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 little more on law, happiness, and reason

It is no trick to review Thomas Aquinas’s famous definition of law from the Quaestio de Essentia Legis (ST I-II q.90). One can go through the various attributes of law before coming to Aquinas’s summation: “nihil est aliud quam quaedam rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune, ab eo qui curam communitatis habet, promulgata”—“it is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (ST I-II q.90 a.4 co.). However, if one hastens toward that definition, one may well miss important aspects of Aquinas’s argument in support of it. In particular, one overlook what it means for a law to be an ordinance of reason.

Aquinas begins by saying that law is a rule and measure of human actions (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.). Here he follows earlier writers like Isidore of Seville (cf. Etym. 5.10, 5.19–20). But the rule and measure of human actions is reason, the first principle of human actions (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.). Indeed, one may say that actions are properly human only insofar as they are rational (ST I-II q.1 a.1). Aquinas tells us that “In unoquoque autem genere id quod est principium, est mensura et regula illius generis”—“Now that which is the principle in any genus, is the rule and measure of that genus” (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.).

Here one must attend carefully to definitions (cf. In I Post. An. L.5). Henri Grenier, author of the influential manual, Thomistic Philosophy, tells us that “[a] principle is that from which a thing in any way proceeds” (Vol. 1, no. 217). Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle’s Physics, tells us that, when Aristotle talks about “principles”: “per principia videtur intelligere causas moventes et agentes, in quibus maxime attenditur ordo processus cuiusdam”—“by principle he seems to mean moving causes and agents in which, more than in others, there is found an order of some progression” (In I Phys. L.1). Elsewhere he says “Tria videntur de ratione principiorum esse: primum quod non sint ex aliis; secundum quod non sint ex alterutris; tertium quod omnia alia sint ex eis”—“Three things seem to belong to the very nature of principles. First, they are not from other things. Secondly, they are not from each other. Thirdly, all other things are from them” (In I Phys. L.10).

Aquinas goes on to tell us that “Sicut autem ratio est principium humanorum actuum, ita etiam in ipsa ratione est aliquid quod est principium respectu omnium aliorum”—“Now as reason is a principle of human acts, so in reason itself there is something which is the principle in respect of all the rest: wherefore to this principle chiefly and mainly law must needs be referred” (ST I-II q.90 a.2 co.). Aquinas shows that the first principle is the last end, which for human life is happiness (ibid.). Indeed, Aquinas, following Augustine, argues that happiness is the last end proper to man as a rational creature (ST I-II q.1 a.8 s.c. & co.; e.g., Augustine, De Trinitate lib. XIII, c.5). Aquinas demonstrates at length that perfect happiness cannot consist in wealth, honor, glory, power, or any other bodily good (ST I-II q.2 a.1–5). Neither can happiness consist of delight, even delight in the supreme good (ST I-II q.2 a.6). Happiness must be therefore a good of the soul (but not in the soul) and indeed the universal good, the object of all men’s desires—God (ST I-II q.2 a.7–8).

We understand better, therefore, Aristotle when he says that just laws are those that produce and preserve happiness for the political community (NE 5.1, 1129b19; In V Ethic. L.2). One can draw all manner of other conclusions from this. For example, “cum beatitudo consistat in consecutione ultimi finis, ea quae requiruntur ad beatitudinem sunt consideranda ex ipso ordine hominis ad finem”—“Since happiness consists in gaining the last end, those things that are required for happiness must be gathered from the way in which man is ordered to an end” (ST I-II q.4 a.3 co.). And we know that in this life only imperfect happiness, which requires all sorts of external goods, is possible (ST I-II q.4 a.7 co.).

But we do not need to get too far into those weeds. The important thing is to recognize the connections between happiness, reason, and law. More than this, as before, one must recognize that these connections are not merely accidental. Law is an ordinance of reason, which means that it is necessarily ordered to happiness. And happiness itself is not a meaningless concept, dissolved for the most part into relativism—each person defines it for him- or herself. We know what the most perfect happiness is (cf. ST I-II q.3 a.8 co.). We know, too, that “Quod autem dicitur maxime tale in aliquo genere, est causa omnium quae sunt illius generis”—“Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus” (ST I q.2 a.3 co.). And so on and so forth.

Law and the concept of happiness

There is a tendency, especially when discussing questions of law and politics in the classical, Catholic tradition, to overlook the meaning of the terms and concepts used by Aquinas and others in their expressions of that tradition. But Aquinas reminds us: “parvus error in principio magnus est in fine”—“a little error in the beginning is a big one in the end” (De ente et essentia, Prooemium). It is therefore necessary to keep these definitions in mind. An exploration of the consequences of a couple of central concepts—happiness and the common good—will suffice for a demonstration.

