Lincoln, Aquinas, and the limits of judicial decisions

Lincoln’s First Inaugural, delivered in the gravest circumstances on March 4, 1861, is remembered for Lincoln’s passionate defense of the Union and implacable opposition to secession. It is also remembered for his closing, calling upon true patriotism and republican virtue. It is less remembered, except perhaps by Lincoln specialists and lawyers, for his principled rejection of judicial supremacy. Indeed, for Lincoln, the expansion of the power of the judiciary beyond particular cases was the end of self-government by a free people. For Lincoln, if the power of the Supreme Court were expanded to determine the policy of the entire government, the Supreme Court (or a majority of it) would rule, not the people.

This was not an academic question for Lincoln. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had pronounced the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and declared, going beyond the precise issue in Dred Scott, that Congress had no power to ban slavery in the territories. Lincoln noted that the Constitution was, in fact, silent on that point, notwithstanding Taney’s resolution of the specifics of the Dred Scott case. Given that the expansion of slavery was for Lincoln the entirety of the issue imperiling the Union, the Supreme Court’s decision threatened the most serious consequences.

It is against this background that Lincoln stated, “I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government.” For Lincoln, the limitation of judicial decisions to the parties to the case served as an important check on an erroneous decision. An incorrect decision could be reconsidered and overturned before it served as precedent if it were limited to the parties before the court.

But he offers a still more serious reason. Throughout the First Inaugural, Lincoln defends the proposition that in the United States, under the federal constitution, the people are sovereign. He observes, “[t]his country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.” He articulates his theory of popular sovereignty when he says that, “[a] majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” On the other hand, he finds the expansion of the judiciary power beyond the particular cases before the courts—the expansion of the judiciary power, that is, into the policy of the entire government—to be the antithesis of this popular sovereignty. He says as much: “if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers . . . .”

Lincoln himself was true to his principles, refusing to abide by Chief Justice Taney’s May 28, 1861 decision in Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861), which held that Lincoln did not have the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus unilaterally. Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message to Congress, the most compelling theoretical argument for the president’s absolute leadership of the state in cases of emergency, is in large part an answer to Taney’s Merryman decision. In other words, Lincoln acted upon the principle he articulated in the First Inaugural: the courts did not and indeed could not set policy, even on constitutional questions, for the whole of the government.

In this view, Lincoln has a surprising antecedent: St. Thomas Aquinas. As we begin the work of recovering the classical legal tradition, it is important to note where the Anglo-American tradition finds support in the classical tradition. Much of the anxiety about the classical legal tradition—and much of the anxiety about common-good conservatism—stems from a thorough ignorance of the classical tradition. In many cases, the Anglo-American tradition represents a borrowing, often inexpert, from the ius commune. Aquinas’s jurisprudence, articulated systematically in the Summa Theologiae, represents an important part of the classical tradition. Finding, therefore, support for a particular position in the Anglo-American tradition, here Lincoln’s view of the limitations on judicial decisions, in Aquinas is a significant result.

Aquinas held that a judge’s judgment is like particular law regarding a particular fact (ST II-II q.67 a.1 co.). For this reason, just as a general law should have coercive power, so too should a judge’s judgment have coercive power between the parties. Indeed, Aquinas notes that the judge ought to be the personification of justice, which requires two parties (ST II-II q.67 a.3 co.). But Aquinas rejects outright the suggestion that the judge’s power is plenary over the commonwealth. Aquinas instead follows Aristotle who holds that it is better for laws to be framed than it is for judges to judge every single case (ST I-II q.95 a.1 ad 2). One may say then that Aquinas’s position is that a judge is empowered to make particular law for particular parties to justice between them, but not to make laws for the entire commonwealth.

