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?

Report from the front lines: “The Lamp”

Surely you’ve heard the news by now: Matthew Walther and William Borman are putting together a magazine. They’re calling it The Lamp. Have you heard that they raised over $15,000 in about two days toward the project? (We, of course, contributed as soon as we could.) This is hugely exciting news. Walther’s journalism has appeared everywhere—or almost everywhere—and he is one of the most distinctive voices working today. If you didn’t follow his brilliant columns at the Washington Free Beacon during the 2016 election, you missed a great treat. He has since taken his talents to The Week, and runs a column well worth your attention just about daily. He’s also an expert in about a dozen other topics—ranging from the 1970s recordings of Herbert von Karajan to Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s Winston Cup history—all of which are hugely interesting.

As for William Borman, you know him even if you don’t know you do. He is described as “a former consultant who now works in insurance,” which is a little like calling Wallace Stevens “in-house counsel.” He runs Incudi Reddere. He has done serious research into Brent Bozell and the output of Triumph. He has also helped popularize (anew) Ernst Kantorowicz’s brilliant Frederick the Second. Frankly, we have asked ourselves why a Catholic (or generally conservative) publishing house hasn’t picked him up and given him responsibility for a reprint series. He is one of these guys who drives the all-important discourse. If you want to know what conservative take workers will be talking about in six months, ask Borman what he’s working on right now.

We are not surprised that Walther and Borman have raised over three-quarters of their initial fundraising goal in a little more than a day. We could sneer a little and be mildly uncharitable and talk about First Thingsshift from integralism to tedious Hazony-style nationalism in recent months. We could sneer a little more and be a little less charitable and note that the U.S. edition of the Catholic Herald, which sashayed onto the scene with a champagne lunch at the Knickerbocker Club, has seen its founding editor (Michael Warren Davis) step down from that role and its U.S. CEO (a fellow named Wargas) resign—to say nothing of Damian Thompson’s dramatic resignation as editor-in-chief. But such sneering would be a little obtuse, not least since Walther and Borman are after bigger game than Nationalism Lite (All The Flavor, Half The Calories!) or Lifestyles of the Rich and Catholic.

In Walther and Borman’s words, they want “a magazine in the old-fashioned sense, witty, urbane, not pompous or shrill, full of serious reporting, insightful opinions, squibs, oblique parodies, bagatelles, and arts coverage that draws attention to those things that are true, good, and beautiful.” This does not mean a wholly secular project, though. They go on to say, “We are attempting something at once radical and blinkeringly, even painfully, obvious: to approach questions of public import as if what the Church has consistently taught were actually true.” Wouldn’t this be lovely? A real magazine in the grand style, informed by the good old Catholic faith.

In a broad sense, Catholic ideas are winning, even if people do not recognize them as Catholic ideas. Moreover, integralist ideas are gaining attention if not traction exactly. We have previously talked about the need for developments in terms of political thought; that is, serious policy discussions among integralists. And we were right to do so. But there is more to life than politics. And, as Cardinal Danielou argues in Prayer as a Political Problem, Christians ought to order everything toward the goal of reaching our heavenly homeland. Conceiving of the Christian life in these terms cannot but emphasize the importance of Walther and Borman’s project.

Moreover, and this barely bears noting, there is so much garbage out there. Once-venerable publications have reached new lows in their quest to prove that President Donald Trump is an existential threat to the Republic. Or they have reached new lows trying to impress various leftist extremists pushing agendas that would be ridiculous—but for the brutal enforcement of those agendas by capital and cultural institutions. Or they have reached new lows by cutting pay to writers and cutting editorial staff. We could go on, but you take our point. Walther and Borman have made it clear that they are committed not only to producing quality journalism but also to paying their writers a fair wage for their work. This deserves support.

Of course, there have been a lot of new and renewed projects in recent years, some of which have made big splashes. (The young Ivy League Christians even turned Fare Forward into a real-deal print publication.) But we think The Lamp is different. For one thing, we actually want to read something put together by Walther and Borman. Doesn’t matter what. They could put together a Highlights from the Manhattan Telephone Directory and we would still want to give it a once-over (everyone be talking about it in a few months). For another thing, Walther and Borman seem to have a real plan for sustainable growth. To that end, we urge you to check out their “GoFundMe,” read their first email newsletter, and pray for their success.

Postscript: We have been reliably informed that Fare Forward started out as a print publication. We do not especially regret the error, not least since we remember only the big re-rollout a year or so(?) back. 

