Spadaro and Figueroa against Francis?

Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa have a piece in Civiltà complaining about “the surprising ecumenism” between Catholic integralists and evangelical fundamentalists. As we are never not reminded, Civiltà is reviewed in the Secretariat of State before publication, and, more than that, Spadaro has been a leading hype man for the Holy Father’s projects. (He is also a devoted consumer of pop culture.) Figueroa is an Argentine protestant pastor whose primary claim to fame is that he is friends with the Pope. Spadaro and Figueroa write in some ways the standard left-liberal piece about politics and religion in America. In fact, every educated American has probably read this piece a thousand times over, as it was a very popular piece during the presidency of George W. Bush. That Spadaro and Figueroa feel the need to deliver themselves of it in 2017 betrays their fundamental ignorance of American politics, culture, and the intersection of both with religion. No American editor with half a clue would have accepted their pitch, unless he was trying to ingratiate himself with the Pope’s buddies.

It is hard to describe just how hackneyed this piece is, but, for you, dear reader, we will try. (Assuming you don’t want to read it, which is a perfectly reasonable reaction.) It begins with a potted history of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. It meanders into dominionism and apocalypticism. Next, we turn to the prosperity gospel; bizarrely they talk about Norman Vincent Peale but not Joel Osteen. Why do they mention the prosperity gospel? Who knows. Then we hear about the ecumenism between these protestants and some Catholics on the hot-button social questions of abortion and same-sex marriage. Of course, Spadaro and Figueroa omit to discuss the history of this relationship or some of its central figures, such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Pastor Figueroa could perhaps be excused for not knowing the Church’s doctrine or history on these points, though the Pope has named him editor of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, but it is less understandable why Fr. Spadaro is confused by the alliance. Or something. We then turn into a long discourse on spiritual war, which is not hugely clear, but the thrust of which seems to be that Michael Voris’s Church Militant is very bad.

Spadaro clarifies nothing in the interview he did with America about the piece. As we say, any educated American has read the article about fundamentalism and politicians a thousand times, the article about the prosperity gospel a thousand times, and the article about socially conservative Christians putting aside confessional differences to try to stop abortion and same-sex “marriage” a thousand times. What is new, other than the fact that Spadaro and Figueroa are seen as close collaborators of the reigning Pope, is the suggestion that Donald Trump, who is manifestly not hugely interested in religion nor even able to mouth the sorts of religious platitudes that American presidents are usually expected to mouth, somehow fits into this structure. They mention Steve Bannon, but only in passing and with no insight. And this is the primary problem with the essay: Spadaro and Figueroa plainly have no insight into the American political and religious scenes. They simply want to argue that Pope Francis and liberalism are good and integralism is bad.

Unfortunately, and even if you disagree that their piece has been done to death over the last seventeen years (and you’d be wrong), their argument is hamstrung by its mediocrity. For one thing, they never actually get around to discussing the Church’s historical position on the question of integralism. It is argued that Francis rejects it, but they make no effort to demonstrate that such a rejection is consistent with the Church’s social doctrine more generally. But that doesn’t really matter, since they never get around to defining “Catholic integralism.” All that matters for them is that it is extremely bad. It is probably unreasonable to expect them to engage with a tradition that they don’t even define. Moreover, they do not engage with the liberal tradition within American Catholicism, exemplified by the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, which might have provided an interesting strand in their argument—not least because it remains the dominant strand in American Catholicism. That article has itself been written many times, but not so many times as the article Spadaro and Figueroa turned in. It may even have been interesting.

However, even if they had made a halfway intelligent argument, grappling with the liberal tradition in Catholicism, they still would find themselves in opposition not only to the tradition of the Church but also to the pope they want to vindicate. The crux of their essay is this:

The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.” Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.

Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) It would be impossible to unpack all of the errors contained in these two paragraphs. For example, Spadaro and Figueroa apparently intend to deny outright the doctrines contained in Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum, Immortale Dei, and Diuturnum illud, to say nothing of St. Pius X’s Fin dalla prima nostra and Notre charge apostolique. They also intend to deny the authority of the Church to pronounce on matters of political economy set forth by Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno, and Pius XII in La solennità della Pentecoste. They also apparently intend generally to deny the condemnations of liberalism contained in Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos and Bl. Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus. No doubt they see in Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, Nostra aetate, and Unitatis redintegratio the rejection of such tedious anti-liberal doctrines. We may say then that Spadaro and Figueroa oppose not only Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII, but also Benedict XVI, who taught that the Council could not be read in opposition to those good and holy popes.

More to the point, Spadaro and Figueroa set themselves against Pope Francis himself when they articulate a bizarre liberal atomization of man. According to Spadaro and Figueroa, in church, man is a believer; in the council hall, he is a politician, at the movie theater, he is a critic; and he is apparently supposed to keep all of these roles separate. The believer and the politician can never communicate, nor the critic and the believer, nor the politician and the critic. However, in April of this year, Francis gave an address to a conference in Rome on Populorum progressio in which he said:

It is also a matter of integrating in development all those elements that render it truly such. The various systems: the economy, finance, work, culture, family life, religion are, each in its own way, a fundamental circumstance for this growth. None of them can be an absolute, and none can be excluded from the concept of integral human development which, in other words, takes into account that human life is like an orchestra that performs well if the various instruments are in harmony and follow a score shared by all.

It is also a matter of integrating the individual and the community dimensions. It is undeniable that we are children of a culture, at least in the Western world, that has exalted the individual to the point of making him as an island, almost as if he could be happy alone. On the other hand, there is no lack of ideological views and political powers that have crushed the person; they have depersonalized the individual and deprived him of that boundless freedom without which man no longer feels he is man. There are also economic powers interested in this conformity; they seek to exploit globalization instead of fostering greater sharing among people, simply in order to impose a global market of which they themselves make the rules and reap the profits. The ‘I’ and the community are not in competition with each other, but the ‘I’ can mature only in the presence of authentic interpersonal relationships, and the community is productive when each and every one of its components is such. This is even more the case for the family, which is the first cell of society and where one learns how to live together.

