium, has launched. It is an outgrowth of The Josias devoted to jurisprudence and legal theory. No doubt the development will please the enthusiasts of “Big Integralism.” I am happy to say that I have contributed a piece to the blog about Fr. Thomas Crean and Prof. Alan Fimister’s book, Integralism, and their treatment of the Lex Regia and its medieval reception. Certainly, despite my criticism about this issue (and others), I think Integralism is a fine way to start a more serious phase of the discussion.

Despite my high opinion of my work, I suspect everyone is going to be very interested in Adrian Vermeule’s piece, which builds upon his common-good conservatism argument. It sparked a huge debate when he first set it out in The Atlantic. Certainly any argument that a substantive vision of the good has a place in law is going to be hugely interesting to Catholics, and rightly so. While I certainly hope for the success of any project I am involved with, I think that Ius & Iustitium is going to be an interesting, exciting project—especially with the state of the discourse, as it were.

A less serious phase of the discussion was my satire on Anglo-American originalism at The Josias. The technical aspect of the argument, I think, is actually correct: the English law on punishing heretics comes pretty directly from Frederick II’s imperial legislation by the way of Boniface VIII’s decretals. The English common law remains an important background source (and, in fact, a default) for American law. It is fun, I think, to give the originalists a dose of their own medicine with precisely the sort of antiquarian research that passes for jurisprudence in those circles, though aimed at a very different conclusion than the one most of them would like.

But all this jurisprudence—if it can be called such—has been in service of a goal, of sorts. In following the recent debates over integralism, especially the debates on Twitter, the popular microblogging website favored by so many of the cultural and political leaders of the age, it is increasingly clear that an important fault line is juridical thought. Some of the leading critics of integralism, including Michael Hanby and various graduate students, seem to be unaware of the Church’s juridical tradition, stretching back through Gratian to the early canonists, and the substantive content of that tradition.

The ignorance leads to strange mistakes. For example, when discussing coercion, some critics of integralism seem blissfully unaware that the Church to this very hour claims the right to coerce the faithful, even in temporalities—and no less an authority than John Paul II declared this was entirely consistent with Vatican II’s ecclesiology. They also love to spool out elaborate “Augustinian” political theologies. However, they seem unaware that Gratian, who established the foundations of the Church’s jurisprudence for 700 years or so, happily took what he wanted from Augustine in his Causae hereticorum (and elsewhere) to justify all sorts of things they’d get queasy about.

I think certain trends in the discourse are attempts to solve fundamentally juridical problems with reference to some other discipline, such as theology, political theory, or political economy. In some instances, this may be required by preexisting commitments. However, some questions simply are not amenable to solution by proxy. Ultimately integralism is a question in the juridical dimension: the theoretical component is relatively modest. Implementing the theoretical component, however, requires juridical solutions. By the same token, an objection to integralism is primarily a juridical argument and ought not to be disguised with St. Augustine or Karl Marx or some other figure.

Additionally, it is clear that Christians generally find themselves in a space where the law matters. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s recent decision regarding the sex discrimination provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will undoubtedly have an impact on the Church and other Christian groups. What that impact is remains to be seen. The Court, for example, has two ministerial exception cases that have yet to be decided this Term. There are other important cases, including a replay of the Hellerstedt case set in Louisiana. Meanwhile, in the context of a challenge to Illinois’s coronavirus restrictions, Judge Frank Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit declared that churches could find workarounds for in-person services, since, after all, feeding the spirit is less serious than feeding the body (like a shelter or soup kitchen).

The juridical dimension matters. Ius & Iustitium, for my part, is a welcome development if all it does is emphasize the importance of juridical thought for Catholics.

Common-good conservatism, Vatican II, and Thomas Jefferson

Everyone has read Adrian Vermeule’s piece at The Atlantic advocating for a common-good conservatism. Basically, Vermeule argues, conservatives should abandon originalism in favor of a constitutional approach founded upon the common good, the natural law, and the law of nations. He argues that the powers of the government, while they could be founded upon specific constitutional provisions, need not be founded upon them. Instead, the general constitutional structure and the principles of the common good and just rule would provide the support for the government’s powers.

Vermeule’s piece has met with significant criticism from all quarters. The conservative legal establishment, even the Catholics among them, has too much invested in originalism to abandon it in favor of “progressive” approaches to the Constitution, even when those approaches would further conservative goals. Right- and left-liberals see in Vermeule’s argument incipient authoritarianism: state power untrammeled by the checks and balances of the federal constitution. Through all of this is the thread that, for whatever reason, the suggestion that the Constitution ought to be interpreted according to the natural law and moral principles is seen as dangerously reactionary. Worse still is the idea that the government has the obligation to promote the common good, which is an idea with definite content.

However, I think there are some points that ought to be brought out. First of all, the idea Vermeule advances is simply the doctrine of the Roman Church. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council outlined an energetic civil authority with the obligation to promote the common good for the total well-being of its citizens. Second, there is a tradition going back to the founders of the Republic that (1) morality applies to republics as well as men and (2) that there is a law higher than the written constitution. These principles, in fact, may be readily found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Originalism must reckon with this reality, in addition to its regular citations of Noah Webster’s dictionary and The Federalist.

I.

So-called “common good conservatism” is simply the doctrine of the Roman Church, even in the era following the Second Vatican Council. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, “The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy” (74). Furthermore, “[i]f the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good” (ibid.). However, the authority must be exercised “not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility” (ibid.). The Council went on to declare that, “[i]t follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good—according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established” (ibid.). When it is so exercised, it is binding in conscience and must be obeyed (ibid.).

The Council also articulates a robust vision of the scope of political authority as well, teaching that “[t]he complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions which will give more effective help to citizens and groups in their free pursuit of man’s total well-being” (75). This can extend so far as the temporary restriction of rights for the common good (ibid.). While the Council calls for written instruments of positive law setting forth rights of citizens, the Council also takes care to note that individual citizens have duties to the common good.

One finds in Gaudium et spes, therefore, a vision of the state ordered to and constrained by the common good and the moral law, but within those constraints with significant authority to act broadly and energetically in all spheres of common life to promote the total well-being of its citizens. With the Council’s language about obedience and the duties of citizens to the common good, one could read Gaudium et spes almost as an endorsement of a total state, directing, through intervention in all aspects of life, “the energies of all citizens toward the common good,” and their total well-being.

From the beginning of the integralism debate, Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists has been a foundational text. Indeed, one might say that it is the foundational text of integralism in the 21st century. And De Koninck’s explanation of the Thomistic vision of the common good and political authority in service of the common good provides an important background for the Council’s teaching, especially in the context of the vision of the sweeping power of the state. De Koninck’s careful explanations exonerate the Gaudium et spes state from the charge of totalitarianism, though, like Gaudium et spes, De Koninck challenges us to reconsider liberal notions of the limits of the state.

However, I think Vermeule makes an error, at least by the terms of Gaudium et spes. He claims, “[a] corollary is that to act outside or against inherent norms of good rule is to act tyrannically, forfeiting the right to rule, but the central aim of the constitutional order is to promote good rule, not to ‘protect liberty’ as an end in itself.” This is not quite right. In Gaudium et spes, the Council teaches, “[b]ut where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.” The Council’s teaching is a fairly straightforward restatement of St. Paul’s teaching in the Letter to the Romans and Thomas Aquinas’s teaching in the De Regno and the Summa Theologiae. Legitimacy is not an on-off switch, and where a bad ruler makes ordinances that are still “objectively required for the common good,” the ordinances must still be obeyed.