This is bolstered by Aquinas’s sense of who rightly interprets laws. Throughout the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas emphasizes that the lawgiver is the interpreter of the law. In his article on the emergency, in fact, he objects that only the lawgiver is competent to interpret the law (ST I-II q.96 a.6 obj. 1). He answers this by observing that a person acting in a true emergency is not interpreting the law, but instead following the intention of the lawgiver who, keeping always the common good in mind, must have intended something than the perilous result that would be obtained by following the letter of the law (ST I-II q.96 a.6 ad 1). Nothing in this suggests that Aquinas holds that anyone other than the legislator properly interprets law. Indeed, his theory of the emergency is predicated on not being able to obtain an authoritative interpretation from the lawgiver (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.6 co.).

The conclusion is further strengthened by Aquinas’s discussion of whether a judge may remit a just punishment. First, the judge, as noted above, declares what is just between two parties, and remission of the punishment would deprive the prevailing party of his due (ST I-II q.67 a.4 co.). Second, the judge exercises public authority when he pronounces judgment, and is the good of the commonwealth that evildoers be punished (ibid.). Nevertheless, the sovereign, who is the supreme judge of the commonwealth, has the authority to remit a just punishment. The judge simply does not have the discretion that the supreme judge of the commonwealth does (ST I-II q.67 a.4 ad 1).

Therefore one may say with considerable authority that Aquinas’s view of the role of the judiciary is limited. The judge pronounces justice between two parties in a given case. He does not have plenary authority over the law, to say nothing of the laws framed by the legislator for the common good of the whole commonwealth (cf. ST I-II q.90 a.2 co.). The authoritative interpretation of the law—and the power to frame laws for the commonwealth—belongs to the legislator, not the judge. The idea that judges deciding particular cases between particular parties would be able to affect all the citizens of the commonwealth is altogether alien to Aquinas’s theory of jurisprudence.

We see then that Lincoln’s notion in the First Inaugural represents, in a definite way, an important conclusion of the classical legal tradition. Lincoln conceded that judicial decisions are binding between the parties. He also held that those decisions are “entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government.” Aquinas would no doubt agree with this. The lawgiver simply cannot have in mind all possible cases when he frames laws generally (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.6 co.). A judicial decision between two parties may well clarify for the lawgiver, who is the authoritative interpreter of the law, unintended consequences or the need for modification of a given law. Moreover, the lawgiver may be persuaded by the reasoning of the judge and accept the judge’s interpretation.

But Aquinas would also agree with Lincoln’s startling conclusion that “if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers . . . .” Judges do justice in particular cases between particular parties; they are not the sovereigns. Lincoln’s concept of sovereignty, which he articulates elsewhere in the First Inaugural, was ultimately popular sovereignty. His conclusion that the expansion of the Supreme Court’s power beyond particular cases was to the prejudice of the sovereign people follows upon eminently Thomistic principles.

The inherent dispute—whether the courts have the power to set the policy for the whole of the government—is low intensity most of the time. It emerged briefly during the chaotic run up to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, but the flare ups were quickly resolved and everyone acquiesced in Obergefell. Nevertheless, the resolution is mostly one of rhetoric: there is no definitive juridical resolution. There is no clear statement in the Constitution that resolves the matter against Lincoln and Aquinas. Indeed, the Case or Controversy Clause suggests that Lincoln and Aquinas have a point. As interpretative tools like textualism and stare decisis are employed to achieve substantive results well beyond anything those tools can support on their own terms, the rhetorical resolution of this dispute looks less and less satisfactory.

Of course, judges themselves are entirely free to adopt the classical approach. Just as originalism and textualism are supported with the claim that they reflect judicial humility, so too may the limitation of decisions to the parties to a case be supported with the claim of humility. Indeed, for Thomas Aquinas, the supreme example of judicial humility is to confine judicial decisions to particular cases between particular parties, leaving the declaration of law and policy to the legislator or the chief magistrate of the commonwealth. Certainly, given the support for that view in the American tradition, nothing prevents its adoption.