It is lastly a matter of integrating among them body and soul. Paul vi previously wrote that development cannot be restricted simply to economic growth (cf. n. 14); development does not consist in having goods increasingly available, for physical wellbeing alone. Integrating body and soul also means that no work of development can truly reach its goal if it does not respect that place in which God is present with us and speaks to our heart.

(Emphasis supplied.) It is clear that Francis, like his predecessors, rejects the notion that the various aspects of human life can be atomized and compartmentalized. Instead, he sees human life as “an orchestra that performs well if the various instruments are in harmony and follow a score shared by all.” This is not the rhetoric of a pope who “wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” as Spadaro and Figueroa say. This is the rhetoric of a pope who understands the vital importance of this organic link and wishes to foster it.

Moreover, we are far from convinced that Francis is as liberal as Spadaro and Figueroa would have us believe. Consider Laudato si’. Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., a great friend of Semiduplex and a leading light among Catholic integralists, has argued conclusively that Laudato si’ is a deeply anti-modern, anti-liberal encyclical. Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, has likewise articulated the case that the Francis of Laudato si’ is deeply suspicious of modernity and liberalism. Indeed, the liberal atomization that Spadaro and Figueroa want to exalt is one of the central problems with modernity that Francis dissects brilliantly in Laudato si’. Francis teaches us:

A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) Francis sees what Spadaro and Figueroa do not: “the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church” is necessary for living well. The “objective truths and sound principles” provided by the Church ought to inform our lifestyle, our culture, and our political activities; indeed, these truths are necessary for our culture and our political activities, lest they fall into sickness and tyranny.

Spadaro and Figueroa, so far from expressing the mind of Francis, seek to articulate the misguided lifestyle Francis warns us about.




The Maltese farce

The saga of the Order of Malta gets stranger and stranger. Today, Edward Pentin reports that Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the Holy Father’s special delegate to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and substitute for general affairs in the Secretariat of State, has written to Fra’ Matthew Festing, erstwhile grand master, “asking” him not to come to Rome for the upcoming Council Complete of State, convened to elect Festing’s successor. Pentin provides a scan of the letter from Becciu to Festing. The request comes as a bit of a surprise, since it has been widely reported that the Holy Father has expressed no objection to Festing’s reelection, if the Order returns him to office. According to Becciu, “many have expressed their desire that [Festing] not come to Rome and participate in the voting sessions.” (It is not difficult to imagine who “many” is.)

Archbishop Becciu makes this request as an “act of obedience.” All of this underscores completely the fact that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is under the direct administration of the Holy See, which has definite ideas about how it is to be run going forward. This, of course, would not be so extraordinary but for two facts. First, the Order was once presumed sovereign under international law. Second, the Holy See appears to favor one clique definitively in the internal governance dispute, taking extraordinary step after extraordinary step after extraordinary step to ensure that the interests of Boeselager and the German Knights are advanced. One wonders whether these actions—probably unprecedented—will have effects beyond the question of the Order of Malta. For example, will high officials in the Curia start banning other allegedly divisive figures from coming to Rome? Will the Italian state object to the Holy See setting, even on a very limited basis, its immigration policy? 

One thing is clear: it pays—and pays and pays—to have friends in the Secretariat of State.

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.

Catholics and liberalism in the Trump moment

Donald Trump has been elected the forty-fifth president of the United States, defeating, to the surprise of many, not least her supporters, Hillary Clinton. Clinton had been strongly favored to win this election, but by the evening of November 8, it was obvious to all observers that Clinton’s candidacy was in serious trouble. Mortal peril, it turns out.

Already there has been the usual routine following a presidential campaign, especially one with a surprise ending. Trump’s supporters are overjoyed (they thought they’d lose); Clinton’s are devastated (they were entitled to victory). And already the narrative is shaping up that the 2016 election was really about class and economic anxiety. This explains why voters rejected in key “Rust Belt” states the shopworn combination of dreary liberal policies and identity politics that Clinton seemed to prefer to meat-and-potatoes proposals for improving their lives. Of course, there was likely more to it than that, and Clinton’s supporters aren’t completely wrong when they decry bigotry among Trump’s supporters.

The bottom line is that Trump has won and Catholics now have to figure out what to do in the Trump moment.

This will not be easy. Trump has been particularly vexing for serious Catholics since he declared his candidacy. His policy proposals, his personal life, and his demeanor all troubled, though in different dimensions and to different extents, Catholics considering pulling the lever for Trump. We note, to take one brief example, that many of Trump’s signature policies are reconcilable with Catholic doctrine only with great difficulty. Pius XII condemned, in Exsul Familia, the absolutist attitude toward immigration that Trump adopted, identifying instead a natural right of migration that must be respected by nations. And Trump, occasionally calling for measures best described as economic populism, nevertheless hewed fairly closely to conservative American orthodoxy on some economic points, which, despite the protestations of some Catholics in the media, is reconcilable with Catholic doctrine not at all. This is all in addition to the darker side of Trump’s candidacy. It cannot be denied that Trump brought out bigoted elements of society. Everyone knows that he demonized immigrants from Mexico and Latin America and promised to build a wall to keep them out. This led to some nasty elements—racists, for lack of a more decorous word—latching on to Trump. And Trump, ever the showman and entertainer, flirted with those elements. Many Catholics, acknowledging the Church’s teachings about xenophobia, disordered nationalism, and racism, objected vehemently to Trump on these grounds.

