The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church. The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of convenience with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.
Late-stage liberalism, which calls itself “progressive,” embodies a distinctive secularized soteriology and eschatology. Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what. The uncertainty is itself the point. From the liberal standpoint, the essential thing is that the new issue provokes opposition from the forces of reaction, who may then be conquered in a public and dramatic fashion by the political mobilization of liberal forces.
There are two ways of understanding this dynamic. One is that in the long run, liberalism undermines itself by transforming tolerance into increasingly radical intolerance of the “intolerant”—meaning those who hold illiberal views. On this view, militant progressivism is distinct from liberalism, indeed a betrayal of it. Such an account would make liberalism analogous to Marx’s claim about capitalism: Liberalism is inherently unstable and is structurally disposed to generate the very forces that destroy it.
A different view, and my own, is that liberal intolerance represents not the self-undermining of liberalism, but a fulfillment of its essential nature. When a chrysalis shelters an insect that later bursts forth from it and leaves it shattered, the chrysalis has in fact fulfilled its true and predetermined end. Liberalism of the purportedly tolerant sort is to militant progressivism as the chrysalis is to the hideous insect.
The Church’s role as liberalism’s principal target and antagonist is also structurally embedded. At the level of revolutionary politics, the Church and clergy were central targets for the rage of the philosophes and the violence of the mob. At the level of theory, Maurice Cowling showed that Mill’s putatively rational and tolerant liberalism was born out of a patricidal hatred of Christianity, and a desire that the wheel of history should turn once more, and then stop—with the Church replaced by a progressive “clerisy,” enforcing liberal commitments through state education. Both politically and theoretically, hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth.
The deep causes of this antagonism are a question for another day. Patrick Deneen believes that liberalism is best understood as a Christian heresy, a mutation of Gnosticism. Ryszard Legutko thinks that liberalism ultimately finds intolerable the inegalitarian character of Christian salvation, which is unequally distributed. These accounts are both important, but neither, in my view, fully explains why liberalism behaves as it does, and in particular why it is so obsessed with sex. Why, exactly, is it that liberalism so often triggers a celebration of the Festival by attempting to disrupt traditional norms surrounding the family and sexuality? It is no accident, I think, that in the very first celebration of the Festival, the revolutionaries deliberately desecrated the holy altar of Our Lady in Paris, one of the great sacred places of Christendom. Liberalism’s deepest enmity, it seems, is ultimately reserved for the Blessed Virgin—and thus Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12:1–9, which describe the Virgin’s implacable enemy, give us the best clue as to liberalism’s true identity. But whatever the deep causes may be, the phenomenon of hostility to the Church is unmistakable.
It is not, of course, that liberalism’s structural hostility to the Church expresses itself as constant physical persecution; it does not, so far anyway. The hostility is episodic, arising whenever the Festival must be celebrated anew, and in economically developed liberal polities typically takes the form of economic punishment, public shaming, and social sanctions for those who deviate from whatever the latest sexually inflected innovation may be. But the hostility is not less real for all that.
In the face of this relentless structural aggression, where to turn for intellectual resources and political counsel? I suggest an unlikely pair of counselors: T. B. Macaulay, an enemy of the Church, and Carl Schmitt, a one-time Catholic who fell into apostasy. Behind them, however, stands the rather more respectable authority of St. Luke and St. Paul. Let me explain.
In the delicious genre of English Protestant paranoia about the “Church of Rome” and her hellish minions, one of the most amusing entries is Macaulay’s review of a translation of von Ranke’s History of the Popes. This is “Cocksure Tom” Macaulay at his obnoxious best, as if Richard Dawkins were to write with the pen of an angel. He sneers above all at the Jesuits:
Inflexible in nothing but in their fidelity to the Church, they were equally ready to appeal in her cause to the spirit of loyalty and to the spirit of freedom. Extreme doctrines of obedience and extreme doctrines of liberty, the right of rulers to misgovern the people, the right of every one of the people to plunge his knife in the heart of a bad ruler, were inculcated by the same man, according as he addressed himself to the subject of Philip or to the subject of Elizabeth.
