The call is coming from inside the option

Rod Dreher has decided that none of the critics of The Benedict Option have understood him.  Either they are reading things into the book that he did not put there or they are working out obscure personal grievances. This is, of course, a risible assertion, not least since Dreher has written (and written and written and written) about the Benedict Option over the past several years. It is also in keeping with Dreher’s near-constant redefinition of the Option in the face of criticism. The idea is very simple: Christians have lost pretty much every political engagement they’ve fought over the past, oh, fifty years (draw a straight line between Roe and Obergefell, if you like), and they need to withdraw from society. But what happens when they withdraw from society? Dreher is convinced that most Christians possess only a watered-down faith. The problem, we think, is more serious than that.

Giving us a gentle ribbing, the blogger Subsannabit suggests that it is error to think that modern western liberalism is doing politics. Subsannabit, in an interesting post about true radicalism, also observes that most people simply do not do politics. Of course, Subsannabit may err by setting the bar for doing politics too high (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 4; Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co. & ad 3), but s/he is not wrong about the fact that modern western liberalism is not really politics in any meaningful sense, at least as the term is rightly understood. Certainly the liberal is not interested in applying practical reason to frame laws to make people simply good. Such a process would force a modern western liberal to concede a bunch of things he would be loath to concede. The modern liberal prefers to write laws to create in essence a neutral playing field on which everyone can pursue his or her personal good without much restraint or even much interference. The common good does not factor into this sort of thought. And, for this reason, this sort of liberalism is, of course, corrosive of the very idea of civil society (Grenier, 3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154, pp. 455–56). For proof of the thesis, one has only to open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

Such liberalism is, for most people, an omnipresent, omnipotent force. The law, we know, is a teacher, even if the lesson is a bad one. There is simply no escape from it. Some people can see the problem and even sketch proposals for a solution, but it is hard to imagine the implementation of such proposals without adverting to liberal ideas. After all, liberalism is, for most westerners, as natural as the air we breathe. And this is fundamentally the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option—and any number of similar proposals—retreating from society will do no good if you bring liberalism with you. Whatever polity or society you create will have the same flaw at its heart as the one you left behind. It is like the scene in any number of horror, science-fiction, and thriller pictures, when Our Hero or Our Heroine reaches a safe spot, only to discover that he or she is Not Alone. Or worse, when Our Hero or Our Heroine has asked the phone company to trace the menacing calls, only to be informed that the calls are coming from inside the house.

And Dreher, whether he understands it or not, wants to bring liberalism with him. Religious liberty, however helpful it may be to Christians at the moment, is the lynchpin of the liberal order. Once one puts truth and error on the same plane, the rest falls into place quickly. And it has the same consequences that liberalism always has. Leo XIII explained this admirably in Libertas praestantissimum (nos. 19–22). And this is, as it was expressed in Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate, a major problem for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, holding to the Church’s traditional teachings, even beyond those difficulties posed by the New Mass. To say then, that Christians, withdrawing from the most part from society, will remain politically engaged to the extent that it is necessary to defend religious liberty—which is what Dreher has said—is to say that Christians will carry with them the seeds of liberalism. This guarantees that they will get to their communities, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and turn around to discover that they are Not Alone. The menacing calls from liberalism are coming from inside the Option.

If you don’t like the analogy to popcorn flicks, consider the emotional climax of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Act Two of Die Walküre. Wotan’s long-suffering wife, Fricka, has demanded that Wotan do something about the incestuous adultery of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, despite the fact that Wotan was Siegmund’s father and teacher (“So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern?”). In point of fact, Fricka demands that Wotan do nothing when Sieglinde’s husband comes to settle accounts. Wotan hoped to raise a free hero who could recover the titular Ring, which, as one remembers from Das Rheingold, Wotan himself cannot touch, lest he break the contracts that give him his authority (“Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich”). Wotan then has to explain the situation to his daughter, Brünnhilde, and comes to the realization that in all his efforts to make a free hero, he finds only himself (“Nun einer könnte, was ich nicht darf”). That is, all his creatures are, just that, creatures, and they reflect him and his all-too-real flaws. The optioneers will discover, Wotan-like, that they’ve made communities resembling primarily themselves: good liberal subjects.

This is, in part, why we have talked so much about a ressourcement of Aristotelian-Thomistic political theory, which finds its best modern expression in the magisterium of Leo XIII. Without a proper understanding of the polity, how just laws are framed, and a proper conception of politics, it is simply not rational to expect a withdrawal from society in any meaningful sense to spark a restoration of Christian life. One will most likely create enclaves of religiously flavored liberalism that rely ultimately on liberal concepts such as religious liberty to survive. Now, perhaps the withdrawals proposed are not withdrawals in any meaningful sense. Perhaps they are merely histrionics, designed to emphasize to secular liberals the age-old point “You’ll really miss us when we’re gone.” Such histrionics are understandable—as we say, draw a line from Roe to Obergefell—but ultimately not productive. Either way, no progress is going to be made against the forces of liberalism without rediscovering the teaching of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII.