The French Condemnation

Sohrab Ahmari, who once described Semiduplex as “a WordPress blog,” has an essay at First Things criticizing National Review writer David French. Or, more precisely, Ahmari criticizes what he describes as French’s strategy for dealing with hostile left-liberals in public spaces. Ahmari’s point is that Christians should adopt the tactics of left-liberals in enforcing their orthodoxy and order; more precisely, Ahmari holds that Christians should, instead of trying to use liberal institutions to carve out breathing room for Christians, use public power to “advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.” Ahmari also rejects the idea that the battle between right-liberals and left-liberals should be fought in the realm of culture, arguing that that battle depoliticizes fundamentally political questions and does so in a way that favors left-liberals. After all, left-liberals have proven themselves extremely adroit at capturing cultural institutions.

It is cheering to us to see First Things once again expressing skepticism of liberalism. However, Ahmari is far from the first person to speculate on the uses of rightly ordered state power. Gladden J. Pappin, writing earlier this year at American Affairs, made a compelling case for what he calls the party of the state. Pappin, prescinding from personalities and the question of how rude one can be to one’s political rivals, laid out a clear argument in favor of state power in support of the common good. Moreover, Pappin offered some clear advice for people thinking and writing in a post-liberal context. Advise the state on how to use its power, he argued. “For conservatives,” he explained, “this may mean learning to advise on the use of the administrative state rather than plaintive, nostalgic, and counterproductive calls for its abolition.” Pappin’s piece is well worth reading in full, especially if one has qualms about Ahmari’s strategy of framing his argument as a condemnation of one writer.

David French has responded to Ahmari at National Review. French points to his successes as a public-interest lawyer in defending conservative Christian voices on college campuses. He also suggests that Donald Trump would not recognize the Donald Trump that Ahmari briefly sketched in his essay. He then pivots to a pretty standard defense of pluralism, including both the Founders and a parade of horribles. He concludes, “There is no political ’emergency’ that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.” Michael Brendan Dougherty has taken a break from touring in support of his memoir to come to French’s defense, too. Dougherty, an infamously bilious Twitter presence, sort of agrees with Ahmari, but wishes Ahmari could be nicer to French.

I.

Dougherty is in a sense a little more generous than Ahmari. Dougherty points out that Ahmari’s line of attack on French has a genealogy that really goes back to Brent Bozell’s epochal “Letter to Yourselves” in Triumph magazine. It is a shame that no one thought to link to Incudi Reddere‘s presentation of Bozell’s column. In a sense, the Ahmari-French debate is simply moving the clock back to 1969. Bozell stated, “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.” This is not so far removed from Ahmari’s contention that Christians should not shrink from using state power to advance the common good. Bozell acknowledged that “[t]o state the problem in this fashion is to plunge into the Chris­tian dialectic; it is also, given the state and contemporary political theory, to enter a new world,” and to that end he pointed to Jean Danielou’s Prayer as a Political Problem.

Once again, Incudi Reddere proves its value. A while back, the first part of Danielou’s book was posted there. One passage that Bozell doesn’t quote, though it follows passages that he does quote, is this:

It is sufficiently clear that Christians ought to be trying to change the shape and pattern of society so as to make possible a Christian life for the whole of mankind. It is also obvious that such a transformation must in any case be slow and may sometimes be ruled out by circumstances. However that may be, somehow a start has to be made, and this can be done by creating oases in the prevailing secularism where the Christian vocation can develop. This thought inevitably raises the question of those Christian institutions would provide services not of themselves within the church is competence, but which the church might be brought to provide: schools, unions or employers and workers, etc., which bring Christianity into social life not merely at the level of individual witness but at that of a community.

This passage underscores Bozell’s point that a truly Christian politics is different than the liberal politics that has ruled in the west for some centuries now. As Bozell put it,

The first is that Christianity sees the public life, which is the responsibility of politics, as an extension of the interior life. As Danielou puts it, “there can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man.” Liberal politics, by contrast, is indifferent to the connection. John F. Kennedy became the liberal par excellence by announcing that his religion would not affect his presidency because it was “a private affair.”

As Bozell explains, the consequences of this idea are far reaching. But in the context of the Ahmari-French debate, it is clear that the idea of using liberal institutions to carve out “oases in the prevailing secularism,” as Danielou put it, is only the beginning of a Christian politics.

