Evangelicals & Catholics in the age of integralism

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a very lengthy post critiquing Matthew Walther’s recent column at The Week arguing that the Catholic alliance with evangelicals has not worked out to the benefit of Catholics. We note by way of parenthesis at the outset that Walther’s column for The Week is consistently one of the most entertaining and provocative columns out there. Anyway, in the context of the imbroglio over Paul Ryan firing and unfiring the House chaplain, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Conroy (hired by John Boehner, a longtime friend of the Jesuits), Walther makes some very pointed remarks about the effects on Catholics of their political alliance with evangelical protestants. We agree with Walther, for the most part, but Dreher doesn’t. Dreher’s point is basically this: so what if American Catholics have gone wobbly on the Church’s social teaching because of this alliance with evangelicals?

It is worth thinking about this exchange because it provides a perfect example of what we have talked about before, and that is what Jake Meador (a protestant) has rightly called a parting of the ways between Catholics and protestants. Both Catholics and protestants are engaged at the moment in a project of ressourcement. Catholics in particular are presently engaged in rediscovering the Church’s anti-liberal, integralist tradition and thinking about how best to implement the anti-liberal, integralist teaching of the Church in American political life. This makes the consensus that made projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together to name but one less tenable than ever before. Indeed, we have seen in recent regrettable incidents that institutions devoted to the consensus typified by Evangelicals and Catholics Together are hostile to expressions of, for example, the anti-liberal, integralist Catholic tradition. It will be clearer, we think, in short order that Dreher (among others) does not understand this moment in American Christianity as well as he thinks.

Here’s the problem. As Dreher eventually gets around to arguing, the forces of secular liberalism—implacable in their opposition to Christianity—don’t actually see much of a difference between faithful Catholics and faithful evangelicals. Moreover, it is clear that Dreher doesn’t actually see much of a difference, either. Whatever drift there has been in American Catholics’ views, he thinks it was baked in from the beginning. In support of this proposition, he argues (1) that Americans are simply protestantized at a baseline level and (2) that Americans are basically indifferentist. In any event, he does not think it’s all that big of a deal to suggest that Catholics and evangelicals should cooperate on certain issues. What is needed, Dreher concludes, is for Christians to downplay their differences and present a united front in defense of religious liberty.

Even if indifferentism isn’t baked into American religious expression, Americans should adopt it, Joe Carter of the Acton Institute tells us as he weighs in, arguing, based on the thought of 19th-century Dutch protestant and household name around the world Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, Carter tells us, believed that Catholics and protestants have creedal confession and morals in common. More than that, on the points where secular society is most hostile to Christians, Kuyper argued that Catholics and protestants were in agreement. This is a funny assertion, not least because Catholics and protestants disagree pretty vehemently on articles of all of the creeds of undivided Christendom. Moreover, it is only by equivocation that a Catholic and a protestant can profess belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, since it is clear that a Catholic means one thing and a protestant another. On this point, one wonders what response Carter would get from his Southern Baptist brethren if he told them that when they pray the Nicene Creed, they confess the same creed in the same way as St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Levity aside, it seems odd to us that Dreher or Carter would offer what amounts to indifferentism as a way forward.

Part of the reason why indifferentism seems like a strange solution is because it has been what Acton and other institutions have been advancing for some time now, without any appreciable success. In this, we are reminded of Brent Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” from an early issue of Triumph. The splendid site Incudi Reddere reprinted the essay yesterday in the context of a Twitter discussion along these lines. Bozell was writing to an audience of conservatives in 1969 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. After discussing the decision by conservatives to support Nixon despite the fact that Nixon really did not represent the conservative position by 1968, Bozell makes this devastating point:

I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, diedand for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heirthat it is not surprising you are disillusioned.

(Emphasis supplied.) What was true in 1969 remains true in 2018. One might cavil with this assessment and say that Bozell was writing to secular conservatives, not religious conservatives. Okay. How many battles have the religious conservatives won? The most recent major defeat—dealt by the Supreme Court in Obergefell—was so devastating to Dreher that he now proposes anything a sort of strategic regrouping (in its weakest form) to a retreat to the bayou (in its stronger form) for Christians.

This is a painful point for many, not least Dreher. However, when one says that Catholics and evangelicals should put aside their “small differences” to fight the liberal order, one has to point out that they’ve been doing that for a while—and losing. Perhaps this time will be different. It is true that the liberal order is seen to be struggling at this moment, even if the reasons are not always so clear. Christian conservatives have, unlike the secular conservatives, a real ethical and metaphysical critique of liberalism that, in the case of the critique advanced by the Church, carries divine authority. One sees this even today, in Francis’s great anti-liberal encyclical, Laudato si’, which is clearly an authoritative critique of modern liberalism. That counts for something, to be sure. Nevertheless, when a united Christian front for religious liberty is discussed, one ought to hear Bozell intoning, “Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you.”

This is, we think, Walther’s point. Catholics have made accommodations for the sake of presenting a united front with other Christians on other issues, only to be defeated in each fight. Walther writes,

What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.

(Emphasis supplied.) One is justified in asking, then: was it worth it? Was it worth setting about half of Centesimus annus and about six paragraphs of Rerum novarum against the rest of Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, the other half of Centesimus annus, Caritas in veritate, and so on? (To say nothing of the social magisterium beginning with the apostles and the fathers down to Leo XIII!) Was it worth deciding that Dignitatis humanae, Unitatis redintegratio, and Nostra aetate blotted out the Church’s entire thought on its relationship with the state and other faiths?

Moreover, can we say that it was worth it as Catholics are actively engaged in recovering this tradition? As we say, the real problem is that Dreher does not understand this moment in American Christianity. He suggests that the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is dead, right before making basically the argument advanced by that project. Jake Meador, as we have mentioned before, recognizes that both Catholics and protestants are recovering substantial aspects of their respective traditions that make it less and less possible to engage in the sort of ecumenism represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Consider, for example, the ongoing recovery of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. There is an increasing realization—at least on the Catholic side of the line—that the sense that the Church threw open the doors to liberalism at Vatican II is not quite correct. To be sure, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes show more openness to liberalism than, say, Syllabus or Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum. But one must be careful not to read more into the documents than is actually there. At The Public Discourse, for example, Professor Joseph Trabbic has a lengthy essay arguing basically that. He demonstrates convincingly that the Church’s normative political position—even today—is that of a Catholic confessional state. We could go on, though we won’t, about the revival of integralism going on today.

The point is this: Catholics and protestants are recovering their traditions. The Church’s tradition is integralist and anti-liberal. Protestants are working on their own traditions, and they are finding their own reasons to be suspicious of the ecumenism Dreher advances. One might say that the only interesting work being done by Christians on the right—which is very nearly the same thing as saying the only interesting work being done by Christians—is being done in this area. This work makes the sort of cooperation that Dreher urges less and less possible. An integralist Catholic is not going to see the political goals advanced by Dreher as all that worthwhile, except as potentially an intermediate step toward a Catholic confessional state, and he is certainly not going to want to make the compromises—even rhetorical—necessary to work with evangelicals toward such a goal. Likewise, the protestants engaged in their own ressourcement are not going to be excited about coalitions with integralist Catholics.

Today, Incudi Reddere posted another piece from Triumph by Brent Bozell. It concludes, in part:

The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.

We submit that part, a large part, of being a Christian is being an orthodox Christian—that is, a Catholic. We would not deny, however, that protestants are acting in good faith when they say that being an orthodox Christian means being orthodox by the lights of their sect. However, the point is this: there is an emerging sense Bozell is right and the first step toward a political solution is being an orthodox Christian. As this sense emerges, the idea, advanced by Dreher and Carter, that Christians should gloss over significant differences in theology, ecclesiology, metaphysics, and ethics so that they can fight one more losing battle against secular liberalism becomes less and less tenable.

“What is the reality of the situation?”