Just behind Macaulay’s sneer is something darker: the crawling paranoia of the liberal who—perhaps without quite ceasing to observe the inherited forms of Christian religion—has made up his heart to refuse to obey, and who (therefore) has become horrified by and fearful of those who commit body and soul to the cause of the Church instituted by Christ, and the vicar who heads it. For Macaulay, an elite in a liberal Protestant confessional state who slipped in and out of government over the course of his career, the problem of the Jesuits is a problem above all of divided political loyalties. The Jesuit, even if nominally English (as opposed to an out-and-out foreigner), owes his basic allegiance to a hostile foreign power. However seemingly obedient to the state’s laws he may seem to be, this is only a mask, a tactic adopted to mark time until the occasion presents itself. His political flexibility is the telltale sign of his dogmatic inflexibility, an indication that he has a commitment higher than the state and its dictates.
With what vehemence, with what policy, with what exact discipline, with what dauntless courage, with what self-denial, with what forgetfulness of the dearest private ties, with what intense and stubborn devotion to a single end, with what unscrupulous laxity and versatility in the choice of means, the Jesuits fought the battle of their church, is written in every page of the annals of Europe during several generations.
Politics makes for strange intellectual companionship, and there is none stranger than the coupling of Macaulay and Carl Schmitt, the Weimar lawyer and political theorist who fell away from Catholicism to become a Nazi—for a time, until even the Nazis became distrustful of his opportunism and drummed him out. (Recent attempts to suggest that Schmitt was never a serious Catholic are desperately unconvincing. Schmitt was in fact a garden-variety apostate, who sold his birthright for a few pieces of silver from the Nazi regime—silver that was of course quickly snatched away in any event. But that is a discussion for another day.) In a profound and underappreciated essay from 1923, “Roman Catholicism and Political Form,” the still-Catholic Schmitt vividly distilled Macaulay’s paranoid view in order to show that the supposed vice of Catholic flexibility was in fact its great political virtue:
For the whole of the parliamentary and democratic nineteenth century, one most often heard the charge that Catholic politics is nothing more than a limitless opportunism. Its elasticity is really astounding; it unites with opposing movements and groups. Thousands of times it has been accused of making common cause with various governments and parties in different countries. Critics have demonstrated how it always pursues political coalitions, whether with absolute monarchs or monarchomachists; how, during the Holy Alliance, after 1815, it became a center of reaction and an enemy of all liberal freedoms, and in other countries an exponent of these same freedoms, especially freedom of the press and freedom of education; how, in European monarchies, it preaches the alliance of throne and altar, and in the peasant democracies of the Swiss cantons or in North America it stands wholly on the side of a firm democracy. . . . Catholic royalists and legitimists appear arm-in-arm with Catholic defenders of the republic. Some Catholics are tactically aligned with a socialism others believe to be in league with the devil. They have even parlayed with Bolsheviks at a time when bourgeois advocates of the sanctity of private property still saw in them a cabal of criminals hors la loi.
With every change in the political situation, all principles appear to change save one: the power of Catholicism. “One appropriates all freedoms of one’s opponent in the name of the opponent’s principles and denies them to him in the name of one’s own Catholic principles.”
Schmitt with his usual freshness of thought proceeds to take on board, and to defend, that very political flexibility attacked by Macaulay. He saw that the universal jurisdiction and mission of the Church require it to be flexible in different places and times, willing to enter into coalitions that would be unthinkable for anyone with a merely political horizon. No one temporal ideology, no set political program, can limit the freedom of the Church. As the inheritor and baptizer of the universal pretensions of the Roman Empire, the Church acts in all lands under an infinite variety of political conditions.
Strange as it may be, Macaulay and Schmitt, the liberal Protestant-trending-atheist and the conservative Catholic apostate, have it right. Dubious though this pairing may be, they have no less an authority than St. Luke to back them up. A Christian politics must always be strategic, viewing political commitments not as articles of a sacred faith, but as tactical tools to be handled in whatever way best serves the cause of Christ.
