The new catechism

Today, the Vatican released a letter from Luis Cardinal Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, informing the bishops (and the world) that Pope Francis has approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holding that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” To keen observers of Francis’s public statements, this was no surprise. Francis, in an address about a year ago, signaled his view that the death penalty was “inadmissible” and his desire to change the Catechism to reflect his views. At the time, we were writing a column for First Things, and we addressed Francis’s comments there. You may find that column here, if you are so interested; we recede from none of our comments. Despite the fact that we had a year’s warning, many Catholics, especially Catholics on Twitter, reacted to Francis’s changes with great dismay and alarm.

I.

It is hard to know how to respond to the dismay and alarm of so many of our friends and brothers and sisters in the Faith. One could, if one were inclined, parse the revised Catechism text closely. It is a string of non sequiturs culminating in a declaration of “inadmissibility.” None of the three paragraphs seems logically connected to any one of the other two, much less both of them. It is unclear what the reasoning is, and it is unclear what “inadmissible” means in the context of an incoherent argument. One could also, if one were inclined, discuss how Francis’s statement is not really a radical departure from what John Paul II said in Evangelium vitae. If one were a glutton for homework, one could also explain how the inclusion of a statement in the Catechism does not add magisterial weight to the statement itself; that is, a statement’s weight is determined on its own terms. One could conclude by pointing to the International Theological Commission’s document on the sensus fidei and suggest that one could withhold one’s assent to the new teaching and appeal to the universal magisterium.

Our initial impulse was to explain how bizarre the new Catechism text is in light of Thomas Aquinas’s normative teaching on the death penalty, as set forth in ST II-II q.64 a.2 and SCG III.146. The note that came from Cardinal Ladaria mentions, albeit in a confused way, the development of doctrine. However, it is unclear how the Thomistic arguments in favor of the death penalty could develop at all, much less develop in such a way that the death penalty is made inadmissible. This argument is relatively easy, and it points to all sorts of ideas, including the common good and an understanding of human dignity that is not altogether present in the Catechism text or Cardinal Ladaria’s letter. Anyway, excellent thinkers like Ed Feser will no doubt intervene decisively to demonstrate the profoundly un-Thomistic nature of the new text and the explanation that comes with it.

We also thought about reading the Vatican tea leaves. For example, a sharp friend of ours observed that this might be one of the reasons why Francis was so eager to fire Cardinal Müller. As Francis’s first quinquennium has come and gone, we had expected, under the principle he articulated when firing Müller, to see a whole raft of dismissals. No one needs to be in the Curia longer than five years, especially when the judgment of the hierarchy is as suspect as it is now, in the wake of the disturbing revelations about Archbishop McCarrick and about Pennsylvania. Such dismissals have not been forthcoming—shock of shocks! So, we see Müller ousted on grounds that seemed to have been invented to oust Müller. Perhaps his resistance to this, in addition to his evident unhappiness with Amoris laetitia and his exclusion from Francis’s court more generally, was a factor. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he says.

However, there are other valid takes. If one were trying to get a lot of traffic from traditionalist blogs and Twitter accounts, one could discuss the great canonist Franz Xavier Wernz, S.J., who discussed in his great Ius Canonicum, volume 2, numbers 453 and 454, the process by which the Church can declare that a heretical pope has deposed himself. Note that such an argument is not conciliarism—that is, one need not hold that a general council is competent to judge a pope and deprive him of office. Instead, Wernz holds that the pope effectively deprives himself the papacy by teaching error and that the general council merely declares the fact of the error. We are a little surprised that such takes have not been forthcoming in greater quantity. How soon we have forgotten the bruising battles over Amoris laetitia! Not two years ago, everyone was an expert in Cardinal Bellarmine and John of St. Thomas and the Canon Si Papa.

Speaking of Amoris laetitia, one could get a few laughs by constructing an argument, as some have already done, that, whatever the objective norm against the death penalty may be, concrete circumstances must be taken into account. It may not be possible, in the light of such concrete circumstances, for a country, while recognizing that the death penalty is objectively inadmissible, to live up to the norm immediately. Instead, the country must be accompanied by the law of gradualism to execute fewer and fewer of its citizens until it can live more fully in keeping with the inadmissibility of the death penalty. Surely the country that prefers to execute its murderers is no less entitled to pastoral accompaniment than a person who has divorced and remarried a few times. Times are tough all over.