In the 1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt produced some decks of cards with various questions or statements printed on them. Eno and Schmidt came up with Oblique Strategies, as they called the cards, as suggestions of ways to approach a problem that were not the straight-on approach. They had found, it seems, working separately on their own projects, that they would reach some impasse. The questions or statements were intended to get themselves (at first) out of the jams they found themselves in. The cards, originally released in 1975, were revised in a couple of subsequent editions. The cards and the sayings on them have been a sort of mid level cultural artifact since then, appearing in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. (Indeed, in Slacker, a putative card is “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy,” which isn’t a card in the original sets. The phrase, however, is striking and found its way to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”) One of the sayings from the first edition (and kept all the way to the third edition) is “What is the reality of the situation?”

This is a question integralist Catholics need to ask themselves right now. We should be clear at the outset that we are aware, though perhaps we should be more aware, that “integralist Catholic” is—or ought to be—a redundancy. Integralism is simply the perennial teaching of the Church, finding its finest expression in Leo XIII’s encyclicals, regarding the relationship of the Church to the state. It is assumed that the Church backed away from this teaching in the Second Vatican Council, especially Dignitatis humanae. However, this assumption is perhaps harder to justify than it might first appear. We will, therefore, use the expressions integralism and integralist simply as convenient shorthand, not least since they are at the moment used in discussions outside Semiduplex. (We were surprised to learn that such things happen, too, dear reader.) They’re not perfect, but they’ll do until perfect expressions are found.

Anyway: the reason why integralists need to ask themselves the question “What is the reality of the situation?” is because, at this moment, integralist Catholics have a little visibility and a little momentum. Much of this comes from a broader suspicion of liberalism that seems more and more justified every day. Consider for example the critique of liberalism in Scott Hahn’s new book, The First Society. Hahn graciously permitted the excerpt to run at The Josias, and you should read it as soon as you can. We haven’t read The First Society, but if the excerpt is any indication it’s probably well worth our attention. We can debate what Hahn says, but what we cannot debate is Hahn’s prominence as a Catholic apologist and writer. Suspicion of the liberal order—especially the compromises the liberal order demands (and demands and demands) of Christians—is in the air. Moreover, integralists have been recovering their own tradition. It only seems like these ideas emerged overnight. In addition to the magisterium and the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and others, there were those thinking about these ideas when liberalism’s reign seemed unquestionable. Consider, for example, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was as disturbed by the assault on the reign of Christ the King as he was by anything else. One consideration in the reality of the situation is the (increasingly dicey) relationship between integralists and liberals and the relative lack of integralist institutions.

Turning to the first point: liberals, even Catholic liberals of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together variety, cannot provide shelter for integralists in liberal institutions. The fundamental claims of liberalism are not compatible with the claims integralist Catholics make. Everyone knows this. Integralists relate to the United States and the American project in a radically different way from liberals, even liberals on the right. Let us drill down on this example for a moment. It is often argued that the American order before recent deformations—let us say, before 1965 or so, though even that date may be too late—provided an opportunity for the Faith to flourish in an environment of ordered liberty. Why, runs the implicit question, do the integralists have a problem? Even acknowledging that there have been moments when American liberalism has benefitted the Church, as Leo XIII did in Longinqua oceani, we must affirm, as Leo XIII also did in the same letter, that the American order is not the ideal order of Church and state. It is that simple. This point, by no means the most controversial point of integralist thought, though perhaps among the most fundamental, means that integralists cannot write prose poems to the “wisdom of the Framers” and the alleged natural-law foundations of the federal Constitution.

Given that liberals on the right—even liberal Catholics–feel constrained to write exactly those prose poems, this alone would result in significant opposition between integralists and liberals. Of course, we know that the opposition is broader than that. The example, however, is an important one. Integralists have a hard time trading even in the hoary cliches that pass with hardly any notice among liberals. Think about that for a moment: if we take Leo in Longinqua seriously, we are free to acknowledge the gains for the Church under the American regime, but we are by no means free to say—against Immortale Dei or Diuturnum or Libertas—that the American regime is ideal. Given the concepts that have been bundled into the idea of the American regime by conservatives, here we are thinking of liberal democracy, free speech, free market ideology, and the rest of it, denying that the American regime is ideal is a significant act. And one liable to leave integralist Catholics in the position either of silence on these issues or radical opposition to liberals.

The bottom line is this: Jake Meador, a while back, talked about a parting of the ways of Catholics and some protestants as both Catholics and protestants delved deeper into their respective traditions and found greater points of incompatibility. The same thing is happening even among Catholics. As integralist Catholics recover the Church’s perennial teaching on its relationship to the state and to non-Catholics, it will be difficult for integralists to maintain the same close relations with liberal Catholics who, by and large, react to integralist Catholicism with anything ranging from polite bemusement to horror. Now, it is impossible for Catholics to part ways from Catholics in the same manner that Catholics are parting ways from protestants. We are, ultimately, bound together in communion with Peter in the Mystical Body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is possible to acknowledge that certain differences make certain forms of cooperation impossible. Liberal institutions simply cannot support—whether out of hostility or not—integralists for any length of time. It is clear, therefore, that integralist Catholics have to begin the laborious work of building their own institutions. This is our second point.

Some institutions already exist—The Josias comes to mind first, followed by a circle of blogs more or less in The Josias‘s orbit, including Semiduplex—but there is room for development. Naturally, one thinks of magazines of theory, criticism, and opinion, broadly along the lines of existing magazines. One may also think of magazines aimed at more popular audiences. Certainly this would solve problems that have crept up in recent weeks and months in existing—liberal—publications. There would be no problem, for example, articulating an authentically Catholic position about the duties of the state toward the baptized, even those baptized in exigent circumstances, at an integralist magazine. Nor would there be problems articulating potential aspects of the penal law in a Catholic state. But to confine one’s thought toward that sort of institution may be a strategic blunder. For one thing: there’s more to life than debates over politics or the effects of baptism in a confessional state, hard as that may be to believe.

Adrian Vermeule has talked, notably, about a strategy of replacement; that is, Catholics take positions in elite institutions and gradually populate those institutions. One can discuss the merits of the strategy another time. We will take it for granted for now. Could not a similar strategy of replacement be appropriate in cultural or artistic institutions? Indeed, might not such a strategy be necessary? And if those institutions are too hardened toward population—infiltration, they would call it—by Catholics, ought not Catholics attempt to create rival institutions? This is an elaborate way of saying that, if the strategy is replacement, then the strategy is replacement across the board. An integralist website for movie reviews or music reviews or book reviews is a component, if not perhaps an essential component, of an integralist strategy. Now, there is, we admit, some difficulty here: what is an integralist movie review? Surely it is not a movie review that assesses the aesthetic merits of a movie on how well the movie represents the correct ordering of state to Church. That would be ridiculous.

This is a point worth pondering. The answer is obviously that it would be a movie review from a broadly Catholic perspective, unafraid of considering modern aesthetic developments, but also unafraid of making moral judgments or comparative judgments. Indeed, one might argue (it has been argued in the past, so we are hardly breaking new ground) that aesthetic judgments require above all a recognition of truth. We will let the aesthetes puzzle it out in greater detail, however. We raise the point simply to highlight the danger of considering integralism a particular tendency requiring a particular set of postures to the exclusion of everything else. (This is a danger we find ourselves susceptible to.) As we have said, one of the central claims of integralism is that it is simply Catholicism. That is, it is what the popes have taught and the faithful have believed, according to their station and education. When it is expressed in the context of politics, it takes the form of integralism. But Catholicism is expressed or informs one’s expression in other contexts, and it is necessary to consider these other contexts, too.

And if you don’t accept the strategy of replacement? Well, it is clear, as we cannot help repeating, that existing liberal institutions are hostile to integralist Catholics. An integralist, regardless of his or her artistic views, is going to have a hard time obtaining and maintaining access to the most notable institutions. There are basically two choices: first, it is possible to decide that integralism is a view that must be kept secret and gain access to liberal institutions as an apparent liberal. Of course, since integralism is merely the political expression of traditional Catholicism, this will require a commitment to keep other things secret. Second, it is possible to decide that the best people to talk about these things with are like-minded people and the best places to talk about them are friendly places.