Whether or not Vermeule’s mistake has significant consequences for his argument is not immediately clear. One could follow Alasdair MacIntyre and claim that the universal accessibility of the natural law is a significant argument against centralization, especially the sort of centralization Vermeule argues for, which is ultimately patterned on the governments of Louis IX and Frederick II. There are problems with MacIntyre’s argument, including—I think—a misreading of some of Frederick’s Sicilian legislation (especially as it relates to his imperial legislation). However, treating legitimacy as an on-off switch makes it harder to rebut MacIntyre’s argument against centralization. Indeed, centralization of a leader supported by a strong bureaucracy presents significant risks if one tyrannical act delegitimizes the entire regime. The problem is much less significant if the act is taken on its own terms without implicating the right to rule.

Prescinding from technical questions such as the nature of legitimacy in the context of tyranny, for Catholics (and others) who have followed the integralism debate over the past few years, the teaching of Gaudium et spes is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Indeed, it is a pretty conventional summary of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The political community is ordered to the common good, there must be an authority to direct the citizens toward the common good, and the acts of that authority are binding in conscience if they are “exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good.” What is interesting is the debate, even among integralists, about Dignitatis humanae and its supposed liberalism hardly takes notice of these statements in Gaudium et spes.

All of this is to say that, for Catholics, even Catholics suspicious of reliance on Pius IX and Leo XIII, there is very little controversial in Vermeule’s common-good conservatism. Indeed, given that the teaching in Gaudium et spes is explicitly founded in some significant part upon natural law, there is very little controversial in Vermeule’s argument for anyone. Of course, this is not quite the case: Vermeule’s piece has become hugely controversial, even among Catholics. Non-Catholic conservatives prefer to emphasize the constitution’s text, rejecting the claim there is a higher law or that morality forms a part of the law.

Vermeule’s Catholic critics must reckon with Gaudium et spes. To assert that there is no room for the common good, for the moral order, in government is to contradict the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, to affect horror at the concept of public authority exercising its power in social, economic, and cultural matters to order the state to the common good and establish conditions propitious for the total well-being of all citizens is to deny outright the teaching that the political authority must be obeyed when it acts in such a manner. So far from casting off the authoritarian teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII in favor of the fresh air of the Council, Vermeule’s Catholic critics are casting off the Council’s teaching.

Even if they are not casting off the Council’s teaching, they are presenting a vision of the Council that emphasizes the aspects superficially compatible with liberalism in the 20th century. To focus on a few paragraphs in Dignitatis humanae without giving equivalent attention to the teaching in Gaudium et spes is to present a false picture of the Council and its vision for modern society. To challenge this false picture, one need not go so far as to demonstrate the consistency of the Council with the teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII—to say nothing of Boniface VIII—one need only insist upon the presentation of the Council’s integral teaching, without omissions or distortions. It becomes clear that the Council becomes little more than a pretext, quickly discarded, for adopting liberalism in its entirety.

II.

All of Vermeule’s critics must reckon with the fact that the conception of the common good and the moral order as a framework for government is not altogether alien in the American tradition. Certainly, one can cite Abraham Lincoln at great length, both in his debates with Stephen Douglas, and in his actions during the rebellion, in support of that principle. However, one can find support going back to the every beginning of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, in his April 28, 1793 “Opinion on the French Treaties,” observed that the “Moral law of our nature” constitutes an important part of the law of nations, and that the “Moral duties which exist between individual and individual in the state of nature, accompany them into a state of society & and the aggregate of the duties of all the individuals composing the society constitutes the duties of that society towards any other . . . .” Indeed, Jefferson went on to observe that God did not release men from their moral duties when they entered into society.

Furthermore, nearly twenty years later, Jefferson, in a September 20, 1810 letter to John B. Colvin, admitted the existence of a law higher than the Constitution. He wrote, “[a] strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation” (emphasis in original). Indeed, Jefferson argued, “[t]o lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

The hermeneutic of originalism has to reckon with statements like this. The opinions of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, the second Vice President, the first Secretary of State, and member of Congress cannot be held for naught simply because they are not James Madison’s opinions (or Alexander Hamilton’s or any other framer you’d like). If originalism is a coherent interpretative tool and not merely a fig leaf for this or that libertarian policy preference, then Jefferson’s views matter. Indeed, they probably matter more than Noah Webster’s dictionary or floor speeches in Congress by less influential persons.

Of course, one may adduce in opposition to these selections the extract from Jefferson’s commonplace book in which he argues—against the opinions of many learned judges and lawyers—that Christianity was never part of the common law. And even if one does not go that far, one hardly needs lessons in morality from one such as Thomas Jefferson, whose behavior in certain respects has become infamous in recent decades. Yet this does not change the fact that Jefferson’s views constitute part of the civil tradition of the United States.

Integralism and the right

At City Journal, Park MacDougald has a very interesting piece about Catholic illiberalism in the wake of the French-Ahmari debate. In full disclosure, I spoke with MacDougald and am quoted in the piece. On the whole, MacDougald’s presentation of the status quaestionis is fair. Much fairer, indeed, than some of the sharp critiques leveled at integralists by other Catholics. Part of this, no doubt, is the author: MacDougald has been writing about the intellectual currents on the right for a while. For example, he has been writing interesting pieces about various authors and events on the right for New York magazine for a year or two now. However, part of this has to be the moment.

Indeed, the debates that MacDougald summarizes for a general audience seem to me to be part of a broader moment. I have written a lot here about liberalism generally and the potential crisis of liberalism that is emerging along social and cultural lines. But it must be observed that the debate is, for the most part, a debate taking place on the political right. Sohrab Ahmari and David French are both—at least in terms of how they describe themselves—men of the right. Most people would say that National Review and First Things are both right-wing publications; indeed, both would probably be among the most influential right-wing publications today. The other participants in the debate are also generally men and women of the right.

Even the prominent Catholic critics of integralism, such as Massimo Faggioli, are ultimately not conventional secular progressives. Whatever my disagreements with the Catholic critics of integralism, I have little doubt in my mind that they are no more enthusiastic about the excesses of identity politics, political correctness, intersectionality, or whatever else you want to mention than Sohrab Ahmari. Indeed, some of them, such as Ryan Anderson, boss at the integralism-obsessed Public Discourse, made their names expressing right-wing views on social-cultural issues. And even if a critic like Faggioli wanted to make common cause with the secular left, he would find out that the left gets to define who is a leftist and very few Catholics ever make the cut.

Consequently, the debate over integralism is, in broader terms, a debate on the right. And it cannot be denied that the right generally is ascendant at the moment. The rise of populism since 2008 or so has been, for the most part, a right-wing phenomenon. Even Hillary Clinton, whose campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 was structured along broadly populist lines, abandoned a left-wing populism when confronted with Donald Trump’s right-wing version. Throughout Europe, right-wing populists are achieving significant successes, the most notable of which is the departure of England from the European Union. Nigel Farage’s farewell speech in the European Parliament yesterday, for example, was, in part, a defense of populism against the dominant EU ideology. Enough has been said about Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Voices on the left recognize that leftists have been increasingly excluded from power. Sam Kriss—the leftist blogger who was sort of cancelled during the height of Me Too, though he has sort of made a comeback except on Twitter—wrote a piece following Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the English general election. I think it is worth dwelling on one passage in particular:

The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold.