The other important point is this, and it cuts squarely against French. A Christian politics, at least as Danielou and Bozell understood it, does not seek to divide man into spheres, a temporal man and an eternal man. Indeed, it seeks exactly the opposite: the integration and harmonization of the temporal with the eternal. After all, man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end by reason of the infinitely surpassing excellence of the eternal end. And even if one, per impossibile, sought to make such a division, it would not exclude religion from the life of the temporal man. As Danielou explains:

religion of itself forms part of the temporal common good. Religion is not concerned solely with the future life; it is a constituent element of this life. Because the religious dimension is an essential part of human nature, civil society should recognize it as a constituent element of the common good for which it is itself responsible. Therefore, the state ought to give a positive recognition to full religious freedom. This is a matter of natural law. State atheism, which stifles religious life, and laïcisme, which ignores it, are both contrary to natural law.

Now, we admit that this points to the complex argument about Quanta cura, Leo XIII, and the Second Vatican Council, but we will bracket that argument for another day. The point is simply this: one cannot ignore the question of religion—and the question of right and wrong that necessarily attends religion—in service of making room for competing voices under a theory of liberty. Still less can a Christian, who ought to be striving to make a Christian life possible for all nations, ignore these questions.

Danielou also explains the risks of permitting others to create this division between the temporal and the spiritual:

The Church has an absolute duty to open herself to the poor. This can be done only be creating conditions which make Christianity possible for the poor. Therefore there is laid upon the Church a duty to work at the task of making civilization such that the Christian way of life shall be open to the poor. Today there are many obstacles standing in their way. In a technological civilization men tend to be absorbed in care for material things. Socialization and rationalization leave little room for personal life. Society is so disordered that large numbers have to live in a poverty which makes a personal life impossible. The result of the secularization of society is that God is no longer present in family, professional, or civic life. A world has come into being in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling.

For Danielou, then, the secularized world becomes not a world in which it is possible for everyone to get something. It is a world “in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling.” A Christian politics, as Danielou and Bozell conceive of it, rejects the obstacles to the spiritual life imposed by civilization and commits itself to working to overcome them.

Bozell explains that in this concept of politics, there is an antidote to the depoliticization Ahmari complains about:

The second advantage of the Christian conception is that the public life is not confined to what the state does, or what government does. The public life is whatever is not the interior life. This means that Christian politics is free to regard family and school, play and work, art and communication, the order of social relationships and the civil order, as integral parts of a whole: as integral and therefore mutually dependent aspects of civilization. (Which, of course, every reflective man knows they are.) But more: Christian politics is obliged to take this view of the matter, for the sake of the poor. What point is there in encouraging virtue in the family, and having it undermined in the school and on the street? What point in passing on truth by the unadorned word, only to have it repudiated by art? What point in arranging the departments of government to assure concord and liberty, when the arrangements of the social and economic orders forbid concord and liberty? All of the public life is the proper concern of politics because the poor live in all of it and need the support of all of it.

In other words, Christian politics expands its scope to consider all aspects of public life to ensure that no aspect of public life becomes an impediment to the Christian way of life, especially for the poor. This may be what French and other might describe as Christian statism, but it does not appear that French and his defenders have considered the very real possibility that Christian statism is precisely what Christian politics have always required and will always require.

II.

A word about Donald Trump. It seems to us self evident that Donald Trump, whether or not he could articulate his position in these terms, believes that it is possible to use state power to pursue a vision of the good. He is, as others have noted, inconsistent in this. However, it seems as though Trump has a few fixed ideas about what the common good of the United States requires and he is willing to exercise state power to achieve those ends. One can disagree with Trump’s concept of the good or his handful of fixed ideas or his implementations of state power in service of those ideas. But it seems to us beyond dispute that Trump is, in a way most presidents before him since Jimmy Carter have not been, willing to use state power to achieve these goals.

To our mind, then, Trump represents, among many things, the beginning of a return to a vision of state power in American life that was last clearly represented by Richard Nixon. But Nixon’s vision stretches back through Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Abraham Lincoln. That is, before Carter, there was a sense that the New Deal consensus permitted the federal government to act to further a vision of the common good. With Carter and then Reagan this sense was replaced by the idea that the last thing the federal government should do was act to further a vision of the common good. Instead, the consensus went, the federal government needed to get out of the way to let the states and private actors work out these problems, ideally in a free-market sort of way.

Catholics routinely bought into and served this consensus, usually by talking about “subsidiarity” and Centesimus annus. In so doing, Catholics forgot the lesson Pius XI taught in Quadragesimo anno, when he articulated the principle of subsidiarity:

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

In other words, the state ought to let subordinate grounds handle “matters and concerns of lesser importance,” which, if it attempted to address them, “would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly.” The state, therefore, will be free to do things it alone can do more effectively. Subsidiarity, then, in Pius XI’s vision is not the same thing as American federalism, and still less is it a call for the government to get out of the way on matters of great importance.