II.

The thought that we find hardest to shake is this: the Catechism plays basically no role in our life. Whenever we have a question about the Faith, we turn first to Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, then to other works by Thomas, then to commentaries on Thomas’s works, then to magisterial documents like the acts of Trent or the Vatican Council, and then to papal documents, and finally to trusted commentators. Also, candidly, the old Catholic Encyclopedia is an excellent resource, especially if we do not know where to begin. The Catechism is only useful when we are looking for a prooftext when in dialogue with someone who seems like they would find the Catechism an important source. If no one had told us that the Catechism was changed on this point, we never would have found out.

The Catechism is the summit of the consensus John Paul II forged. It cites, insofar as we can tell, scripture, the acts of the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul’s magisterium, almost to the exclusion of anything between the death of the last Apostle and 1963. The Catechism represented the idea that history had ended within the Church: we could finally say that there was a definitive compendium of Catholic teachings. Yet this end of ecclesiastical history in the Church required John Paul’s force of will to maintain the consensus. And as soon as John Paul went on to his reward, that consensus crumbled. Benedict XVI backed away from it, beginning with the Christmas address to the Curia, and definitely with Summorum Pontificum. And Francis has backed away from it even more decisively. As we have noted elsewhere, history has begun again in the Church.

Of course, it is unclear that the collapse of the John Paul II consensus really needed Benedict’s or Francis’s help. The recent revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick have rocked the Church in the past few weeks. Indeed, they led McCarrick to resign the cardinalate and the Vatican has ordered him to solitude and prayer while a canonical investigation and trial against him proceeds. Among the revelations is the fact that individuals claim that they warned Rome about McCarrick’s infamous behavior prior to his translation from Newark to Washington, D.C., under John Paul II. This has the potential, we think, to lead to a serious reappraisal of John Paul’s reign, especially as it relates to the administration of the Church. Indeed, we have seen signs of such a reappraisal over the last few weeks. At the very least, it raises awkward questions about how such reports were handled—questions that have appeared under Francis’s watch, too.

Moreover, as we noted above, it seems strange to have a discussion about the Catechism changes outside the context of Amoris laetitia, Gaudete et exsultate, the protestant communion fight, and any number of more or less formal papal statements. It is clear that Francis wishes, to the extent possible (which is a bigger caveat than you’d think), to move doctrine leftward. He has not been able to do so with any great success, and he has produced a bunch of borderline incoherent statements, the new Catechism text among them. While one can give thanks that the Holy Spirit has protected Francis and the Church so well, one can also note that there have been doctrinal controversies since 2013 before now. However, it is obvious that most of these changes seem to be motivated by Francis’s desire to abandon the John Paul consensus and return to the debates that John Paul put on hold and kept on hold during his pontificate.

While the Catechism has been a helpful resource in the Church for many, we are told, it is a sign of a consensus that no longer exists. The doctrinal disputes putatively settled by the big green book have re-emerged, with as much ferocity as they had in August 1978. Indeed, it seems significant that we are only a few days away from the fortieth anniversary of Paul VI’s death on August 6. The clock has been rolled back to August 2, 1978 in many ways. Seen in this light, Francis’s change to the Catechism, whatever its merits in doctrinal terms, is as good a sign of the current state of the Church as the Catechism itself was in its day. What remains to be seen is the course of history in the Church, now that it has so clearly begun again.

The anniversary

There is little left to be said about Humanae vitae. This is not because it is not a rich and fruitful document. It is, of course. Indeed, it is the foundation of the Church’s entire moral position in the modern age. When Paul refused to open the door to birth control, he provided the conceptual framework for John Paul to keep the door barred against abortion and euthanasia. He also provided the orientation toward human life that one finds in Francis’s Laudato si’. On the other hand, no other papal pronouncement has been as controversial the world over as Humanae vitae. It has been cheered and lamented by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet it is the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, and the occasion does, we think, call for a few words.

