There are rumors of economic and political heresy at First Things. My reassessment of Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism earlier this year raised suspicions that I’m guiding the journal in an “anti-capitalist” direction. Some say the magazine flirts with “socialism.” Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby publish regularly in our pages, and they have been criticized for misrepresenting the founders and undermining our loyalty to the American creed. Are we becoming a mirror image of the anti-American, anti-capitalist left?
All of this strikes me as overdone, though I suppose this alarm about the range of questions being raised in First Things is to be expected. The post–World War II consensus assumed that the way forward always means opening things up, whether in the form of relaxing the cultural consensus to make room for diversity and pluralism or opening up limits on markets so that creative energies can run free. This consensus, derided by some as neoliberal, became dominant after 1989. It has become decadent, though we’re only noticing it now as election after election loosens its grip. The advocates of this consensus have to work hard to restore its magisterial authority. It’s ironic that the heresy-hunting comes under the banner of liberal ideals. But that’s what happens when liberalism becomes a thin, rigid creed rather than a rich, flexible tradition.
The dangers of this narrowness are very much in evidence in a recent article by Sohrab Ahmari. It was published in Commentary with the dire title “The Terrible American Turn Toward Illiberalism.” By liberalism Ahmari means a broad, bipartisan consensus: “the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism.” This consensus is being called into question. Identity politics and political correctness stoke an illiberal mentality, as we know. Ahmari worries, however, that the “illiberal fever” is taking over American conservatism, too. Some who write for First Things are among the stricken. Perhaps the editor, too. This is a dangerous situation. It’s time for responsible people to swing into action and restore orthodoxy!
Ahmari zeroes in on Adrian Vermeule’s sympathetic review of The Demon in Democracy by Ryzard Legutko, published in our January 2017 issue (“Liturgy of Liberalism”). Vermeule endorses Legutko’s central claim, which is that the liberal consensus in the post-1989 West has taken on many of the attributes of the communism that dominated Poland when Legutko came of age. The countries in the West that promote liberal democracy are not islands of toleration, diversity, and free inquiry. Instead, Vermeule writes, echoing Legutko, they are dominated by “a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.” Liberalism has become a religion. Those who dissent are heretics.
Ahmari regards this way of talking about today’s regime as hyperbolic and distorting. How can anyone equate perversions such as political correctness with Soviet gulags or Cambodian killing fields? But neither Legutko nor Vermeule is equating Berkeley with the closed city of Gorky. They are comparing them—and finding some telling similarities. Both places impose a rigid orthodoxy and stifle dissent. Gorky used secret police, while Berkeley relies on a suffocating climate of opinion. This is a crucial difference, as Ahmari points out. But it does not erase the similarities.
Legutko’s goal—my goal—is not to undermine “liberalism.” It is to clear away some of the blind dogmatism that has built up in the West, especially since 1989. It won’t do to label our efforts “illiberal” just because they call into question the dominant mentality of our time. In fact, that accusation reinforces the totalitarian atmosphere. Contemporary liberalism rarely answers critics. Instead, it silences dissent by labeling it “extremist,” “far-right,” “authoritarian,” and “illiberal.” We can’t come to grips with the problems we face in 2017 if we are constantly policed. And in any event, as Vermeule points out in our last issue (“A Christian Strategy”), our loyalty is to Christ, not to any particular political philosophy or tradition. This transcendent loyalty disenchants political ideologies, and freedom from the idolatry of politics is the soul of true liberalism.
By Ahmari’s definition, in civic life, liberalism means a commitment to “individual rights” and “cultural pluralism.” In economics, liberalism means “free enterprise.” In foreign affairs, it requires adherence to the “postwar liberal order.” Perhaps these are good commitments, but they reflect a late-twentieth-century consensus. Given the decline of the middle class in the West under the pressures of global capitalism, the populism that’s gaining ground in many countries, and America’s stumbling leadership on the international scene, it strikes me as reasonable (and responsible) to question this consensus.
Take the platitude that liberalism is committed to cultural pluralism. The opposite is closer to the truth. Liberal countries are characterized by a high degree of cultural uniformity. When we have exported the ideology of liberalism to places with genuine pluralism, it has often brought civil conflict and ethnic cleansing. Woodrow Wilson’s liberal creed required breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The result was decades of bloodshed that ended with the largely homogeneous countries that make up Eastern Europe. The way in which liberal democracy triggers ethnic cleansing is at work today in Myanmar. Ahmari and others protest that this is not true liberalism. That’s right. But what we’re seeing in Myanmar is what happens when liberal missionaries gain a foothold in countries that are riven by genuine cultural pluralism.