This is to say that Catholics ought not to mourn a return to the vision of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon about the role of the federal government. If the arguments of Bozell and Danielou do not convince, the arguments of Pius XI ought to convince. There are some problems—many problems, in fact—that only the federal government can address meaningfully. Donald Trump seems to have a dim understanding of this reality. Whether he has correctly identified these problems or correctly addressed them is another question for another day.

III.

Finally, French misrepresents the sweep of the American tradition when he suggests in his rebuttal to Ahmari that this content-neutral pluralism is somehow the American tradition. Consider, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s repeated condemnations of Judge Douglas’s liberalism in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Lincoln repeated the charge that Douglas did not care whether slavery was voted up or voted down. In the fifth debate, held on October 7, 1858, at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln skillfully dissected Douglas’s claim, arguing that it was impossible for Douglas to hold that slavery was wrong and that it did not matter whether a population voted to adopt it or not. To do that would be to profess that the voters had a right to do a wrong. Or, as Lincoln pointed out, maybe Douglas did not think it was wrong. And in the seventh debate, held on October 15, 1858, in Alton, Illinois, Lincoln demonstrated the folly of the rhetoric of the “personally opposed,” which becomes the only rhetoric available under liberalism:

And if there be among you any body who supposes that he, as a Democrat can consider himself “as much opposed to slavery as anybody,” I would like to reason with him. You never treat it as a wrong. What other thing that you consider as a wrong, do you deal with as you deal with that? Perhaps you say it is wrong, but your leader never does, and you quarrel with any body who says it is wrong. Although you pretend to say so yourself you can find no fit place to deal with it as a wrong. You must not say any thing about it in the free States, because it is not here. You must not say any thing about it in the slave States, because it is there. You must not say any thing about it in the pulpit, because that is religion and has nothing to do with it. You must not say any thing about it in politics, because that will disturb the security of “my place.” There is no place to talk about it as being a wrong, although you say yourself it is a wrong.

This, too, is part of the American tradition. Lincoln’s moral clarity about the evil of slavery, his logical clarity about the contradictions inherent in a liberal attitude, and his practical clarity about those who claimed to be personally opposed to slavery while remaining Democrats are all just as much part of the fabric of America’s public life as the Framers and the Declaration of Independence.

Can we say that Lincoln’s points have lost their force with the passage of time? Has it become less incoherent to tolerate something one believes is wrong? More to the point, has Lincoln’s analysis of the effects of such a belief lost any of its force? Can it be said that it is possible to discuss as a wrong certain features of public life today that are incompatible with orthodox Christianity? Even those who are personally opposed to various things today find themselves either “evolving” to the secular orthodoxy or bullied into silence along the lines Lincoln sketches. It is possible that Lincoln and his arguments against Judge Douglas do not get a warm reception in the National Review offices. Yet it cannot be denied that Lincoln’s arguments form a major component of the unwritten constitution of the Republic, and a major component that is wholly consistent with the arguments of Jean Danielou and Brent Bozell. In other words, it is impossible to dodge, as French tries to, the arguments of Danielou and Bozell about the ends of a Christian politics by claiming that America’s founding principles prohibit that sort of political action.

 

The brick through the window

At Public Discourse, the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal of anti-integralist thought, Hillsdale professor Korey Maas warns that, “[i]nsofar as prominent and influential Catholics insist that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal tradition, liberals will feel increasingly justified in reaching the same conclusion.” He goes on to say, “[a]ttempts to convince fellow Catholics that the ‘teaching of the Catholic Church, always and everywhere,’ idealizes the confessional state and sanctions religious coercion will inevitably convince many non-Catholics, liberal and otherwise, that this is indeed the case.” However, Maas’s argument has more to do, we think, with silencing integralists and other Catholics not committed to the Catholic liberalism of the late 20th century than with warning of any impending doom.

This is unfortunate. Instead of coming up with silly arguments for why integralism is dangerous or whatever, liberals like Maas really ought to be doing what illiberal Catholics have been doing: rediscovering their own tradition. And they should cast their gaze on more than the tradition of the United States. The fusion between Catholic liberalism and American conservatism has permanently damaged Catholic liberalism, especially as American conservatism has failed to deliver on its promises. For reasons we will get into in a moment, Maas probably does not care all that much about specifically Catholic liberalism, but that’s neither here nor there. Focusing on policing integralist (or, more broadly, illiberal) rhetoric does not create a compelling case for liberalism. If anything, it reveals that the case for integralism is more compelling than any actually existing case for liberalism.