***

Lately, we have been thinking a lot about L. Brent Bozell’s brilliant, doomed Triumph magazine. At a time when the Church’s bargain with liberalism seems like more and more of a raw deal—and at a time when integralist institutions are increasingly necessary—the story of Triumph is one that ought to be told. Mark Popowski, a professor at Collin College in Texas, published, not too long ago, The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Catholic Magazine, 1966–1976. We suspect this is a revision of his 2008 doctoral dissertation. It is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about Triumph. There are other resources. A few years ago, Daniel Kelly published a biography of Bozell, and one can get The Best of Triumph and Bozell’s own autobiography. There is also an interesting essay on the topic from John Médaille at Ethika Politika from several years ago.

Many of you probably know the story. Bozell had been with Buckley and others in the early days of National Review. Bozell, a convert to the Church unhappy with the line Buckley and others took (Mater Si, Magistra No!), started Triumph in 1966 with some fanfare to present a staunchly Catholic viewpoint—taking aim at the right and the left alike. This was, however, basically the worst possible moment in history to undertake such a task. (Of course, Bozell might answer that it was, therefore, the most crucial moment in history to undertake the task.) On one hand, the Second Vatican Council initiated a process that saw the Church’s traditional anti-liberal doctrine diminished (if not eliminated) almost overnight, along with other changes, not the least of which was the complete revision of the liturgy between 1964 and 1970. On the other hand, the conservative movement was well on its way to solidifying its free-market ideology by 1966. Bozell found himself, therefore, between a rock and a hard place. Over the next ten years, however, Triumph produced a considerable amount of intelligent, incisive commentary from a Catholic perspective. Unfortunately, the publication diminished over time, ending up as little more than a newsletter before it wound up operations in 1976.

Triumph was not narrowly political, though certainly there was much to discuss politically between 1966 and 1976. But in reading The Best of Triumph, one finds the expression generally of a certain outlook. The sort of publication that would provide the best home for Catholics is a publication that, like Triumph, has a certain outlook that, among other things, expresses itself politically in integralism. There are other lessons to learn from Triumph—and other publications—and Catholics with the skills and motivation to learn those lessons will, we suspect, be capable of building the institutions that are so clearly required.

This is the way things have always been

Today, Francis released his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. It has been given the Latin incipit of Gaudete et exsultate. As much as any of Francis’s major documents, it is a snapshot of his pontificate. On one hand, there is valuable content in the exhortation, especially when Francis talks about the value of the Rosary or the spiritual combat Christians must do with the forces of evil. Likewise, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes, including a clear-eyed diagnosis of the sickness of late liberalism. On the other hand, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes. Francis discusses in a lengthy passage what he calls neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism despite the fact that his doctrinal chief, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, just issued a letter, Placuit Deo, on this topic. It is clear that Francis means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine and people who care too much about rules. Moreover, Francis finds time to bring Cardinal Dearden’s Seamless Garment out of cold storage and complain about online feuds. These critiques, while vague, seem to be pointed to the conservative (or traditionalist) wing of the Church.

Whether Francis means to criticize all the conservatives in the Church is not exactly clear. For example, Gaudete et exsultate follows a Holy Week celebrated in many places according to the pre-1955 use of the Roman Rite by an indult of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Nevertheless, it can reasonably be anticipated that Francis’s critiques will be taken up by his supporters in the media to do exactly that. And given Francis’s fondness for letting others implement vague statements, one cannot dismiss out of hand the idea that this is something he wants to see. Whether it is or not, Gaudete et exsultate falls victim to the the narrative that has consumed this pontificate. Liberal pope and his liberal supporters set against conservative prelates and their conservative supporters, with the battle playing out on Twitter and Facebook. The takes and counter-takes and tweets all write themselves at this point. Despite calling for openness to newness, the narrative of Francis’s pontificate is, sadly, anything but new.

I.

To those who follow Francis closely, there is very little new in Gaudete et exsultate. For good or for ill, Francis has a core of ideas that he returns to pretty regularly. One will find most or all of them in Gaudete et exsultate. In a sense, Francis’s pontificate points toward a document like this. He has spoken for years about accompaniment and discernment and personal growth in holiness. Even the most controversial passages of Amoris laetitia are couched in this language. Nothing could be more natural, then, to see Francis broaden his scope. And he does precisely that, writing at times quite incisively about what Christian life in 2018 demands. More than that, he has a set of rhetorical strategies that he uses whenever he can. It is hard to read Francis’s exegesis on the Beatitudes (¶¶ 63–94) without thinking of his exegesis on First Corinthians 13:4–7 in Amoris laetitia (ch. 4). Consequently, there is much to admire in Gaudete et exsultate.

Consider some examples. Francis also offers a healthy dose of the practical, almost earthy, pastoral advice that is his second-best mode. (More on his best mode in a minute.) A striking passage comes when he follows a woman through her day, pointing out definite steps she can take to advance in holiness. He also speaks frankly about evil, warning us that “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 161.) He concludes the exhortation with a stirring passage about Our Lady: “She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us. Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us. Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: ‘Hail Mary….'” (Ibid. ¶ 176.)

Francis also reaches into what we consider his best mode: critique of the sickness in modern society. His ecological encyclical, Laudato si’, setting to one side the specific policy considerations that have since come to characterize the encyclical, is a brilliant dissection of the fundamental disorders of liberalism. Francis returns to the theme throughout Gaudete et exsultate. Francis clearly identifies the symptoms of the disease when he says, “The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 29.) And he identifies the bacillus at the root of the disease: “Saint John Paul II noted that ‘a society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people’. In such a society, politics, mass communications and economic, cultural and even religious institutions become so entangled as to become an obstacle to authentic human and social development.” (Ibid. ¶ 91.)

When Francis is at his best—and he is at his best when he plays the country pastor offering blunt advice to his flock and when he criticizes the incoherence and unsustainable nature of life under neoliberalism—there is every reason to be happy that Francis returns to his favorite themes, well worn though they may be. After five years one knows generally what to expect from Francis. Just as promised, Evangelii gaudium has proved to be a broadly programmatic document. Moreover, Francis’s regular homilies and addresses have indicated the themes that are close to his heart. And Francis has stayed true to form. After five years of this, we can say that when Francis issues a major document it is going to include a set of ideas and a set of rhetorical strategies for communicating those ideas.

II.

But there is a flip side to Francis’s reliance on a handful of ideas. Much attention will no doubt be devoted to Francis’s extended explanation of neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism. This is one of Francis’s favorite topics, too. He returns to these ideas over and over, and he clearly thinks that he has the range of his opponents in the Church with them. Now, one would have thought the matter closed with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s interesting and, by and large, excellent Letter Placuit Deo. However, Francis explains them and in further detail. And it is when considering these ideas that one sees that Francis’s pontificate is now locked, more or less, in a pattern. Francis makes some vague statements that are obviously but not explicitly aimed at his critics; Francis’s friends in the media sharpen the statements and hurl them at those deemed to be insufficiently supportive of the Pope’s agenda; and the Pope’s critics in the media respond in kind.

It is now clear that when Francis talks about neo-Gnosticism, he does not mean “a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) He means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine making sense. (Cf. Gaudete et exsultate ¶¶ 37, 43–46.) Likewise, in Placuit Deo, Archbishop Ladaria explained the neo-Pelagian tendency to believe that “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) Francis now clarifies: neo-Pelagians suffer from “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 57.)

One is tempted to ask, perhaps a little too cheekily, “Oh, and which doctrines ought we to be less punctilious about, Your Holiness?” Ought we to stop insisting on the accompaniment described in Amoris laetitia? Do we care too much about the decentralization apparently required by Sacrosanctum Concilium and implemented anew by Magnum principium? Confronted with yet another expression of Francis’s mild antinomianism and apparent prejudice against clear doctrine, one is reminded of Cardinal Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that ‘Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.'” One is tempted to take it a step farther and apply Newman’s dictum to doctrine. Put another way: when an authority figure tells you (and tells you and tells you) to stop caring so much about rules, eventually you will take him at his word. This ought to concern the authority figure the most, as one day he might like to command this or that on the basis of his authority only to find that it’s gone.

