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A Catholic Debate over Liberalism

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A Catholic Debate over Liberalism

Is it a guarantor of religious liberty or an imperial ideology incompatible with the Church? Winter 2020
The Social Order
Politics and law

Last May, First Things published an article by Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born editor at the New York Post and recent Catholic convert, titled “Against David French-ism.” The article, prompted by a Facebook ad for a drag-queen reading hour for children at a public library in Sacramento, was a sweeping polemic against a style of conservative Christian politics personified, for Ahmari, by National Review writer David French.

Ahmari’s basic problem was that French is a liberal, in the small-l sense of the word. French believes, Ahmari writes, “that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.” For Ahmari, this is fatally naive. Liberals themselves do not act according to the ideal of public neutrality, since their ideology, premised on securing an individual’s autonomy to pursue whatever lifestyle he sees fit, requires them to drive Christianity and its “irrational” moral judgments from the public square. Rather than deceive themselves about the nature of the conflict that they find themselves in, Ahmari argues that Christians should go on the offensive, fighting “the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

The article set off a firestorm in conservative media. For many secular observers, it seemed that the Ahmari–French feud had exposed Republican disagreement over Donald Trump, which, of course, it had. But it also pointed to a deeper debate among conservative Catholics about how to understand liberalism: as an important guarantor of religious liberty, or as an imperial ideology essentially incompatible with religion, which genuine Catholics must be prepared to resist and, ultimately, to overcome.

For most of the past three decades, the leading strain of conservative American Catholicism has been what Andrew Sullivan and others somewhat polemically dubbed “theoconservatism,” sometimes referred to as “Catholic fusionism” or “Catholic neoconservatism.” Catholic fusionism—primarily associated with the magazine First Things and its founder and longtime editor, Richard John Neuhaus, and writers such as Michael Novak and George Weigel—sought to develop a model of a distinctly American conservative Catholicism, one that blended traditional Catholic teaching on social issues with free-market economics and a commitment to individual rights.

This was no small feat. For most of American history, Catholics had been seen as a foreign element within the United States. This was partly a result of Protestant prejudices and partly a reflection of how, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had anathematized the liberal ideas that formed the core of American political culture, including separation of church and state, freedom of the press, and laissez-faire economics. It was only after World War II that American Catholics began to shed their outsider status, as postwar suburbanization broke up the old Catholic urban enclaves, Catholic–Protestant intermarriage skyrocketed, and the Church became more accommodating toward the modern world. By 1960, Americans were even willing to elect a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as president.

If the mainstreaming of Catholicism paved the way for the fusionists, so, too, did the collapse of the Protestant mainline. As former First Things editor Joseph Bottum argued in An Anxious Age, the mainline, which had long served as America’s moral and religious establishment, had entered an irreversible decline by the mid-1970s. The middle-class liberals who had made up its social base were abandoning organized religion for post-1960s liberalism. By the late 1980s, the old Protestant establishment was melting into, or simply being replaced by, today’s secular progressive establishment.

Two of the most influential Catholic fusionists, Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, were disillusioned 1960s radicals. Neuhaus, in particular, felt that the cultural radicalism of the new secular establishment was based on a contempt for ordinary Americans, who found meaning and purpose in the very structures—religion and the traditional family—that elites wanted to tear down. For Neuhaus, there was a bright side: he believed that America remained a Christian country. It would be possible for a populist movement, based on an ecumenical coalition of conservative religious believers, not only to win elections but also to reverse the losses of the 1960s and restore religion to its central place in American culture. Even before his own conversion in 1990, Neuhaus concluded that the only entity capable of leading the revolt against secular progressivism—of providing it with sufficient numbers and intellectual weight—was the Catholic Church.