Another new essay worth your time

The Josias, after another relatively quiet period, is on a roll lately. A few days ago, they ran a really very insightful and provocative essay by John Francis Nieto. Now, they have an equally insightful and provocative essay by our old friend, Pater Edmund Waldstein. The essay, touching upon the immigration question currently the source of much debate and disquiet in the United States, connects the natural law right of migration recognized by Pius XII in Exsul Familia Nazarethana with the universal destination of goods. He also provides some fascinating, helpful background on the debate between globalism and nationalism, which is part and parcel of the immigration question. In other words, it’s a must-read piece if you want to discuss current events from a Catholic perspective.

We will not spoil it for you by quoting excerpts. Instead we will urge you to go to The Josias and read it.

Another project of ressourcement

Following up on our piece about Leonine ressourcement, it occurs to us that someone could very profitably write a concise (if not brief) introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, aimed toward a popular audience. Certainly there are already essays pointing in this direction, such as Pater Edmund Waldstein’s introduction to the common good and Coëmgenus’s “Theses and Responses on Antiamericanism.” (Both are at The Josias.) Both essays are excellent, though both presume a certain level of knowledge about Aristotelian-Thomistic politics in their readers. However, we have in mind something considerably more basic.

For example, it is far from clear to us whether there is widespread understanding of the proposition that a law is a dictate of practical reason shaped to the common good. And we are certain that few people understand that the purpose of law is to make citizens good simpliciter (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 1). It seems to us, as you, dear reader, may have deduced from our piece on Leonine ressourcement that we think it is a problem that so few Catholics are conversant with their own tradition of political thought. As we said, the liberal order appears to be at an inflection point, if not a point of crisis. Of course, as we did not observe in our original essay, this could be but a simple pause in the development of liberalism, a moment while liberalism is adjusted to take into account the rising ethnic and class-based resentments currently affecting the political order of the west. But such a thought is very depressing. Instead, we prefer to think that this is a moment when Catholics can challenge the liberal order meaningfully, by drawing on their political tradition and the social teaching of the Church.

We think a list of theses, much like the essays linked above, would be a wonderful format for an introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, though with plenty of citations to authorities, so that readers will be able to run down the sources themselves. And, of course, it will be necessary to draw upon the magisterium to clarify some points. For example, there are certain contradictions between the Leonine magisterium and Aristotelian-Thomistic notions of the state and rights. (Compare Leo’s treatment of the priority of the family to the state in Rerum novarum with Aristotle’s argument in Politics 1, for example.) Given the Church’s authority to interpret and defend the natural law, conferred by divine ordinance, these contradictions must be identified, explored in some detail, and resolved. Ultimately, such an introduction would serve as a resource for Catholics thinking about what comes next.

Perhaps such a handy introduction does exist and we have simply missed it. But, again, we would want to reduce the principles to their simplest possible form.

Leonine radicalism and ressourcement


It is high time for Catholics to rediscover the magisterium of Leo XIII. There is a sense, we think, that the modern, liberal order is at a point of inflection, if not a point of crisis, and the cleverer among us are beginning to think about “what’s next.” Likewise, Leo’s pontificate, beginning in 1878 and continuing to 1903, took place during a similar moment of crisis—essentially between the revolutions of 1848 and 1870 and the First World War. And in this atmosphere, Leo taught often and at great length about the rightly ordered civil state, correct relations between the Church and states, and the duties of Christians in civil society. His lessons, however, have been forgotten, particularly as the Church itself has acceded, perhaps merely as a prudential decision, to the postwar liberal order.

Leo has not been forgotten, however, with his encyclical Rerum novarum considered the beginning of the Church’s social teaching. Yet even Rerum novarum is dragged into the service of the liberal order and construed as a great support for free-market capitalism. It is, of course, anything but. It is of a piece with Leo’s other great encyclicals on social matters, including Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, and Diuturnum illud. Throughout Leo’s social encyclicals, including the encyclicals about the constitution of the state, so to speak, he articulated what we would today call integralism. The state, no less than the individual, has duties to God, and the State is at least indirectly subordinated to the Church, since the end of the Church is much, much more excellent than the end of the state. This is profoundly illiberal thought.

But it is thought in keeping not only with the teaching of the Church but also the broader philosophical underpinnings (i.e., Aristotle) of that tradition. In other words, it poses none of the risks of other, no less illiberal ideologies that are in the air right now, including nationalism. It is, we think, time for a ressourcement of the Leonine magisterium. Catholics should return to Leo’s thought to see what the first principles of a rightly ordered state are. Obviously, such a project will have to be undertaken by individual Catholics or Catholics in groups, as the post-Conciliar amnesia of tradition applies to no one more strongly than Leo XIII. However, if this is an inflection point for liberalism, it will be necessary, we think, to be prepared to right the sinking ship of modern life. And that requires, ultimately, Christian principles of society.