(Emphasis supplied.) Now, this is obviously contingent. As I write, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are essentially tied for the lead in the Iowa caucus polls. For many people, including a large (or at least extremely online) contingent of Catholics, Bernie Sanders, the cantankerous democratic socialist from Vermont, represents the old left. That is the left before it became bogged down with identity politics and political correctness and intersectionality. The left in the good old days when Marxist students and UAW members at Buick City in Detroit marched toward a fairer economy.

Even more significantly, Sanders represents a left-populism that is far more vibrant than Hillary Clinton’s politics of resentment from 2008. While it is true, therefore, that right-wing populism has made significant political gains and ushered in the triumph of disaster for the left, it seems to me that there remains a possibility that the left will recover at least some of those losses through Sanders’s candidacy. Now, it may all go wrong: Joe Biden might win Iowa, Sanders might win New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar might win South Carolina, and the front runner after Super Tuesday might get shellacked by Mike Bloomberg. But until it does go wrong, I think it is necessary to admit that Kriss’s despair, while entirely rational, is contingent.

But it is entirely rational to see the left in disarray and despair even if only for the moment. And it is therefore worth thinking about integralism and the right more generally. Obviously, there can be no compromises with respect to integralism, not least since integralism is simply the perennial doctrine of the Roman Church with respect to its relations with states and the obligations states owe God. But it is worth thinking about what integralists can offer to the right more generally. MacDougald quotes Ross Douthat to the effect that integralism will pull Catholic intellectuals to the left economically and to the right with respect to civil liberties and censorship.

To put it another way, unless and until the left proves that it has any vitality left outside Brooklyn, integralists’ engagement should not be an engagement with leftists. It should be engagement with the right. Certainly, to the extent that leftist thought has unique insights not otherwise contained in the Church’s teaching (a debatable proposition if one believes Pius XI and Paul VI), there may be some sense in engaging with leftist thought. But at the moment, there is not really a political expression of leftist thought with any access to state power. Consequently, such engagement can happen as easily within integralist circles as it can in dialogue with the left, not least since integralists are more likely to realize and grapple with the real limitations of leftist thought, especially from a doctrinal standpoint.

However, this process does not happen in a vacuum and as Catholic intellectuals are drawn into a new posture, it stands to reason that these debates will be noticed. Indeed, MacDougald’s piece, among others, proves that these debates are being noticed. There does not appear to be any reason why this should ultimately be a passive project for integralists. Currently there are exciting discussions on the right about industrial policy, state power, and economic justice, all of which can be informed by integralist views. Likewise other aspects of the right-wing moment, such as populism, have a long history with the Church and can be informed by authentically Catholic teaching.

One should not be overly optimistic. The institutions on the right are, in all probability, as hostile to the Church’s teaching as the institutions on the left are. Politicians, no matter how earnest and high minded they may be at any given point, often make compromises, usually at the expense of true believers. But in a moment where the right is ascendant and the debates among Catholics about integralism and liberalism are attracting broader attention, it would be perverse not to advocate forcefully for integralist positions—prudently, of course, recognizing always the constraints that exist.

I feel great and I support the nation-state

Yoram Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation has just sponsored the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. Broadly, it was a collection of conservative thinkers who are more or less disillusioned with the liberal order. There were some interesting-seeming speakers (Tucker Carlson, Sen. Josh Hawley, Michael Anton, Patrick Deneen) and some much less interesting speakers (Rich Lowry, Richard Reinsch, Rusty Reno) and one appalling speaker (“Amb.” John Bolton). On the whole, it appeared to be a very mixed bag. This sense was confirmed by the Twitter coverage of some of the addresses.

For our part, the conference and the coverage has prompted some thoughts about nationalism or national conservatism or whatever one wants to call it. Broadly we are simply suspicious of the movement. For one thing, Brent Bozell’s Letter to Yourselves and Jean Danielou’s Prayer as a Political Problem seem to be more compelling visions of Christian politics than anything on offer at this conference. Bozell’s clarion cry cannot be repeated too often: “The public life is supposed to help a man be a Christian. It is supposed to help him enter the City of God, and meanwhile it is sup­posed to help him live tolerably, even happily, in the City of Man.” How a revived nationalism or national conservatism or whatever one wants to call this idea (if it be an idea) fits into this vision is a little foggy to us.

For another thing, there is room for some really serious thought about “the nation” in Catholicism. One can cite Aquinas on piety toward one’s country (ST II-II q.101 a.1 co.) or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus or whatever, but it seems to us that there is still room for coherent thought about the modern nation-state in a Catholic context. Not least since the modern nation-state emerged, in many instances, as a part of liberal opposition to Catholic rule. By no means do we claim to have a coherent idea, other than the sense that it would be good if someone engaged in such thought, taking into account not only Aquinas and the medieval examples but also the recent developments under Pius XI and Pius XII. Perhaps someone is doing that kind of thought, though we are far from clear that it was on offer.

In the meantime, turning back to the question of Hazony’s national conservatism conference, we cannot stop thinking about what Dr. William Marshner, writing in Triumph in early 1976, said:

If you assert the existence of a national spirit that gets into the blood and unfolds itself in the whole life of a people, then you cannot arbitrarily lop off vast cultural complexes (TV, movies, books) plus the whole articulate stratum of society (academics, writers, artists) plus the whole dominant class (liberal establishment) plus the great urban centers and call them all “not the real America”

Marshner is responding to a critic of Triumph at National Review—there was, as you no doubt know by now, a long-running feud between Triumph and National Review—but his point has broader resonance. It’s a really difficult point to answer, in fact. One can point to globalists and neoliberal capitalists, loyal to their class above their country, of no fixed abode despite owning multimillion-dollar apartments in New York, London, and Paris, and suggest that these people are alien to the American spirit. But this doesn’t actually answer Marshner’s point, so much as restate the objection to which he is responding.

Marshner provides the answer, though, to the conundrum:

Well, I’ll take money that throughout F.’s argument the talk about “America” is a front. I suspect it has very little to do with the (extramental) country, the people, the ideal or the national Geist. I suspect that F. is as dubious about the world-historical credentials of the real America — the country that tipped the scales against civilization in World War I and has muffed and squandered great-power hegemony since World War II — as I am. I suspect, therefore, that “America” in his text is a stand-in, and that what it stands in for is “the Conservative Movement.”

The answer is a sort of identification between the conservative movement and America the Nation. We suspect that precisely the same sort of thing is going on with the national conservatism moment today. Perhaps it is not a wholesale transformation of movement conservatism into America, but it certainly seems as though aspects of movement conservatism are attempting to put on a little nationalist shine.

Consider how Marshner reached his conclusion in this case:

Think about it: 1) this is the Movement which, if NR defines, Triumph has deserted. In fact, Triumph was never in it, but the fact was not clear to many people until “Letter to Yourselves.” 2) This is the Movement whose gloss on “Duty, Honor, Country” might indeed create problems for a serious Catholic. In fact, in the case of abortion and Countervalue, it already has. 3) This is the Movement, and the only movement, that explicitly excludes all the things F. says are not America from itself and from its constituency. And let me add 4): this is the Movement that claims, in a sense, to be America. It is, simultaneously, the remnant of the patriots, the champion of liberty (hence guardian of the national raison d’être), the true exponent of the Constitution (hence keeper of the national myth).