But, at the same time, there was strong support for Trump among Catholics. In fact, Trump snapped a long trend of a majority of Catholics voting for the Democratic nominee. (Before Trump, according to the Pew study we just linked, the last Republican in recent years to win a majority of Catholic votes was George W. Bush in 2004.) Part of this was, of course, the deep Catholic antipathy for Hillary Clinton, who marked herself out long ago as a staunch opponent of the Church’s positions on abortion and contraception. Clinton made her radical pro-choice positions such a central part of her platform that Trump started out with an advantage among many Catholics. And she went far beyond previous Democratic candidates by promising to repeal the lifesaving Hyde Amendment, for example. On the other hand, given Trump’s promises to rescind some of Obama’s executive orders, including the anti-clerical contraception mandate, and to appoint pro-life judges to the federal judiciary, it is understandable that his initial advantage carried through to the polls. But we suspect that Trump’s message of economic populism also resonated with many Catholics, many of whom no doubt come from Rust Belt states with long traditions of organized labor, all of which have suffered greatly under the neoliberal policies of the last thirty years.

Whatever the reason, in the end, Catholics did pull the lever for Trump.

All of this meant that Trump was, perhaps rightly, an extraordinarily divisive figure in Catholic circles. Consider the First Things crowd as one example of many. Rusty Reno and Mark Bauerlein, the bosses of the publication, came out, eventually, for Trump. George Weigel and Robert George, two longtime contributors, on the other hand, were strongly opposed to Trump during the campaign. Even the dismissal of Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher from the National Catholic Register seemed to be a function of some of the division that the Trump candidacy caused among Catholics. And this is without discussing the enthusiastic Trumpists in the clergy, including, for example, Fr. Frank Pavone, who managed to create a serious controversy with a pro-Trump infomercial he made over the corpse of an aborted child. Of course, perhaps all of this is a function of the general politicization of Catholic life. Conservatives read the Register; liberals read the Reporter. Conservatives support Republicans enthusiastically; liberals support Democrats enthusiastically. So on, so forth. At any rate, it does not appear from the early reactions that Trump will be any less divisive now among Catholics than he was during the campaign, especially as Catholics begin to figure out how to navigate the Trump moment.

Consider, if you’ll bear with us, some of the early comments from Catholic media. At the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin has a long interview with Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, a prelate no doubt well known to readers of Semiduplex, about the election. Cardinal Burke articulates a fairly sunny view of Trump’s election. A selection:

Your Eminence, what is your reaction to the news of Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president?

I think that it is a clear sign of the will of the people. I understand that the voter turnout was stronger than usual, and I think that the American people have awoken to the really serious situation in which the country finds itself with regard to the common good, the fundamental goods that constitute the common good, whether it be the protection of human life itself, the integrity of marriage and the family or religious liberty. That a candidate like Donald Trump — who was completely out of the normal system of politics — could be elected is an indication that our political leaders need to listen more carefully to the people and, in my judgment, return to those fundamental principles that safeguard the common good that were so clearly enunciated at the foundation of the country in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.

(Italics in original; emphasis supplied.) The Cardinal goes on to say,

Some are calling this a golden opportunity for the Church, particularly because of Trump’s position on life issues and religious freedom.

Exactly; what he has said about pro-life issues, family issues and also issues regarding religious freedom shows a great disposition to hear the Church on these matters and to understand that these are fundamentally questions of the moral law, not questions of religious confession. They are questions of the moral law, which religion in the country, as the Founding Fathers understood from the start, is meant to support and to sustain. The government needs the help of religious leadership in order to hold to an ethical norm.

(Italics and hyperlink in original; emphasis supplied.) The whole interview, however, is well worth reading. Cardinal Burke is not one of these clerical Trumpists who trade their birettas for their Make America Great Again caps; he acknowledges that it will be the duty of Catholics to speak up against any of Trump’s policies that are incompatible with the true faith. But, on the whole, it is apparent that Cardinal Burke is supportive of Trump as he conceives of him.

It is unfortunate, however, that Cardinal Burke embraces so wholeheartedly the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution enunciate principles that safeguard the common good. (Don’t worry, dear reader, we are not wasting your time; this will all be relevant shortly.) They simply do not, insofar as the Declaration and Constitution deny the truth about God and man’s duty to profess the true religion, as reason and revelation make it intelligible to him. In point of fact, they articulate an erroneous liberalism, as they attempt to create a neutral sphere in which individuals exercise free choice without constraint. This is unacceptable from a Catholic standpoint. In Immortale Dei, Leo XIII clearly articulated the principle that,

[T]he State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose everbounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion — it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavor should be directed. Since, then, upon this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the wellbeing of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man with God.

(Emphasis supplied.) One may find similar principles articulated in Diuturnum illud and Libertas praestantissimum. One sees, therefore, that the Declaration and the Constitution are in some meaningful way opposed to this truth, and, insofar as they are opposed, the extent to which they serve the common good is debatable. Perhaps one could argue that they further the common good defined as the highest natural good, and that that is somehow sufficient, though such an argument would be contrary to the teaching of Immortale Dei. (The common end of the polity is peace, we note.) It would also be nonsensical, since the state would conceivably pursue the common good through natural reason, but St. Paul and Dei Filius teach us that natural reason is sufficient to learn of the existence of God and the dictates of natural religion. At that juncture, one becomes responsible for learning what God has revealed, St. Pius X teaches in Pascendi. The bottom line, however, is that Cardinal Burke’s comments reveal the extent to which liberalism has penetrated into conservative Catholic circles. There is no other way to characterize the Declaration and Constitution. They are fundamentally liberal documents. And that is a problem for a Catholic.

We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.

There are other takes on Trump from the Catholic world, not so rosy as Cardinal Burke’s. At America, of all places, C.C. Pecknold calls Trump “America’s biggest gamble.” And there are still more critical views of Trump to be found. For example, at the Catholic Herald, Marc Barnes writes,

Despite the general disappointment that the United States has just elected an incompetent, immoral buffoon to embarrass us before the nations, there are several reasons for American Catholics to celebrate a Trump victory. By “celebrate”, I mean “to quietly, timidly, and ironically shrug thy shoulders skyward”, for these are not victories guaranteed or even strongly assured. They are the campaign promises of a business mogul with no reputation for heartfelt sympathy with the moral concerns of Catholics. Nevertheless, we’ve been promised a conservative Supreme Court nominee, a pro-life leader, and the protection of religious freedoms. Insofar as we can genuinely hope to get them, we can allow ourselves a smile.