Francis might not be hugely upset by this, either. His emphasis on decentralization and synodality have, likewise, the effect of diminishing the authority of the Roman Pontiff. However, they also have the effect of guaranteeing that his reforms, presuming that the next pope does not take radical action, will endure in some parts of the world. It is clear that, while not every bishop and episcopal conference is on board with Francis’s agenda, at least some are. Perhaps a great many. Reducing any pope’s authority makes it more likely that these bishops and episcopal conferences will be left alone to deepen and develop these ideas. Francis’s supporters talk at length of his goal of irreversible reforms to the Church, and one way of achieving these reforms might simply be to leave future popes’ authority in a precarious state.

All of this is a particularly neuralgic spot for Catholics left out in the cold by Francis. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that traditionally minded Catholics will not see this as yet another direct attack by Francis on traditionally minded Catholics. The situation is more complicated than that, of course. This year, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei issued an indult permitting celebration of the Holy Week rites according to the books before Pius XII’s 1955 revisions. The indult, given to traditionalist orders like the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Institute of Christ the King (ICRSS), appears to have been given fairly liberal application. We are aware of several pre-1955 Holy Week celebrations personally and have heard of many more. One imagines that such a major decision would have involved the Pope at some stage. Moreover, it is hard to argue that the Society of St. Pius X has not gotten a better deal from Francis than it ever did from Benedict XVI or John Paul II. Francis has conceded priests of the Society the jurisdiction to hear confessions and witness marriages without receiving significant concessions in exchange from the Society. In other words, it is hard to be too gloomy about the state of tradition under Francis, since, whatever he may say, his actions are generally favorable toward tradition in a way his predecessors’ weren’t. Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict authorizing the use of the pre-1955 books for Holy Week? Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict opting for a unilateral resolution of some of the most vexing aspects of the SSPX situation?

On the other hand, once again, Francis sharply criticizes individuals who have historically been considered orthodox Catholics. What other way is there to describe someone concerned with the Church’s doctrine or liturgy? There probably are elements of the Church that meet these descriptions in precisely the way Francis imagines. There are certainly elements in the American Church that meet Francis’s description, in fact. However, the descriptions are so vague that anyone can see anything they want in them. And it is already clear that progressives and modernists in the Church see a description of orthodox Catholics seeking to do nothing more than hold firm to the apostolic faith instead of Catholics who come awfully close to a bourgeois evangelical mode. (Though the progressives and modernists are happy to criticize the bourgeois evangelicals, too.) After five years and endless debates over Francis’s vague language, one might be excused for thinking that the vagueness is intentional. And given that there are no corrections or clarifications from Francis or the Press Office when Francis’s media partisans hurl these critiques at traditionally minded Catholics, one might also be excused for thinking that this process, by now a feature of life in Francis’s Church, is precisely what Francis wants. We know already that sometimes Francis prefers others to take his vague words and add a little form to them. (Cf. Apostolic Letter Recibí el escrito.) Already we see, for example, Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, editor of Civiltà Cattolica and a close collaborator of the Pope, alleging that Francis is taking on Robert Cardinal Sarah, “the most authoritative representative of a vision of the Catholic Church alternative to the one advocated by Pope Francis.,” with passages in Gaudete et exsultate.

Likewise, one suspects that Francis knows how his words will be interpreted when he says things like, “[w]e often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 102.) Compared to St. John Paul’s clear rejection of allegations of obsession with abortion in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement in his letter to Cardinal McCarrick that “[n]ot all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” Francis’s intent here is crystal clear. He clearly means to revive the slightly moth-eaten Seamless Garment rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s. This is no doubt red meat for Francis’s progressive base, which has clearly chafed at the political exigencies imposed by John Paul and Benedict’s stance on the centrality of abortion as a moral issue, and Catholics who hold to John Paul and Benedict’s understanding of the problem can expect to have Francis’s words thrown in their faces.

At this point, we must recognize that it is not as though Francis is unaware of the toxic discourse, especially online, surrounding his pontificate. He condemns “networks of verbal violence.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 115.) But he goes on to say “[i]t is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.” (Ibid.) Once again, it is hard to see this pointed critique aimed at the toxic progressives who use the Pope’s words as a cudgel to beat mercilessly anyone who expresses any reservations about the Pope’s agenda. One does not suspect for a moment that Francis includes his close collaborators at Civiltà Cattolica or America or The Tablet or any of the other favored outlets when he talks about “networks of verbal violence.” But these collaborators are themselves part of the unhealthy ecosystem that Francis decries. Indeed, when reading Fr. Spadaro’s gratuitous invective at Cardinal Sarah, one is reminded of nothing more than not only paragraph 115 but also paragraph 94. Yet one does not see Francis turning on Fr. Spadaro—or those like him—with the same incisive wit and blunt advice that he applies to traditionally minded Catholics. It is clear, therefore, that Francis intends to respond to his critics (and only his critics) when he discourses on this handful of topics—and to respond sharply.

Of course, one might, in response, point to Francis’s own statement that, “[f]ar from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humour.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 122.) “Ill humour,” Francis tells us, “is no sign of holiness.” (Ibid. ¶ 126.) But such rhetorical cleverness is unlikely to have an effect on either Francis or the discourse about Francis’s pontificate, which has fallen into a largely fixed—certainly predetermined—narrative. Francis is the good, liberal pope who will restore the Church to the course that it was on in August of 1978. He is resisted by a handful of squeaky-wheel traditionalists who are, depending on who you ask, too fond of fancy vestments and Latin, too worried about rules, too opposed to the Spirit of the Council, or all of the above. The Pope’s progressive defenders take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on those they identify as squeaky-wheel traditionalists and the Pope’s conservative critics take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on the Pope’s progressive defenders. The Twitter beeves practically write themselves at this point.

This state of affairs is depressing not least because Francis warns us, “Complacency is seductive; it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive. By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We “let things be”, or as others have decided they ought to be.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 137.) Yet the Pope who says this seems to be uninterested in shaking up the narrative of his pontificate. The Pope who preaches a God of surprises and the newness that Jesus Christ brings to the world seems to be stuck in a narrative that is beyond his control.

Edit 4/10/18: We added a hyperlink to Sandro Magister’s coverage of Antonio Spadaro’s presentation of Gaudete et exsultate to clarify the nature of his apparent allegation that Francis responds to Cardinal Sarah in the exhortation.

 

Five Years

On March 13, 2013, Francis walked out and greeted the people in St. Peter’s Square. Five years later, in many ways, it feels like that was the high point of his pontificate. Of course, that is far from true. One could identify other highlights of Francis’s reign, such as the release of Laudato si’ or the diplomatic work he did between the United States and Cuba. One could point to the Jubilee of Mercy or the improved relations with the Society of St. Pius X, too. Any pontificate is going to have its share of high points and its share of low points. And Francis’s reign has had its share of low points, to be sure. The ongoing doctrinal debate over Amoris laetitia, the high-visibility conflicts Francis has had with high prelates in the Church, and the serious struggles Francis has had enforcing accountability on the Church are not good by any stretch of the imagination.

One can also talk about the promise of reform of the Roman Curia, which was a major reason behind Francis’s election five years ago. There was a sense—largely correct—that a pope was needed who could take the Curial bull by the horns and introduce some much needed reforms. Five years in, we have implemented and suppressed financial reforms, we have created commissions and dicasteries, we have consolidated other dicasteries, and we have reconstituted various commissions along lines more congenial to Francis. However, there is broadly a sense that this has not amounted to much. There are worrying rumors that the sticky-fingered old regime has managed to return to power. By the same token, there are also statements that those rumors are simply chatter from the Pope’s enemies. Whether that’s true or not, it cannot be denied that there has not been a replacement for Pastor bonus and that the reforms have proceeded in an unusual manner. One has only to discuss the botched PricewaterhouseCoopers audit that was suppressed by command of the Secretariat of State to open up the whole question.

It is exactly the combination of highs and lows we just mentioned that makes it difficult to talk about Francis’s pontificate in any coherent manner. This is most acutely true in the doctrinal arena. We have been thrilled to see Francis bring anti-liberalism—albeit qualified anti-liberalism—back into the Church’s vocabulary. For too long, the narrative practically wrote itself. Once upon a time, the Church was staunchly anti-liberal, then, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church changed its mind and decided that liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. John Paul II—particularly his best known social encyclical, Centesimus annus, along with his commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue—was, in this telling, simply putting the finishing touches on the new liberal face of Catholicism. Sure, there were those who rejected the direction of the Church, such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, but they were bad and wrong and probably schismatic.