The logic here is pretty clear. And it seems to be pretty clear in the case of at least some national conservatives. They certainly exclude some things putatively “not America” and claim to represent a Real America. (This of course goes for any number of nationalist types around the world, lest anyone think we’re picking on the national conservatives.)

But it is still difficult to see an answer to Marshner’s original point: how do you exclude the cultural, political, and capital classes from the Real America and contend that there is some national spirit that animates everyone else? Clearly it does not animate everyone else, otherwise the cultural, political, and capital classes would not have been able to achieve their dominance. Unless, as Marshner suggests, what one means when one talks about the Real America is the faction consisting of the members of this or that political tendency. Consequently, there is considerable cause for caution with respect to the national conservative movement.

Marshner went on to point out at length that the movement conservatives did not care very much whether their beliefs were condemned by Pius IX and Leo XIII, who (infallibly, as we never tire of noting) condemned liberalism at great length during their glorious pontificates. And this seems to us to be the fundamental criterion when considering Catholic engagement with any political tendency: is this consistent with the teachings of the Church? There is room for legitimate disagreement about prudential solutions to purely political problems, but there is no room for contradiction of the Church’s teachings in the context of such solutions. And this seems to us to be a serious problem with this new project.

Recall the brief line up we mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Consider individuals like John Bolton, who were keynote speakers at the conference. Is there any doubt that Bolton is simply trying to find some contemporary packaging for the disastrous ideas he has been flogging forever, leading to innumerable human and fiscal catastrophes for the Republic? Consider the ambassadors from National Review at the conference: is there any doubt that, having put out a special issue “Against Trump,” they’re trying to stay current with donors and subscribers, lest their bottom line suffer? Consider Rusty Reno, from First Things: is there any doubt that he is selling what he is always selling, insofar as anyone knows what it is? It is simply true that these people are trying to identify their factions of movement conservatism with the Real America—or simply trying to put new drapes on their very 1980s house.

How many of these speakers are all that interested in conforming to the teachings of the Church of Rome? Even more to the point: how many of these speakers are especially interested in ordering public life in such a way as to make it easier for everyone—especially the poor—to be Christians, to enjoy temporal happiness, and to continue on their way to our heavenly homeland?

Integralism, authority, and inequality

Notre Dame theology student Timothy Troutner has written a Brobdingnagian critique of integralism at Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., has responded, correctly identifying a desire to baptize anarchism at the heart of Troutner’s critique. Such a plan, however, is contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church from St. Augustine to St. Pius X. Drawing from St. Augustine, we will see that anarchism of any kind is contrary to good order. Indeed, good order in the home and in the state requires inequality, which at a minimum requires rulers and ruled. Additionally, Troutner’s critique ignores important juridical texts, which maintain the Church’s right to coerce the faithful, even with respect to temporal goods. In this dimension, his critique represents the danger of departing completely from the magisterial and juridical statements of the Church in favor of the speculations of modern theologians.

I.

Before turning to the issues, it is interesting to see Troutner’s piece framed in terms of integralism. He could make his argument about Christian anarchism purely in terms of liberalism. Such an argument proceeds trivially: liberalism promises liberation and individualism but, despite its promises, it leaves the way open for various factors to dominate in just the same way they did before liberalism. (One could even, for a little bit of that socialist je ne sais quoi repeat Karl Marx’s arguments from On the Jewish Question, where he distinguishes between political emancipation and human emancipation.) He could get most of his talk about “cruciform power” and the libido dominandi in with reference only to liberalism. Instead, he sets out to show that integralism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin.

He does this because integralism has increasingly come to represent the default anti-liberal position among Catholics. So much is this the case that Troutner’s purpose is to claim that integralism is not as anti-liberal as people think, opening up some space for his preferred Catholic Worker model, which apparently represents true anti-liberalism. In this regard, despite Troutner’s tart critiques of integralist rhetoric, it must be recognized that integralist rhetoric has been hugely successful. Integralists might be insufficiently grieved by the supposed sins of Christendom, whatever on earth that could mean, but they have been effective in advancing integralism as a live idea.

There is, of course, a prehistory of the extremely online integralism that plays out on Twitter, WordPress blogs like this one (recognized by Catholic author Sohrab Ahmari among others), and websites like Church Life Journal and Public Discourse. It is easy to forget that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was at least as concerned about Dignitatis humanae and the apparent incompatibilities between that document and the social teachings of Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI. His Open Letter to Concerned Catholics addresses these issues at length. The Society of St. Pius X kept the flame alive after Lefebvre’s death. To some extent, therefore, concerns particular to French traditionalists have found their way into the discourse regarding integralism. That is to say, there is a throne-and-altar element to integralism that may or may not be applicable automatically to the political situation in the United States.

The upshot of all of this is that, after decades of patient work by Catholics like Archbishop Lefebvre, integralism has come into its own once more as the primary Catholic answer to liberalism. Troutner’s piece implicitly accepts the prominence of integralism even as it critiques it and attempts to identify another anti-liberal path for Catholics. We shall see, of course, that Troutner’s alternative path is strewn with serious problems.

II.

As noted above, Pater Waldstein correctly identifies the upshot of Troutner’s piece: Christian anarchism. Troutner’s reference to Dorothy Day’s Christian Worker movement gives away the game, and Pater Waldstein knows it. It is not that liberalism and integralism present, to Troutner, bad concepts of authority. One gets the sense that all concepts of authority are bad as far as Troutner is concerned. Pater Waldstein correctly notes that Dorothy Day was inspired by the Sillon, which was condemned by St. Pius X in Notre charge apostolique in large part because of its rejection of authority. He also recounts a couple of anecdotes from Day’s memoir about the problems the Catholic Worker movement encountered as a result of its anarchic philosophy.

Of greater value is Pater Waldstein’s careful analysis of the Rule of St. Benedict and the way it creates a kind of equality through hierarchy. We suspect that Pater Waldstein, a Cistercian monk of Heiligenkreuz in Austria, has had more time to learn and meditate upon Benedict’s rule than most people will ever have in their lifetimes. And his explanation of the Rule is well worth considering. It is also well worth considering Augustine, which both Troutner and Pater Waldstein discuss at some length.

Despite Troutner’s repeated claims about Augustine and the libido dominandi, we find no reference to De civitate Dei XIX:13, where Augustine sets forth the relation between peace, order, and inequality. It might be helpful to consider this argument at some length, as it develops some points made by Pater Waldstein. We will quote it in Latin and English (the freely available English translation is a little inadequate):

Pax itaque corporis est ordinata temperatura partium, pax animae inrationalis ordinata requies appetitionum, pax animae rationalis ordinata cognitionis actionisque consensio, pax corporis et animae ordinata uita et salus animantis, pax hominis mortalis et Dei ordinata in fide sub aeterna lege oboedientia, pax hominum ordinata concordia, pax domus ordinata imperandi atque oboediendi concordia cohabitantium, pax ciuitatis ordinata imperandi atque oboediendi concordia ciuium, pax caelestis ciuitatis ordinatissima et concordissima societas fruendi Deo et inuicem in Deo, pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis. Ordo est parium dispariumque rerum sua cuique loca tribuens dispositio.

And in English:

The peace of the body then consists in the duly proportioned arrangement of its parts. The peace of the irrational soul is the harmonious repose of the appetites, and that of the rational soul the harmony of knowledge and action. The peace of body and soul is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature. Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar concord among the citizens. The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God. The peace of all things is the tranquillity of order. Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place.