We know that in practical matters the first principle is the last end (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). The last end of human life is bliss or happiness (ST IaIIae q.2 a.7 co.). Aquinas tells us that law, therefore, must regard happiness and indeed, because man is a political animal, not just the happiness of an individual man but the happiness of the community (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). Aristotle tells us much the same thing when he treats justice in the Nicomachean Ethics: a just law produces and preserves happiness for the community (NE 5.1, 1129b12-27). And this happiness is the common good (In V Ethic. L.2, nos. 902–903),

So far, there is nothing too controversial in saying that laws must be framed to produce and preserve happiness for the community, which is the common good. A problem inevitably arises when the terms are used without any understanding of their meaning. It is all too common to hear the common good—or happiness—used mostly to mystify discussions or to smuggle in specific ideas, which have very little to do with the concepts as they are used. Insistence upon clear understandings of the concepts involved leads to clear understandings of the consequences of the claims made.

Let us follow its trail for a while and see where we wind up. Happiness, which is the same thing as the common good, has a concrete meaning. If the political community—if, for example, the state—is to secure and preserve happiness, then it is necessary to understand happiness. The first principle in practical matters is the last end (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). It may be suggested that happiness consists, for example, in a particular arrangement of political and economic conditions that allow for citizens to do or not do this or that thing. Indeed, even in Catholic discourse, one might hear temporal happiness described in such terms, with the suggestion that eternal happiness is added to that in some way.

Yet this is a serious error. For one thing, when one makes political prudence or science the highest wisdom, one necessarily supposes that man is the best thing in the universe, as Aristotle tells us (NE 6.7, 1141a20). Man is however not the most excellent thing in the world (In VI Ethic. L.6, no. 1186). Another consequence, if one holds that man is the most excellent thing in the universe—and, therefore, that political science is the most excellent—would be to make actually practical rule impossible. Charles de Koninck, in his Principle of the New Order, demonstrates that practical reason directs to an end in accordance with right reason. This requires one to know the end. To reject the primacy of the speculative is to knock the legs out from underneath this process: without speculative reason one cannot know the final end—which is the first principle. Practical rule dissolves into mere will and chance.

The speculative intellect is important not merely for making practical rule possible. In the classical account, it is the proper end of law and the essence common good. Aristotle tells us that the most excellent virtue—complete happiness—is contemplative (NE 10.7, 1177a12). That is to say, for Aristotle, to contemplate what is true is the best part of man. And the contemplative life is the perfectly happy life. Aquinas explains that the contemplation of truth consists both in discovering the truth and in reflecting on truth already discovered (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2092). However, reflecting on truth already discovered is more perfect than the investigations leading to the discovery of truth. The perfectly happy life, therefore, comes from contemplation by reason perfected by the intellectual virtue of truth.

Aristotle and Aquinas alike extol the superiority of the contemplative life. Aquinas tells us that “vita contemplativa non est proprie humana, sed superhumana”—“the contemplative life is not properly human, but superhuman” (QD de virt. card. a.1 co.). However, “vita […] voluptuosa, quae inhaeret sensibilibus bonis, non est humana, sed bestialis”—the life of pleasure […] by which one adheres to sensible goods, is not human but bestial” (ibid.). Human life is the active life according to the moral virtues (ibid.). But it must be remembered that “vita activa, in qua perficiuntur morales, est ut ostium ad contemplativam”—“the active life, which is perfected by the moral virtues, is as a door to the contemplative life” (QD de virt. in communi a.13 ad 24). In other words, the contemplative is the best part of man, toward which the active life is ordered (cf. Metaphysics A, c.2, 982b5; In I De Anima c.1). Aquinas goes so far as to hold that to take pleasure in created things, as opposed to the permanent things that offer pleasure in the contemplative life, is to incur an impurity of affection (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2091).

However, the centrality of the contemplative life goes well beyond being superhuman and the true end of the active life, perfected by the moral virtues. Aquinas teaches us that the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus (ST Ia q.2 a.3 co.). He gives the example of heat: fire, the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. This principle returns in an unexpected place. In the so-called treatise on law, Aquinas tells us that in every genus, that which belongs to it chiefly is the principle of the others and the other things in that genus are subordinated to that thing (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). Once again, Aquinas uses the example of heat: fire is chief among hot things is the cause of heat in mixed bodies, which may be said to be hot insofar as they have a share in fire. It may therefore be said that the happiness of the contemplative life is the cause and principle of the happiness of the active life.