Of course, the Leonine magisterium has a reputation for being conservative, not to say reactionary. For example, subsequent treatments of his magisterium, like St. Pius X’s syllabus Fin dalla prima nostra, tended to present it in a very conservative light. And to be sure, Leo was concerned with maintaining, if not the then-existing order, then respect for rulers and majesty, which seemed to him, correctly, to be in peril. However, it is, we think, a mistake to try to force Leo’s teachings into narrow political terms. Not least because some of his teachings were, to modern liberal eyes, quite radical. That is not to say that they are remotely controversial in doctrinal terms; simply that a modern liberal subject would likely consider them radical. And a project of Leonine ressourcement must include a fair assessment of even these teachings.


To give an example of “Leonine radicalism,” we turn to the question of when a Christian must disobey the law. One may assume that a supposed conservative like Leo would, of course, hold, as the Church has taught from St. Paul down to the present day, that Christians have an obligation to obey the law. Leo emphasizes, however, that this is not absolutely true. We shall see that a Christian may have a positive duty to disobey the law, and, moreover, this duty is not inconsistent with the obligation of a Christian to obey the civil authorities. We begin with  his 1890 encyclical “On Christians as Citizens,” Sapientiae Christianae:

Hence, they who blame, and call by the name of sedition, this steadfastness of attitude in the choice of duty have not rightly apprehended the force and nature of true law. We are speaking of matters widely known, and which We have before now more than once fully explained. Law is of its very essence a mandate of right reason, proclaimed by a properly constituted authority, for the common good. But true and legitimate authority is void of sanction, unless it proceed from God, the supreme Ruler and Lord of all. The Almighty alone can commit power to a man over his fellow men; nor may that be accounted as right reason which is in disaccord with truth and with divine reason; nor that held to be true good which is repugnant to the supreme and unchangeable good, or that wrests aside and draws away the wills of men from the charity of God.

Hallowed, therefore, in the minds of Christians is the very idea of public authority, in which they recognize some likeness and symbol as it were of the Divine Majesty, even when it is exercised by one unworthy. A just and due reverence to the laws abides in them, not from force and threats, but from a consciousness of duty; “for God hath not given us the spirit of fear.”

But, if the laws of the State are manifestly at variance with the divine law, containing enactments hurtful to the Church, or conveying injunctions adverse to the duties imposed by religion, or if they violate in the person of the supreme Pontiff the authority of Jesus Christ, then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime; a crime, moreover, combined with misdemeanor against the State itself, inasmuch as every offense leveled against religion is also a sin against the State. Here anew it becomes evident how unjust is the reproach of sedition; for the obedience due to rulers and legislators is not refused, but there is a deviation from their will in those precepts only which they have no power to enjoin. Commands that are issued adversely to the honor due to God, and hence are beyond the scope of justice, must be looked upon as anything rather than laws. You are fully aware, venerable brothers, that this is the very contention of the Apostle St. Paul, who, in writing to Titus, after reminding Christians that they are “to be subject to princes and powers, and to obey at a word,” at once adds: “And to be ready to every good work.” Thereby he openly declares that, if laws of men contain injunctions contrary to the eternal law of God, it is right not to obey them. In like manner, the Prince of the Apostles gave this courageous and sublime answer to those who would have deprived him of the liberty of preaching the Gospel: “If it be just in the sight of God to hear you rather than God, judge ye, for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Consider the radicalism of the idea that it is a duty to resist an unjust law—more on that in a moment—and a crime to obey. And not merely a crime against God, but also a crime against the state. Now, there is some room for prudential discussion about what it means to “resist” or to “obey” an unjust law. However, that is a secondary issue.

We note that Sapientiae Christianae was not Leo’s sole treatment of civil disobedience. For example, in Diuturnum illud, his 1881 encyclical “On the Origin of Civil Power,” he taught,

The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) This is a capsule summary of the treatment, as we see it, in Sapientiae Christianae. Thus, we may say comfortably that Leo’s magisterium includes as a major theme the duty to resist unjust laws and the compatibility of such a duty with obedience to the civil authorities.

Of course, Leo’s notion of the power in law is profoundly Thomistic. This is, really, no surprise, given the importance that Leo placed on Thomas’s thought. Looking at this question in his Treatise on Law in the Summa, the Angelic Doctor taught:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

 On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Mt. 5:40,41: “If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.”

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”

(ST Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co.) (emphasis supplied). However, Leo seems to go beyond Thomas’s teaching, however (and not for the only time). Thomas observes that laws at variance with the common good, essentially, do not bind in conscience, though a subject may make a prudential decision to submit to the law to avoid scandal or disturbance. In other words: violence. But human laws at variance with the divine law specifically cannot be obeyed at all, violence or no violence. Leo, on the other hand, teaches that human laws at variance with the divine or natural law are null and void, and that man must obey God’s laws rather than man’s in case of conflict.