Foremost among them is the recognition of the fact that we have discussed before. 2018 is the year of Paul VI. We have seen the fiftieth anniversary of the Credo of the People of God, we are marking the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, and this fall, we shall see him raised to the altars as Saint Paul VI. But the influence of Paul VI in this time extends far beyond some anniversaries and a canonization. There is a sense that the Church has been plunged, since 2013, into some of the debates that raged under Paul VI. After the pause presented by John Paul II and Benedict XVI—and the collapse of the consensus that those popes represented—the dialectic within the Church between tradition and modernity (and, frankly, modernism) has resumed.

We have commented, we think, elsewhere about Gladden Pappin’s argument (following Baudrillard) that, following the pause from 1991 to 2001, history has resumed. Perhaps there is something to be said for this in terms of world history. But it seems clear that, regardless of what has happened in the world at large, history has resumed in the Church. It is natural, therefore, to look back to Paul VI in these times. Paul VI was the last pope to confront—and be forced to judge—the conflict between tradition and modernity. And Humanae vitae is the premier example of Paul confronting and deciding such a conflict. The lessons of Paul’s act of frankly Apostolic courage and clarity still deserve to be considered, along with the other lessons to be drawn from Paul’s complex, often frustrating papacy.

In Humanae vitae, we find the germ of the basic liberal narrative of the Church. After the Council, all things were possible and it looked like the Church was going to enter modernity enthusiastically. Innovations that were opposed fiercely by Pius XII in Humani generis looked tame in comparison to what burst onto the scene after 1965. Then Pope Paul, with a voice that seemed to come from an earlier time, clearly and unambiguously opposed one of the most cherished practices of modern liberalism. Things started to go wrong. For the liberals, 1968 to 2013 was an unmitigated stream of disasters and disappointments. (This is not quite right, but close enough for our purposes.) Ever since Humanae vitae, there is a sense of having lost what could have been. And this sense has become especially acute since Francis’s election.

The story of Humanae vitae is well known by now. Paul set up a commission to study birth control. The bishops and theologians came down almost unanimously in favor of permitting, at least in some circumstances, birth control. It was widely expected—and a draft of an encyclical prepared, if we remember right—that Paul would ratify the decision of the commission. However, the towering prefect of the Holy Office, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, and a handful of others (no doubt, in the standard liberal telling of the story, identified as reactionaries), opposed such an opening. They were able to convince Paul to go against the experts on the commission and reject any opening to birth control. Yet, according to the liberals, this teaching has not been received by the faithful, who contracept in roughly the same proportion as the faithful of the third century professed that the Son was of like substance as the Father, and some future enlightened pope is expected to come and set things straight.

We have mused before whether the deliberations leading to Humanae vitae were on Paul’s mind when he proclaimed his great Credo of the People of God. The basic narrative is, of course, that Paul was dismayed by the Dutch Catechism and other errors and enormities seemingly receiving approval from the hierarchy. He decided, therefore, to confirm his brethren in the Apostolic faith handed down from Peter to Paul VI. Yet we cannot shake the sense that Paul’s creed and Humanae vitae are of a piece. To say that the Paul of Humanae vitae is separate from the Paul of the creed would be to separate him from himself. One reads about Paul’s agonies of conscience during the explosive period following the Council, but one does not read that Paul was unmoored altogether.

We see then that Paul understood acutely the essence of the Petrine ministry. The pope acts as the guardian of the unity of the faith. His refusal to bend to the spirit of the age must be seen as an act touching upon the very essence of the papacy. Over the past five years, especially in the context over the debate of Amoris laetitia, we have had opportunity to read much (and write some) about the vision of the papacy in Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s great dogmatic decree about the Petrine office. The pope receives the assistance of the Holy Spirit not so that he can propose new doctrines—after all, public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle—but so that he can guard the faith definitively. To condemn error is, therefore, at the heart of the Petrine office.

In this regard, Paul had for his example Pius XI and his encyclical, Casti connubii. In that document, which may be read as a rejoinder to the Anglicans’ collapse and acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Pius condemned contraception in ringing terms. Terms, in fact, that have been argued invoked the extraordinary magisterium. Indeed, we know because the working papers of Paul’s commission to examine birth control were leaked at the time to try to create pressure on the pope that the irreformability of Casti connubii was hotly debated in the commission. However, it appears that Pius XI and Casti connubii weighed heavily on Paul’s mind.