Therefore, the most just laws, which secure the greatest happiness for the political community, which have the greatest share of the common good, are laws producing and preserving the contemplative life. The law must lead the citizens of the political community to virtue (ST IaIIae q.95 a.1 co.). But the highest virtue is the virtue of the contemplative life. To the extent that the law fosters and promotes the virtues of the active life, it must be remembered that the active life is as a door to the contemplative life (QD de virt. in communi a.13 ad 24). The lawgiver must therefore have first and foremost in mind the virtues of the contemplative life: in practical matters the first principle is the last end. And the lawgiver must have in mind the fact the happiness of the contemplative life is the cause and principle of the happiness of the active life, even if the happiness of the active life involves some impurity of affection (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2091).

One could go follow this trail a while longer and come to still more interesting and surprising sights, but the point is clear enough. Concepts like “happiness” and “the common good” have meanings in the classical tradition, and these meanings have consequences. When one attempts to define these terms in a wholly materialistic sense or, worse, to pretend that they have no fixed meanings, one reaches toward the formlessness of modernity. This is a terrible thing to do, reducing practical reason itself to chance, and it is still more terrible to do so unwittingly.

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.

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.

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.

Some thoughts on Francis and the conservatives

Ross Douthat has made waves with a lengthy interview with Raymond Cardinal Burke, who has become a sort of figurehead for the conservative reaction to Francis, and an essay about the future of conservative Catholicism under and after Francis. One point jumps out at me, which is sort of tangentially related to the matter at hand. That is, the extent to which conservative Catholics, at least in Douthat’s estimation, view John Paul II’s pontificate as the stable state of post-Conciliar Catholicism. However, this is, in my view, wrong. For almost all of the hot-button issues of Francis’s pontificate, one sees that he is simply heightening contradictions left by John Paul II. Consequently, the crisis for conservative Catholicism is, fundamentally, a crisis of inattention.

Douthat makes the point like this:

Four years ago I wrote an essay describing the Francis era as a crisis for conservative Catholicism — or at least the conservative Catholicism that believed John Paul II had permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination. That crisis is worse now, manifest in furious arguments within the Catholic right as much as in online opposition to the pope himself. And I don’t think we’re any closer to a definite answer to what happens to conservative Catholicism when it no longer seems to have the papacy on its side.

This narrative seems pretty common to me. Expanded, it goes like this: everything was basically fine until the Council. After the Council, the liberals started causing problems and Paul VI was too paralyzed with horror to do much about the problems. Then John Paul II was elected and he “permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination.” Then Benedict XVI was elected and he developed John Paul’s settlement by opening the door to more traditional liturgical practices. Then Francis came and blew it all up.

This narrative is, I believe, wrong in some pretty important dimensions. First of all, there had been signs of strain in the pre-Conciliar Church, beginning with the modernist crisis addressed by Pius X in Lamentabili and Pascendi. Pius attempted to suppress modernism with things like the Anti-Modernist Oath, but I think we can say that he was ultimately unsuccessful. Benedict XV and Pius XI had pressing social and moral issues to address. However, the doctrinal issues that began to shake the Church under Pius X never really disappeared, leading to Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis in 1950. The Council took place in the wake of Humani generis, and, indeed, there were fierce debates in the preparatory phases of the Council about the deference owed to Humani generis in particular. Seen in this light, one can say that the post-Conciliar storm that rocked the Church was a continuation (and perhaps an intensification) of a storm that had been rocking the Church for over sixty years by that point. To put it another way: the Council and the aftermath of the Council were the midpoint of the story, not the beginning.

One of the unquestionably good things that is happening, as I have written about on many occasions, is that Catholics are delving deeper and deeper into the traditional teaching of the Church on social and political issues. From this perspective, one begins to see that the 20th-century crises in the Church are merely the continuation of the 18th- and 19th-century crises in the Church. The anti-liberal teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII did not happen in a vacuum. There are theological differences between liberalism and modernism in the strict senses of both terms, but there is, if one compares Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus errorum with Pius X’s Pascendi and Lamentabili, a common spirit to the two. And to a certain extent, the crisis in the Church for the past 200 years or more has been a crisis of liberalism, both in theological and social terms. The notion that the Second Vatican Council was the beginning of the period of turmoil is simply false. What can be said is that modern modes of communication have made it easier for people to recognize what is going on, though without much historical context.