The Order of the World in 2020

It is all too common to limit engagement with Carl Schmitt to a handful of books he wrote in the 1920s: The Concept of the Political, Political Theology, Dictatorship, and Constitutional Theory. The reasons for this are more or less obvious. Schmitt’s postwar output is worth considering, however. Or at least part of it. The merits of The Nomos of the Earth in the Ius Publicum Europaeum are well known. I have written before about his pamphlet, The Tyranny of Values, which has great descriptive power, especially in the endless conflicts over the hygienic measures aimed at coronavirus (and almost everything else in 2020). But another short essay—slightly neglected like everything else Schmitt wrote after the war—worth reading is The Order of the World After the Second World War. Indeed, Schmitt’s careful analysis is well worth considering in the current situation.

The Order of the World was published in the spring of 1962—before the Cold War looked like it might become all too hot. All the same, it is one of Schmitt’s meditations on the Cold War. Here, Schmitt argues that the Cold War is part of one revolutionary war, which he defines as “a war that has for its object the destruction of the social order in the country of the adversary, the extermination of its dominant groups, and the realization of a new distribution of power and property, without taking the distinction between offensive war and defensive war into account.” Indeed, Schmitt observes that the revolutionary war dissolves all prior concepts—including the concepts of war and peace themselves—into the question of means.

Schmitt then paraphrases Mao Tse-tung’s analysis that the ratio of cold war to hot war in the revolutionary war is 10:1. Only after “pacific means” have brought the situation to readiness does the hot war emerge. “In other words, the revolutionary war is constituted in nine-tenths by the cold war, and only the last tenth, although decisive, is hot war.” However, enmity—“the essence of any war whatsoever”—is present in the cold phase no less than the hot phase of the overarching revolutionary war. Indeed, the status of revolutionary war as an intermediate state between war and peace as classically defined produces considerable anxiety for Schmitt.

Of course, the concept of enmity, essential to Schmitt’s thought going back to the 1920s, is not a concept free of difficulty. One does not find Thomas Aquinas opposing Our Lord’s command to love our enemies to a just war (ST II-II q.40 a.1 co.) or to the concept of prudence in war (ST II-II q.50 a.4 co.). Still less does one find the evangelical precepts opposed categorically to war by Gratian and the patristic sources, including St. Augustine and St. Gregory, he collects (C.23 q.1). Nevertheless, it is hard to take enmity as the organizing principle of the unity of order. This difficulty does not, however, vitiate Schmitt’s clarity as an observer. Certainly one often hears of Karl Marx’s perspicacity as a critic of liberal political economy without—one supposes—an endorsement of Marx’s metaphysics (e.g., Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter On Christian Hope “Spe salvi” 20–21).

At any rate, it is clear that Mao’s fraction was very much on Schmitt’s mind in the spring of 1962. In Theory of the Partisan, Schmitt also dwells on it, focusing there on the connection between the ratio and total war. After all, for Mao (according to Schmitt) peace is just enmity by other means. Of course, Schmitt is deeply concerned with the instrumentalization and neutralization of the classical legal and political concepts in the service of a total revolutionary war, to say nothing of the intermediate condition between war and peace. For Schmitt, the revolutionary war heralds nothing less than barbarism.

Lurking behind all of this is Cicero’s maxim inter bellum et pacem medium nihil sit, from Eighth Philippic (1.4). As Schmitt observes, Hugo Grotius’s use of this concept in his De jure belli ac pacis became influential in the development of the ius publicum Europaeum. Schmitt discusses it because, obviously, the intermediate states between war and peace are determined to a great extent by the concepts of war and peace. However, it is worth noting that Grotius cited the maxim in the context of determining whether a time of truce is war or not (III.1). Grotius, relying upon the maxim, concluded that a truce (or a safe-conduct or a parole of prisoners) is indeed during the war. More precisely it is an agreement during the war that suspends the effects of the war while the state of war continues. One might say that Grotius cited the maxim in an attempt to untangle an intermediate state. Nevertheless Grotius’s rigidity becomes for Schmitt part of the foundation of the classical international law—and the “humanitarian progress” created by that classical law.