There. We smiled. Now it is time to frown. The main argument made by conservative Catholics pulling their eyebrows out over who to vote for was that, in comparison with Clinton, “Trump is the lesser of two evils.” Very well: We have elected an evil. If we have an elected an evil then an active Catholic celebration of Donald Trump would be disingenuous in the extreme. At the very least, it would show that all this “lesser of two evils” talk was just that – talk – and that conservative Catholics who so argued are wedded to conservatism; flirting with Catholicism.

(Emphasis supplied.) The thrust of Barnes’s argument is that Trump’s prescriptions for improving the lives of ordinary, working class Americans are, by and large, drawn from the basic Republican playbook. He says,

We cannot mindlessly assent to the capitalism that Trump offers up as our salvation – it is not individual self-interest and market competition, but a genuine pursuit of the common good, that will make America great again. We are still called to agitate (with Leo XIII, Pius XI, Benedict XVI, Francis, and all the rest) for a just wage for labourers, a wage “sufficient to lead a life worthy of man and to fulfil family responsibilities properly” (Pope John XXII, Mater et Magistra). A Catholic economy is not a liberal economy any more than a Catholic morality is a conservative morality. It is time to make the distinction.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, a hugely important insight. Just as a Catholic, following Immortale Dei and Diuturnum illud, cannot profess without reservation to support the fundamentally agnostic order enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution, neither can a Catholic, following Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, and Caritas in veritate, profess without reservation to support the liberal economic order. Indeed, it must be observed that the religious agnosticism and economic liberalism are bound up inextricably in a broader liberal ideology that is fundamentally opposed to the Church. That is, there is one doctrine that contradicts both Immortale Dei and Rerum novarum, and that doctrine is liberalism. Insofar as Trump proposes mere liberalism to solve the economic problems confronting many Americans, Catholics should be chary at best. Remember Henri Grenier’s lesson that liberalism is corrosive of society itself (3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154), as we have all observed over recent years.

This is, of course, where we must, very regretfully, part ways with Cardinal Burke. To the extent that the Cardinal sees Trump as a return to the liberalism enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution, we cannot see that Trump’s victory is a good thing. Indeed, given his aggressive postures on so many issues, it seems like the worst possible thing. The liberalism of the Obama government, though implacably opposed to the Church, was at least bloodless and technocratic. Liberalism dressed up in populism and intolerance would be a significantly worse outcome than four more years of Obama-style liberalism. Of course, one may distinguish the good liberalism of the Founders from the bad liberalism of Obama; however, finding the principled basis to make such a distinction is harder than it seems. Liberalism is liberalism, and it is always ultimately corrosive to orderly society.

But one silver lining to a Trump presidency is the effect that Trump’s victory has had on liberalism, especially in the context of global trends. Matthew Schmitz, best known as an editor at First Things, has a piece at the Spectator, in which he argues:

In her concession speech, Clinton said her goal had been ‘breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams’. This is the dream of liberalism, which seeks freedom from any social or economic constraint. Elites like Clinton feel confident that they can navigate a deregulated society in which class, gender, and race are all fluid. They support deregulated markets as well, confident that free trade and open borders will serve their own interests in the near term and the whole country’s in the longer term

The rest of America isn’t so sure. The people who put Trump into office want security and solidarity, not creative destruction. They look askance at the Trans-Pacific Partnership and transgender rights. They do not want broken barriers and shattered ceilings, they want four walls of adobe slats and a roof over their heads. 

In mild and radical ways, people across the world are turning away from a liberal belief in open borders, open markets, and the ability of formal procedures to ward off debate over fundamental questions. We can see this in the choice of British citizens to vote for Brexit; in the fact that France’s leading presidential candidate is Marine Le Pen. In Austria, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has entered the run-off for the presidential race. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has moved the country toward Christian nationalism and an alliance with Russia. The Law and Justice party, socially conservative and economically interventionist, has moved Poland away from the liberal consensus of free-market secularity. 

(Hyperlinks in original; emphasis supplied.) Schmitz goes on to conclude:

Voters sense the need for a deeper solidarity and a higher order than liberalism can give them. They don’t want to shatter ceilings if it means they have no roof in a storm. Trump offers protection to some Americans but leaves others out in the cold. Who will articulate a politics that is hospitable to all?

(Emphasis supplied.) Knowing Schmitz’s body of work, we suspect that we know who he has in mind—Catholics. Especially those Catholics who have come to realize what we have briefly sketched out above: it is impossible to be a good Catholic and a good liberal.

To implement this solution, obviously, Catholics must present clearly and firmly the Church’s economic teachings, but to whom? In the first place, it is a part of the Catholic mission to remind politicians that the Church, which has a divine mandate to interpret and protect the natural law, has pronounced upon these matters. Maybe some politicians will listen. Barnes points to the speech Bernie Sanders gave at the Vatican during the Democratic primaries as an example of a more thorough engagement with Catholic social teaching. And it is hard to disagree with that point. Sanders’s speech is an example of a politician who has at least made an effort to engage with the Church’s economic doctrine (or deputed a staffer to do it). It is nothing groundbreaking or especially insightful, but it is a fair reading from a place of engagement:

The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.” (Para43).

We are now twenty-five years after the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Yet we have to acknowledge that Pope John Paul’s warnings about the excesses of untrammeled finance were deeply prescient. Twenty-five years after Centesimus Annus, speculation, illicit financial flows, environmental destruction, and the weakening of the rights of workers is far more severe than it was a quarter century ago. Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

(Emphasis supplied.) Certainly, politicians who take the time to engage with the social teaching of the popes are bound to find new approaches to the questions presented by the modern age, approaches set forth with authority. Yet, Barnes notes that Sanders was a hopelessly conventional Democratic politician on the questions of abortion and contraception. No doubt, Sanders would seek to sever the Church’s economic teachings from her teachings about morality and the proper course of life.