But there is a more serious problem for the sort of conservative Catholicism identified by Douthat in his essays. It is the notion of John Paul II as the ideal exemplar for conservative Catholicism in the modern age. In liturgical terms, this is simply not the case; neither Benedict XVI nor Francis have followed John Paul’s lead. Indeed, whether it is Benedict’s unapologetic traditionalism or Francis’s sobriety (which, to my mind, hearkens back to Paul VI after the adoption of the new Mass), neither of the post-2005 popes have come within a country mile of John Paul’s flamboyant liturgical style. But the issue is more significant than mere liturgical style. One could argue that Francis merely heightens the contradictions in the magisterium since 1962. To be more precise: Francis heightens the contradictions in John Paul II’s magisterium.

Now, let me say at the outset that one needn’t accept necessarily the claim that John Paul or Francis deviates (or deviated) from the apostolic faith on any of these issues. One can follow the canonist Bouix’s discussion of the question of the pope heretic to see the various positions taken by learned and eminent doctors. One needs only to accept that certain actions by Francis have been criticized by what Douthat calls conservative Catholics as breaking from the consensus John Paul II established. What conclusions are to be drawn if it is shown that Francis is actually closer to John Paul than previously suggested, I leave to the reader.

Let’s consider three burning issues of Francis’s pontificate: the Amoris laetitia debate, the 2018 decision to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty inadmissible, and Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm. These may, in fact, be the primary points of contention with respect to Francis’s pontificate. Other issues are controversial, such as Francis’s social teaching in Laudato si’, but Francis’s critics are simply wrong. Francis is more or less completely in line with his predecessors and his frank suspicion of modernity is, in fact, closer to the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII than some of John Paul and Benedict’s social encyclicals. As I’ve said on several occasions (though maybe not here): putting Romano Guardini and Martin Heidegger in a retort and mixing them up does not precipitate out a conventional European liberal. It does no good to call Francis a “globalist” or whatever, either, when his two immediate predecessors have also been globalists in almost exactly the same way. So, the three burning issues I identify are, I think, the live controversies in Francis’s pontificate. 

On the question of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, it seems fairly clear that Francis is heightening a contradiction left in John Paul’s magisterium. Familiaris consortio, pointed to as the touchstone of perennial Catholic teaching with respect to the divorced and remarried, says, more or less, that the they can live together “as brother and sister.” One could read Amoris laetitia as providing some guidance for what the Church’s response is when what would happen does happen. (Douthat closes by quoting T.S. Eliot; there is another Eliot line applicable to the debate over divorce and remarriage: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”) One could also point to John Paul’s 1996 letter to Cardinal Baum, then the major penitentiary, in which he observes, “it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.” In other words, Amoris laetitia simply pulls together the strands of John Paul’s teaching and makes manifest what was merely implicit.

One could make two other points. First, Veritatis splendor says that concrete circumstances cannot make evil actions good, but they can make evil actions less evil (no. 77). John Paul made this point at some length earlier in his pontificate, in Reconciliatio et paenitentia (no. 17), when he wrote, “Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability.” This is more or less Rocco Buttiglione’s argument in favor of consistency between Amoris laetitia and Veritatis splendor. Second, there is a sense in which Amoris laetitia‘s practice, if taken literally, represents a significant assault on laxity about communion for the divorced and remarried. The decision about whether one should approach communion is, in many cases, not taken after careful discernment with one’s pastor. We all have stories and it would be unedifying to repeat them. However, requiring people to at least have a chat with Father before trooping up for communion would be an improvement over the practice in many American parishes, whatever else it would be.

Turning back to the question at hand, Francis’s decision in 2018 to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” simply emphasizes John Paul’s turn from the Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty. In Evangelium vitae, John Paul said “[i]t is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Cardinal Ladaria’s letter explaining the change to the Catechism bases itself heavily on John Paul’s teaching. Certainly the 2018 amendment is logical if one begins with John Paul’s teaching. The death penalty is admissible only in cases of absolute necessity; there are no cases of absolute necessity today; therefore, the death penalty is not admissible. You can decide for yourself whether John Paul’s premise holds up in the light of the Church’s prior teaching, but it seems clear that Francis’s teaching flows from John Paul’s.