Yet if Catholicism was going to lead an American religious revival, it would need to become more American. And it did. By the mid-1980s, writers like Novak were laying out the core of what would ultimately become Catholic fusionism, arguing that free-market capitalism was consonant with Catholic social teaching and that the U.S. Constitution’s liberal principles were the logical extension of Catholic ideas about human dignity. In fact, many fusionists went further, arguing that because the formerly Protestant establishment had abandoned Christianity in favor of secularism and moral relativism, they, the Catholics, were the Founders’ proper intellectual heirs.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the fusionists gained great influence within American conservatism; Neuhaus himself became a close confidant of President George W. Bush. But if they succeeded in gaining the ear of a president, they could not beat back the secularist tide. They lost their direct influence after the 2008 election, and Neuhaus died in 2009. Then, during the Obama years, liberal victories in the culture war began to pile up. Roe v. Wade remained in force. Public opposition to gay marriage crumbled, and in 2015, the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. Less than a year later, Obama’s Department of Education ordered public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. Suddenly, orthodox Christians who believed in the created nature of men and women found themselves cast as bigots on the wrong side of civil rights law.

There were other failures. The theoconservatives, mining the Catholic tradition of just-war theory, had supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a case that got harder to make as the conflict bogged down. The Catholic justification of free markets, meantime, became less convincing after the financial crisis of 2007–08. Though the Church, even after Vatican II, had never been entirely sanguine about economic or political liberalism, fusionism was premised on the idea that making Catholicism more American could make America more Catholic—or at least more religious and therefore more amenable to Catholic views. But if that didn’t work, then what?

“The current revival of integralism is largely the work of a small group of young Catholics behind the website The Josias.”

For a growing number of conservative Catholic intellectuals, the answer is to rethink the truce with liberalism. In early 2017, Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen published Why Liberalism Failed, a polemic against philosophical liberalism that became a surprise bestseller and even made it onto Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The essence of Deneen’s argument was that a host of contemporary social pathologies, ranging from economic inequality to loneliness and environmental destruction, are not accidental; they flow logically from liberalism’s premise that humans are (and should be) autonomous, self-creating individuals. Deneen ended his book by advocating for a form of communitarian localism that would preserve the advantages of liberalism while recovering some of the pre-liberal virtues that can fully exist only within a thick social context.

Some conservative Catholics are pushing the rejection of liberalism even further. On Twitter and, increasingly, in the Christian blogosphere, a group of thinkers calling themselves “integralists” are making arguments that would, at first glance, seem like deliberate provocations: that liberalism and Catholicism are incompatible, for instance, or that Catholic doctrine has never accepted the separation of church and state. Nor are these all marginal voices: Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule, a recent Catholic convert and a leading scholar of U.S. administrative law, has argued for open immigration for baptized Catholics (to overwhelm Protestants demographically) and for Catholics to infiltrate the administrative state, the better to integrate the American regime “from within.” Vermeule’s view amounts to a total repudiation of the existing American regime—a truly radical position.

The term “integralism” has its origins in nineteenth-century Catholic debates, when it was used to describe conservatives defending the Church’s traditional teachings against liberals and modernists, who argued that Rome needed to adapt itself to the post-Enlightenment world. Yet the integralists fell out of favor after Vatican II, and since the 1960s, the phrase has mostly been used as a term of abuse for ultra-traditionalist Catholics still suspicious of the Church’s opening to modernity.

The current revival of integralism is largely the work of a small group of young Catholics behind the website The Josias. A 2014 post on The Josias offers a three-sentence definition of their doctrine: “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.” In integralist circles, this is sometimes referred to as “Gelasian dyarchy,” after the fifth-century pope Saint Gelasius, who explained the doctrine of the two powers (the “dyarchy”) in a letter to the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I. The goal is not quite theocracy, in the sense of direct rule by priests; rather, it’s that the state recognize the Catholic Church as the sole legitimate spiritual authority and act as the Church’s arm in matters pertaining to religion.

The author of “Integralism in Three Sentences” is a man who, according to the integralists I spoke with, has done more than anyone to revive both the term and the philosophy: Pater Edmund Waldstein, a 35-year-old Cistercian monk who lives in Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a twelfth-century monastery a few miles south of Vienna. The son of two theologians, one American and one Austrian, Pater Edmund was raised in an intellectual Catholic household and educated at California’s Thomas Aquinas College. By any conventional standard, his views are extreme: in addition to rejecting the separation of church and state, he is a monarchist who argues that the Church has the right to punish baptized heretics (Protestants), including by burning them at the stake. Yet he’s gracious and warm in conversation and displays an impressive erudition.