Liberal missionaries came to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They preached the virtues of free enterprise and helped design the Big Bang that promised to launch that country on a trajectory of prosperity and liberal democracy. The results were disastrous. Not surprisingly, the Russian people have looked elsewhere for economic and political principles. The results may be regrettable, but Russia’s skepticism about our liberal preachments is understandable. A simple denunciation of today’s Russia as “illiberal” is a species of ideological know-nothingism. We need more supple analysis. The same missionaries came to Poland and other countries in the formerly communist East, with better results. But there, too, civic leaders recognized that liberal doctrine is thin. It is not capable of sustaining solidarity and promoting the common good.
Weekly Standard writer (and First Things contributor) Christopher Caldwell has described economic globalization as a “con game,” a political project characterized by many broken promises. He observes that globalization significantly alters who wins and who loses in the advanced economies of the West. This leads to a provocative comparison between the post-1989 looting of state assets by emerging oligarchies in the ex-Soviet Eastern Bloc and the shifting of economic winners and losers in the West that was brought about by economic globalization. Ahmari finds this comparison outrageous—a clear sign of illiberalism. Globalization, he hastens to add, “took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.”
True. But it should be noted that the transfer of state assets to private persons in Russia and elsewhere—and then the rapid accumulation of those assets in the hands of just a few—also took place within a rules-based system, one largely constructed by Russian authorities in accord with the advice of American economic experts such as Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs. It was a system designed to give birth to a liberal economy and polity—and it failed. Ahmari refuses to recognize this. Failure is not possible. Ahmari’s creed is always a force for good in the world and never implicated in the problems we face today. Indeed, it is illiberal to suggest otherwise, as Caldwell does. QED.
Liberalism, properly understood, is not a creed; it is a tradition, a set of institutions, and a habit of mind. James Madison is a key figure in our liberal tradition. He recognized the limitations of democracy and knew that civic entropy would gain the upper hand if liberal theories alone governed. Abraham Lincoln is another important figure in our tradition. Yet, strictly speaking, it is illiberal to speak of a political union as indissoluble, as he did. By what “right” can we compel anyone to remain a member of our nation? Spain is grappling with that question.
I could go on about the countless ways in which our liberal heroes are “illiberal,” at least as Ahmari describes that sin. The political leaders who steered the ship of state during the explosive growth of the American economy during the late nineteenth century ardently defended “free enterprise,” and they were almost universally protectionists.
The American liberal tradition is being threatened by the ideological liberalism that Ahmari defends, not by illiberalism. We are a middle-class commercial nation. This serves as the foundation for our democracy, because it unites us in shared sentiments, outlooks, and interests. But the middle class is being dissolved, culturally and economically. Ideologies of “diversity” and “pluralism” erode civic unity. The globalized economy, underwritten by free-floating principles of “free enterprise,” decimates our nation’s middle. Pieties about pluralism and free markets are pushing America in an illiberal direction. We are nearing the time when our functional system of government will be an oligarchy overseeing an increasingly globalized commercial empire. That oligarchy is adept at using the rhetoric of liberalism to fend off dissent—a liberalism narrowed down to a post-political creed that buttresses its power.
Heresy-hunting serves that purpose. Christopher Caldwell details some of the inequities in our present system. Patrick Deneen diagnoses our flawed liberal habit of mind. To rebut as “illiberal” these efforts to understand our current challenges and renew our society is stultifying. In a fallen world, is there any economic arrangement that does not deserve deep criticism? What habits of mind are not flawed in fallen men? All traditions have defects and destructive tendencies, and that includes ours, the liberal tradition. There is no guarantee that those defects and destructive elements won’t gain the upper hand, requiring strong countermeasures to restore health.
For this reason it is not illiberal to question the increasingly dysfunctional, post-1989 version of liberal dogma. On the contrary, the future of liberalism as a living tradition requires us to do so. We need to save our liberal tradition from the politically correct madness that can’t even affirm the male-female difference. But we also need to save it from a decadent, creedal liberalism that licenses free market fundamentalists to smear critics of today’s economic status quo as “socialists” and encourages failed neoconservative internationalists to cry “Putin” whenever anyone disagrees. That’s hardly liberal.