This apparent extension can, we think, be explained by the Thomistic concept of natural law; that is, the natural law is the participation in the eternal law by reason (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 co.). Now, Thomas’s treatment of natural law is broader and more complex, especially as the natural law relates to virtue and vice versa, but this is a good enough statement of the law, so to speak. If, then, the natural law is our participation in the eternal law, then a violation of the natural law has consequences in the realm of the eternal law. To hold otherwise would be to introduce a division between the natural law and the eternal law, and Thomas himself repudiates the notion that the natural law and the eternal law are somehow separate (ST Ia IIae q.91 a.2 ad 1). Thus, a law that violates the natural law violates also the eternal law.

It is also worth observing, perhaps idly, that Thomas also taught that just laws flow from the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co.). In particular, there are two ways this works. One, the lawgiver may draw conclusions from the premises of the natural law. Two, the lawgiver, acting as a craftsman, may give a particular shape to this or that idea inherent in the natural law. All this explains, in part, why there is a diversity of human laws, instead of one set of implementations of the natural law (ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 obj. 3 & ad 3). It also gives us some pause about adopting a too-ferocious attitude about what is or is not consistent with the natural law. In the words of Thomas Gilby, O.P., the natural law is not “a kind of grid that could be laid on the plan of human life; it is the first stage in the working out of the living idea in divine government for incompletely intelligent and loving creatures, moving them to their fulfillment” (Blackfriars Summa v.28 appx. 6, p. 178). Gilby also makes manifest the connection between the natural law and the common good (ibid.). In some instances, it will be readily obvious that a human law contravenes the natural law. Take the laws on abortion in many western countries as an example. But, in other cases, it will not be so obvious that the law violates the natural law or harms the common good. In these cases, careful reasoning is required.

However, to a modern mind, or, indeed, even a particularly patriotic mind, there is a bigger problem than whether Leo goes beyond St. Thomas or whether there is an apparent difference between a law that violates the eternal law and a law that merely violates the natural law. There appears to be a serious contradiction between a duty to resist and a duty to obey. In part, this is due to liberalism, which rejects the idea that a law contrary to the eternal or natural law is no law; instead, the will of the sovereign, however that is defined, is sufficient to provide authority to law. It is also due to a disordered concept of the state, which tends toward positivism. Nevertheless, there may appear to be a contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and true obedience to the state. But such a contradiction may be resolved, we think, by the profound resonances between this treatment in Sapientiae Christianae and a very interesting passage in Au milieu des sollicitudes, Leo’s 1892 ralliement encyclical. There, the pope taught, after condemning revolutionary activity generally:

it must be carefully observed that whatever be the form of civil power in a nation, it cannot be considered so definitive as to have the right to remain immutable, even though such were the intention of those who, in the beginning, determined it.… Only the Church of Jesus Christ has been able to preserve, and surely will preserve unto the consummation of time, her form of government. Founded by Him who was, who is, and who will be forever, she has received from Him, since her very origin, all that she requires for the pursuing of her divine mission across the changeable ocean of human affairs. And, far from wishing to transform her essential constitution, she has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed her in the general interest of souls… But, in regard to purely human societies, it is an oft-repeated historical fact that time, that great transformer of all things here below, operates great changes in their political institutions. On some occasions it limits itself to modifying something in the form of the established government; or, again, it will go so far as to substitute other forms for the primitive ones—forms totally different, even as regards the mode of transmitting sovereign power.

And how are these political changes of which We speak produced? They sometimes follow in the wake of violent crises, too often of a bloody character, in the midst of which preexisting governments totally disappear; then anarchy holds sway, and soon public order is shaken to its very foundations and finally overthrown. From that time onward a social need obtrudes itself upon the nation; it must provide for itself without delay. Is it not its privilege—or, better still, its duty—to defend itself against a state of affairs troubling it so deeply, and to re-establish public peace in the tranquillity of order? Now, this social need justifies the creation and the existence of new governments, whatever form they take; since, in the hypothesis wherein we reason, these new governments are a requisite to public order, all public order being impossible without a government. Thence it follows that, in similar junctures, all the novelty is limited to the political form of civil power, or to its mode of transmission; it in no wise affects the power considered in itself. This continues to be immutable and worthy of respect, as, considered in its nature, it is constituted to provide for the common good, the supreme end which gives human society its origin. To put it otherwise, in all hypotheses, civil power, considered as such, is from God, always from God: “For there is no power but from God.”

(Footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) In other words, Leo distinguishes between the civil power itself and its political form or mode of transmission. The government, so to speak, exercises and transmits the civil power, but it is not the civil power itself. Now, one can—and no less an authority than Roberto de Mattei has—criticize Au milieu and ralliement for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there is a tension between Leo’s illiberal—that is to say, Christian—politics and his embrace, likely for prudential reasons, of ralliement.