“Liberalism tends to think that human beings flourish best when there’s no corporate direction toward a specific vision of the good life,” Pater Edmund told me. “The integralist view is that human happiness involves achieving common goods. So we need a common understanding of what the good is, and it’s possible to reach such an understanding because there really is an objective good for human beings.” And that objective good, for the integralists, is revealed in the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church.

Traditional Catholic political thinking was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy—particularly Aristotle, as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas. According to this tradition, the good of society takes precedence over the rights of any of its constituent members, who, in any case, can succeed as individuals only within the context of a virtuous society. The supreme task of government is not to protect individual rights but to use the tools at its disposal—law and education—to orient the political community toward the common good, which can be rationally understood as what promotes human flourishing according to human nature. Catholicism modified this basic framework by claiming that, since man’s natural reason was damaged by the Fall, he is unable to perceive his true good without the aid of divine grace, as accessed through the Church. To promote the common good, then, the state needs to recognize the truth of Catholicism.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see why the Church initially perceived liberalism as a horror. In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Quanta Cura with an annex, the Syllabus of Errors, officially condemning liberalism, rationalism, socialism, freedom of conscience, and the separation of church and state as contrary to Catholic doctrine. Later popes largely confirmed his stance. Pope Leo XIII, in the 1895 encyclical Immortale Dei, taught that “the State” was “clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion.” Ten years later, his successor Pius X wrote in Vehementer Nos: “That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false.”

The turning point for the Church’s relationship with liberalism came in the mid-twentieth century. In the years leading up to World War II, many traditionalist Catholics, particularly in France and Spain, had embraced authoritarian governments, which discredited their positions after the war. The Church also became more sympathetic to democracy, as a result of the awful experience of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism. Pope Pius XII, for example, gave an allocution in Rome in 1944 expressing sympathy for the idea of “Christian democracy.” And the Church was firmly antitotalitarian, even if it remained suspicious of more radically democratic and relativistic currents. Postwar, for the first time, Catholic voices arguing for liberal democracy and human rights, such as the French theologian Jacques Maritain and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, found an audience. The liberalizing trend in the Church culminated in Vatican II, which lasted from 1962 to 1965. The council’s goal was, as Ross Douthat writes in To Change the Church, “to reorient Catholicism away from its nineteenth-century fortress mentality, to open a new dialogue with other faiths and churches, and to prepare the church for an era of evangelization and renewal.”

Yet it’s difficult to reorient a church that officially claims to be teaching unchanging truths, and the documents issued by the council were at times ambiguous. On the one hand, Vatican II saw the Church embrace religious freedom, denounce anti-Semitism, and adopt modernizing reforms such as vernacular mass. On the other hand, the Church reaffirmed its traditional positions on topics like divorce and contraception and insisted that none of its reforms in other areas contradicted previous authoritative teaching. More generally, the documents issued by the council, designed to reach consensus among rival church camps, often permitted multiple readings, with the Church hierarchy generally declining to establish one position as authoritative for fear of provoking a schism. As a result, liberals and traditionalists could both interpret the council as a vindication of their views.

Today’s integralists argue that when read carefully, none of the documents issued at Vatican II implies a rejection of the Church’s previous hostility to liberalism. At most, they represent a pragmatic response to the political conditions of the mid-twentieth century—a time when the Church had, as a matter of fact, lost its direct influence over the state. Integralists put special weight on their reading of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which states that “the human person has a right to religious freedom” and that “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power.” Integralists such as the British philosopher Thomas Pink stress that the document prohibits coercion only by “any human power,” while leaving untouched “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion.” Because the Church is not a “human power” but a supernatural one, it is permitted to use coercion. And Catholic doctrine on the duty of societies toward Catholicism, as formulated by Pius IX, Leo XIII, and others, is that they must recognize it as the one true religion.