Watch carefully the analogy Augustine draws between the family and civil society (or the state): peace in the household is the concord of those who command and those who obey among the inhabitants; likewise, peace in the city is the concord of those who command and those who obey. Pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis: the peace of all things is the tranquility of order, and order requires inequality.

In Pater Waldstein’s consideration of the Rule of St. Benedict we have a clear example of the tranquility of order. There is a rigid order—one could even say inequality—in monastic life, even to those who arrived in the monastery at different hours of the same day. But, just as Augustine sees the peace of the city in the careful arrangement of things and persons in their places, St. Benedict sees the peace of the monastery in the careful arrangement of monks in their places. The anarchism that Troutner points toward does not accept this careful arrangement, and it is hard to see how it will result in peace instead of a society of thwarted tyrants governed by force by the strongest and cleverest among the tyrants.

Moreover, one might go so far as to say that, without those who command and those who obey, peace within the state is impossible to find. The sort of anarchic equality that Troutner obviously yearns for is not a plan for order. Instead it is a plan for its exact opposite. In the De regno, Aquinas observes,

Nam provinciae vel civitates quae non reguntur ab uno, dissensionibus laborant et absque pace fluctuant, ut videatur adimpleri quod dominus per prophetam conqueritur, dicens: pastores multi demoliti sunt vineam meam. E contrario vero provinciae et civitates quae sub uno rege reguntur, pace gaudent, iustitia florent, et affluentia rerum laetantur. Unde dominus pro magno munere per prophetas populo suo promittit, quod poneret sibi caput unum, et quod princeps unus erit in medio eorum.

In English:

For provinces or cities which are not ruled by one person are torn with dissensions and tossed about without peace, so that the complaint seems to be fulfilled which the Lord uttered through the Prophet [Jer 12:10]: “Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard.” On the other hand, provinces and cities which are ruled under one king enjoy peace, flourish in justice, and delight in prosperity. Hence, the Lord by His prophets promises to His people as a great reward that He will give them one head and that “one Prince will be in the midst of them” [Ez 34:24, Jer 30:21].

One could, if one wanted to, draw some interesting arguments from the citations to Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and their applicability to Christ. (And from Christ, one could, following Ernst Kantorowicz, draw interesting arguments to medieval political theology and the medieval concept of the ruler. More on that in a minute.)

It is enough for our purposes here, however, to observe that, for Augustine, peace depends on order and order depends on inequality. At the very least, for peace in the household and peace in the state, there must be a basic form of inequality: those who command and those who obey. Without those who command, there cannot be the concord that is peace. Leveling—and the implicit rejection of authority contained within leveling—destroys order. This leaves open, of course, important questions. For example, and most relevant to Troutner’s point, it leaves open the question of what rule looks like. Troutner might argue—indeed, a charitable reading of his piece probably is—that he doesn’t reject authority so much as a secular, coercive authority.

However, Augustine, as we will see, got there first in De civitate Dei XIX:16. Troutner argues at some length (as with everything else in his piece) that it is secular, coercive authority that is the most serious issue. Augustine, a little bit past what we just discussed, talks about the rule of a good father in the household. From this passage, we will see that Troutner’s horror of coercion is simply not supported by Augustine’s vision of authority. First in Latin:

Qui autem ueri patres familias sunt, omnibus in familia sua tamquam filiis ad colendum et promerendum Deum consulunt, desiderantes atque optantes uenire ad caelestem domum, ubi necessarium non sit officium imperandi mortalibus, quia necessarium non erit officium consulendi iam in illa inmortalitate felicibus; quo donec ueniatur, magis debent patres quod dominantur, quam serui tolerare quod seruiunt. Si quis autem in domo per inoboedientiam domesticae paci aduersatur, corripitur seu uerbo seu uerbere seu quolibet alio genere poenae iusto atque licito quantum societas humana concedit, pro eius qui corripit utilitate, ut paci unde dissiluerat coaptetur. Sicut enim non est beneficentiae adiuuando efficere, ut bonum quod maius est amittatur: ita non est innocentiae parcendo sinere, ut in malum grauius incidatur. Pertinet ergo ad innocentis officium, non solum nemini malum inferre, uerum etiam cohibere a peccato uel punire peccatum, ut aut ipse qui plectitur corrigatur experimento, aut alii terreantur exemplo.

In English:

But those who are true fathers of their households desire and endeavor that all the members of their household, equally with their own children, should worship and win God, and should come to that heavenly home in which the duty of ruling men is no longer necessary, because the duty of caring for their everlasting happiness has also ceased; but, until they reach that home, masters ought to feel their position of authority a greater burden than servants their service. And if any member of the family interrupts the domestic peace by disobedience, he is corrected either by word or blow, or some kind of just and legitimate punishment, such as society permits, that he may himself be the better for it, and be readjusted to the family harmony from which he had dislocated himself. For as it is not benevolent to give a man help at the expense of some greater benefit he might receive, so it is not innocent to spare a man at the risk of his falling into graver sin. To be innocent, we must not only do harm to no man, but also restrain him from sin or punish his sin, so that either the man himself who is punished may profit by his experience, or others be warned by his example.

In other words, for Augustine (but not for Troutner) there is no contradiction between coercion, seu verbo seu verbere, and radical humility. Indeed, for Augustine, coercion is part of the obligation of the good father: erring members of the family must be brought back into the order of the family. The radical suggestion is that a good father must punish sin in his family, either for the benefit of the sinner or as an example for others to benefit from.

Recalling Augustine’s connection between order in the family and order in the state, the consequences of this argument are startling. Just as a father must punish a disobedient member of his household, so too must the leaders of the state punish disobedient citizens. Augustine makes this point manifest when he says:

Quia igitur hominis domus initium siue particula debet esse ciuitatis, omne autem initium ad aliquem sui generis finem et omnis pars ad uniuersi, cuius pars est, integritatem refertur, satis apparet esse consequens, ut ad pacem ciuicam pax domestica referatur, id est, ut ordinata imperandi oboediendique concordia cohabitantium referatur ad ordinatam imperandi obediendique concordiam ciuium. Ita fit, ut ex lege ciuitatis praecepta sumere patrem familias oporteat, quibus domum suam sic regat, ut sit paci adcommoda ciuitatis.

In English:

Since, then, the house ought to be the beginning or element of the city, and every beginning bears reference to some end of its own kind, and every element to the integrity of the whole of which it is an element, it follows plainly enough that domestic peace has a relation to civic peace — in other words, that the well-ordered concord of domestic obedience and domestic rule has a relation to the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and civic rule. And therefore it follows, further, that the father of the family ought to frame his domestic rule in accordance with the law of the city, so that the household may be in harmony with the civic order.

Nowhere in Augustine’s vision does one find the suspicion of authority and coercion that one finds in Troutner’s essay. Indeed, we can say that Augustine’s vision rejects the sort of anarchism that Troutner ultimately finds so appealing.

As for Troutner’s repeated points about service and humility, we have seen that Augustine has an answer for that, too. As it is the desire and work of fathers that the members of their households achieve the bliss of heaven—participation in the life of the Trinity, as Troutner might say—their burden of rule in the household is greater than the burden of service. The coercive or exemplary punishments they administer, aimed at sin, are an integral part of the burden of rule in the household. It is, Augustine reminds us, not innocent to spare punishing a sinner at the risk of the sinner falling into greater sin. And recalling Augustine’s analogy between domestic rule and civil authority, we might say that punishing sin in the state is part of the burden of civil leaders, which they are not at liberty to ignore.