However, as we said, it seems to us that there are resonances between Sapientiae Christianae and Au milieu. That is, the division between the civil power and the political government explains—considered in addition to the authority of Holy Writ—the apparent contradiction between a duty to disobey unjust laws and a simultaneous claim to obedience. The civil power, constituted by God “to provide for the common good,” would not—cannot—be at variance with the divine or natural law, for the divine and natural law are the common good in a meaningful way. However, political governments, made up of men, can be at variance with the divine or natural law, insofar as man considered individually may sin. The political government, when it is at variance, ceases to exercise the civil power in that instance. The government, in purporting to promulgate an unjust law, has lost its divine sanction. But recall that it is not the civil power; it is simply the political form and means of transmission. Thus, the Christian obeys the true civil power while rejecting the invalid act of the political government. The duty to resist is thereby harmonized with true obedience.

It seems to us that Catholics have lost this sense of higher obedience. Instead, they have adopted the dreary liberal notion that the laws must be respected, right or wrong. The Catholic’s sole recourse in the case of a bad law is to pursue change of the law through the designated channels. Of course, it is perhaps unlikely that a government that implemented a bad law would leave open meaningful channels for Catholics to agitate for change. To resist the law more openly is, for many, sedition. Leo explains that this simply is not the case, and it is in the context of these erroneous attitudes that Leo’s teaching may be called “radical.” It is, as Leo explains, true obedience to the civil power to resist unjust laws. The political form of government is not the civil power. This does not create a sanction for revolutionary activity, of course, as Leo’s discourse in Au milieu is in the immediate context of condemning revolution, but neither does it require a sort of fatalistic quietism. It is a crime to obey an unjust law. Worse than that, by promulgating an unjust law, the political government has lost, at least in the scope of the law, its divine sanction to rule.

The Christian, then, confronted with a government that has abdicated its divine sanction to rule, must remain obedient to the immutable civil power, which is from God, which may include obedience to the government where it rules justly. In other words, the contradiction between a duty to resist unjust laws and obedience to civil authorities is only apparent. With a correct understanding of what the civil authorities are—and are not—the contradiction disappears. One may resist a government without resisting the civil power if the government has ceased to exercise the civil power justly, which is to say altogether.


You may, dear reader, object for whatever reason to the sort of analysis we have engaged in here. However, our point, even if we are wrong in our assessment of the Leonine magisterium on this question, is that the Leonine magisterium must be recovered by Catholics attempting to navigate this political moment. We submit, perhaps not quite as humbly as we ought, that this analysis is an example of what Catholics ought to be doing: returning to sound authorities and reconstructing a notion of politics in accordance with right reason. Leo’s teachings open up a vista onto other authorities, such as St. Thomas and Aristotle, who are themselves necessary to construct this politics. A politics, as it were, worthy of the name.


Another comment on current events

We were struck by passages in President Donald Trump’s inaugural address this afternoon, especially the ode to solidarity. One imagines that Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s close advisers and a student of sorts of the Church’s social doctrine, was responsible for that argument. It seems, however, like a good moment to recall what Leo XIII said in Au milieu des sollicitudes (the “Ralliement encyclical”):

First of all, let us take as a starting-point a well-known truth admitted by all men of good sense and loudly proclaimed by the history of all peoples; namely, that religion, and religion only, can create the social bond; that it alone maintains the peace of a nation on a solid foundation. When different families, without giving up the rights and duties of domestic society, unite under the inspiration of nature, in order to constitute themselves members of another larger family circle called civil society, their object is not only to find therein the means of providing for their material welfare, but, above all, to draw thence the boon of moral improvement. Otherwise society would rise but little above the level of an aggregation of beings devoid of reason, and whose whole life would consist in the satisfaction of sensual instincts. Moreover, without this moral improvement it would be difficult to demonstrate that civil society was an advantage rather than a detriment to man, as man.

Now, morality, in man, by the mere fact that it should establish harmony among so many dissimilar rights and duties, since it enters as an element into every human act, necessarily supposes God, and with God, religion, that sacred bond whose privilege is to unite, anteriorly to all other bonds, man to God. Indeed, the idea of morality signifies, above all, an order of dependence in regard to truth which is the light of the mind; in regard to good which is the object of the will; and without truth and good there is no morality worthy of the name. And what is the principal and essential truth, that from which all truth is derived? It is God. What, therefore, is the supreme good from which all other good proceeds? God. Finally, who is the creator and guardian of our reason, our will, our whole being, as well as the end of our life? God; always God. Since, therefore, religion is the interior and exterior expression of the dependence which, in justice, we owe to God, there follows a grave obligation. All citizens are bound to unite in maintaining in the nation true religious sentiment, and to defend it in case of need, if ever, despite the protestations of nature and of history, an atheistical school should set about banishing God from society, thereby surely annihilating the moral sense even in the depths of the human conscience. Among men who have not lost all notion of integrity there can exist no difference of opinion on this point.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Eagleton and traditionalism