The pope’s role as guarantor of the unity of faith would be undercut severely if a pope were, per impossibile, to overturn a clear ruling by one of his predecessors in a matter touching upon faith and morals. Once such a thing happened, the rule of faith would be at the mercy of the reigning pope. After all, what one pope does, another pope can undo. Whether or not Paul articulated that sense, we do not know. However, by reaffirming Pius’s clear condemnation of contraception, whether Casti connubii was technically infallible or not, Paul revealed his knowledge of the deeper truth about the papacy.

This was understood, we think, by his contemporaries. The Jesuit-run AARP Magazine supplement, America, has relived its glory days by posting some of its contemporary content about Humanae vitae. One of its early editorials responds to Humanae vitae by placing dissenters in dialogue with Paul himself. Paul’s teaching was not a teaching, according to the editors, but merely one opinion among many, based on reasoning subject to critique. It was, we see, anything except an Apostolic utterance, drawing its authority from Christ’s command to Peter to teach all nations. In other words, the critics of Humanae vitae have to topple the pope from his exalted position and make him just another man on the street with just another opinion. There is no other way to resist Paul on this point.

The demise of the American king

Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement. Every politically aware person in the United States—and recall that man is a political animal—has been waiting for this moment. At American Affairs, Gladden Pappin, following Baudrillard, has argued that history has begun again after its post-1991 hiatus. You can agree or disagree with his argument, but we think it is impossible to deny that Kennedy’s retirement feels like the resumption of history. Prior appointments have not been hugely significant, except to those who watch the Supreme Court. Even the fracas over Scalia’s replacement was ultimately a battle about replacing one “conservative” justice with another “conservative” justice. The storm over Kennedy’s replacement has a historical dimension.  Indeed, it has an apocalyptic dimension.

What is so extraordinary is how quickly the reaction to Kennedy’s retirement has progressed to an acknowledgement by left-liberals that Roe v. Wade, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and Obergefell v. Hodges are in dire jeopardy. That means, of course, that abortion on demand and same-sex marriage, the two central struts in the modern left-liberal platform, are in dire jeopardy. Indeed, skimming some of the initial reactions on Twitter, it seemed to us that many left-liberals have conceded that Kennedy’s retirement means the end of those precedents and the policies they enshrine. This is a breathtaking sentiment: for left-liberals, one man has been responsible for ordering the American Republic toward the common good as they imagine it. In this vision, Anthony Kennedy has been more than a career federal appellate judge and sometime deciding vote on the Republic’s highest court.

He has been, in effect, a king. This is a cliche by now. Google “Anthony Kennedy philosopher king” and see how many hits you get. As recently as January, Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative columnist at National Review, characterized Kennedy as our “philosopher king,” whose decisions give legitimacy to an ever-more-polarized United States and who restrains the excesses of whichever political coalition is ascendant. We doubt that Dougherty finds Kennedy’s decisions, especially his lodestar decisions in Casey and Obergefell, especially congenial. But he makes essentially the same point the left-liberals do. Kennedy was the guarantor of unity and order in the American Republic. The hyper-polarized electorate and the never-ending electoral cycle necessarily lead to dissension and disunity. By drawing firm boundaries, as Dougherty might say, around the edges of what the political coalitions can do to each other, Kennedy guaranteed that the dissension and disunity would not get too bad.

But, of course, in singlehandedly enacting and upholding the core left-liberal agenda, Kennedy stoked the fires of fairly serious dissension and disunity. One could draw a fairly straight line between Kennedy’s decisions in Casey and Obergefell and the toxic nihilism that motivates much of political discourse on the right.

A brief excerpt for your attention

We have found ourselves detained lately on matters less pleasant than we would like. However, not too long ago, we were reading Cardinal Newman’s Grammar of Assent, yet another one of the great man’s books that is cited and respected more than it is read, and we stumbled upon a passage that seemed to us to have great force, to say nothing of its applicability to this moment in the life of the Church:

In solving this difficulty I wish it first observed, that, if it is the duty of the Church to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. Suppose certain Bishops and priests at this day began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God, she would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith. In such a case, her masses of population would either not hear of the controversy, or they would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics. There is but one rule of faith for all; and it would be a greater difficulty to allow of an uncertain rule of faith, than (if that was the alternative, as it is not), to impose upon uneducated minds a profession which they cannot understand.