Pater Waldstein makes the point that St. Benedict has a vision of power similar to St. Augustine’s:

The abbot is to be obeyed in everything, and to be called Dominus (Lord) and Abbas (Father), because “he is regarded as the vicar of Christ in the monastery.” The abbot is to rule his monastery with wisdom and gentleness. He is to apply punishments both corporal (beatings) and spiritual (exclusion from common prayer and meals). In administering these punishments the abbot has to be mindful of different dispositions . . . But he must also be mindful not to punish too severely “lest, seeking too vigorously to cleanse off the rust, he may break the vessel” (RB 64).

This is not incompatible with radical service and humility. Indeed, St. Benedict sees the abbot as the vicar of Christ in the monastery, and consequently we may say that Benedict’s vision of the abbot’s power is necessarily Christological. Yet, Benedict sees no contradiction between this and coercive punishments, both corporal and spiritual. Now, there must be justice and mercy in these punishments, but St. Benedict, like St. Augustine, sees no contradiction between Christological power and coercive punishment.

Pater Waldstein goes on to make the point that we cannot help making ourselves:

Is the “form” of the abbot’s power as described by St. Benedict too worldly? Is he a victim of what Troutner calls “cognitive dissonance” in using punishments to help his monks to conform themselves to a crucified Lord? Surely not. The form of abbatial authority is truly Christological. The use of punishment in the Rule is a reaction to violation of the peace, meant to lead monks back to Christ, and the witness of monastic saints throughout the centuries testifies to its wisdom. The goal is to lead sinners to true freedom[.]

Just as the father uses coercion to restore domestic peace, disrupted by disobedience, so too does the abbot use coercion to restore peace in his monastery. Likewise, when the civil authority uses coercion, it is to restore peace in the state. There is no incompatibility between this sort of coercion and Christological authority, despite Troutner’s argument to the contrary.

Indeed, at the height of Christendom, so distasteful to Troutner, the civil authority and all its unpleasant coercion was seen as explicitly Christological. Pater Waldstein cites Ernst Kantorowicz’s monumental volume, The King’s Two Bodies, to make this point. The medieval understanding of kingship was explicitly Christological. One suspects that Troutner’s essay would have been altogether more coherent if, instead of reeling off the usual list of putative crimes of Christendom, he had engaged thoroughly with the medieval understanding of kingship. It is pretty clear that no one from St. Peter and St. Paul to St. Augustine to St. Benedict to St. Thomas Aquinas saw any contradiction between coercive power and Christological authority. Indeed, the best evidence is that they saw exactly the opposite.

It is possible, we admit, that St. Augustine and St. Benedict failed to understand the Christological redefinition of power that Troutner, following his modern doctors of the Church, sees all too clearly. It is possible, if only barely, that St. Peter and St. Paul failed to understand the Christological redefinition of power. And it is possible that the medieval theologians and rulers who saw no contradiction between a Christ-like king and coercion missed the point, too. But such an argument requires infinitely more proof than the proof Troutner brings. Merely sniffing “Formerly all men were mad” from the safety of the faculty lounge won’t cut it. Part of Troutner’s problem is that his vision of Christianity has a “Scene Missing” card from about five minutes before Christ was brought before Pilate until about five minutes before St. John XXIII let Karl Rahner come to the Second Vatican Council. Troutner does not grapple with Christ’s statement in Matthew 28:18 that “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth.” He does not grapple with important texts like Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 and the extensive commentaries on those texts that developed in the last couple thousand years. In the light of the odd lacunae in Troutner’s discourse on power, it is possible that Augustine simply failed to understand the Christological redefinition of power, but it is more likely that Troutner simply failed to understand the tradition in his haste to baptize anarchism.

It is also possible that Troutner will respond—if he responds at all—that we are merely prooftexting Augustine. (We will see in a minute that Troutner thinks integralists prooftext Pius IX and Leo XIII. Prooftexting holds some unique horror for him.) But that would be disingenuous. Augustine sets forth two related arguments. One deals with the necessity of inequality, the other just rule. Both arguments, quoted largely verbatim, seem to undercut fatally Troutner’s arguments about authority and coercion. The upshot is that either Augustine has it wrong or Troutner does. But we do not think that there’s a way that both of them can be right, given Troutner’s disgust with coercion.

III.

One other point about coercion, which ought not be overlooked, because it is no less devastating to Troutner’s point than the arguments from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. While a theologian such as Troutner may resent the present prominence of jurists and political theorists, it would have been wise to consult some jurists before holding forth on the Church and coercion. To this very hour, the Church holds that it “has the innate and proper right [nativum et proprium ius] to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions” (1983 CIC can. 1311). When John Paul II promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law, he remarked at some length about how the 1983 Code implements the ecclesiology of Vatican II. In his apostolic constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges, John Paul wrote, “[t]he instrument, which the Code is, fully corresponds to the nature of the Church, especially as it is proposed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in general, and in a particular way by its ecclesiological teaching.” “Indeed,” John Paul goes on to say, “in a certain sense, this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same doctrine, that is, the conciliar ecclesiology, into canonical language.” It is not correct to imply, as Troutner does, that the Church awoke from the bad dream that began with Constantine and ended with Leo XIII, and—once more awake as in the days of Augustine—it rejected worldly coercion.

It is not correct, either, to respond that the coercion the Church claims as its “innate and proper right” is somehow purely spiritual. The Code holds that “[t]he law can establish other expiatory penalties which deprive a member of the Christian faithful of some spiritual or temporal good [christifidelem aliquo bono spirituali vel temporali privent] and which are consistent with the supernatural purpose of the Church” (1983 CIC can. 1312 § 2). In other words, not only does the Church claim coercion as its “innate and proper right,” it claims as part of that right the ability to deprive a member of the faithful even of temporal goods. And all of this was promulgated by a pope who stated, as he promulgated such laws, “it is to be hoped that the new canonical legislation will prove to be an efficacious means in order that the Church may progress in conformity with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and may every day be ever more suited to carry out its office of salvation in this world.”

It would be difficult to claim that the Church is unaware of the Christological definition of power, with its emphasis on humility and service. Indeed, John Paul II notes,

Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church, we should emphasize especially the following: the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the People of God (cf. Lumen gentium, no. 2), and authority as a service (cf. ibid., no. 3); the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a “communion,” and which, therefore, determines the relations which should exist between the particular Churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy; the doctrine, moreover, according to which all the members of the People of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold office of Christ: priestly, prophetic and kingly. With this teaching there is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful, and particularly of the laity; and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.

Indeed, John Paul finds in Lumen gentium a renewed emphasis on precisely the dimensions that Troutner finds all important for his argument. And John Paul, as we have noted, finds the 1983 Code to be an implementation of precisely these dimensions. Thus, just as St. Augustine and St. Benedict find no contradiction between the Christological definition of power and coercion, neither does John Paul find a contradiction between such a definition and coercion.