It is indeed Schmitt’s anxiety that the revolutionary war, which dissolves these categories and instrumentalizes classical concepts of every kind of law, will roll back the humanitarian progress of the ius publicum Europaeum. Filling the void will be the total war, the partisan war. The revolutionary war, Schmitt observes in Theory of the Partisan, makes a hero of the partisan. The partisan simply imposes the sentence that follows upon the necessary—revolutionary—criminalization of the enemy. For Schmitt, sailing close to the wind with respect to his concrete circumstances, the classical war does not make a criminal out of the enemy. It is possible to conclude an honorable peace with the enemy but never the criminal.

It is worth considering in the summer of 2020 whether war may be made against institutions (or organizations). In both The Order of the World and Theory of the Partisan, in addition to war between states and within states, Schmitt looks to war against class enemies. Not without reason. Certainly Lenin and Mao, the two theorists of revolutionary war Schmitt points to, were above all interested in class warfare. And to the extent that class warfare still exists today, Schmitt’s observations are certainly valid. War against class enemies is necessarily revolutionary war, which is to say a total war that dissolves and instrumentalizes prior concepts.

But as supposedly neutral juridical structures are instrumentalized, seemingly with the goal of an entirely new distribution of power and property—especially with respect to the Church—it is worth asking whether the revolutionary war has opened up a new front. Certainly the endless, roiling animosity (enmity?) toward the Church expressed in the context of Supreme Court decisions like Our Lady of Guadalupe School and Little Sisters of the Poor reflects something very like the criminalization of the Church. Already the Democratic nominee for president outlines the actions to be taken to address some of these decisions. It is worth remembering that the vast majority of the revolutionary war is a cold war—only after “pacific means” have brought about propitious circumstances does the hot war emerge. In the meantime one ought to consider Schmitt’s warning the revolutionary war produces only one kind of hero: the partisan, who is content either to punish the criminal or be punished as a criminal.

The hour of the lawyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common-good conservatism, Vatican II, and Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

Carl Schmitt contra William Barr

In a high-profile speech at Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr made a forceful case for religion in public life. He argued that Judeo-Christian religious and moral values have been essential components in the life of the Republic since its founding. He noted that these values have been under siege in the public square for some time, with dire consequences for the moral and political life of the nation. Indeed, Barr observes that the Judeo-Christian values have been replaced with secular values that present serious threats to ordered liberty. Barr recently made a similar case in a speech in Nashville, Tennessee. It is clear that Barr sees these moral values as necessary for a healthy, functioning state.

Barr has recently been the subject of some attention in the press, with Tamsin Shaw calling him “the Carl Schmitt of our time” at the New York Review of Books. David Rohde, writing at the New Yorker, presents Barr as an ideologue, using Donald Trump’s expansive notions of presidential power to achieve religious and political goals of his own. It is the allusion to Carl Schmitt that is most evocative. Shaw has in mind the early-2000s Schmitt revival, especially in the context of George W. Bush’s War on Terror policies. This is not unreasonable. Important thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben turned to Schmitt for a framework to assess the political-juridical environment following the September 11 attacks. However, for Shaw, Barr appears to be a Schmittian figure largely because he believes in an expansive interpretation of presidential power under the Article II Vesting Clause of the United States Constitution.

It is unclear to me, however, that Barr is actually much of a Schmittian. His rhetoric in the Notre Dame and Nashville speeches is, candidly, basically the same religious conservative rhetoric that I’ve heard from various places for the past fifteen or twenty years. (It’s even older than that, I think.) Barr is a little gloomier about the state of the Republic, but we live in an era after Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” speech. Indeed, following Obergefell and other significant setbacks for religious conservatives during the Obama years, there is room for pessimism about the state of the United States. Likewise, the despair that finds concrete expression in widespread drug use and the appalling suicide statistics of recent years does not necessarily inspire great optimism. In this sense, Barr is simply identifying what anyone with eyes to see should understand.

More than this, it is Carl Schmitt himself that offers the most serious rebuttal to Barr’s rhetoric. Barr speaks entirely of values: if the correct values were enshrined, he says, in our laws and public institutions, the pernicious phenomena of recent years would be addressed. However, Schmitt makes a compelling case that conceiving of important metaphysical commitments in terms of values inherently leads to enmity and strife, which ultimately will imperil the ordered liberty Barr evidently seeks to preserve. Worse than this—at least for Barr—to conceive of these commitments in values paradoxically leads to the secularization that Barr wants to avoid.