For a long time, one corrected this narrative as best as one could. For example, John Paul’s notion of liberalism was not shared by some of his loudest American supporters. Even in Centesimus annus—and before that in Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laborem exercens—John Paul expressed reservations about the unbridled market ideology that crept into liberalism somewhere along the line. Moreover, one could argue for what is now called the hermeneutic of continuity. But forensically this was a dead-end street. Francis’s great social encyclical, Laudato si’, came long and changed the game. (Perhaps to avoid mixing our metaphors we should say that it knocked a hole in the wall at the end of the street.) With precision, clarity, and insight, Francis diagnosed the spiritual and anthropological sickness at the heart of modern liberalism and condemned the effects of the disease. Laudato si’ does not quite blot the post-Conciliar narrative, of course, but it at least returns a deeply anti-liberal strain to the Church’s teaching.

Unfortunately, Laudato si’ has not been received by the liberal elements in the Church—left-liberals and right-liberals alike—who most need Francis’s incisive critique of modern liberalism. It proved all too easy for everyone to focus on the ecological stuff, both in admiration and derision, and ignore the real genius of the encyclical. We could cite all manner of snide comments about air conditioning and carbon credits from right-liberals who are, in their own way, bound to the vision of the Church articulated by John Courtney Murray and allegedly implemented by the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, we could find adulatory reviews of Laudato si’ that make it sound like an annex to the Paris Climate Accord. Both groups miss the point, and their missing the point has made it difficult to have the discussion that Laudato si’ demands. Furthermore, Francis’s priorities quickly shifted from expanding upon Laudato si’ and deepening his analysis there to the Family Synod and Amoris laetitia.

The debate over Amoris laetitia rages still, and in many ways has become the central issue in Francis’s pontificate, for good or for ill. The debate has been covered here and elsewhere at staggering length. The consequences of the debate, however, are clear. There is a sense not only that the doctrine on communion for bigamists has been changed or unsettled in a meaningful way but also that Francis is somehow in favor of doctrinal changes, not only on the questions addressed in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia but also on other questions. Here we have in mind the debate currently simmering over Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. More broadly, there is a resurgence of the post-conciliar sense that the doctrine of the Church is somehow up for grabs in a meaningful way.

Indeed, one could say that the most important development of the first five years of Francis’s pontificate is the resurgence of a post-conciliar sensibility in general. That is, the idea that the Second Vatican Council is the most important event in the Church since Pentecost—and, in some ways, the most important event—had diminished significantly under Benedict. That trend has reversed under Francis. Now, here, as everywhere else, one ought to distinguish between Francis and his partisans, especially his partisans in the media. However, it is clear that Francis at least believes that he must emphasize the importance of the Council and the reforms allegedly ordered by the Council. (Recall Magnum principium?) The Spirit of Vatican Two, so doughtily fought by John Paul and Benedict, is, as a consequence, back. We see this, for example, with various liberal prelates, particularly some of Francis’s high-profile appointments in the United States, whose names we need not mention now.

Francis’s appointments, by the way, are part and parcel of the controversy over Amoris laetitia; an important aspect of Amoris laetitia has been a sort of decentralization of teaching authority. The recent approval by Francis of the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops shows that this decentralization is in one sense entirely intended by Francis. For whatever reason, Francis did not want to spell out the consequences of some statements in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia. Some of his old colleagues in Argentina did, however, and Francis was willing to approve their guidelines as an authentic, magisterial interpretation of his own words. What this means in specific terms is yet unclear. However, in general, the meaning cannot be mistaken: Francis is happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops, and he has been happy to appoint bishops to high-profile sees who are very much on board with his agenda. Gone are the days when John Paul and Benedict appointed even theological or ideological opponents to high-profile sees. By the same token, however, the faithful are happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops in line with their agenda. Rightly or wrongly, Francis’s authority has been compromised in the minds of many Catholics disturbed by Amoris laetitia. They have turned to other figures, particularly other high prelates in the Church, for guidance and clarification. We could name some and so could you.

There are several ways to look at this development. On one hand, nowhere does one find in Pastor aeternus, Lumen gentium, or Christus Dominus a statement that the pope is the only teacher in the Church. The bishops of the Church—in communion with the pope—have a teaching office to exercise. There is nothing wrong with Francis encouraging bishops to teach and there is nothing wrong with the faithful looking to bishops to be taught. However, the pope, as we know from Pastor aeternus and other teachings, is supposed to ensure the unity of the Church’s teaching and its consistency with tradition; that is, it is probably not the pope’s job to spark a debate but to restrain a debate. Likewise, it is a very serious situation if various bishops throughout the world are seen as more reliably orthodox than the pope. This is not to say such a serious situation could not happen; we know it has happened. Yet it is difficult to respond to the position that holds that Amoris laetitia is at odds with the tradition. Francis manifestly wants a decentralized approach to doctrine, and that necessarily means disagreement, some of it likely sharp.

It is, as we say, difficult to approach Francis’s pontificate consistently and coherently. To tell the story of Laudato si’, especially from the viewpoint of the Church’s traditional teachings against liberalism, is to tell the story of a wildly successful pontificate. A pontificate, indeed, that has reinvigorated the Church’s traditional hostility toward liberalism in many ways. But to tell the story of Amoris laetitia is to tell the story of a pontificate bogged down by confusion and controversy. Lately the controversies have been mounting, too. Francis’s handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Chile has ballooned into a broader controversy about Francis’s commitment to reforming what Benedict XVI memorably called the “filth” in the Church. Francis’s personal credibility took a major hit in the Barros affair when it turned out that, despite his annoyed protestations that he’d never seen any evidence against Barros, none other than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one of Francis’s closest advisers who holds a brief for cleaning up the abuse situation, had delivered to Francis a lengthy, extremely detailed letter from one of Barros’s accusers.

While one can debate Francis’s record on abuse—even Robert Mickens criticized Francis severely—one cannot question the fact that the Barros controversy revealed the weakness of Francis’s team. There have been other signs that Francis is not always well served by his subordinates, but the inability of the public relations operation to get in front of the furor, especially after the O’Malley angle became public, was astonishing. The Vatican’s public relations operation is more and more revealed to be a disaster, as the recent debacle over the doctored letter from Benedict XVI shows. However, Francis has made it clear that he is not the prisoner of the Vatican, instead claiming personal responsibility for acts by his collaborators in the Curia. As Damian Thompson has noted, after five years, Francis finds himself where Benedict found himself: struggling to maintain control over the bureaucracy and the message of his pontificate.

It remains to be seen, however, what long term effects these events will have. One cannot write the story of Francis’s pontificate quite yet. However, five years in, it would be curious indeed to see the highs and lows resolve themselves into the same paralysis that afflicted Benedict’s pontificate in its last years. Perhaps “curious” isn’t the right word, as such an outcome would answer many questions and give the next pope the clearest agenda in a long time.

A Conciliar postscript

To some comments we have made over the past few weeks, we offer this postscript—offer without comment—taken from Gravissimam educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, confident that you will find it edifying:

Omnibus christianis, quippe qui, per regenerationem ex aqua et Spiritu Sancto nova creatura effecti, filii Dei nominentur et sint, ius est ad educationem christianam. Quae quidem non solum maturitatem humanae personae modo descriptam prosequitur, sed eo principaliter spectat ut baptizati dum in cognitionem mysterii salutis gradatim introducuntur, accepti fidei doni in dies magis conscii fiant; Deum Patrem in spiritu et veritate adorare (cf. Io 4,23) praeprimis in actione liturgica addiscant, ad propriam vitam secundum novum hominem in iustitia et sanctitate veritatis (Eph 4,22-24) gerendam conformentur; ita quidem occurrant in virum perfectum, in aetatem plenitudinis Christi (cf. Eph 4,13) et augmento corporis mystici operam praestent. Iidem insuper suae vocationis conscii tum spei quae in eis est (cf. 1 Pt 3,15), testimonium exhibere tum christianam mundi conformationem adiuvare consuescant, qua naturales valores in completa hominis a Christo redempti consideratione assumpti, ad totius societatis bonum conferant. Quare haec S. Synodus animarum Pastoribus gravissimum recolit officium omnia disponendi ut hac educatione christiana omnes fideles fruantur, praeprimis iuvenes qui spes sunt Ecclesiae.