But it is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Evangelicals & Catholics in the age of integralism

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a very lengthy post critiquing Matthew Walther’s recent column at The Week arguing that the Catholic alliance with evangelicals has not worked out to the benefit of Catholics. We note by way of parenthesis at the outset that Walther’s column for The Week is consistently one of the most entertaining and provocative columns out there. Anyway, in the context of the imbroglio over Paul Ryan firing and unfiring the House chaplain, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Conroy (hired by John Boehner, a longtime friend of the Jesuits), Walther makes some very pointed remarks about the effects on Catholics of their political alliance with evangelical protestants. We agree with Walther, for the most part, but Dreher doesn’t. Dreher’s point is basically this: so what if American Catholics have gone wobbly on the Church’s social teaching because of this alliance with evangelicals?

It is worth thinking about this exchange because it provides a perfect example of what we have talked about before, and that is what Jake Meador (a protestant) has rightly called a parting of the ways between Catholics and protestants. Both Catholics and protestants are engaged at the moment in a project of ressourcement. Catholics in particular are presently engaged in rediscovering the Church’s anti-liberal, integralist tradition and thinking about how best to implement the anti-liberal, integralist teaching of the Church in American political life. This makes the consensus that made projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together to name but one less tenable than ever before. Indeed, we have seen in recent regrettable incidents that institutions devoted to the consensus typified by Evangelicals and Catholics Together are hostile to expressions of, for example, the anti-liberal, integralist Catholic tradition. It will be clearer, we think, in short order that Dreher (among others) does not understand this moment in American Christianity as well as he thinks.

Here’s the problem. As Dreher eventually gets around to arguing, the forces of secular liberalism—implacable in their opposition to Christianity—don’t actually see much of a difference between faithful Catholics and faithful evangelicals. Moreover, it is clear that Dreher doesn’t actually see much of a difference, either. Whatever drift there has been in American Catholics’ views, he thinks it was baked in from the beginning. In support of this proposition, he argues (1) that Americans are simply protestantized at a baseline level and (2) that Americans are basically indifferentist. In any event, he does not think it’s all that big of a deal to suggest that Catholics and evangelicals should cooperate on certain issues. What is needed, Dreher concludes, is for Christians to downplay their differences and present a united front in defense of religious liberty.

Even if indifferentism isn’t baked into American religious expression, Americans should adopt it, Joe Carter of the Acton Institute tells us as he weighs in, arguing, based on the thought of 19th-century Dutch protestant and household name around the world Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, Carter tells us, believed that Catholics and protestants have creedal confession and morals in common. More than that, on the points where secular society is most hostile to Christians, Kuyper argued that Catholics and protestants were in agreement. This is a funny assertion, not least because Catholics and protestants disagree pretty vehemently on articles of all of the creeds of undivided Christendom. Moreover, it is only by equivocation that a Catholic and a protestant can profess belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, since it is clear that a Catholic means one thing and a protestant another. On this point, one wonders what response Carter would get from his Southern Baptist brethren if he told them that when they pray the Nicene Creed, they confess the same creed in the same way as St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Levity aside, it seems odd to us that Dreher or Carter would offer what amounts to indifferentism as a way forward.

Part of the reason why indifferentism seems like a strange solution is because it has been what Acton and other institutions have been advancing for some time now, without any appreciable success. In this, we are reminded of Brent Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” from an early issue of Triumph. The splendid site Incudi Reddere reprinted the essay yesterday in the context of a Twitter discussion along these lines. Bozell was writing to an audience of conservatives in 1969 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. After discussing the decision by conservatives to support Nixon despite the fact that Nixon really did not represent the conservative position by 1968, Bozell makes this devastating point:

I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, diedand for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heirthat it is not surprising you are disillusioned.

(Emphasis supplied.) What was true in 1969 remains true in 2018. One might cavil with this assessment and say that Bozell was writing to secular conservatives, not religious conservatives. Okay. How many battles have the religious conservatives won? The most recent major defeat—dealt by the Supreme Court in Obergefell—was so devastating to Dreher that he now proposes anything a sort of strategic regrouping (in its weakest form) to a retreat to the bayou (in its stronger form) for Christians.