Finally, Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm, notably the controversial Abu Dhabi document but especially the unedifying Pachamama affair during the Amazon Synod, seems to be nothing more or less than a continuation of John Paul’s interfaith enthusiasm. One has only to look back at the history of John Paul’s interfaith efforts, whether it was the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi or his exuberance with respect to the Koran, to see precedents for Francis’s various statements. And the reactions to John Paul’s actions have been more or less the same. Indeed, the similarity of the events is confirmed by the similarity of the reactions to the events. Consider Archbishop Lefebvre’s December 2, 1986 declaration against the events in Assisi or his August 27, 1986 letter to a handful of cardinals about the same events. There is not a lot of daylight between the rhetoric surrounding the recent Pachamama affair in Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre’s response to Assisi in particular.

Lefebvre’s reaction is particularly important here. Douthat asks a question in the context of Cardinal Burke’s position, namely whether the pope can lead a schism. Cardinal Burke rejects the idea, but Douthat goes on to say:

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

One must remember that Archbishop Lefebvre’s position was expressed most forcefully on November 21, 1974, following the visitation of the Ecône seminary by Belgian priests deputed by Paul VI as apostolic visitors. The main assault on the Society of St. Pius X by the Roman authorities took place in the wake of the November 1974 declaration and with the declaration as a pretext for the action. In other words, the most serious phase in the conflict between Archbishop Lefebvre and Rome began only in early 1975. Much of Archbishop Lefebvre’s conflict with the Roman authorities, therefore, took place while John Paul II was pope. Indeed, Archbishop Lefebvre routinely stated that John Paul was expressing the spirit of the Council. Consider, to take one example aside from his criticism of the Assisi spectacle, his comments about the 1983 Code of Canon Law. All of this is to say that Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X found themselves at odds with John Paul II more or less to the same extent and for the same reasons that they found themselves at odds with Paul VI.

As a special bonus issue, consider the brewing controversy over deaconesses. Francis has promised to reopen his commission examining the question after the Synod mentioned that in the Synod fathers’ consultations, the indigenous people of the Amazon demanded deaconesses. I will set to one side how curious it is that the people of the Amazon happened to demand action on one of the modernists’ obsessions and in precisely the manner that the modernists want. The deaconess controversy is simply a heightening of the contradiction inherent in the teaching that the diaconate is a ministry of humble service, as opposed to part of the sacramental priesthood. This issue began with Lumen gentium (no. 29) and was enshrined in the Code of Canon Law by Benedict XVI in Omnium in mentem. The suggestion that Benedict opened the door to female deacons has been pretty firmly rejected by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, but the diaconate as a ministry of humble service, as opposed to a liturgical ministry and part of the sacramental priesthood, presents contradictions. It is also historically incorrect, but that’s another story.

For all of these reasons, I think the notion that Francis represents a significant break with John Paul II particularly is misguided. Francis has, as I have said, heightened contradictions inherent in John Paul’s magisterium or continued practices that John Paul was criticized sharply for. To the extent that Francis represents a crisis for conservative Catholicism, it is ultimately a crisis that has existed for some time. Conservative Catholics, for reasons I think have more to do with broadly political reasons, have simply failed to engage meaningfully with the issues John Paul presented during his pontificate and find themselves confronted with clearer expressions of those issues by Francis.

Ryan T. Anderson forgives us and is ready for us to unblock him

On July 5, 2015, Twitter poet Dril tweeted out an all-time classic, “if youre one of the guys who blocked me on here, i Forgive you, and im ready for you to unblock me now.” On September 9, 2019, Ryan T. Anderson, publisher of America’s leading journal of anti-integralism, Public Discourse, expanded at length upon Dril’s tweet. Ostensibly inspired by the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, Anderson delivers such pithy insights as, “This discussion is best understood not as an ‘either-or’ but as a ‘both-and.'” He goes on to assert that, “The essential intellectual work involves thinking through how to understand the ‘and’ at the theoretical level, and then fleshing out how to embody and implement that ‘and’ at a practical level.” In other words, the harmony of pen and sword between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is basically for Ahmari to concede French’s project (which is, more or less, Anderson’s project). Ryan T. Anderson forgives illiberals for their intransigence and is ready for us to stop complaining about things he likes.

You can read the whole thing at Public Discourse, but it’s a lot of churning over the same ground that Anderson has churned over endlessly over the course of his career. He tells us (describing an essay with his colleague Robert P. George), “We argue that, for example, the political institutions and practices surrounding property rights, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of speech are justified because of—and hence limited by—the demands of justice and the common good.” We also hear about how “Certain rights and liberties should be understood as important substantive aspects of the common good, and others as important procedural constraints that prevent the abuse of governmental authority.He even comes around to explaining how academic free speech is necessary for the functioning of universities and how this is the proper analogy for good proceduralism. If Ryan Anderson’s vision of good proceduralism is the tenure system, maybe we should ask the fifteen conservative professors left in the United States how they feel about the protections afforded by tenure.