Troutner’s appalling, galling assertions that “[i]ntegralists ‘do not notice that they are tempting the Church, just as Satan tempted Christ in the desert'” and “[i]ntegralists demean, even betray, the spiritual realities under consideration with these unbaptized notions of power and subordination,” which are no doubt what passes for clever talk in the seminar rooms and graduate student lounges in South Bend, Indiana, might sit a little better if it appeared that Troutner had the faintest idea what rights the Church claims for herself. But if he does, as we say elsewhere in Indiana, he hides it pretty well. It might—might—be a reasonable critique of integralist discourse that it is too concerned with the juridical and the technical. But Troutner’s screed demonstrates the danger of divorcing oneself wholly from the juridical and the technical. When you skip the details to rhapsodize about “cruciform power,” you miss important points. Like the fact that the Church claims the right to coerce the faithful even with respect to temporal goods, and does so apparently consistently with the Second Vatican Council.

IV.

One could spend hours dissecting Troutner’s other conceptual and theological errors. (From the length and detail of his rebuttal, Pater Waldstein did.) It is enough to say that Troutner, like every other critic of integralism except, bizarrely, Robert Miller, fails utterly to engage with the magisterial status of integralism. Troutner sneers about integralists “prooftexting” from Pius IX and Leo XIII. (No doubt this is a devastating point among young theologians.) However, Troutner never seems to stop and ask whether Pius IX and Leo XIII have spoken the last words on the integralism question. This is not a trivial error, though a theologian may wish to dispense with considering what the popes have taught to get to the really important authors like Francesca Murphy, David Schindler, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. But, if the teaching on integralism is infallible, the discussion looks very different. (Troutner might even have to consider more critically his doctors of the modern Church like Murphy, Von Balthasar, and Schindler!)

It is not as though the argument in support of infallibility is weak. Dr. John Joy has expounded it at great length. Robert Miller and Lawrence King have responded to Joy at Public Discourse, currently the headquarters of anti-integralist liberal Catholic thought. Miller and King argue (based largely on King’s Ph.D. research) that Pius IX’s Quanta cura is not infallible. You can read their argument there. Of course, Miller and King treat Quanta cura (and, implicitly, Leo XIII’s magisterium) as though it happened in a vacuum; that is, they simply apply their own private judgment to it and come up with the conclusion that it is not infallible. There is no meaningful effort to grapple with contemporary commentators, many of whom would be summarized and cited in any number of the standard manuals of the day. However, the point is that the infallibility argument is well developed and the response to it is close enough to well developed for polemical purposes.

V.

For the foregoing reasons, it is safe to say that Troutner’s critique of integralism simply doesn’t cut it. He has problems in just about every dimension, and most of those problems are fatal to his argument. This is not to say that there is not a critique of integralism—or, more precisely, integralist rhetoric—to be made. However, it seems to us that the best critique of integralism is not a critique of integralism at all, but an exploration of different modes of integralist authority. That is, there is a range of integralist models on display today, ranging from the centralized medieval state of St. Louis IX (and, if we are being fair, Frederick II) to states more closely aligned with the modern model. Leo XIII himself observed that the Church did not mandate any particular form of government. Consequently there is some room for creativity in terms of articulating proposals for an integralist state.  Building on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, it seems to us that it is entirely possible to imagine different models of the state that are less centralized. It is also possible to harmonize integralist thought with the doctrinal pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council. Dr. Thomas Pink has done that at some length. Surely there are other ways of considering the interrelation and interaction of the teachings of the Council with the integralist model of the state.

Furthermore, Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has articulated a strategy—the “long march through the institutions”—that doesn’t really require, for the moment, the resolution of questions about coercion and state power. Such a pragmatic approach acknowledges that, while debates on Church Life Journal and WordPress blogs are edifying and stimulating, they are a long way from moving the levers of power. Meanwhile liberalism’s domination is unchecked. It must be admitted, even by integralists, that integralists are not in a position to implement their views, even if their views are gaining wider acceptance. The important task, Prof. Vermeule might argue, is getting serious Catholics closer to the levers power by following the cursus honorum of liberalism. Only when Catholics are in a position to move the civil authority closer to the Church’s teachings will the debates over coercion be relevant. Other strategic postures might also mean that there is time to resolve the questions of state power.

All of this is to say that there is no real need to critique integralism per se in order to make various arguments about integralist rhetoric. There are other options that address Troutner’s complaints about rhetoric without touching upon the serious theological and doctrinal issues that Troutner raises. Given the problems with his argument, these other approaches may be much stronger “critiques” than the critique Troutner makes.

Aquinas, Frederick II, and the De Regno

Thomas Aquinas’s De regno is the saint’s contribution to the “mirror of princes” genre. Written for a king of Cyprus and left unfinished, it is often considered Aquinas’s contribution to political theory. Scholarly attention has focused on its date, as a difference of a few years would make a significant difference in the king of Cyprus for whom it was written and the broader political circumstances of its writing. However, there is an interesting biographical issue posed by the De regno. In the sections believed to be written by Thomas, there is no mention of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. While Aquinas’s project in the De regno was by no means a conspectus of contemporary politics or recent history, the silence about Frederick II is interesting because the case of the Hohenstaufen emperor has direct bearing on a question Aquinas treats at length—the problem of tyranny.

Aquinas’s recent biographer, Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., implies that the primary controversy over the De regno regards its date (Saint Thomas Aquinas: Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, pp. 169–70.) It is not an insignificant problem. The precise date of the De regno would necessarily change the king of Cyprus to whom it was addressed. A date of 1265 or 1267—favored, per Torrell, by Echard, Mandonnet, and Eschmann—means that Thomas was writing to Hugh II of Cyprus. Torrell suggests that the 1265-67 dating is unacceptable because the De regno relies on the commentary on the Ethics, which is clearly later.  A slightly later date of 1271, however, means that Thomas was writing to Hugh III of Cyprus. (Hugh II died in 1267.) The problem with that is that Hugh III was a rival claimant to Charles of Anjou for the kingdom of Jerusalem. Torrell may overstate the rivalry, however, since Hugh III was accepted by the legalistic barons of Outremer as king of Jerusalem in 1269. Charles’s purchase of the rejected claim of Mary of Antioch was not concluded until 1276.

All of this is interesting, to be sure. But the De regno is deeply concerned with the problem of tyranny. This no doubt is because the work is a speculum principis, and as a fundamentally practical treatise it is aimed toward a major practical problem of princes: how to avoid being a tyrant. However, the book makes no reference to Frederick II. It cannot be said that Frederick would have been an obscure figure, either to Thomas or to a Lusignan king of Cyprus (or Jerusalem). To understand why this is interesting, a brief tour of Thomas Aquinas’s biography—with special reference to Frederick II—is necessary.

The canned biography of Thomas Aquinas that everyone has by heart is that he was born to the powerful Aquino family. His father, Landulf, was a knight in the service of King Roger of Sicily and then one of Frederick’s officials. The family then became deeply embroiled in the battle between Frederick II and Pope Innocent IV, as most noble families in Italy did. Landulf’s oldest son, Aimo, went to the Holy Land in Frederick’s service, was captured by a supporter of Hugh of Cyprus, and ransomed by the pope’s party. Aimo stayed firmly with the pope thereafter. Landulf’s second son, Rinaldo, was a supporter of Frederick until Innocent deposed him in 1245. Frederick executed Rinaldo shortly thereafter, in 1246. According to Torrell, who summarizes this history and provides references to various primary sources, the Aquino family viewed Rinaldo as a martyr for the Church.