But any attempt to divorce, say, the Church’s economic teaching from the Church’s teaching about the right ordering of society or the Church’s moral teaching is doomed to failure from the outset. In fact, it is ultimately liberalism. Recall Schmitz’s point that liberalism seeks to break down barriers and make all things fluid. Grenier would say that this is because liberalism atomizes society and makes the individual the measure of all things. Whatever the pathology, the answer is clear: one cannot propose the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics but attempt to claim no room for the Church on the state’s obligations to God or the right ordering of economic life, and one cannot call for a just wage as demanded by the good and holy popes of modernity without also calling for the state to recognize and foster the true faith of Christ, handed down by His Church.

To demand that the Church leave any one arena is to give science or philosophy of one sort or another supremacy over the Church. This is what liberalism demands, because liberalism, being fundamentally agnostic, requires science and philosophy to support its conclusions. Thus, the liberal has to privilege science and philosophy over Catholicism in order to achieve his desired result. This is, however, St. Pius X explains, the favored method of the Modernists:

This becomes still clearer to anybody who studies the conduct of Modernists, which is in perfect harmony with their teachings. In the writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate now one doctrine now another so that one would be disposed to regard them as vague and doubtful. But there is a reason for this, and it is to be found in their ideas as to the mutual separation of science and faith. Hence in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist. When they write history they make no mention of the divinity of Christ, but when they are in the pulpit they profess it clearly; again, when they write history they pay no heed to the Fathers and the Councils, but when they catechise the people, they cite them respectfully. In the same way they draw their distinctions between theological and pastoral exegesis and scientific and historical exegesis. So, too, acting on the principle that science in no way depends upon faith, when they treat of philosophy, history, criticism, feeling no horror at treading in the footsteps of Luther, they are wont to display a certain contempt for Catholic doctrines, or the Holy Fathers, for the Ecumenical Councils, for the ecclesiastical magisterium; and should they be rebuked for this, they complain that they are being deprived of their liberty. Lastly, guided by the theory that faith must be subject to science, they continuously and openly criticise the Church because of her sheer obstinacy in refusing to submit and accommodate her dogmas to the opinions of philosophy; while they, on their side, after having blotted out the old theology, endeavour to introduce a new theology which shall follow the vagaries of their philosophers.

(Emphasis supplied.) But it cannot be denied that a true liberal switches back and forth between sound Catholic doctrine and liberal economics and history with ease. And why shouldn’t he? Liberalism tells him that he is the judge of all things, and liberalism the only verdict worth reaching. But Christ’s Church tells Catholics that it doesn’t work that way. One cannot have everything both ways. In other words, a Catholic cannot stop at proposing the Church’s economic teaching to politicians; a Catholic must propose all of the Church’s teachings to a politician, lest he fall into the trap of liberalism and Modernism.

And, of course, a Catholic must propose the Church’s teaching to his or her fellow Catholics. It is plain, as we can see, that liberalism holds a strong grip on the minds of many Catholics, including high prelates. As the Holy Father’s Year of Mercy comes to an end, we must recall that it is a spiritual work of mercy to instruct one’s brothers and sisters in Christ in the true doctrine of Christ’s Church, which is the pure apostolic faith, protected and handed down over the centuries. Correcting them when they profess liberalism, which is incompatible with the Catholic faith, is a great work of mercy. No Catholic should be content to see a fellow Catholic mired in liberalism and Modernism. It is also a prudent political decision, since more Catholics demanding that politicians retreat from the social and spiritual poison of liberalism will surely garner more attention from politicians.

There is, of course, the possibility of progress under a Trump administration. Perhaps Trump will dismantle, even in part, the legal support for abortion in the United States by appointing judges committed to upholding the natural law. Perhaps Trump will rescind the anticlerical decrees of the Obama government. And perhaps Trump will attack the foundations of economic liberalism in the United States. He has said he will do all this. But it is equally possible that Trump will articulate immigration policies that have been roundly rejected by the Church. He has said he will do this. It is possible that he will encourage racist and xenophobic behavior. He has done this. And it is possible that, despite his promises, he will fail to appoint pro-life judges. And it is possible that his solution for the economic failures that swept him into office is little more than more economic liberalism. Certainly, no one would accuse him of being hugely consistent. The bottom line is that, where Trump is serious about governing consistently with the Church’s teachings, Catholics ought to support him, if from a distance. And where he contradicts the Church’s teachings—especially on immigration and racism—Catholics ought to resist him.

But above this, Catholics in the Trump moment ought to strengthen one another’s faith in Christ and one another’s understanding of the teachings of the Church. Catholics ought to also propose to politicians and our countrymen the fullness of Catholic teaching. Not only will this be to their spiritual advantage but it will also be to the nation’s material advantage. Let us be realistic: Donald Trump is a human politician. The best-case scenario is that he will disappoint Catholics one way and other. All politicians do. And, to be even more realistic, we know him well enough by now to know that the best-case scenario is a reach. But, though Trump will probably disappoint, Catholics must recognize that the forces that brought him to power are not going to disappear simply because he is an ineffective or inconsistent leader. People will still be dissatisfied with all the corrosive effects of liberalism. And, if (when?) Trump drops the ball, Catholics ought to be ready to step into the void to tell the politicians and voters who supported Trump—as well as the people who shared some of their concerns, but could not look past Trump’s evident flaws as a candidate—that there is another way to fight liberalism.

One needs only to look to Peter.

A little bit of good news

There was a little bright spot in the recent drumbeat of bad news when Edward Pentin reported that Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, met with not only high officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but also with the Holy Father. As you may recall, in June, following a meeting of major superiors of the Society, a couple of communiques were released, which, while not precluding the possibility of unilateral action by Rome, made it clear that the Society’s priorities were its work of priestly formation and its apostolic work, not negotiating a final settlement with the Roman authorities. This was a little disappointing, since rumors were flying that the Holy Father had made a canonical recognition of the Society a major priority and, indeed, such a recognition was imminent. (More in a moment why the Society might have pulled back from negotiations.) As a Society spokesman told Pentin, the meeting, while not hugely productive, does show that discussions are ongoing.