In his 1959 speech (privately printed in 1960 and reissued in 1967), The Tyranny of Values, the jurist Carl Schmitt makes the claim that “[v]alue is not, rather it holds.” For this reason, Schmitt argues that “[v]alue precisely lusts after actualization. It is not real, but directed toward realization and longs for enforcement and implementation.” This is a startling claim: value is not real—but it is held and it is enforced. It also comes as no surprise that other values are diminished in the process of enforcement and implementation. Schmitt observes that “No one can value without devaluing, raising in value, and valuizing. Whoever sets values has thereby set himself against non-values.” In other words, to hold—to enforce—a value means necessarily to reject and exclude other values. To declare them, in effect, non-values.

At the outset, one sees that, in Schmitt’s account, the enforcement of values is inherent in the concept of value generally. The constant judicial strife in United States courts over this or that social issue becomes immediately comprehensible: it is necessary that values be enforced and judges are as good as anyone to enforce values. (More on that in a moment.) Indeed, more broadly, cultural strife becomes immediately comprehensible. Values have to be held and enforced, other values have to be rejected and excluded, and this can take place in any number of forums.

In a passage reminiscent of his 1922 book, Political Theology, Schmitt cites Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege for genealogy of the philosophy of values. For Heidegger, value philosophy emerges in the 19th century as a response to the advance of value-free science. It is, in Heidegger’s pungent phrase, “the positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Schmitt expands the argument: science threatened the freedom of the individual, especially in the “religious-ethical-juristic” dimension. Value philosophy answers this dilemma by preserving the individual as a “free, responsible essence,” if not as a being, then as a holder of values. In other words, for Schmitt, value philosophy is an attempt to preserve individuality in the face of science, which imposes purely causal definitions for beings.

A brief aside: seen in this light, value philosophy is a reaction to the advance of value-free science. But it is not an escape from the effects of value-free science. In Schmitt’s lengthy introduction to The Tyranny of Values, written for a 1967 edition, he observes that theologians, philosophers, and jurists “promise themselves from a philosophy of value … salvation from an irresistibly advancing natural scientificity.” But the transformation of the foundations of theology, philosophy, and law—that is, the metaphysical presuppositions of those fields—into values “can only accelerate the process of the general neutralization.” The “general neutralization,” Schmitt argues, even goes so far as to dissolve all oppositions, including, for example, the opposition between science and utopia. More than that, no less than science, values themselves become levers for utopia. Indeed, “[a]ll social and biological utopias consequently place values of all kinds at their disposal.”

In other words, Schmitt decisively rejects the notion that any particular values—even values heretofore denominated as conservative—are a bulwark against precisely the scientific, neutralizing tendency that required the adoption of values. On the contrary, the adoption of values accelerates “the process of general neutralization.” Making things worse, there is a positive feedback loop: the general neutralization dissolves all oppositions, opening the field for a scientific-utopian conception, which in turn uses values in its own way. So far from resisting the creeping advance of science, value philosophy for Schmitt ensures the ultimate triumph of science and pure causality.

All of this presents serious problems for Barr’s vision. For one thing, to speak of Judeo-Christian religious values is not to escape value logic, but instead to reduce profound metaphysical commitments to values and to subject them to the process of valuation and de-valuation inherent in the logic of values. Worse than this, this process hastens the “process of general neutralization.” In other words, re-enforcing and re-implementing “Judeo-Christian values” will not stop the processes that alarm Barr, but are simply new phases in those processes. As they continue, the re-enforcement and re-implementation will end up serving the neutralization that he objects to.

It is not merely for Barr that this account of “values” presents significant problems. If one accepts Heidegger and Schmitt’s account—which goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche according to Heidegger—to speak in terms of “values” is to accept a certain approach to metaphysical contentions resulting in a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Likewise, one must question, from the Christian perspective, whether or not it is advisable, even inadvertently, to reduce human freedom and responsibility to the dimension of holding this or that value. (Surely it is not.) The language of values becomes less and less appealing as a line of flight from the inexorable march of scientific nihilism.