Parentes, cum vitam filiis contulerint, prolem educandi gravissima obligatione tenentur et ideo primi et praecipui eorum educatores agnoscendi sunt. Quod munus educationis tanti ponderis est ut, ubi desit, aegre suppleri possit. Parentum enim est talem familiae ambitum amore, pietate erga Deum et homines animatum creare qui integrae filiorum educationi personali et sociali faveat. Familia proinde est prima schola virtutum socialium quibus indigent omnes societates. Maxime vero in christiana familia, matrimonii sacramenti gratia et officio ditata, filii iam a prima aetate secundum fidem in baptismo receptam Deum percipere et colere atque proximum diligere doceantur oportet; ibidem primam inveniunt experientiam et sanae societatis humanae et Ecclesiae; per familiam denique in civilem hominum consortionem et in populum Dei sensim introducuntur. Persentiant igitur parentes quanti momenti sit familia vere christiana pro vita et progressu ipsius populi Dei.

Educationis impertiendae munus primario familiae competens totius societatis auxiliis indiget. Praeter igitur iura parentum ceterorumque quibus ipsi partem in munere educationis concredunt, certa quidem officia et iura competunt societati civili, quatenus eius est ea ordinare quae ad bonum commune temporale requiruntur. Ad eius munera pertinet educationem iuventutis pluribus modis provehere: parentum scilicet aliorumque qui in educatione partes habent officia et iura tueri eisque adiumenta praebere; iuxta subsidiarii officii principium, deficientibus parentum aliarumque societatum incoeptis, educationis opus, attentis quidem parentum votis, perficere; insuper, quatenus bonum commune postulat, scholas et instituta propria condere.

 

Before a parting of the ways

At Mere Orthodoxy last week, Jake Meador wrote a piece about “The Parting of Ways Among Younger Christians.” Despite being a protestant, Meador has followed Catholics’ discussions of integralism and liberalism fairly closely and is, unlike some other protestants, a fairly sympathetic observer. Meador is commenting upon a note by Alan Jacobs about the recent blowup over the Mortara case—particularly Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things essay defending Bl. Pius IX. Meador’s piece is well worth reading—Jacobs’s is not: it’s another entry in the genre of essays wondering how First Things could be so unecumenical as to publish a Catholic priest defending Catholic doctrine—not least because Meador sees this as the end (or nearly the end) of the ecumenical project of Catholics and some protestants working together. That is, as Catholics and various kinds of protestants explore their own traditions, there will be fewer and fewer ecumenical projects. Meador is not (at least he does not seem) brokenhearted by this. However, others may be.

We won’t waste your time by quoting from Jacobs’s piece at length. However, he is clearly hysterical at the prospect of a First Things in the hands of Roman Catholics who believe what the Church of Rome teaches. His overheated reaction is very understandable. For a long time, First Things represented one of the places where Catholics and some protestants met on grounds of broad agreement to defend a vision of liberalism against the encroachments of another vision of liberalism. What Jacobs does not understand—and what Meador understands very well—is that young Catholics, including young Catholics who write for First Things, have begun the laborious process of recovering the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. What this means is that some writers are less committed to any vision of liberalism, which has serious implications for the project altogether. However, other regular contributors, like George Weigel, remain as committed as ever, as near as we can tell, to the old First Things vision. Meador understands that, as the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is recovered, as it must be, the ecumenism made possible by the Church’s engagement with liberalism at the Second Vatican Council and its reception, especially by American conservatives under the guidance of St. John Paul II, becomes less possible.

Meador is not wrong to call this a parting of the ways. But before this parting of the ways, it is necessary, we think, to consider where we are and what the possible paths forward are. In short, Catholics are grappling with liberalism, the disastrous effects of which are on display in almost every walk of life, and the debate over liberalism is directly effecting the ability of Catholics to participate in ecumenical projects. There are two modes of engaging with liberalism in the Church today. One, inspired broadly by the Second Vatican Council, seeks to preserve the liberalism of the years immediately following the Second World War. This group has historically found much in common with protestants and those of non-Christian faiths, and it has historically sought to form broad coalitions aimed at preserving the “good liberalism” of the 1950s and 1960s. The other, inspired broadly by the Church’s preconciliar teaching, seeks to look beyond liberalism. Therefore, these Catholics tend to be more suspicious of ecumenical projects, especially, as Meador notes, the indifferentist aspects of ecumenical projects. Moreover, they are not nearly so interested in reestablishing the liberal consensus of the 1950s and 1960s. The fundamental tension between the two groups, we think, comes from the ongoing debate within the Church about the Second Vatican Council.

I.

 

Fifty-two years and counting after the close of the Council, Catholics can question whether the Church’s engagement with liberalism worked. The enthusiastic opening to the postwar order contained, more or less, in Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, and Nostra aetate, among other documents, did not deepen the dialogue between the Church and the world. It resulted in liberalism receiving dogmatic status in the Church. Perhaps this would not have been the worst thing, if liberalism had remained what it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Certainly we see in sources as disparate as Ross Douthat and the Paris Statement, signed by such luminaries as Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, Roger Scruton, and Robert Spaemann, a desire to return to that initial postwar liberalism. In other words, for these thinkers, there was a moment before—let us call it the Moment Before—liberalism went wrong. If the slide can be arrested and the order reset to that moment, then the faults of liberalism will disappear. It follows, we think, that under such a notion, the Church’s engagement with liberalism is only contingently imprudent.

As we say, the Council and the major documents of the Council are at the very center of this discussion. Here, the Villanova Church historian and social-media genius Massimo Faggioli’s Twitter feed is essential reading. He argues, we think, that various Council documents, especially Dignitatis humanae, are clearly corrections of the Church’s prior illiberal teachings. In his view, the Council plainly brought the Church in line with postwar liberal democracy. To insist upon a more traditionalist reading of the Council documents, a reading that begins but does not end with Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity, in Faggioli’s mind, is to challenge the Church’s commitment to liberal democracy. Indeed, to insist that Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus remain valid teachings, along with Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei, Libertas, and Diuturnum, and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, is to come very near to what Faggioli somewhat breathlessly calls “Catholic fascism.” (That Pius XI also issued Non abbiamo bisogno and Mit brennender Sorge does not seem to figure much in Faggioli’s calculations.) In other words, the more political pronouncements of the Council and liberalism are inextricably linked, pull at one thread and the whole seamless garment, if you’ll excuse the joke, comes apart.

Now, there are problems with the anti-liberal argument that has Faggioli so panicked, which both traditionalists and alarmed liberals need to consider carefully. Notably, they need to consider what Leo XIII’s ralliement policy, as outlined in Au milieu des sollicitudes, means for the Church’s anti-liberal posture in the 19th and early 20th century. Obviously, the ralliement policy came off the rails during St. Pius X’s pontificate, as Vehementer nos shows. But it is not enough to say that practically Leo’s initiative failed. The implications for ralliement in the context of Leo’s anti-liberal thought ought to be considered carefully. The pope of Immortale Dei is the pope of Au milieu des sollicitudes, and the nature of the French Third Republic was well known to Leo. Yet Leo urged Catholics to support the Third Republic. Whether ralliement is enough to complicate the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine significantly is an open question. We have our doubts, but we are also not hugely interested in avoiding the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine.

At any rate, a great debate could be had about Faggioli’s point, though Bishop Bernard Fellay of the SSPX is no doubt pleased to hear a prominent progressive theologian concede Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s point. Nevertheless, this is another reason why the furor over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things article about the Mortara case reached such a fever pitch. Cessario’s argument is clearly drawn from the tradition of the Church and—despite Nathaniel Peters’s valiant effort to mention only about half of the essential Thomistic sources—is essentially unanswerable. As such, it serves as a sort of confirmation of liberals’ deep fear that the openness to liberalism that Catholics have shown is not much older than 1965 and is not broadly supported in the tradition of the Church. In other words, there is a sense that if the Catholics start poking around too much in their tradition, if they start looking behind the copy of the documents of Vatican II on their bookshelves, they will find teachings incompatible with liberalism. Indeed, they will find that the Church, within living memory, was squarely opposed to liberalism. It will be impossible to articulate a Catholic vision of the search for the Moment Before when Catholics figure out that the Church taught, until fairly recently, that there was no Moment Before.