This is a painful point for many, not least Dreher. However, when one says that Catholics and evangelicals should put aside their “small differences” to fight the liberal order, one has to point out that they’ve been doing that for a while—and losing. Perhaps this time will be different. It is true that the liberal order is seen to be struggling at this moment, even if the reasons are not always so clear. Christian conservatives have, unlike the secular conservatives, a real ethical and metaphysical critique of liberalism that, in the case of the critique advanced by the Church, carries divine authority. One sees this even today, in Francis’s great anti-liberal encyclical, Laudato si’, which is clearly an authoritative critique of modern liberalism. That counts for something, to be sure. Nevertheless, when a united Christian front for religious liberty is discussed, one ought to hear Bozell intoning, “Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you.”

This is, we think, Walther’s point. Catholics have made accommodations for the sake of presenting a united front with other Christians on other issues, only to be defeated in each fight. Walther writes,

What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.

(Emphasis supplied.) One is justified in asking, then: was it worth it? Was it worth setting about half of Centesimus annus and about six paragraphs of Rerum novarum against the rest of Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, the other half of Centesimus annus, Caritas in veritate, and so on? (To say nothing of the social magisterium beginning with the apostles and the fathers down to Leo XIII!) Was it worth deciding that Dignitatis humanae, Unitatis redintegratio, and Nostra aetate blotted out the Church’s entire thought on its relationship with the state and other faiths?

Moreover, can we say that it was worth it as Catholics are actively engaged in recovering this tradition? As we say, the real problem is that Dreher does not understand this moment in American Christianity. He suggests that the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is dead, right before making basically the argument advanced by that project. Jake Meador, as we have mentioned before, recognizes that both Catholics and protestants are recovering substantial aspects of their respective traditions that make it less and less possible to engage in the sort of ecumenism represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Consider, for example, the ongoing recovery of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. There is an increasing realization—at least on the Catholic side of the line—that the sense that the Church threw open the doors to liberalism at Vatican II is not quite correct. To be sure, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes show more openness to liberalism than, say, Syllabus or Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum. But one must be careful not to read more into the documents than is actually there. At The Public Discourse, for example, Professor Joseph Trabbic has a lengthy essay arguing basically that. He demonstrates convincingly that the Church’s normative political position—even today—is that of a Catholic confessional state. We could go on, though we won’t, about the revival of integralism going on today.

The point is this: Catholics and protestants are recovering their traditions. The Church’s tradition is integralist and anti-liberal. Protestants are working on their own traditions, and they are finding their own reasons to be suspicious of the ecumenism Dreher advances. One might say that the only interesting work being done by Christians on the right—which is very nearly the same thing as saying the only interesting work being done by Christians—is being done in this area. This work makes the sort of cooperation that Dreher urges less and less possible. An integralist Catholic is not going to see the political goals advanced by Dreher as all that worthwhile, except as potentially an intermediate step toward a Catholic confessional state, and he is certainly not going to want to make the compromises—even rhetorical—necessary to work with evangelicals toward such a goal. Likewise, the protestants engaged in their own ressourcement are not going to be excited about coalitions with integralist Catholics.

Today, Incudi Reddere posted another piece from Triumph by Brent Bozell. It concludes, in part:

The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.

We submit that part, a large part, of being a Christian is being an orthodox Christian—that is, a Catholic. We would not deny, however, that protestants are acting in good faith when they say that being an orthodox Christian means being orthodox by the lights of their sect. However, the point is this: there is an emerging sense Bozell is right and the first step toward a political solution is being an orthodox Christian. As this sense emerges, the idea, advanced by Dreher and Carter, that Christians should gloss over significant differences in theology, ecclesiology, metaphysics, and ethics so that they can fight one more losing battle against secular liberalism becomes less and less tenable.

Recordings of Harvard conference now available

Back on March 2 and 3, the Thomistic Institute held a conference at Harvard University on “Christianity and Liberalism.” We were unable to attend, though we know quite a few people who did. However, as you may remember, March 2 and 3 were bad days to be in Boston with a windstorm battering the northeast. Thus even people who planned to attend met with great difficulty in getting to Boston. Recordings of the conference are now, we are told, available on the Thomistic Institute’s Soundcloud page. (The page is a goldmine for anyone with an interest in Catholic thought, with many interesting lectures recorded and freely available.) One may now catch up on what we are reliably told was one of the most exciting events in a long time.

Before a parting of the ways

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

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

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

I.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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