It is in this same vein that Schmitt makes another important point. He follows Max Weber’s argument that individuals set values. For Weber, according to Schmitt, the subjective freedom of the individual in setting values is opposed to the “absolute value freedom of scientific positivism.” Schmitt sees a particular outcome, however. The world of individuals, all subjectively setting values that long for enforcement will produce a bellum omnium contra omnes. Indeed, for Schmitt, values set in subjective freedom are simply the “old gods” making war—and with new technological means. This is inherent in the logic of values. Value must be made valid. As a result, “[t]he boundless tolerance and neutrality of the arbitrarily exchangeable standpoints and viewpoints immediately turns over into its opposite, into enmity, as soon as it becomes a concretely serious matter of enactment and making valid.” But we already know that value “longs for enforcement and implementation.” Value inevitably leads to enmity.

As a result of all of this, Schmitt follows Nicolai Hartmann in speaking of a “tyranny of values.” “The higher value has the right and duty to subject the lower value to itself, and the value as such annihilates with right the non-value as such.” As a result of this, the value assumes a dominance over the individual who holds it. Schmitt is indifferent to whether this is psychologically unavoidable or unavoidable in itself. The bottom line is that “[i]n terms of value logic, it must always be valid: that for the highest value the highest price is not too high and must be paid.” As a result, the war of values becomes total war, without, as Schmitt goes on to observe, any of the traditional categories of just war (e.g., proportionality). There is only, Schmitt says, the annihilator and the annihilated. It is therefore the role of the supreme legislator to mediate this process and “to hinder the terror” of the enforcement of value.

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate in conservative circles (broadly defined) about state power and the extent to which the state should intervene decisively in social questions. This is for the most part the essence of the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. We see in Carl Schmitt’s account the incoherence of French’s position and the strength in Ahmari’s. In yielding to value philosophy, there is inevitably conflict. This conflict has to be managed and mediated by the legislator, lest the total war of values turn to technological weapons capable of achieving the distinction between annihilator and annihilated.

It is also worth noting here that Schmitt gestures toward the total state and the hero-leader when he observes that the lawgivers who have successfully mediated the enforcement of values (and hindered the terror associated with that enforcement of values) become “mythic figures,” such as Lycurgus, Solon, and Napoleon Bonaparte. In other words, the bellum omnium contra omnes unleashed by values requires a figure of mythic proportions to take things in hand. The notion that Judeo-Christian values lead to limited government is, in Schmitt’s account, simply false. Values require unlimited government to mediate the struggle between individuals holding strongly opposed values.

This too shows the dangers for Barr in thinking in terms of values. In the Notre Dame speech, he identifies at length the serious actions taken against Christians and other people of faith in the name of the new secular values that have displaced Judeo-Christian values. But this is necessary according to the logic of values. Inevitably, reducing these commitments to values leads to the enmity Barr laments. Value must be made valid, and this process results in total war. To re-enforce and re-implement Judeo-Christian values would not be an end to this war, according to Schmitt, but instead a new round.

Some thoughts about Francis’s “Querida Amazonia”

Francis has released Querida Amazonia, his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following the 2019 Synod of Bishops meeting on Amazonia. Despite the extensive speculation during the Synod and afterward, Francis did not provide an obvious opening to married priests or deaconesses. The disappointment of his liberal interpreters, by and large self appointed, has been palpable. However, Francis did return to the themes of Laudato si’, his social encyclical, which dealt at great length with technology and ecology. Indeed, Querida Amazonia builds upon Laudato si’ in interesting ways, evoking not only Fr. Romano Guardini, long known as one of Francis’s most important intellectual influences, but also the hugely influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. The focus, therefore, on the questions of married priests and deaconesses is, therefore, missing a valuable opportunity to reflect on Francis’s serious philosophical and theological challenge to modernity, especially technology and globalization’s pernicious effects on tradition and traditional ways of life.