Maas’s argument goes like this. In the 19th century, America was deeply anti-Catholic. We see today flashes of that old anti-Catholicism in the treatment afforded to Donald Trump’s judicial nominees Amy Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. Maas contends that the Church blunted some of that old anti-Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council’s openness to liberalism. This is a sort of skewed view, since there were openings to the postwar liberal-democratic order under Pope Pius XII. But to tell that story would be to take some of the focus away from the United States. At any rate, Maas thinks that the Church’s apparent turn toward liberalism—exemplified by John F. Kennedy’s statements during the 1960 presidential campaign—is what made the proud American tradition of anti-Catholicism seem silly.

After the story of anti-Catholicism, we get the customary parade of horribles. A fellow named Philip Primeau was very 19th century when discussing Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denunciation of any scrutiny of one’s religious views. Maas is aghast that Primeau thinks Rees-Mogg should have stood his ground on truth. Maas is also disturbed that Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has been so gauche to suggest that actually existing American liberalism may in fact be incompatible with orthodox Catholicism. Naturally, there is the stale lament about how First Things got radical for about two minutes. (Why Ryan T. Anderson, editor-in-chief of Public Discourse, has run so many pieces about First Things is a bit baffling, isn’t it?) Maas mentions, among other things, Fr. Romanus Cessario’s piece on the Mortara affair. He graciously declines to mention that R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, disavowed the piece subsequently. He also wrote at least one or two self-flagellating apologies before he disavowed it. No doubt Dr. Maas wanted to spare Reno from any further pain, though it would have been altogether more honest—even if less delicate—to have said that the Mortara exchange marked the end of First Things‘ flirtation with integralism.

We should be, once again, clear that the Church is fundamentally anti-liberal in its doctrine, no matter how unpleasant this may be to those committed to some flavor of liberalism. Maas cites Semiduplex for the proposition that the teachings of Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible and irreformable, including the 77th, 78th, 79th, and 80th condemnations of Syllabus. Why he didn’t simply cite John Joy’s brilliant essays is beyond us. But behind John Joy stands the great canonist F.X. Wernz, among others, who argue for the infallibility not only of Pius IX’s teachings but also Leo XIII’s explanations of those teachings. One can also read John Henry Newman’s great anti-liberal writings if one needs a literary and philosophical expansion of the Church’s anti-liberalism. Whether or not this is politic, it is true.

A young Catholic writer and friend is fond of saying that every disagreement about tone (or, we might expand his saying, rhetoric) hides a substantive disagreement. And it is clear, given what we believe to be the clear theological notes of the anti-liberal and integralist teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII, that Maas’s argument, superficially about the danger of illiberal rhetoric, hides a substantive disagreement. Maas clearly does not believe that the teachings of Pius IX and Leo XIII are infallible and irreformable. Indeed, based on a quick Twitter search, it appears that Maas may be some sort of protestant, maybe even a Lutheran. It would surprise us very much, then, if a Lutheran (or any other protestant, for that matter) believed that these—or any other—teachings were infallible and irreformable. One imagines that the only Catholicism pleasing to Maas is a Catholicism that looks basically the same as Lutheranism or whatever. It would also be altogether more honest just to say that and leave it there.

But of course Maas doesn’t. He does, however, eventually come to his punchline: the rising tide of Catholic illiberalism might be taken seriously by liberals. Maas warns, “[t]he ‘last acceptable prejudice,’ instead of an irrational prejudgment, will increasingly be deemed a warranted conviction based on the rational arguments put forward by Catholic intellectuals themselves.” The old anti-Catholicism, flaring up in the Barrett and Kavanaugh hearings, will take root because the liberals will once again see Catholicism as an enemy. We hate to be so blunt, but this is just about the dumbest thing we could imagine. There is also a sort of sinister note to it, isn’t there? The protestant Korey Maas warning Catholics that if they do not do something about the integralists, there will be trouble. A brick through the window in the dead of night or a mural depicting the heroic Orangemen would be more effective, we suppose, but folks do the best they can.