The mainstream interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae, of course, is that it renounces coercion, full stop. Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova church historian and vocal critic of the integralists, told me that their reading of the document is a “theological aberration” and “the equivalent of saying the Earth is flat.” “Honestly,” he added, “I suspect it’s very entertaining for them, but it’s irresponsible. It creates an environment of cognitive dissonance where you know exactly how your country is governed but you keep dreaming of this return to a postmodern version of the Middle Ages.”

Integralists dismiss these criticisms as mere “official theology,” which may come from well-credentialed theologians but falls short of being Church doctrine. They see liberal readings of Dignitatis Humanae as the Church’s version of an academic fad, irreconcilable with centuries of Catholic doctrine on the relation of church and state. “The idea that it’s good for the state to be religiously neutral,” Pater Edmund said, “is something that’s repeatedly and emphatically rejected by the Church. And the popes, especially after the French Revolution, teach that this involves a denial of an essential duty of human beings—namely, that we recognize the truth of the revealed religion not only as individuals but also corporately, as societies. And I think that is not something that is subject to change.”

Whoever has the better of the theological arguments, integralism appears to be gaining steam, at least in the United States. High-profile integralists include not only Vermeule (who declined to be interviewed) but Gladden Pappin, a political theorist at the University of Dallas and editor of the influential journal American Affairs. When Pater Edmund went on a U.S. lecture tour earlier in 2019, his three stops were his alma mater (Thomas Aquinas College), Harvard, and the University of Dallas.

“Postwar, Catholic voices arguing for liberal democracy and human rights found an audience.”

Integralist arguments are also spilling out into broader Christian intellectual life. The Public Discourse, published by the conservative Christian Witherspoon Institute, has run several discussions on whether integralism accords with Catholic doctrine, as has Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit close to Pope Francis, denounced integralism in La Civiltà Cattolica. But even the explicit criticisms are, in a way, a testament to integralism’s growing influence. Patrick Smith, a young integralist lawyer who blogs at Semiduplex, told me that “integralism is no longer getting laughed out of the room. Back when The Josias started, we’d immediately hear sharp dismissals that this is all antiquated traditionalist nonsense. Now we see more and more energy devoted to addressing our positions.”

Yet there are limits, for now, to how mainstream integralism can become. For about a year, in 2017–18, First Things sustained a flirtation with integralist ideas. It published a book review by Pater Edmund and several essays by Vermeule and Smith. In October 2017, First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz called for a “humane integralism” to “supplant integral humanism.” Then, in January 2018, the magazine published an essay by theologian Romanus Cessario, a defense of the Church’s decision, in 1858, to kidnap Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy living in the Papal States who had been secretly baptized by his family’s Catholic maid. Cessario defended Pius IX’s conclusion that the boy’s baptism, though conducted without his parents’ consent, had transformed him irrevocably into a Christian. The Church was thus obligated to ensure that he received a Christian education by removing him from his Jewish household.

The essay proved controversial, to put it mildly. First Things editor R. R. Reno partly walked it back, defending his decision to publish it but calling the Mortara affair a “stain on the church.” His semi-apology, in turn, angered the integralists. Smith, who dismissed the backlash as “comfortable bourgeois moralism” on his blog, published his last article for First Things in March 2018; Vermeule’s last byline was in November 2017. First Things has since embraced a sort of religiously inflected nationalism, and Schmitz has become a vocal critic of the integralists. Reno told me that he now considers the Mortara essay a “grotesque miscalculation.” Yet part of him was still clearly drawn to Cessario’s argument. “The Mortara essay, in my mind, was purely a provocation to Catholics—as in, the logic of this is pretty powerful. Dignitatis Humanae, liberalism, and Catholicism go together perfectly. Now what do you have to say about this?”