An earlier version of this post misidentified Eagleton’s new book. The post has been edited to include the correct title of the book. –pjs

At Commonweal, there is an essay by Terry Eagleton, which appears to be an excerpt from his recent book, Materialism, about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s politics. While interesting reading on its own, Eagleton makes a point we thought worth sharing with you:

What is the secret of the seeming contradictions in Wittgenstein’s politics? How can one be suspended in this way between Marx and Nietzsche? There seems little doubt that this fastidious traditionalist did indeed hold a range of left-wing views. Perhaps some of these faded in later years. But it may also be that his sympathy for Marxism sprang in part from what Raymond Williams has called “negative identification.” As a conservative, culturally pessimistic critic of middle-class modernity, Wittgenstein felt able to link arms in some respects with his Communist colleagues while repudiating their convictions in others. It is a case of adopting one’s enemy’s enemies as one’s friends; or, if one prefers, of the landowner’s secret rapport with the poacher, as against the petty-bourgeois gamekeeper. The traditionalist, after all, has a fair amount in common with the socialist. Both camps think in corporate terms, as the liberal individualist or free-marketeer does not. Both regard social life as practical and institutional to its core. Both view human relations as the matrix of personal identity, not as an infringement of it. Both seek to chastise a rationality that has grown too big for its boots, returning it to its proper place within social existence as a whole.

(Emphasis supplied.) We encourage you to read the whole thing, and not just for this interesting and provocative observation.

But since the observation is so interesting and provocative, we encourage you to consider, for example, this passage from Pius XI’s great Quadragesimo anno:

It follows from what We have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property. Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught “that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples.” That history proves ownership, like other elements of social life, to be not absolutely unchanging, We once declared as follows: “What divers forms has property had, from that primitive form among rude and savage peoples, which may be observed in some places even in our time, to the form of possession in the patriarchal age; and so further to the various forms under tyranny (We are using the word tyranny in its classical sense); and then through the feudal and monarchial forms down to the various types which are to be found in more recent times.” That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,” and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity.” Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them. 

(Emphasis supplied.)

Some political meditations

We do not delude ourselves: our discussing endlessly the interpretation and consequences of Amoris laetitia must be tiring for you, dear reader. And, if we are being honest, it is tiring for us at times. Likewise, reading the tea leaves of every Vatican political development is likely to grow tiresome for you, even if we find it evergreen. Though do yourself a favor and read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s shocking piece at The Week about certain moves afoot to withdraw jurisdiction over priest sex abuse cases from the efficient, severe judges of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and transfer it back to the less efficient, less severe judges of the Congregation for Clergy and the Roman Rota. This is important stuff. But there are other important things to think about. And, therefore, to give ourselves and you, dear reader, a break from the drumbeat of doctrinal crisis and ecclesiastical politics, we have thought about them. We have thought, we note with some pride, about civil politics. And we thought about them primarily in the context of the Church’s teaching. So perhaps it is not as big a difference as we might have first hoped.

This is still Semiduplex, after all.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, we have seen, elsewhere, many people running to join radical political groups. Some of these people are Catholic. On one hand, good for them. The Democrats decided that the appropriate response to Trump was Hillary Clinton. This was a credibility-destroying move on their part. Despite the Democrats’ attempts to blame Russia, FBI Director James Comey, the Electoral College, or any number of other factors, most people acknowledge that a major problem in Hillary Clinton’s campaign was Hillary Clinton. But at no point has Donald Trump given especially strong or especially credible indications that he intends to govern especially justly or especially in line with the common good. All indications is that he will form another standard Republican government. Perhaps he will push back a little bit against the Republican orthodoxy regarding free markets, but it is unlikely that he will get far. And other aspects of his administration will be, we fear, much less good. So, for many people there is a natural desire to resist Trump.

But such a purely negative view—i.e., forming a politics on the basis of resistance—is not really a proper basis for politics. Indeed, the proper basis for politics is to form a virtuous populace. Aristotle tells us at the very end of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics,

it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for excellence if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble.

(1179b32–1180a5, Barnes ed.) Aristotle goes on to argue:

if (as we have said) the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions, and if this can be brought about if men live in accordance with a sort of intellect and right order, provided this has force,—if this be so, the paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power (nor in general has the command of one man, unless he be a king or something similar), but the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time an account proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and intellect. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome.

(1180a14–24, Barnes ed.) Most modern liberals would reject the notion that the law is supposed to be a teacher of virtue. At most, they would say that the law is a framework that permits those who are inclined to pursue virtue. We will not bore you with a recitation of Aristotle’s definition of virtue, which you probably know already, but the bottom line is that to frame laws to point citizens toward virtue means that careful, prudential choices must be made. These choices are entirely incompatible with the studied agnosticism of liberalism. One cannot permit all ideas to compete for support on one hand and on the other hand map out a course of virtue for one’s citizens. Moreover, with virtue rightly conceived in mind, it is obvious that the choices pointing toward virtue cannot be made from a position of mere opposition; at some point one has to begin moving in a positive direction.