Luke’s picture of Paul in Acts is a sustained portrait of the strategic Christian. Indeed, Acts is something of a manual of tactics for an embattled Church, navigating the complex political environment of a multicultural, multi-faith imperium that is both puzzled by the Church and structurally (although episodically) hostile to it—somewhat like our own liberal imperium. Luke’s Paul is, like Macaulay’s Jesuits, radically dogmatic as to ends, radically flexible as to tactics and means. He is loyal to the regime and obedient to its authority in matters where there is no conflict with Christian truth, and yet, if need be, entirely strategic about loyalties—depending upon what stance best serves the interests of Christ’s Kingdom. Part of the tongue-in-cheek humor of Acts, even in matters deadly serious, is Luke’s portrayal of a Paul who possesses multiple political identities—Jew, Roman citizen, Christian—and who strategically emphasizes one or another identity at will and as necessary, relentlessly subordinating the Jewish and the Roman identities to the Christian one.
Before the Jews of Jerusalem, Paul calls himself a Jew and emphasizes that he was raised in Jerusalem (although born in Tarsus) and was a student of the famed rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22: 1–3). Before the Sanhedrin itself, torn between its factions of Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul adopts an even more sectarian identity, calling himself “a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees” and framing the charges against him by saying that he is “on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). This sectarianism is, of course, a political tactic, intended to drive a wedge between the two factions. Roughly speaking, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not, and Paul attempts to affiliate himself with the former to find shelter behind the partisan stalemate. (We may note sotto voce that Paul was referring not, as the Pharisees would have it, to a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time, but to a distinctly singular Resurrection that had already happened; doubtless the blurring of that difference suited his ends.) Before the Roman authorities, Paul sometimes emphasizes his Roman citizenship when it gives him immunity against certain punishments (Acts 22:24–29) and when it grants him a right of appeal (Acts 25:10–12). On the other hand, he lets the Roman authorities view him as just another Jew when advantageous—as when a bored proconsul believes that the accusations of Jewish authorities against Paul are just an intramural dispute, of no imperial concern (Acts 18:12–17).
In general, Luke’s Paul exploits the imperium’s legal procedures whenever doing so benefits the Church. How much this portrayal corresponds to the actual Paul is an open question, but it is of course true that Luke probably traveled with Paul on mission, and thus observed his tactics at close range; and it is also true that Paul famously wrote,
To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all men, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:20–23)
Despite his tactical acumen, Paul never lies or violates other moral norms. His identity claims, and the political and legal claims following from them, are all true or valid, and his flexibility is openly professed. In Macaulay and the English Protestant paranoid tradition, although not in Schmitt, there is a sort of brooding omnipresent imputation that the Jesuit’s radical flexibility as to means extends to falsehoods. Paul shows us the real truth. Under an imperium that contains a myriad of shifting political identities and loyalties, falsehood is not only wrong but is in fact unnecessary. By a special boon of providence, the very features of the pagan imperium that cause it to find the Church puzzling and threatening—the imperium’s multicultural and multi-faith composition, its universal sway over varying communities, its repressive demands for tolerance—all have the beneficial side effect of creating shifting and overlapping political spaces and communities through which Christians may navigate. The strategic Christian need only emphasize, truthfully, one or another of his multiple political loyalties and identities as relevant and helpful to the audience and the occasion.
In our world, the world of the liberal imperium with its multiple loyalties and identities jostling one another, the same is true. The strategic Christian may truthfully point to, and emphasize, his identity as (to take my own example, only because I know it best) an American, a New Englander, a WASP descendant of seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch settlers, a cradle Episcopalian, a lawyer, an academic, a member in good standing of the overwhelmingly liberal intelligentsia, and above all, subordinating and organizing all these other loyalties, a Catholic. There is no need to dissemble about any of these identities; all are true and may publicly be disclosed and affirmed as and when useful.
What is the goal of all these tactics? If we are to be entirely flexible about means, to what ends? The ultimate long-run goal is the same as it ever was: to bear witness to the Lord and to expand his one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church to the ends of the earth. In global perspective, the situation is actually quite promising. The twin ideas that we live in a secular age and that Christianity is shrinking apply mainly in the liberal redoubts of the West, and not even all of them. Secularism is actually in decline, chiefly because secular materialists have so few children. The culture of liberalism, having attacked the family, proves incapable of reproducing itself. (Deus non irridetur.) For the sectors of the Church that happen to lie within the boundaries of the decaying, and increasingly radical, liberal imperium, however, it is true that the main proximate short-run goal must be largely one of survival. As the liberal imperium ages and decays, its sectarians become ever more anxious about internal rebellion and external threats, and the persecution of non-liberals becomes more aggressive, systematic, and widespread.