Pentin also links to an English translation of part of a conference Bishop Fellay gave in France about a week ago. As you might expect from Bishop Fellay, it is a precise, clear-eyed, and charitable summary of the situation with the Roman authorities, particularly the apparent disagreement between Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and his boss, Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A sample:

The second point is that they had crossed out everything concerning religious liberty and ecumenism. They no longer demanded anything of us. That is interesting! Why are they doing this? In this first interview granted to Zenit in February (February 28, 2016, Editor’s note) we see that it is necessary nevertheless to accept the whole Council. But in fact there are degrees. And this idea will be clarified in April (La Croix, April 7, 2016). And here this becomes particularly interesting, because all of a sudden they go and tell us that what was produced by the Council but is not dogmatic, in other words, all the Declarations—the declaration to the world [?! Sic], etc.—are not criteria for being Catholic, according to Abp. Pozzo. What does this mean? “You are not obliged to agree in order to be Catholic.” That is what he started to say when speaking about the Society. And to us, explicitly, he said: “On religious liberty, on ecumenism, on Nostra Aetate, on the liturgical reform, you can maintain your position.” When I heard that, I found it so amazing that I told him, “There is a possibility that I may have to ask you to come and tell us that, because our confreres are not going to believe me.” And still today, I think that it is legitimate to ask the question: is this serious? Is it true or not? Abp. Pozzo actually gave several interviews. I quoted for you the one in April, then there were the ones in July (Zenit, July 4, 2016, and Christ und Welt, July 28, 2016). Between these two dates, in June, his superior, Cardinal Müller, said the contrary (Herder Korrespondenz, June 2016). Therefore you have on the one side Abp. Pozzo who is the Secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, who said in public (in La Croix, April 7, 2016): “‘The statements of articles of faith and of sure Catholic doctrine contained in the documents of Vatican Council II must be accepted according to the degree of adherence required,’ the Italian bishop continued, restating the distinction between dogma and certain Decrees or Declarations containing ‘directives for pastoral activity, guidelines and suggestions or exhortations of a practical and pastoral character’, as is the case especially with Nostra Aetate that inaugurated dialogue with non-Christian religions. The latter ‘will constitute, after a canonical recognition as well, a subject for discussion and more in-depth study with a view to greater precision, so as to avoid misunderstandings or ambiguities which, we know, are widespread in the contemporary ecclesial world.’” That is very interesting.

(Emphasis supplied.) We encourage you to read the whole thing. It is fascinating and deeply informative, especially since one wonders how it is possible to negotiate when high officials of the CDF itself cannot seem to agree about the Conciliar texts.

Another “mega-dicastery” established, this time for “integral human development”

Today, the Holy Father issued his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Humanam progressionem, establishing another so-called mega-dicastery, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, by merging the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, effective on January 1, 2017. The Holy Father also approved ad experimentum the statutes of the new Dicastery, and, while there is a link on the Vatican website to those statutes, the link goes nowhere. We observe that Humanam progressionem has happily been issued in the full range of modern languages, opposed to Latin and Italian only.

Rorate Caeli reports that this dicastery has long been expected, and there were reports that it would be called the Congregation for Charity and Justice, not the unpleasant, ungainly name it did receive, “Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.” Rorate also reports that Peter Cardinal Turkson, long known for an interest in matters of economics and development, has been tipped as the head of the Dicastery. Finally, Rorate reports that the section of the Dicastery responsible for refugees and migrants will be under the immediate direction of the Holy Father. (One assumes that this will be treated in the statutes approved today ad experimentum of the Dicastery when they are finally available.)

At this point, one wonders—we wonder, at any rate—whether the consolidation of dicasteries is going to be the extent of the Holy Father’s much vaunted reform of the Curia. He was elected, if you’ll recall, amid a broad consensus of the cardinals that something had to be done about the Curia. Indeed, his Council of Cardinals was constituted largely to address revisions to Pastor Bonus and reform of the Curia. There were some lightning moves, such as the establishment of the Council for the Economy under Reinhard Cardinal Marx and the Secretariat for the Economy under George Cardinal Pell, but those moves seem to have collapsed for the most part, with, for example, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See retaking most of the competencies it had lost in 2014. It would be interesting to know what the internal view of these things is.

On Alan Jacobs’s Christian intellectuals

At Harper’s Magazine, Alan Jacobs has a lengthy essay, “The Watchmen,” more or less bewailing the disappearance, as Jacobs has it, of Christian intellectuals from the American scene. The problem with Jacobs’s piece, as we see it, is remarkably simple: when it isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it’s pointless. He sets for himself a big project and then, apparently, decides that he’d rather not make a go of it. (He also has some weird ideas, at least from a Catholic perspective, as we’ll see, about Catholicism.) Political liberals, Jacobs explains, are living an increasingly reactionary world, and they are without the means of understanding the reaction that befuddles and terrifies them. Christian intellectuals, Jacobs says, who were most prominent in the middle of the 20th century, could explain the reactionaries to the liberals. What?

No, really. What?

We have not seen any desire among political liberals—and Jacobs never clarifies what he means by that term until it’s too late—to have Donald Trump, for example, explained to them in Christian terms. Political liberals already know what they think of Trump and the voters that have propelled him to the Republican nomination. They don’t need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends. And that’s assuming that Christians could explain the broader trends. Even conservative Christians seem to be divided on Trump, with many Christians adopting an exhausted, “think of the Supreme Court” approach to Trump. Which is not exactly a robust approach to a new political movement, for what it’s worth. (And recalling Scalia’s Obergefell dissent, about which we have changed our mind in recent months, it is strange to imagine Christians voting for Trump in the hope that he’ll find another proceduralist to replace Scalia.) So, we wonder why Jacobs thinks that Christian intellectuals are necessary to interpret the Trump trend—or any of a whole host of trends—to centrists or leftists.