The Church, of course, has long been aware of these home truths. Consider, for example, what Leo XIII says in his great encyclical, Immortale Dei:

So, too, the liberty of thinking, and of publishing, whatsoever each one likes, without any hindrance, is not in itself an advantage over which society can wisely rejoice. On the contrary, it is the fountain-head and origin of many evils. Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object. But the character of goodness and truth cannot be changed at option. These remain ever one and the same, and are no less unchangeable than nature itself. If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption. Whatever, therefore, is opposed to virtue and truth may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favor and protection of the law. A well-spent life is the only way to heaven, whither all are bound, and on this account the State is acting against the laws and dictates of nature whenever it permits the license of opinion and of action to lead minds astray from truth and souls away from the practice of virtue. To exclude the Church, founded by God Himself, from life, from laws, from the education of youth, from domestic society is a grave and fatal error. A State from which religion is banished can never be well regulated; and already perhaps more than is desirable is known of the nature and tendency of the so-called civil philosophy of life and morals. The Church of Christ is the true and sole teacher of virtue and guardian of morals. She it is who preserves in their purity the principles from which duties flow, and, by setting forth most urgent reasons for virtuous life, bids us not only to turn away from wicked deeds, but even to curb all movements of the mind that are opposed to reason, even though they be not carried out in action.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, a clear continuation of Thomas Aquinas’s project of rescuing Aristotelian philosophy from its pagan roots and applying it in the context of Christ and the New Law. Now, the New Law is no insignificant thing in this context. We know, of course, that Christ committed to His Church the special authority to interpret and defend the natural law, what Aristotle perhaps wrongly called “a sort of practical wisdom and intellect,” and, therefore, the Church becomes inextricably linked with politics. Again, before Dignitatis humanae and some of the other documents of the Second Vatican Council, these were not especially provocative propositions among Catholics.

The natural law being what it is, of course, most people have an innate sense that politics cannot be founded upon mere opposition. And this is ultimately why many people, including some Catholics, have sought out radical political groups in the wake of Trump’s election. They have a sense, probably rightly, that Trump will not further the common good and that “not Trump” is not coherent. And radical political groups, especially those groups on the left, usually offer something like a coherent positive philosophy upon which they propose to govern. These days, regardless of how they characterize themselves, these groups tend to be focused on social justice, fairly broadly described. Given the nastier elements that attached themselves to Trump—seemingly to Trump’s amusement, if not with his encouragement—social justice as a cause appeals to many people. Certainly no one is really interested in coddling racists or treating foreigners shabbily. We do not mean, of course, the sort of political correctness most popular on university campuses that masquerades as social justice. Often times these groups will describe themselves as socialist.

Now, a word on cooperation with socialists generally. We have written about this before, so we will not bore you with a full rehearsal of the question, especially after trying your patience with Aristotle and Leo XIII. Bl. Paul VI, in his apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, teaches us that Catholics may, with careful discernment, cooperate with socialists. Of course, “socialism” may be said in many ways, and papal condemnations of “socialism” generally ascribe specific ideological content to the term. (Cf. Leo XIII, Quod apostolici muneris nos. 2, 5–9.) For example, the popes never condemn simply supporting a juster distribution of private property or a just wage, even though in modern American political discourse, such positions would be undoubtedly “socialist.” And Paul recognizes this point, acknowledging that, “[d]istinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man” (Octogesima adveniens no. 31.) The issue, as Paul explains, requires some discernment between those levels of expression, but that is politics more generally. Of course, Pius XI reminds us in Quadragesimo anno that socialists really ought to become Catholic if they are truly interested in these shared goals, since it is ultimately the Church that furthers them. (He also says that socialism and communism would not have existed if rulers had heeded the Church’s many warnings about justice, but to insist on that point may seem like gloating.) But the interplay between the Church and every conceivable socialist tendency is not ultimately the problem we are interested in. 

The issue we think is that most refugees to radical political groups are ultimately refugees from liberalism. The problems confronting most people most acutely are a function of liberalism, especially the sort of neoliberal economics most popular in the world’s financial centers and central bank boardrooms. Consequently, there is a desire to move beyond liberalism into something that even promises to be better. However, these groups themselves are by no means free from conventional liberal ideology. And first and foremost among their commitments to conventional liberal ideology is their commitment to a “right” to abortion. Indeed, various interactions that we have seen indicate that these supposed radicals are as committed to abortion as any Democratic candidate, and, indeed, many of them seem to believe that commitment to abortion is necessary to adopt meaningful radical politics. For many Catholics, this is enough: the Church has warned us and warned us about collaborating with abortion extremists. But it seems to us that there is another very good reason to reject the radicals who insist upon abortion as a core value of a just society: it undermines fatally the coherence of any claims they might make to advance a positive vision of social justice.