A couple of observations. First, the idea of the Moment Before has profited Catholics almost nothing. Despite fifty years of explanations of how Catholicism and the Bill of Rights in the federal Constitution are entirely reconcilable, every major social decision has gone against the Church. From Roe to Obergefell, the engagement of Catholics with the liberal American order has resulted in defeat after defeat. The American bishops have, in the face of increasingly draconian “anti-discrimination” laws, mounted a last stand on “religious liberty,” but it is unclear whether this battle will result in some breathing room for the Church. The idea of a Moment Before seems to involve resetting the clock, so to speak, to right before Catholics started losing all these important political and legal contests. However, it is only infrequently mentioned that these political and legal contests were fought and lost during a period when the Church was enthusiastically engaged in the liberal American order. In other words, the Church, inspired by the approach mapped out at the Second Vatican Council, was actively participating in and, more important, supporting American political life—and it still lost the debates. To put it another way, the idea of a Moment Before involves returning to the conditions that produced the current state of affairs.

Second, the tension between Catholic liberals searching for a liberalism that is truly liberalism and Catholic integralists delving into the Church’s anti-liberal tradition is inevitable. We have seen that everyone agrees, more or less, that liberalism and the Council are inextricably linked. Everyone also agrees that we are in the process of receiving, as they say, the teachings, such as they are, of the Council. The debates over the Council within the Church are going to inevitably implicate the posture of Catholics toward liberalism. Catholics seeking a deeper understanding of tradition, particularly on the social question, have begun to look back beyond the Council into the teachings of Pius XII, Pius XI, St. Pius X, and Leo XIII in particular. And in those teachings, as we say, they have found the Church’s anti-liberal doctrine. Things get extremely sticky from that point.

II.

Things get stickiest along the lines Meador and Jacobs identify. If Catholics start receiving the political thought of the Church, it will turn out that the broad consensus represented by Evangelicals & Catholics Together was illusory. Or, more precisely, it was based entirely on the Church’s posture at the Council and in the wake of the Council, which was not the Church’s historical posture. What do we mean? Well, before the Council, the Church was opposed to liberalism, root and branch. There was no Moment Before when there was a good liberalism. There might be pragmatic reasons to temper active opposition to liberal regimes, such as the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe. But in terms of liberalism simpliciter, the Church’s judgment was clear. The Council then did something—some might say it made a pragmatic judgment due to the mortal peril of Marxism-Leninism in Europe, some might say it corrected the earlier extremism of the popes—and opened itself up to liberalism. The agenda sketched out in Evangelicals & Catholics Together relies entirely on that openness insofar as the enthusiastic cooperation with the American order outlined in that document is enthusiastic cooperation with liberalism.

Other thinkers are challenging the idea of a Moment Before. Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, presents the idea—not a new one, necessarily—that the problems we see in the liberal order today are essentially baked into liberalism. Deneen’s book has brought out numerous responses, including an insightful review from Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule at American Affairs. Building on an essay in First Things some time ago, Vermeule argues essentially that integralist Catholics ought to consider populating elite institutions and, occupying positions of power, use their authority “to further human dignity and the common good, defined entirely in substantive rather than procedural-technical terms.” Where Douthat and others would say that Christians must engage with the liberal order to return to the Moment Before, Vermeule seems to argue that, first, there is no Moment Before to return to, and, second, integralist Catholics must engage with the liberal order to supersede it.

There are superficial similarities between the two approaches. Neither Douthat nor Vermeule retreats into gated communities or enclaves of Holy (Russian) Orthodoxy in the bayou, as Rod Dreher sometimes suggests and sometimes denies suggesting. Indeed, in both men’s visions, you will see intelligent Christians educated at elite schools entering the service of the regime. Some will go into government, some will go into the institutions the government serves, like finance, and others will go back into elite schools to prepare the next wave. In time, perhaps not a very long time, you will see the regime get better. But this is where Vermeule and Douthat’s visions diverge sharply. At a certain point, Douthat and the signatories to the Paris Statement and those who agree with them will recognize their Moment Before. Liberalism is itself again, they will say. Vermeule will say, simply, that we are well on our way to our goal.

To a certain extent, evangelicals like Meador, concerned by the rise of integralism among intelligent Catholics, should cheer Vermeule’s strategy. For the moment, it provides a way that integralists can remain part of the broader Christian conversation in the United States. Vermeule urges integralist Catholics to engage and populate liberal institutions and—and this bit is important—simply discharge their duties according to human dignity and the common good. There is, at least at the outset, little for Meador to be concerned about with respect to the intolerant integralist Catholics. The Catholic confessional state that he spends as much time as anyone worrying about would not emerge overnight. It might not emerge for a long time. Until that point, it would be exactly the sort of activity that the signatories of Evangelicals & Catholics Together would want to see. However, we would be surprised if Meador—or, for that matter, Alan Jacobs—would cheer Vermeule’s strategy all that enthusiastically.

What, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean?

In a recent talk at St. Edmund College, Cambridge, discussing paradigm shifts and hermeneutics implemented by Francis by means of Amoris laetitia, Blase Cardinal Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, stated:

The starting point for the role of conscience in the new hermeneutic is Gaudium et Spes 16 (2), which identifies conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man…(where) he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” When taken seriously, this definition demands a profound respect for the discernment of married couples and families. Their decisions of conscience represent God’s personal guidance for the particularities of their lives. In other words, the voice of conscience—the voice of God— or if I may be permitted to quote an Oxford man here at Cambridge, what Newman called “the aboriginal vicar of Christ”—could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal, while nevertheless calling a person “to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303).

(Emphasis supplied.) The entire talk is well worth reading, if only to see what a prelate widely seen as an influential American squarely aligned with Francis thinks about Amoris laetitia and its implementation. Other American prelates have disagreed, and it is unclear, especially considering recent votes by the USCCB, that Cupich’s views have wide currency among American bishops.

Nevertheless, this is plainly a major address and it has been promoted as such by members of the Pope’s party in the media. Were it not that Francis is currently embroiled in a very serious controversy regarding Bishop Barros of Osorno, Chile, and a letter allegedly presented to Francis by no less an authority than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one imagines that Cupich’s talk would receive much more coverage. But Cupich’s talk deserves some attention, not least for the passage quoted above, which implicates Bl. John Henry Newman in Cupich’s understanding of conscience. We shall see that Newman probably does not provide the support Cupich would like for his view of conscience.

First of all, we think it is fairly obvious that Cardinal Cupich intends to invoke Newman’s authority in support of his argument. Fr. John Hunwicke has identified a sort of clever usage here: Cardinal Cupich implies, but never asserts, that Cardinal Newman would have supported the proposition that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Now, taken word by word: Cupich never says that Newman said what Cupich says. He never says that Newman understood conscience as a sort of get-out-of-sin-free card or an exception to any ecclesiastical rule or point of doctrine. Nevertheless, Fr. Hunwicke is quite right: to drop the quotation of Newman in the middle of that sentence makes it appear as though Newman would have somehow agreed with Cupich’s understanding of conscience. To determine whether or not this is the case, we must explore Newman’s writings in some detail.

The phrase “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” comes from Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and it comes at the end of a long passage where Newman sets forth the Catholic understanding of conscience. The passage—though lengthy—is well worth considering in full:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding {247} the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.'”

This view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man. Of course, there are great and broad exceptions to this statement. It is not true of many or most religious bodies of men; especially not of their teachers and ministers. When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean, the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation. They speak of a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation. They consider it a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments. They consider it, as Catholics consider it, to be the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God. They think it holds of God, and not of man, as an Angel walking on the earth would be no citizen or dependent of the Civil Power. They would not allow, any more than we do, that it could be resolved into any combination of principles in our nature, more elementary than itself; nay, though it may be called, and is, a law of the mind, they would not grant that it was nothing more; I mean, that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise, with a vividness which discriminated it from all other constituents of our nature.