I’m sure Anderson would respond that this is not what he is arguing at all. No doubt, he would object that he is describing how the academy should function, which is a far cry from how the degraded progressive re-education centers popping up at our elite universities do function. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For one thing, if the argument is that real proceduralism has never been tried, no one’s buying that one any more. And the reason is simple: while elite universities have not always been Democratic Kampuchea cosplay conventions, they have had apprenticeships and the expectation of serious scholarship and tenure. Just like Anderson describes. Those good procedures didn’t stop the slide of the American university into its current state. What basis is there for assuming that good procedures will work when applied in the Republic? Is there any basis?

At any rate it’ll go over great at Anderson’s next after-dinner speech to donors. I even bet some of them will stay awake for it. Now, even if his audience is too sleepy to notice, you might notice that it’s mighty hard to see where the “and” comes in. Indeed, Anderson’s notion seems to be that everyone has to accept liberal proceduralism and a “Civil Rights Uniformity Act” and a “more robust” version of the “First Amendment Defense Act” will protect morality and religion. Trust the system, Anderson tells us, and eventually—and for what would be the first time—the ratchet will have to start turning in the other direction. There’s no reason to abandon Anderson and French’s preferred venues of courts, committee staff counsel offices, and think tanks. And there’s no sense returning to first principles to try to see if a better strategy could be formulated. “We must also avoid supposing that theoretical claims about the purpose of government could, on their own, provide answers to the questions facing us today.

Politics is practical,” Anderson tells us. “It’s concerned with how we should order our lives together in the concrete, given all the givens. It’s directed at action, not abstraction. Thus, it must be concerned with practicalities. We have to focus on practicalities! Nothing is more practical than producing white papers and draft legislation that won’t be enacted any time soon. Or, in all likelihood, ever. Nothing accepts (cheerfully!) what is given like going to court to win small battles with David French while big wars are lost at One First Street. We cannot be concerned with abstractions, like the realization, expressed perhaps a little inexpertly by Sohrab Ahmari (and Brent Bozell before him), that movement conservatives don’t win. Or the mounting horror as one realizes that the ratchet may not even be able to move in the other direction, however much we might want it to.

Particularly galling is Anderson’s rejection of teams and personality-based politics. “While neither French nor Ahmari is entirely correct, we need not feel forced into cheering for one side or the other, into viewing this as a matter of ‘teams,'” Anderson scolds us. “We conservatives need to keep the main focus on ideas, not personalities. We need to think prudently about practical steps we should take—here and now, given all the givens—that will promote the common good.” This seems to mean, given everything that came before it, that David French should be handed the win, and Sohrab Ahmari (and those who think like him) should have the good taste not to complain about it. But given Public Discourse‘s unstinting hostility to integralist thinkers, one would be excused for thinking that Anderson is, in fact, not really all that opposed to the idea of teams as much as he is opposed to idea that anyone might be on a team other than his.

Now maybe I have been unfair to Anderson—the long-running beef between Public Discourse and integralists has involved me from time to time—but if his project differs meaningfully from David French’s project, it’s not clear how. His arguments seem directed for the most part exclusively to Sohrab Ahmari’s position. The defense of liberal proceduralism, the importance of limiting government’s power to make moral decisions, and the rejection of abstractions all seem aimed squarely at Ahmari. One could, in fact, quite justifiably conclude that Anderson, if he doesn’t think French is entirely correct, thinks French is mostly correct. If this is not the case, then it might be nice to know what Anderson thinks French gets wrong.

On Marco Rubio and sincerity

At First Things, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has an intriguing essay, “What Economics Is For.” In the piece, Rubio sets forth his vision of truly dignified work and its importance for the United States. By dignified work, Rubio means basically manufacturing work that pays a wage sufficient to support a family in a comfortable (if frugal) way. Rubio makes the argument that the government ought to support the creation of dignified work in the United States. Rubio sets investment in dignified work against flashy financial maneuvering that produces short-term gains through mere market trickery and pure speculation. According to Rubio, American industry has abandoned meaningful manufacturing work in favor of short-term gains, which has led to damaging economic and social effects. To address this problem, Rubio proposes taxing share buybacks, encouraging physical investment, and other things that would, he argues, foster the creation of dignified work. All of this is pretty extraordinary from a Republican senator, given that the Republican Party in recent years has not been hugely enthusiastic for state intervention in the economy except by means of tax cuts.