I.

For the most part, the ecclesiastical-political dimension has driven the reaction to Querida Amazonia. It cannot be denied that Querida Amazonia is a disappointment: progressives in the Church have been agitating for some time for openings for married priests (sometimes referred to by means of the phrase viri probati) and deaconesses. The problem concerning deaconesses has been a long-running one for Francis. I think his commission studying the historical sources went through one round, issued a report, and then has been reopened in some dimension. The question of married priests—and the concomitant effect on priestly celibacy—predates Francis’s pontificate. However, because Francis is widely believed to be a progressive, there is renewed vigor in the demands.

Based on the Synod’s final report, there were very definite notions that he would open up the question of deaconesses in a broader way. Obviously the memories of Amoris laetitia are still fresh. (Of course, precisely why residents of Amazonia clamored for the two things that have lately been controversial in liberal Catholic spheres is a little unclear.) And reports in the press stoked this expectation. Indeed, shortly before Querida Amazonia was released, there was a definite report that Francis would endorse the ordination of married men. The report went so far as to allege that a draft exhortation had been sent to various prelates in advance of its release. But shortly before the document was released, there were other rumors that Francis would not even address the proposal. These latter rumors turned out to be true: Francis did not open the door to the ordination of married men. He did not even discuss the proposal in any detail.

Querida Amazonia is a second major bust for progressives. The first, Christus vivit, was Francis’s response to the 2018 Youth Synod. It was widely anticipated that this would provide an opening for reconsideration of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality in particular. Much was made, in pre-Synod surveys and in the working document for the Synod, of the fact that young people have difficulty understanding (or even outright disagreements with) the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Christus vivit was issued, however, no such opening appeared. Indeed, it was another entry in a long line of papal statements aimed at young people that are wholly uncontroversial.

It has been suggested that Robert Cardinal Sarah and, possibly, Benedict XVI’s intervention—a book in favor of priestly celibacy—had some effect on the Pope’s ultimate decision. Certainly, the book became a significant controversy, with the exact nature of Benedict XVI’s contribution challenged. The book seems to have had consequences for Francis’s government of the Church, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, heretofore prefect of the Papal Household and Benedict’s personal secretary, being reassigned pretty much permanently to the latter duty. This appears to be Francis’s sanction for Gänswein’s murky role in the whole controversy over Benedict’s involvement. However, in recent weeks another possibility has emerged.

On February 19, Sandro Magister published a lengthy piece arguing that Francis’s decision was motivated by the ongoing issues with the German Church. Magister notes that the German Church’s ongoing “Synodal Way” is aimed—at least in the minds of some of its most prominent voices—at loosening the celibacy requirement for priests, finding some mechanism by which holy orders could be conferred on women, and blessing same-sex relationships. Magister details the series of interventions taken by Francis and his deputies in the Curia to rein in the “Synodal Way,” all of which have been politely received and subsequently ignored by the German authorities. Magister suggests that the silence of Querida Amazonia on the issues of viri probati and deaconesses is part of Francis’s attempt to deflate the German process.

An interesting sidenote: if Magister is correct, Walter Cardinal Kasper has been an important advocate against the German “Synodal Way” as it has developed. Kasper was more or less the villain of the 2014-2015 Synod that produced Amoris laetitia, though his profile has not been so high since the document was released. Magister suggests that Kasper raised the alarm in a way that other German prelates, such as Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Brandmüller could not, and subsequently helped Francis get a handle on the situation in the Church in Germany. It was with the assistance of Kasper’s consultation that Francis wrote his letter to the German Catholics, calling for caution and deliberation.

Whatever the reason for the decision, the self-appointed interpreters of Francis’s pontificate swung into action almost immediately. Francis’s apparent decision not even to refer to the final report of the Synod means that all of the issues in that document remain open. Francis, we are told, meant to present that document and guide its reception by the Church. Of course Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, let the cat out of the bag at the press conference presenting Querida Amazonia: in Episcopalis communio, Francis’s 2018 document reforming the Synod, there’s a mechanism for endorsing the final report and incorporating it into the pope’s ordinary magisterium (art. 18). Francis has not done so, which means that it has the weight of a Synod final document, whatever that may be.