An interviewer asked Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, “Is gay sex sinful?” He gave a diffident response. “I don’t do blanket condemnation, and I haven’t got a good answer to that question.” This is not to say the Anglican primate has no moral compass. He went on to affirm the importance of “faithfulness, stability of relationships, and loving relationships.” But Welby allowed that he is “having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition.” While he won’t say that the traditional view is wrong, he can’t say that it’s right.
We can make fun of Welby’s Anglican waffling. But most Catholic bishops in North America and Europe also waffle. Ask Cardinal Blase Cupich if sodomy is a sin, and in all likelihood he will start talking mumbo-jumbo about conscience and then say something about the Church’s emphasis on mercy. The Holy Father himself famously replied to a similar question with the memorable (and misleading) paraphrase of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “Who am I to judge?” One of Pope Francis’s close associates, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, told a colloquium at Boston College on Catholic teaching regarding marriage, sex, and the family, “It is no longer possible to judge people on the basis of a norm that stands above all.” I could add many more instances, but we know the routine: conscience, accompaniment, the “ladder of love,” etc., etc. That’s Welby’s answer with a more elaborate apparatus—and without his honesty.
The Catholic Church’s retreat from anything resembling clarity about sexual morality does not surprise me. It’s been a long time coming. Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted. For a long time now it has been socially acceptable to divorce and contracept. Soon thereafter it was OK to cohabitate, and then the good and responsible people who run things adopted an affirmative attitude toward gay sex. During all this, the same consensus became hostile to those who say otherwise. It became “cruel,” “hateful,” and “bigoted” to call something wrong that the bourgeois consensus now deems right. In this way, the good and responsible people did not just accommodate themselves to the sexual revolution; they took ownership of it.
Amid this change, most Catholic bishops and priests have been disoriented. Not too long ago, they were happy chaplains of the bourgeois, the good people, who tended to affirm the moral code that the Church taught. As the sexual revolution worked its way through elite culture, bishops and priests were eager to sustain their place as chaplains of the establishment consensus. Unfortunately for them, the Catholic Church has a rigorous tradition of moral philosophy and theology. This closed off the broad, well-traveled avenues of revisionism used by mainline Protestants. Do the loving thing! This noble and conveniently vague imperative offers wide latitude. In the smug and self-complimenting culture of the bourgeois, that meant pretty much anything they did was by definition loving. These sorts of people are always seeking to do what’s best!
Given the inconvenience of the Catholic commitment to moral truth, the approach has been to remain silent. Insofar as bishops and cardinals have spoken about sex, it has almost always been to qualify and soften the Church’s moral voice. The strategy was one of careful retreat. The enduring hope has been to find a way to moderate the obvious clash between what the Church teaches and the bourgeois consensus about sex.
It has become apparent that Pope Francis wants to make this retreat more explicit. For this reason, I have given up trying to keep track of controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia. The details don’t matter. Pope Francis and his closest associates have no interest in the sacramental coherence of their positions on matters such as divorce and remarriage, nor do they care one whit about defending the logic of the arguments they put forward. I admire those who have explained the limits that the rich tradition of Catholic sacramental and moral teaching places on our interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. This is important work. But it has little bearing on the near-term outcome of this controversy. Pope Francis and his associates want to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution. They will use whatever arguments and rhetoric are necessary to achieve this goal.
One can see the urgency of the task. Reconciling the Catholic Church with the sexual revolution is necessary in order to preserve Catholicism as a bourgeois religion. Unless this is done, more and more of the good and responsible people will come to regard the Church as a regressive, harmful force in society, a source of repression and bigotry that is antithetical to the spirit of inclusion and affirmation that promotes human flourishing. This is especially obvious in the controversy surrounding divorce, remarriage, and communion. These are good, sensitive people trying to make the best of a difficult situation! How can the Church deny them communion? The same is true for those who use artificial means of contraception or who are committed to another person of the same sex—which is why it’s reasonable to think the pontificate will seek to muddy the Church’s teaching on those issues as well.