And Jacobs never really answers that question. Indeed, he quickly abandons the idea of the intellectual-as-interpreter. Instead, he seems to conceive of the Christian intellectual as someone who gives political liberals a religious explanation for things they were predisposed to believe. (Though why he thinks political liberals want a religious justification for things they already believe is, again, beyond us.) Jacobs explains:

Oldham’s Moot and Finkelstein’s Conference shared a pair of beliefs: that the West was suffering a kind of moral crisis, and that a religious interpretation of that crisis was required. The nature of the problem, the believing intellectuals agreed, was a kind of waffling uncertainty about core principles and foundational belief. Faced with ideological challenges from the totalitarian Axis powers and from the communist Soviet Union, democracy did not seem to know why it should be preferred to alternatives whose advocates celebrated them so passionately and reverently. What democracy needed was a metaphysical justification — or, at least, a set of metaphysically grounded reasons for preferring democracy to those great and terrifying rivals.

In was in this context — a democratic West seeking to understand why it was fighting and what it was fighting for — that the Christian intellectual arose. Before World War II there had been Christians who were also intellectuals, but not a whole class of people who understood themselves, and were often understood by others, to be watchmen observing the democratic social order and offering a distinctive interpretation of it. Mannheim, who was born Jewish but professed no religious belief, joined with these people because he saw them pursuing the genuine calling of the intellectual. Perhaps Mortimer Adler felt the same way: it would otherwise be difficult to explain why he, also a Jew by birth and also (at that time) without any explicit religious commitments, would think that the West could be saved only through careful attention to the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

(Emphasis supplied.) Whatever this process is, it is not explaining to political liberals the forces of reaction. Instead, it seems like a process of explaining to political liberals why the forces of reaction are not just wrong in the hic et nunc, but wrong in the only analysis that matters, the religious analysis. One doubts—we doubt, at any rate—whether such they need the help.

But who are these voices? W.H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and a few others. In other words, for the most part, sort of high-church protestants from the middle of the 20th century. Auden died in 1973, Niebuhr in 1971, Lewis in 1963, and Eliot in 1965. On Twitter, Matthew Sitman, associate editor at Commonweal, makes the point that these men did most of their most important work in a short time, mostly in the context of actual war. We draw very different conclusions than Sitman, but his series of tweets is well worth reading. His most cogent point is that, by the 1950s, the men Jacobs discusses had moved on to more personal, perhaps less compelling, projects. (By way of example: Little Gidding appeared in 1942 and the collected Four Quartets appeared the United States in 1943. [They would appear in England in 1944.]) And he’s right. If you consider the Christian intellectual project as winning the peace by finding a religious justification for western liberal democracy—and that seems to be Jacobs’s definition—it lasted about 25 years in the middle of the 20th century (1945–1970). And by returning to this brief period—which is probably briefer than we say, since, as Sitman notes, Niebuhr’s last great book was published in the 1950s—Jacobs lays himself open to the charge of sentimentalism and nostalgia. And, we suppose, to high-church liberal protestants, there is much to lament with the passing of that moment in the public discourse.

Catholics might feel otherwise, since from October 1978 to April 2005, the Church was led by John Paul II, who was very much a Christian intellectual of a very different stripe than the ones Jacobs wants to talk about—recall Wojtyla’s corpus from Love and Responsibility to the Theology of the Body discourses to his major encyclicals as pope, whatever one makes of any particular contribution in that vein. The point is clear: the intellectual discourse in the Church, both about Christianity and how Christianity relates to a world hostile to it in many respects, especially moral, remained at a high level. But, Jacobs, for some reason, makes clear that the Christian intellectuals he admires so much did not necessarily include Catholic voices:

To be sure, in America the Fifties were a time of public emergence for many Catholic intellectuals, especially writers of fiction: J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy. But these figures were almost assertively apolitical, and when Catholics did write politically, it was largely in order to emphasize the fundamental compatibility of Catholicism with what John Courtney Murray — a Jesuit theologian who was the most prominent Catholic public intellectual of that time — called “the American Proposition.” Murray was not wholly uncritical of the American social order, but his criticisms were framed with great delicacy: in a time of worldwide conflict, he wrote, “there is no element” of that proposition that escapes being “menaced by active negation, and no thrust of the project that does not meet powerful opposition.” Therefore, “America must be more clearly conscious of what it proposes, more articulate in proposing, more purposeful in the realization of the project proposed.” The American idea is in no sense mistaken, though Americans might need to be “more articulate” in stating and defending that idea. This Murray was willing to help us do, by explaining that the Catholic tradition of natural law was the very same principle that the Founding Fathers appealed to when they declared “that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It is wholly unaccidental that Murray’s book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition was published in 1960, when a Roman Catholic named John F. Kennedy was standing as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is a strange point to make, though fundamentally correct: the Catholic intellectuals of the immediate postwar period spent a lot of energy trying to make American-style liberal democracy compatible with Catholicism. Yet, Jacobs seems to miss the deeper connections between that project and the sort of Christian intellectualism he would like to see restored to the public sphere.

Beginning with Pius IX, whose great Quanta cura and Syllabus Errorum condemned propositions that many red-blooded protestant Americans would have considered essential to American democracy—and continuing through Leo XIII’s great encyclicals on social affairs, including Testem benevolentiae nostrae, a warning about Americanism (narrowly defined) and Pius XI’s own, towering contributions to the social teaching of the Church—the good and holy popes of the modern age critiqued aspects of American-style democracy, while on the whole encouraging the American experiment. (Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical on Catholicism in the United States Longinqua oceani, Jan. 6, 1895.) The upshot of all of this is that, for a Catholic adhering to these teachings, as a Catholic must, there are aspects of American-style democracy that were (and remain) questionable propositions at best. And this is where Jacobs misses his own professed point when discussing the Catholic intellectuals of the postwar period.