Rubio’s position, however, is doubly extraordinary because it is framed in terms of Catholic social teaching. Now, it might be reasonable to question Rubio’s sincerity. Prominent Catholic author Brandon McGinley has already suggested that cynicism about Rubio’s commitment to Catholic social teaching is justified. It would be easy to fit Rubio’s essay into a broader discussion about sincerity and commitment in Catholic politics that goes back a long time already. However, even then, the essay prompts important questions that ought to be answered. For example, what does any politician, not just Marco Rubio, have to do to overcome cynicism about his commitment to the Church’s teaching? Moreover, if one holds Adrian Vermeule’s strategy of integration from within as a viable course for Catholics, does it ever really matter if a given politician is sincere about his articulation of Catholic policy proposals? Isn’t the point that he articulates them? We do not propose specific answers to these questions. However, it is important to start asking the questions.

I.

Rubio begins by citing Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum and continues within the framework provided by the popes building upon Leo’s teaching. He cites John Paul’s critique of unrestrained capitalism from Centesimus annus 43. Considering that the technique of applying red pens and gold pens to economic encyclicals may be said to have begun in earnest with Centesimus annus, one is greatly amused to see Rubio cite a passage that is by no means among the really popular passages of John Paul’s misunderstood encyclical. The upshot of all of this is that Rubio sees the Church’s teaching as a way to break out of the narrow economic categories of “capitalism” and “socialism” toward labor that acknowledges the inherent dignity of workers. Rubio, in fact, critiques the historical conflict between capitalism and socialism in those terms: “Separated from the daily lives of most Americans, where the most important decisions are how to raise children and make ends meet, elite-level politics asks people which abstract economic system they affirm.”

This intervention comes at a time when it is clear that President Donald Trump and at least some of his Democratic rivals would prefer the 2020 election to be framed in terms of capitalism versus democratic socialism. (To be fair, some Democrats have pretty decisively rejected the idea of democratic socialism, too.) It also comes at a time when populism and nationalism are once more on the march in the United States and much of Europe. Rubio’s critique of elite-level politics seems aimed squarely at this debate. An agony between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders about “democratic socialism” and “the American way of life” only serves to elide real concerns about families and wages in an economy that seems indisputably to be governed primarily by the financial sector. It is extraordinary, however, that Rubio sees the Church’s economic teaching as a way to break out of what Rubio calls “an unserious and distracting debate over abstract labels.”

This is especially true when one remembers that there are elements of the American tradition that Rubio could have drawn on to make his case. For example, in 1791, while serving as secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton issued his report on manufactures, which detailed an industrial policy for the United States outlining bases and proposals for state intervention in favor of manufacturing concerns, even as against agricultural operations. Later, in 1861, at the conclusion of his first annual message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the relationship between capital and labor and, indirectly, the importance of work that allowed laborers to improve their condition in life. We can then get into Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, but since modern conservatism is in large part a reaction to Roosevelt and Johnson, it may well be better to avoid those examples. In any event, one could imagine Rubio making his case in a manner that conservatives would love with a few choice quotes from Alexander Hamilton (maybe even juicing it with some of Hamilton’s Federalist contributions) and Abraham Lincoln.

And that piece would be interesting enough. There is an effort underway, spearheaded by Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin at American Affairs, to create a sort of “party of the state” geared toward a coherent industrial policy for the United States. Donald Trump’s willingness to employ state power to further his policy objectives—setting to one side for the moment whatever you make of his policy objectives—makes the project of a party of the state and a real industrial policy particularly timely. This comes, also, at a moment when faith in markets to magically reach ideal solutions is at low ebb. Even if Rubio had written this piece in terms of Hamilton and Lincoln and whoever, his essay would be a welcome contribution to this moment. The idea that the government should exercise its power to promote a vision of industry that benefits Americans materially and spiritually is an important idea and it is good for people in power to talk about it.

II.

Of course, one could justly be suspicious here. Certainly a politician looking to harness some of the energy unleashed by Donald Trump would want to say basically what Rubio is saying. Rubio’s 2016 campaign for the presidency was, despite its flaws, not the act of an unambitious man, and it would be reasonable to assume that Rubio has ambitions for 2024. Furthermore, First Things has tried to move toward the Trump consensus, and has pretty successfully done so. Whether such a view is altogether fair or not, First Things is seen as a major source for the intellectual justification for Trumpism. In other words, Rubio is saying the right things in the right venue in purely political terms. The nods to Leo XIII and John Paul II, while not strictly speaking necessary, sweeten the pitch for First Things readers. While those who have kept track of George Weigel (and the late Fr. Neuhaus’s) “work” on Centesimus annus, might appreciate Rubio’s reference, one could argue that it is maybe a little unlikely that the average First Things reader, by now thoroughly indoctrinated in the myth of John Paul the Capitalist Crusader, would pick up on it. They might assume that Rubio was simply throwing Weigel a bone. The upshot of all of this is that one might conclude that both Rubio and First Things are looking to get in on the “Trumpism after Trump” racket.