Strategically, the Church can be flexible as necessary on all dimensions save one—the gospel teaching and sacramental practice of the magisterium, which perpetuates itself by apostolic succession. Like Paul, in the service of the universal Gospel, the Church can be “all things to all men,” politically speaking, precisely because political forms are merely possible means for carrying the core mission into execution. From the Church’s standpoint, many (although not all) political forms lie within the space of the determinatio—certainly a far broader range of political forms than liberalism permits.
This radical political flexibility as to means, decried by Macaulay and justified by Schmitt, is a hard counsel; it means that ultimate allegiances to political parties, to the nation, even to the Constitution, may all have to go if conditions warrant it. It is not that the strategic Christian may not respect, support, and participate in upholding such things—that is of course often sensible, indeed mandatory (as St. Peter instructs us), when and so long as there is no conflict with the Church’s teaching and mission. Alliances of common goals, as opposed to allegiances, are useful and appropriate, depending upon local conditions. But politically speaking, there can be no “progressive Christians” or “Republican Christians” or even “American Christians.”
This ought to be banal, but it isn’t. What makes it a hard counsel is that to navigate an environment of increasingly aggressive liberalism may require a surrender of political and institutional loyalties, and of ideological commitments, that even potentially constrain or compete with the mission of the Church. Let me offer an example of the sort of position that will have to go. It is common to hear from Christians on the left that providing health care for children and food for the poor, and more generally loving one’s neighbor, simply must be accomplished through the coercive collective agency of the state and its policies. Such commitments are ideological; they are like freight that needs to be thrown overboard to lighten the ship in stormy waters. Where state provision is helpful and compatible with the Church’s mission, it is commendable. But where state provision brings with it—as it increasingly does—an expanding array of liberal-legalist conditions and restrictions, whose effect and (in many cases) intention is to enforce liberal ideology, then the Church may need to withdraw from cooperation with the imperium’s authorities, and to provide services through nonpublic mechanisms, even in unlicensed forms if need be. By the same token, we must not inflexibly cling to an ideology that regards with absolute horror any public provision of services, as if socialism were the great bête noire of Christian politics. Neither statism nor libertarianism can be blessed as a fully and finally Catholic form of politics, for Catholics must be able to move between them.
If and when we can jettison our temporal ideological commitments, we have many models of flexible collaboration. The Christian adviser to pagan kings and powers is a type frequently encountered in Scripture—in, of course, the prefigured guise of the Jewish adviser to Gentile kings and powers. Mordecai, Joseph, and Daniel all fit the pattern, as does Esther in a different but equally important way. The adviser makes himself indispensable and thereby creates a reservoir of professional credibility, or personal loyalty, or delegated political power, to use when necessary on behalf of the Church. Here too there is no dissembling involved whatsoever: The adviser does, in all these cases, give excellent service or advice and sincere loyalty in all matters not touching on the faith, and never denies his or her ultimate commitments, although it is usually unnecessary to trumpet them. Sometimes, of course, as in Daniel’s case, the regime forces the adviser to the test, requiring him to declare those ultimate commitments and then to pass through a fiery trial, or, in Esther’s case, to test the boundaries of the law. Sometimes, the only result will be that the Christian is driven out of public life, or loses a job, or a professional license, in a kind of low-temperature martyrdom. But sometimes, as is also true in Esther’s case, the adviser may in the end turn the tables on her political foes.
Christians will always have many different options for political engagement. In some or other circumstances, one or another of them will prove best in the light of prudential judgment; none has any logical or theological priority. Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous conclusion to After Virtue was partly right, partly wrong. It is not exactly that “we are waiting . . . for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict.” We are waiting for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict and St. Dominic and St. Ignatius and Esther, and for a universal Church that draws upon the pattern and model of all of its diverse saints and ancestors and identities as necessary, in the spirit of Paul—the strategic Christian.
Adrian Vermeule is Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School.