At any rate, Maas cannot really mean that because of some debates among Catholic professors, writers, and WordPress bloggers, liberals will suddenly realize that Church is doctrinally opposed to liberalism. We are flattered by the idea that Dianne Feinstein and Mazie Hirono read Semiduplex and decided to keep our influence out of the federal judiciary. But we are not so silly as to believe that that’s true. Democrats gave Barrett and Kavanaugh a rough time because Democrats achieved a bunch of policy victories in the federal courts—e.g., Roe, Casey, Windsor, Obergefell—and they are not interested in Donald Trump’s judicial nominees taking them away. Stare decisis is, after all, not in the Constitution. What Harry Blackmun and Anthony Kennedy gave, John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch can take away. That’s what the fight over Trump’s judicial nominees is about, not Quanta cura and the confessional state.

Moreover, it is clear that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the trajectory of modern liberalism, not because Catholicism holds that the confessional state is the ideal or that heretics may be punished by the state, but because modern liberalism is fast going off the rails. Media outlets across the political spectrum report daily of cases where deviation from left-liberal consensus is punished severely. College campuses are unrecognizable, with even once-radical figures like Camille Paglia being shouted down for their problematic views. Major corporations are following the money and implementing the left-liberal consensus in various ways. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case shows that left-liberal activists are willing to weaponize state institutions, like the Colorado civil rights commission, in order to coerce individuals into accepting the views of others. Maas may not realize it, but prominent Catholic thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule devote a fair bit of time to discussing these trends, too.

In contrast, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council is hopelessly reactionary. Maas might not know this, but even Catholic liberals cannot accept same-sex “marriage” or abortion. (Even Fr. James Martin, SJ, one of the loudest pro-gay voices in the Church today, is a regular, staunch defender of the unborn on social media.) There are no signs that Pope Francis, regularly accused by friend and foe of reinvigorating the spirit of the Council after the perceived setbacks of 1978-2013, intends on retreating in any meaningful way from the Church’s positions on those issues. He also gives few signs of willingness to retreat on the question of women’s ordination—though after the interventions of Paul VI and John Paul II, it is clear that he could not change the Church’s teaching on that, even if he wanted to. Any one of these positions, which are held even by liberals like those at Public Discourse, would be enough to get the Church “canceled” as the kids say. To hold all three? Unforgivable.

And it is simply not clear that defending liberal toleration will achieve even tactical objectives in the current climate. For one thing, the people who are loudest about problematic views on college campuses, on social media, and in various boycott campaigns are simply not all that liberal. They themselves do not recognize a meaningful “right” to profess unacceptable opinions. Indeed, as Professor Paglia recently discovered at the University of the Arts, these unacceptable positions are seen as actual violence. We are simply unconvinced that pleas for liberal toleration will have much success with people who view one’s opinions as actual violence. The anti-Catholicism Maas professes to be worried about is already here, whether it is overt or not, and it is based on issues entirely unrelated to the confessional state and the use of state power to coerce heretics. Just ask the Pennsylvania state legislator who harassed teenagers praying outside a Planned Parenthood. Dollars to donuts, he wouldn’t know integralism from a load of coal.

However, the specter of coming anti-Catholicism is rhetorically useful for Maas. The implicit point of his article is: if things get bad, it will be the integralists’ fault. From here it is only a short step to arguing that integralists must be silenced before they make things get bad. In a sense, Maas’s essay concedes the wild success of integralism in the terms that actually matter (i.e., doctrinal and forensic), and mounts a last-ditch defense by ginning up the specter of anti-Catholicism as a response to Catholic illiberalism. Sure, he cites some of his fellow Public Discourse authors like Robert T. Miller, who have argued gamely and wrongly that integralism does not have the theological note that the integralists think it does. But these pieces have not been all that successful, for a variety of reasons ranging from “They’re not right” to “They’re boring.” There is no sense waiting for the liberals to mass and make a compelling counterattack. Instead, Maas makes the only play available: he retreats to warning about the inherent danger of illiberal Catholicism.

This is a pity! For our part, we believe that the only way liberalism is going to make a comeback among Catholic thinkers is by abandoning the tedious connection with American conservative politics. Instead, it is necessary to argue for the sort of postwar Christian democracy that formed the core of the European project. To be sure, it went wrong like American liberalism. It is awfully hard to see the ideals of the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s in the micromanaging Brussels bureaucracy or the smug condescension of contemporary European leaders like Guy Verhofstadt. Nevertheless, it is in the Christian-democratic project that liberalism’s best hope lays. This will no doubt be a grief to Catholic liberals who have long seen Catholicism and American conservatism as two peas in a pod, but they will be more grieved by far if they continue to see liberalism slide into irrelevance.