II.

Yet it is a disservice to the Pope’s vision to talk about Querida Amazonia in the narrow, concrete terms of what Francis approved or did not approve. As Matthew Walther has explained, Querida Amazonia is an extraordinary document. Francis returns to the themes of his great encyclical, Laudato si’, but this time by means of poetry and reflection. One is hard pressed to think of another papal document that contains phrases such as “this dream made of water” and “a dance of dolphins,” much less the copious references to poetry. Throughout the document, one detects the influence of Fr. Romano Guardini, who has long been an influence for Francis. One also detects other influences, such as Martin Heidegger.

I have often wanted someone who has a profound knowledge of Francis and Heidegger to write about the connections between the two. Both Laudato si’ and Querida Amazonia seem deeply influenced by Heidegger’s Essay Concerning Technology and his 1966 Spiegel interview, more commonly known as “Only a God Can Save Us.” Francis’s meditations on the traditional Amazonian way of life, affected by technology and exploitation, seem to have roots in Heidegger no less than Guardini. Even the turn to poetry in Querida Amazonia seems as though it is influenced by Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s emphasis on the poetry of Hölderlin. It is true that Francis does not explicitly cite Heidegger, either in Laudato si’ or in Querida Amazonia. In contrast, Francis has explicitly cited Guardini, especially The End of the Modern World. However, it seems strange—to me at any rate—that Francis would be familiar with Guardini’s writings on technology and man without also having some familiarity with Heidegger’s influential writings on the same topics.

A few examples may suffice. Consider the passage from the Spiegel interview: “Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.” Compare this with Francis’s assessment of the historical situation in Querida Amazonia: “It is well known that, ever since the final decades of the last century, the Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated. None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist, or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them.” Francis appears to be describing in particularly evocative terms the same phenomenon Heidegger is describing. Indeed, in the Spiegel interview, Heidegger used similar terms to describe the process that took place in Provence.

Heidegger went on to say “I know that, according to our human experience and history, everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.” This statement could well be a summary of chapter two of Querida Amazonia, which includes Francis’s dire warning: “The globalized economy shamelessly damages human, social and cultural richness. The disintegration of families that comes about as a result of forced migrations affects the transmission of values, for ‘the family is and has always been the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive.’” In this dimension, we see Francis’s profound conservatism. The globalized economy, for Francis, attacks directly the home and tradition in which man is rooted. Indeed, it attacks the most central element of the home and the tradition as Francis sees it: the family. By reducing individuals to mere economic variables and forcing them to migrate for various reasons, globalization (i.e., late-liberal capitalism) destroys those things that produce “everything essential and of great magnitude” as Heidegger would say.

One could go on in this vein, especially by means of the Essay Concerning Technology. It would be an interesting exercise to consider the similarities between Francis’s treatment of the Amazon and Heidegger’s treatment of the Rhine, especially by means of the poet Hölderlin. Of course, there have been attempts in the past to draw connections, especially via Guardini, between Heidegger and Francis. But I am not sure that I have seen a good, concise presentation, especially drawing upon Francis’s thought about technology. Given that the discussion about Querida Amazonia has been mostly about the concrete questions about what Francis did or did not do, I am pessimistic about whether anyone will take the opportunity to use the springboard presented by Querida Amazonia to write such a presentation.

The unedifying nature of the debate over Querida Amazonia becomes obvious though. Francis has offered the whole Church—indeed, the whole world—an opportunity to discuss issues that are at the very heart of the theological and philosophical tradition, both inside and outside the Church, since the Second World War. His contribution here, especially as a ground for further thought, is no less rich than the philosophical and theological contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To take this opportunity and reduce it to a polemical, ideological confrontation about who did or did not “win” the Synod or who will or will not receive the prize of ordination is, therefore, a superficial response. Worse than that, it is a sign that it no longer really matters what Francis says.

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?