We said that Jacobs abandons his original thesis pretty early on, and this a good example of that. He says that Christian intellectuals are necessary to relate reactionary trends to liberal democrats. From an American perspective, few things are as reactionary as the Church’s pre-conciliar teaching on the proper relationship of Church and state, as well as religious freedom and toleration. (From a traditional Catholic perspective, they are far from reactionary and instead represent a deeper liberty, but that is a debate for another time.) Seen in that light, Murray represents a better example of the sort of intellectual that Jacobs wants: showing Catholics that American-style democracy was ultimately compatible with Catholic principles. And Murray was ultimately successful, since the Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, represents a partial victory for his thinking. (For an example of what he thought, see his 1964–65 article, “The Problem of Religious Freedom”, or this article from America.) Perhaps the direction is reversed—certainly Murray didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the Church’s historic position on indifferentism to liberal democrats—but the basic idea is the same, and it cannot be denied that Murray’s project was more concretely successful than simply giving liberal democrats a theological dimension for their preexisting belief in liberal democracy.

Jacobs’s weirdness on Catholicism doesn’t stop there, either. Jacobs turns to the life of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the tremendously influential publisher of First Things, to illustrate a point about the Christian intellectual’s reaction to the trends of the 1960s and 1970s. But again Jacobs draws a weird point. Jacobs’s point is this: Neuhaus, previously known for socially progressive politics, was shocked, as any thinking person was, by the horror of abortion loosed after Roe v. Wade in 1973. He hoped that the antiwar and civil-rights tendencies within American Christianity would join him in opposing abortion. That did not happen, and, in fact, Neuhaus lost his access to the mainstream media. So he went and started First Things, which Jacobs calls a “subaltern counterpublic,” which began arguing for mutual toleration through separatism. Maybe Jacobs’s narrative is right, but his perspective is one sided. To many traditionally minded Catholics, however, Neuhaus’s project is essentially a fusion of Catholics, evangelicals, and Jews to articulate, essentially, basic conservative politics. This project may have had its roots in the prolife movement—since horror at abortion was by no means confirmed to Catholics—but its scope is broader than that. It encompasses most of the major goals of the American political right. In other words, no less than John Courtney Murray, Richard John Neuhaus represents an attempt to make American politics compatible with Catholicism. Thus, it is not surprising that Jacobs misses Neuhaus’s greater significance.

How, then, does Jacobs fail to understand that, more than the liberal protestants he focuses on, Catholics have been performing, though perhaps in different ways, the role of the Christian intellectual? Indeed, even after the death of the men he mentions, there have been prominent Catholic intellectual figures, like Neuhaus, or Robert George or George Weigel or Rusty Reno or whoever,  who have performed the basic thing Jacobs wants to see. So why doesn’t he see it? The key to all of this, really, is this paragraph:

It was the Sixties that changed everything, and not primarily because of the Vietnam War or the cause of civil rights. There were many Christians on both sides of those divides. The primary conflict was over the sexual revolution and the changes in the American legal system that accompanied it: changes in divorce law, for instance, but especially in abortion law. (Many Christians supported and continue to support abortion rights, of course; but abortion is rarely if ever the central, faith-defining issue for them that it often is for those in the pro-life camp.) By the time these changes happened and Christian intellectuals found themselves suddenly outside the circles of power, no longer at the head table of liberalism, Christians had built up sufficient institutional stability and financial resourcefulness to be able to create their own subaltern counterpublics. And this temptation proved irresistible. As Marilynne Robinson has rightly said in reflecting on the agitation she can create by calling herself a Christian, “This is a gauge of the degree to which the right has colonized the word and also of the degree to which the center and left have capitulated, have surrendered the word and also the identity.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Ah. There it is. Jacobs is only interested in liberalism in the American political sense, not in the sense we more regularly see it used in Catholic circles. (Not as in, for example, liberalism is a heresy.)

And this is, we think, explains everything. On one hand, it explains the nostalgic tone. The Christian left in the United States is not an especially powerful force. Part of this has been the collapse of the mainline protestant denominations, and part of it has been the remarkably durable coalition of Catholics, evangelical protestants, and Jews on pro-life issues, which has translated into the substantial alignment of that coalition with the Republican Party. There has also been, at least from 1964 to the present, the rise of the organized political right in the United States, which has long included a strong religious element. One could probably plot all the trends on the same graph—presuming one could find statistics to represent the trends—and they’d line up pretty neatly. Jacobs, then, is nostalgic for a time when Christians on the political left had popular prestige and widespread influence, neither of which do they have in any quantity today.

On the other hand, it explains the weirdness about Catholicism, which has never lined up neatly on either side of the American political spectrum, though in recent years Christ’s Church has found herself on the right more often than the left. Certainly some of that shift can be attributed to John Paul’s general direction, especially on moral questions. But even during the Cold War years—which are, it seems, Jacobs’s preoccupation—the Church was engaged in various projects, such as the Second Vatican Council and the major reforms following the Council, that only incidentally lined up with the interests of the American political left. (One wonders, and we suppose that a historian would have the answer, what effect “Seamless Garment” ideology propounded by John Cardinal Dearden and others had on the American left more broadly; it always seemed like an attempt to import conventional leftism into the Church, not the other way around.) It makes sense, therefore, that Jacobs has strange notions about what was happening in American Catholicism, to say nothing of an apparent desire to minimize its importance, since what was happening was, as we say, only incidentally related to what Jacobs is talking about.

In all of this, Jacobs never answers the question we started with: why do political liberals want or, indeed, need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends to them? Especially since Jacobs’s idea of the Christian intellectual does not include voices—mostly Catholic—who might be able to explain the sense of loss and alienation from the culture that Trump voters allegedly feel. Jacobs seems to want liberal protestants around to comment on these trends. But he does not consider that the insights—or lack thereof—of liberal protestants might explain in part why there aren’t too many liberal protestants around any more.

EDIT: After publishing this piece, we noted a few mistakes that we did not want to leave in this piece. We have gone back and cleaned them up, but we have not changed the substance of this essay. – pjs