This, at least, is how I read the doctrine of Protestants as well as of Catholics. The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

(Emphasis supplied.) When Newman says that “conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” he means it literally. Conscience is an individual’s apprehension of the divine law, and, according to Newman, never suffers enough in the apprehension of the individual to lose its character. That is, conscience will always be the voice of God and must always be obeyed as such.

Taken in one way, Cardinal Cupich appears to assert that God can be set at odds with His Church. Of course, one cannot believe that a bishop and a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church would make such a startling assertion, even if it is popular with protestants and progressives. Nevertheless, taking Newman’s understanding of conscience, to which Cupich refers specifically, if somewhat ambiguously, in his remarks, it is hard to see what Cupich is driving at. One therefore wishes to ask, perhaps somewhat less polemically than Charles Kingsley, what, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean? Let’s see what we mean.

First, Cardinal Cupich recognizes that conscience is identical with the voice of God, as Newman says. Cupich asserts that the voice of God “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Taken in its literal sense, this is extraordinary: the voice of God could “affirm the necessity” of failing to follow the teachings of the Church. Of course, Cupich neglects to note that “when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.” It is the apprehension of this law that is conscience. This is perhaps the most serious ambiguity. If Cupich accepts the identity of conscience with the divine law, then he asserts here that the divine law, apprehended by man, can “affirm the necessity” of resisting the teachings of the Church.

Recall what Pius XII said in Mystici Corporis Christi:

Because Christ is so exalted, He alone by every right rules and governs the Church; and herein is yet another reason why He must be likened to a head. As the head is the “royal citadel” of the body—to use the words of Ambrose—and all the members over whom it is placed for their good are naturally guided by it as being endowed with superior powers, so the Divine Redeemer holds the helm of the universal Christian community and directs its course. And as to govern human society signifies to lead men to the end proposed by means that are expedient, just and helpful, it is easy to see how our Savior, model and ideal of good Shepherds, performs all these functions in a most striking way.

While still on earth, He instructed us by precept, counsel and warning in words that shall never pass away, and will be spirit and life to all men of all times. Moreover He conferred a triple power on His Apostles and their successors, to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness, making this power, defined by special ordinances, rights and obligations, the fundamental law of the whole Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Christ, the head of the Church, the sole ruler and governor of the Church, conferred upon the hierarchy, beginning with the Apostles and continuing down to the present day, “a triple power . . . to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness.” When the Church, in Cardinal Cupich’s words, proclaims its understanding of an ideal, it is exercising this triple power, granted by Christ.

Consequently, it appears that Cardinal Cupich comes awfully close to asserting—presuming an understanding of conscience consistent with Cardinal Newman’s—that the divine law, implanted in each man by God, can permit individuals to act contrary to the teaching of the Church, established and ruled by God, who has given to the hierarchy the powers of teaching and sanctifying. While we are confident that Cardinal Cupich did not mean to set God against His Church by means of conscience, we are afraid that some readers, unschooled in theological controversy, may mistake his meaning and see in his words such an implication. And we admit that, having brought Cardinal Newman’s understanding of conscience into his remarks, one could fairly assume that Cupich meant to adopt Newman’s understanding as his own. The conflict between God and His Church in Cupich’s remarks follows from this understanding; therefore, one wishes that Cardinal Cupich would clarify his meaning.

A clever interlocutor—and the supporters of Amoris laetitia have shown themselves to be extremely clever if nothing else—might object and say that we have ignored an important point in Newman’s discussion of conscience. He might say that Newman acknowledged the possibility of a conflict between conscience and purely ecclesiastical laws. He might say that we are being unjust to Cardinal Cupich, whose meaning can be derived in greater detail from Newman’s own analysis of the potential conflict between conscience and ecclesiastical law. Indeed, our clever interlocutor might say that Cupich’s meaning is entirely clear if one considers Newman’s argument. This may be true. Let us consider, therefore, what Newman says:

But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare. On the other hand, in the fact that, after all, in extraordinary cases, the conscience of each individual is free, we have a safeguard and security, were security necessary (which is a most gratuitous supposition), that no Pope ever will be able, as the objection supposes, to create a false conscience for his own ends.

(Emphasis supplied.) First of all, some context. Newman begins this argument by observing “that, conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.” It is not clear that when the Church proposes an ideal, in Cardinal Cupich’s terms, relating to the moral law, that there is the same possibility of collision. Still less is it clear that when the Church repeats what Our Lord said in the Gospel—as is the case with the question of divorce and remarriage—that there can be the possibility of collision.

Second of all, as we have noted before, Newman rejects an understanding of conscience as mere self-will. This is the “miserable counterfeit” of conscience Newman excludes from consideration in the context of a collision between conscience and ecclesiastical authority. In rejecting this understanding, Newman sets forth the important principle—a maxim, if you prefer—that “conscience has rights because it has duties”:

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, “the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” cannot excuse one from obedience to the pope. Why not? Because it is not conscience. Therefore, if, by conscience, one uses this popular understanding, one can never justify, no matter how skillfully the argument is laid out, disobedience to ecclesiastical authority, to say nothing of disobedience on a point of considerable importance, such as this one.

Additionally, in the note on liberalism to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, we learn that Newman—as a protestant—”denounced and abjured” the proposition that “There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.”

To return to the main question: assuming, without granting, that the moral and ethical teachings of the Church fall into the category of acts discussed by Newman, we see that Newman proposes an extremely rigorous process for a conscience to claim the right of resistance. “If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question.” Moreover, the burden of proof, the onus probandi, is always with conscience: that is, if one believes one’s conscience requires resistance, one has the duty either to make out a case against obedience or to obey. The commands of the Pope do not have a burden of proof; that is, it is enough that the Pope issues them. Additionally, Newman recognizes that there may be an initial inclination to disobedience, which must be addressed squarely and rigorously. “He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism.” The process of justifiable resistance, in Newman’s terms, is arduous. It is not enough to invoke immediately—without serious thought, prayer, and an exhaustive effort of arriving at a right judgment—conscience and thereby claim the right to resist the Pope’s teaching.

Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means. That is, perhaps he means that, for the divorced-and-remarried who wish to defy the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio and Benedict XVI in Sacramentum caritatis—that is, the teaching that they must live as brother and sister in order to be free to approach communion—upon the invocation of conscience, the process is long and difficult. The bigamists must engage in serious thought, prayer, and formation through “all available means” of a right judgment. They must “vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit” of their nature that rebels against commands from superiors. They must have no hint of self-will, and they must understand that the burden is on them and the presumption on the side of John Paul and Benedict and the teaching of the Church from the time of Christ Himself. Only when they are “able to say to ‘themselves,’ as in the Presence of God, that they must not, and dare not” follow the decrees of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Cardinal Cupich may be saying, may they invoke conscience as a basis to live more uxorio in a bigamous second marriage. Such a rigorous interpretation of Amoris laetitia would put Cardinal Cupich in an extreme camp. Few prelates, if this is indeed what Cardinal Cupich means, have expressed such a rigorous view.

We are left therefore where we were a few minutes ago. What does Cardinal Cupich mean when he says that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal”? Does he mean to say that conscience sets God at odds with His Church in individual cases? We cannot believe that a cardinal would make such a bold—and boldly un-Catholic—statement, but, if he means to ratify Newman’s understanding of conscience and not the “miserable counterfeit” resisted by Newman, his meaning is unclear to a great extent. On the other hand, does he mean to follow Newman in holding that conscience may resist a decree of the Pope if, after the most arduous process of purification, education, and proof, conscience determines it is necessary? Such a view would turn the pastoral emphasis of Amoris laetitia into an austere rule leading to careful theological argumentation. Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means to endorse. But if this is the case, we admit frankly being confused by the Pope’s friends’ endorsement of Cardinal Cupich’s talk. It is so far removed from their understanding of Amoris laetitia to be altogether more like the arguments of Cardinal Burke or Bishop Athanasius Schneider than those of Cardinal Schönborn or Rocco Buttiglione.