As everyone knows, Aquinas’s family sent him to the influential Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Landulf offered him as an oblate, and it is usual to speculate that Landulf imagined the young Thomas eventually becoming abbot of the famous, wealthy monastery. At some point between 1230 and 1231, Aquinas entered Monte Cassino and received his earliest education there. However, in 1236, as the peace between Frederick and the papacy began to break down, Landulf, on the advice of the abbot, took Thomas from Cassino and sent him to Naples to continue his studies. We know that Frederick founded the University of Naples in 1224 as a rival to the University of Bologna and he required his Sicilian subjects to study there. We also know that it was at Naples where Thomas first encountered Dominican friars, who had been present at the university since 1231.

Frederick was, directly or indirectly, involved closely with the Aquino family, and provided the conditions for Thomas’s early education. However, Frederick may have been even more closely involved with Thomas’s early life. The famous incident of Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans provides, in Torrell’s telling, some additional clues as to Frederick’s involvement with the Aquino family and with Thomas in particular.

All the biographies mention the Aquino family’s steadfast resistance to Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans. There were no doubt several factors behind this. No doubt first and foremost among them was the family’s plan that Thomas should become abbot at Monte Cassino. Another factor may have been Frederick’s hostility to mendicant orders. In any event, after Thomas took the Dominican habit in the spring of 1244, informed his family, and set out for the general chapter in the company of John the Teuton, then the master general of the Order of Preachers. His family reacted badly to the news. His mother went to Naples and Rome to try to dissuade Thomas; she then informed his brothers, who were with Frederick II’s army, who made plans to lay hands on Thomas by force.

Torrell provides an extremely interesting detail about this episode. Two men in the party that arrested Thomas are named: his brother Rinaldo and Piero della Vigna. Della Vigna’s presence is extremely interesting. In the spring of 1244, Della Vigna would have been one of the most important men in Frederick’s empire. Indeed, after Frederick himself, Della Vigna may have been the most important man in the Empire, as Frederick’s chancellor, secretary, mouthpiece, and theorist. Ernst Kantorowicz’s brilliant biography, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, presents Della Vigna as an indispensable figure in Frederick’s court and one of the cultural luminaries of Italy and the Empire. Torrell observes drily that Della Vigna’s presence in the party that arrested young Thomas Aquinas meant that Frederick likely personally approved the arrest. This much is surely true.

So far from being merely a distant ruler, Frederick was almost an intimate of the Aquino family. Not only was Frederick a patron and ally (and later enemy) of Thomas’s father and brothers, but he also was undoubtedly informed of the operation to prevent Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans, sending his important deputy (almost his alter ego, in Kantorowicz’s telling), Piero della Vigna, as part of the party that arrested Thomas. This supposes intimate knowledge on Frederick’s part about Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans and his family’s objections. After Frederick’s break with Innocent IV—more on that in a moment—Thomas’s brother, Aimo, joined the pope’s party. Frederick ordered the execution of Thomas’s other brother, Rinaldo.

About a year after the high drama of Thomas’s arrest and imprisonment, at the Council of Lyons, Pope Innocent IV issued Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem, which excommunicated Frederick and deposed him as king of Sicily and Roman emperor. The story of the break between Frederick and Innocent IV would be too long to recount in detail, since it marked the culmination of over twenty years of tension with the Church, going back to Innocent III and Gregory IX. Innocent alleged that Frederick, despite his oaths of fidelity to the popes, made war against the Church and was suspect of heresy. In Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, Ernst Kantorowicz (fairly convincingly) argues that Frederick’s combat against the Lombard League and his desire to unify territorially the Empire with Sicily—which would have left the Papal States surrounded by Hohenstaufen possessions—was at the root of the conflict between first Gregory IX and then Innocent IV.

However, one of Innocent’s specific charges ought to be examined in particular. After rehearsing Frederick’s alleged perjuries and broken pacts with the Church and his putative heresy, Innocent turns to Frederick’s putative maladministration of the kingdom of Sicily.

Praeter haec regnum Siciliae, quod est speciale patrimonium beati Petri et idem princeps ab apostolica sede tenebat in feudum, iam ad tantam in clericis et laicis exinanitionem servitutem que redegit, quod eis paene penitus nihil habentibus et omnibus exinde fere probis eiectis, illos qui remanserunt ibidem sub servili quasi conditione vivere ac Romanam ecclesiam, cuius principaliter sunt homines et vassalli, offendere multipliciter et hostiliter impugnare compellit.

(Oddly, the Vatican makes the Latin original available on its website.) In translation, this charge reads:

Besides this the kingdom of Sicily, which is the special patrimony of blessed Peter and which Frederick held as a fief from the apostolic see, he has reduced to such a state of utter desolation and servitude, with regard to both clergy and laity, that these have practically nothing at all; and as nearly all upright people have been driven out, he has forced those who remain to live in an almost servile condition and to wrong in many ways and attack the Roman church, of which in the first place they are subjects and vassals. He could also be rightly blamed because for more than nine years he has failed to pay the annual pension of a thousand gold pieces, which he is bound to pay to the Roman church for this kingdom.

While not phrased in terms of tyranny and the common good, it is clear that Frederick’s civil maladministration in Sicily comes very near to tyranny in Innocent’s eyes. Running throughout the bull is the charge that Frederick has broken the peace between the Empire and the Church; this charge suggests that Frederick has thrown Sicily into disorder and reduced everyone to poverty, desolation, and servitude. He has also led them into moral turpitude.

This, then, is the interesting biographical problem: writing not quite thirty years after Innocent deposed Frederick, at least in part for Frederick’s alleged tyranny, Aquinas does not mention Frederick at all in his speculum principis, which is concerned preeminently with keeping a prince from falling into tyranny. Given Innocent IV’s charges against Frederick, one might reasonably assume that Frederick would be a clear example of a modern tyrant in Thomas’s account. Frederick, according to Innocent, abandoned the common good of his Sicilian subjects to draft them in his war against the Church. More than this, Frederick’s conflict with Innocent IV embroiled the Aquino family, ultimately to the price of Rinaldo d’Aquino’s life. Thomas, therefore, would have a personal motivation to discuss Frederick as a tyrant.

That he does not is, of course, extremely interesting. Perhaps his silence can be explained in terms of his project in the De regno. Observe—we are sure you no doubt have observed, dear reader—that Aquinas cites classical authors such as Aristotle, Cicero, Vegetius, and Vitruvius. He also cites scripture and Augustine at some length. One could argue that Aquinas avoids contemporary or near-contemporary politics in order to make his case based solely on scripture and classical authors—including for the moment Augustine in the list of classical authors. After all, the case of Frederick II and his children and grandchildren would have been very much on the mind of Hugh II/III of Cyprus. The Lusignan kings of Cyprus had benefitted from the fall of the Hohenstaufens, particularly with respect to their claims to Jerusalem. One might argue that it was wholly unnecessary for Thomas to rehearse the case of Frederick II in the De regno. (One could also argue that the De regno is incomplete, but there’s no fun in that argument.)

However, that explanation is perhaps not wholly satisfactory, especially given Thomas’s treatment of the options of a people laboring under the yoke of a tyrant. This is not the place to get into that question in depth, but it is worth noting that Innocent IV purported to depose Frederick II from both the Empire and Sicily. The case of Sicily is relatively straightforward, since it was a papal fief. However, deposing the Roman Emperor was another matter. Innocent’s decision caused significant disruptions in the political order of Europe, though Frederick’s deposition was never meaningfully effected. The question of papal involvement in the deposition of a tyrant was therefore a major question in relatively recent history—and Thomas is silent about it.