But if one assumes Rubio’s insincerity—and few people ever really lose betting on the insincerity of American politicians— and discounts his intervention as a result, one does have to start talking about what authentically Catholic politics in the United States looks like. An American politician presents Catholic social teaching as a way to break out of a stale capitalist-socialist dichotomy and presents some policy proposals. He is discounted because he seems insincere. What do politicians have to do to appear sincere articulating these views? To put it in a less potentially inflammatory way: how should an American politician with these views convince skeptical Catholics he or she is sincere? Now maybe Rubio has unique problems here, as his faith background has been a little complicated. But stop thinking about Rubio for a minute: think about any other politician you like. If he or she came out talking about Catholic social teaching in this manner, what would he or she have to do to convince you that he or she is sincere?

This is an important question. If you follow the Catholic discourse on Twitter, the accusation of “Dadism” is always controversial. One can find all sorts of explanations of what it means, but we think it generally expresses a belief that this or that person is a sellout. The specific mechanism is the idea—implicit or explicit, real or imagined—that fathers have good reasons to adopt positions broadly seen as sellout positions because they have families to think about. There is some hidden gnosis that heads of families have access to that explains why this or that liberal position is the ideal position. Maybe this is real, maybe it isn’t. But it is hardly unusual for radically Catholic commentators to accuse various people of selling out. The feud between Brent Bozell’s Triumph and William F. Buckley’s National Review was at least partially motivated by accusations boiling down to National Review had sold out. Implicit in the accusation of selling out is the accusation that one was not really sincere when one held the views one had before one sold out. If you really believed it, you wouldn’t have sold out.

Additionally, one of the major cracks that has emerged in the fusionist façade is the very real sense that fusionism has not delivered results commensurate with its costs. Catholics have been reliable partners in the coalition that has lost the war over any number of social issues. And there has been a mounting sense that politicians are all too happy to go on losing the war, provided that they can keep raising money on it, campaigning on it, and returning to office to do not too much about it. Likewise Catholic conservative intellectuals will always find work and will never go hungry, provided they support the fusionist consensus. In this, we are reminded of Michael Anton’s infamous essay, The Flight 93 Election. “How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally,” Anton asked at one point. “If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid.”

The opening for illiberal Catholic politics has come at least in part by pulling the curtain back from this arrangement and noting that the liberal fusionists are, in Anton’s pungent phrase, the Washington Generals of American Catholic politics. All of this is to say that sincerity matters in Catholic political discourse in 2019. However, one then has to answer the question posed above: when will we be convinced of a given politician’s sincerity? Certainly, we understand that this is a big question. Americans have had for a long time the experience of spectacularly insincere politicians, even on social issues of the utmost importance. This is true for no one more than for Catholics.

In the alternative, one could ask whether sincerity ought to matter as much as it does. If one adopts a variant of Vermeule’s integration from within strategy, it really does not matter all that much if this or that politician is ultimately sincere in advancing policy proposals motivated by Catholic social teaching. For one thing, while Rubio’s essay is framed explicitly in terms of Catholic social teaching, in order to make his policy proposals attractive to other politicians, it may be necessary to package them differently. For another thing, the point, at least as we see it, of any such strategy is to go about the work of integralism regardless of the formal posture of the state. The sincerity of any given politician in articulating authentically Catholic policy proposals matters, then, much less. The point is that he articulates the policy proposals.

Catholic politics, whatever you want to call them, are gaining prominence as people begin to look to a post-liberal future. At least for now, sincerity is a part of the debate about Catholic politics. If that is the case, then Catholics committed to the Church’s political thought need to start thinking about sincerity. Maybe Marco Rubio is sincere, maybe he isn’t; we were not there when this essay was written and edited. But if his sincerity is a concern, then there really should be a way of resolving that concern. Right now, it is unclear to us how that concern would be resolved in Rubio’s case and it is still less clear how any politician would be able to prove that he or she is sincere when he or she advances authentically Catholic policy proposals.

 

 

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?