The Mortara essay was explosive for several reasons, one of which was that it revived ugly memories of Catholic persecution of the Jews. Another was that for Christians who had noticed the rise of integralist discourse online, it provided a concrete example of what vague calls for a “confessional state” might look like if put into practice. Yet, as Reno suggested, it is also the case that the essay demonstrated, in stark and uncomfortable terms, precisely what the integralists are trying to argue: that if one takes the claims of faith seriously, if one believes that they are objectively true, there may be times when that faith is irreconcilable with the values of a secular liberal society.

Modern integralist Adrian Vermeule has cited Pope Leo XIII’s warnings against American-style separation of church and state. (KEITH HENRY BROWN)

The question remains as to what any of this means for politics. The integralists represent a tiny minority among conservative American Catholics, let alone Catholics around the world. And it is not the case that every Catholic critical of modern American liberalism will wind up an integralist: there exists a long tradition, defended by writers such as Daniel J. Mahoney (and, to a lesser extent, by Patrick Deneen), of a Tocquevillian American Catholicism, skeptical of totalizing or utopian versions of liberal ideology but committed to preserving and expanding the pre- or non-liberal practices that exist within America’s liberal regime. Rather than attempting to convert the state, it advances a willingness to live in a certain existential tension with it.

Even the integralists I spoke with acknowledged that the chance of establishing a Catholic confessional state in America is essentially zero. Instead, they were focused on spreading their doctrine and mobilizing around specific issues to advance the common good: promoting pro-family policies and opposing abortion and foreign wars. Some pointed to Leo XIII’s policy of ralliement, which instructed French Catholics, many of whom rejected the legitimacy of the Third Republic, to accept the government while working to elect politicians who would bend it in a more Catholic direction.

As to why one needs elaborate arguments about the proper relation of church and state to pursue such policy goals, Gladden Pappin offered two answers. The first was that integralism is “a challenge to critics of liberalism who simply call themselves post-liberal.” It is easy, in other words, to criticize liberal attempts to separate politics from the common good, but a genuine critique should propose an alternative. His second answer was that integralism is “an argument about the Church as a kind of political society of which one is a member. So does the Church have the power to guide and instruct its own faithful, even when those people are occupying positions of state?” For Pappin and other integralists, the answer is yes: the Church is sovereign in spiritual matters, and its members must submit to its authority.

The real impact of integralism may turn out to be on how conservative American Catholics think about the relation of politics and religion. Douthat suggested that integralism was likely to pull Catholic intellectuals “a little more to the left on issues of economics” and “a little more to the right on issues of civil rights and censorship and these sorts of things.” One example would be Ahmari, who, though not himself an integralist, has begun to echo their rhetoric in his talk about orienting politics toward the “common good.” Another would be American Affairs, which is pushing “common good”–oriented policies—reshoring manufacturing, improving domestic wages, curbing the power of the tech and financial sectors—meant to appeal to a broad, secular audience.

Patrick Smith said that the point—for now, at least—is to try to articulate a more authentically Catholic worldview that is conservative, in one sense, but not tied to the fate or policy preferences of the GOP. But at least some of the integralists are more ambitious. At the closing colloquy of a 2018 conference at Notre Dame, which featured Vermeule, Pappin, Deneen, and Notre Dame political science professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, Vermeule quoted from Longinqua, an 1895 encyclical in which Leo XIII laid out his vision for Catholicism in the United States. “It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion,” Leo wrote, that “it would be universally lawful for the Church and State to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” Rather, the Catholic Church in America would “bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”

“We mustn’t confuse the necessity for temporary accommodation [with America’s liberal regime] for something to celebrate,” Vermeuele explained. “In the longer run, I think we are duty-bound to hope to attempt to fulfill Leo’s mandate.” For most conservative Catholics, fulfilling that mandate through what would amount to a rejection of the American constitutional order would be radical to the point of delusion. But, Vermeule counters, “political constraints that seem ironclad at a certain time are actually extremely malleable and fluid.” Few Romans in AD 300 would have expected that within 25 years, Christianity, an intermittently tolerated cult, would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Could modern pagans be making the same mistake?

Top Photo: Tintoretto’s The Holy Family and the Doge Ranieri (PHOTO © CHRISTIE’S IMAGES/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

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