Every claim for social justice is, at its bottom, founded upon solidarity. In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II teaches us that solidarity consists in seeing the other not in purely instrumental terms, but as a neighbor (no. 39). The capitalist must view the worker as a neighbor, not a tool. Likewise, rich countries must view poorer countries as neighbors, not means to ends. This shift in perspective leads to justice and development. (Cf. Bl. Paul VI, Populorum progressio no. 76.) Abortion, however, denies that the unborn other is a person, much less a neighbor, “to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). The logic of abortion, therefore, is fundamentally the logic of instrumentality, of convenience. The child is reduced to instrumental terms and judged by her convenience vel non to her parents. And the magisterium has made manifest this point in recent years. In Laudato si’, Francis explicitly draws a connection between the compulsion for convenience of a diseased anthropocentrism and abortion (nos. 120, 123). Such logic is incompatible with solidarity.

In Caritas in veritate (no. 28), Benedict XVI makes a more remarkable assertion: “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.” Benedict goes on to argue that, “[i]f personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (ibid.). In other words, abortion is corrosive to not only to other forms of acceptance but also to the pursuit of the common good itself. With this in mind, Benedict makes explicit the connection between abortion and solidarity:

By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual.

(Ibid.) To see the other as a neighbor, as St. John Paul describes solidarity in Sollicitudo rei socialis, necessarily involves respecting the other’s right to life as a person called to the most high dignity of son or daughter of God. Abortion is a flat denial of that right to life. It is plain to see that abortion is inimical to true solidarity. Therefore, no coherent claim for social justice can be articulated without a claim for justice for the unborn.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on a point Benedict made in passing: abortion ultimately causes “other forms of acceptance that are valuable to society” to “wither away” (ibid.) Claims for social justice extend beyond mere economic justice, beyond mere claims for just wages. Frequently, one hears of opposition to racism, sexism, ableism, and violent malice against persons struggling with same-sex attraction. Yet none of these claims are ultimately tenable, Benedict teaches us, if abortion is permitted. The same instrumentality and compulsion for convenience that leads to abortion will lead to racist, sexist, or ableist behavior. One cannot contain such approaches to other persons, or limit them only to one sphere. Indeed, there are intimate connections between racism, sexism, and ableism and abortion itself. For example, one has only to read Margaret Sanger’s bloodthirsty response to Pius XI’s great encyclical on marriage and procreation, Casti connubii, to see the eugenicist, classist roots of the modern abortion and contraception movement.

While Sanger’s response to Casti connubii contains many passages of breathtaking savagery, one example will suffice to make clear my meaning (and turn your stomach):

It is a damaging commentary on our civilization that the rich, with their knowledge of scientific birth control, should have received so little encouragement to make that knowledge available to the poor, that the educated should have been prevented by superstitious and narrow-minded law-makers from providing information to the ignorant. Although the birth control movement has recently made remarkable progress in our country, as will be shown later, there are too many states in which doctors are forbidden to tell their patients about contraception; and the federal laws still prohibit the sending of information and contraceptive materials through the mails. This stand on the part of organized society is both a cruel and a short-sighted policy, because the race is vitiated by the breeding of diseased, defective, badly nourished children.

With such thinking underpinning the movement, can anyone seriously contest Benedict’s point? Can abortion, intended to prevent “the breeding of diseased, defective, badly nourished children” (ibid.), do anything except corrode “other forms of acceptance that are valuable to society” (Caritas in veritate no. 28)? By no means! It is impossible to advocate simultaneously for a juster, more inclusive society and for abortion. You might as well advocate for good health for your parents while poisoning their soup.

With all this in mind, it becomes clear, we think, that support for abortion undermines gravely any attempt to formulate a coherent case for social justice. Abortion is an unspeakable crime, which is always and everywhere not only contrary to the common good but also completely incompatible with solidarity. Returning to John Paul’s terms, one does not reduce one’s neighbor to instrumental terms, and condemn them to death based on questions of convenience. Thus, the very foundation of social justice, solidarity, is undermined by the logic of abortion. More than that, the modern abortion and contraception movement is founded upon explicitly eugenicist, classist rhetoric. There is simply no aspect of abortion that is consistent with society ordered to the common good and any organization that advocates for abortion ultimately sets itself at odds with the common good.

Much of this is not especially news to Catholics, especially Catholics who spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. However, it presents for Catholics an opportunity in this post-Trump moment, which we have previously discussed. Instead of playing the games of liberalism, which anyone with half a brain knows have gotten us into this situation, it might be more useful for Catholics to articulate an authentically Catholic politics. And the first step to doing that is to propose a fundamentally Aristotelian politics, acknowledging, as Leo XIII and Paul VI teach us, that the Church has special competence, granted by Christ Himself, to articulate, interpret, and defend the natural moral law. In other words, Catholics should seize the opportunity to remind their fellow citizens that politics is ultimately about virtue, and the Church is the “true and sole teacher of virtue,” as Leo put it.