This papacy’s goal of aligning the Catholic Church with the bourgeois consensus has other dimensions that show how unprincipled this process will be. Euthanasia is not something our bourgeois consensus wishes to endorse, at least not enthusiastically. Most good and responsible people have misgivings. They recognize the dangers it poses to the weak and vulnerable. But they believe that intelligent, self-possessed people like them ought to have the option of doctor-assisted suicide, at least in some cases. The general tone of the Francis papacy thus encourages bishops to mirror this position. Doctor-assisted suicide is not OK, exactly, but it is OK-ish. It falls under the rubric of “accompaniment,” which means saying “no” without saying “no,” which is a way of saying “yes” without saying “yes.”
One need only consult the opinions of earnest and progressive secular elites in Germany, France, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere to be able to predict the positions that will be taken by this papacy on a wide range of issues. It will be permissive where permission is wanted, not so much changing the Church’s teaching as sidelining it. But Francis also will denounce where denunciations are wanted. Recently, he declared capital punishment always and everywhere forbidden. One can argue that this pronouncement is inconsistent with the Church’s two-thousand-year tradition of moral teaching on the matter. But that’s beside the point. The notion of Pope Francis defining any act as intrinsically evil is laughable on its face, given how often he attacks the “doctors of the law” who speak about objective moral norms. And didn’t Fr. Antonio Spadaro very clearly tell us that the time has passed when we can speak of “a norm that stands above all”? Pope Francis takes the hard line because it’s required if the Catholic Church is to remain aligned with the good and responsible people. After all, only barbarians in Texas continue to support the death penalty.
Christianity orients us upward and toward the divine. Bourgeois religion is horizontal. It takes its cues from the consensus of the moment, the opinions of the good and responsible people. This reduces Christianity to a political religion organized to buttress the status quo. The Francis papacy largely follows this pattern, making it quite predictable. We can count on Pope Francis to talk about the poor in exactly the same way that people do in Berkeley, which means with great earnestness and little consequence.
This papacy is not hard to figure out. Pope Francis and his associates echo the pieties and self-complimenting utopianism of progressives. That’s not surprising. The Jesuit charism is multifaceted and powerful. I count myself among those profoundly influenced by the spiritual genius of St. Ignatius. Yet there’s no disputing that for centuries Jesuits have shown great talent in adjusting the gospel to suit the powerful. And so, I think the European establishment can count on the Vatican to denounce the populism currently threatening its hold on power. I predict that this papacy will be a great defender of migrants and refugees—until political pressures on the European ruling class become so great that it shifts and becomes more “realistic,” at which point the Vatican will shift as well. What is presently denounced will be permitted; what is presently permitted will be denounced.
Adjustment, trimming of sails, and accommodation are inevitable. The Catholic Church is not set up to be countercultural. Catholicism, at least in the West, has establishment in its DNA. But this papacy is uniquely invertebrate. I can identify no consistent theological structure other than a vague Rahnerianism and post–Vatican II sign-of-the-times temporizing. This makes Francis a purely political pope, or at least very nearly so. No doubt he has an evangelical heart. But ever the Jesuit, he seems to regard every aspect of the Church’s tradition as a plastic instrument to be stiffened here or relaxed there in accord with ever-changing pastoral judgments.
This will not end well. The West has seen a long season of loosening, opening up, and deconsolidation, of which the sexual revolution is but a part. Our establishment is committed to sustaining this consensus. This is why it has been at war with Catholic intransigence, which is based on the Church’s insistence that she answer to timeless, unchanging, and demanding truths. It’s foolish for the papacy to make a peace treaty with this establishment consensus. It’s theologically unworkable. It’s also politically inept. For the establishment consensus is failing, and that includes the sexual revolution, which made many promises that were not fulfilled.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ The Vatican issued a preparatory document for the upcoming Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The topic: “Young people, faith and vocational discernment.” The opening paragraph announces, “Young people know how to discern the signs of our times, indicated by the Spirit. Listening to their aspirations, the Church can glimpse the world which lies ahead and the paths the Church is called to follow.” Compare this to John 14, when a young Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” To which Jesus does not reply, “Read the signs of the times, wise youth, and tell me.” Instead, the Lord says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
♦ In the reconstitution of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which will now be called the Institute on Marriage and Family Sciences, Archbishop Paglia emphasized the importance of bringing in experts who are not Catholic. He wants the institute to engage in “dialogues with everyone who reflects on this theme.” He went on to say that it’s “clear that dialogue with those who aren’t Catholic must be done.” That has a musty, spirit-of-Vatican-II sound to it. Have we learned nothing from the last half-century? As someone who spent twenty years teaching at a Catholic university keen to engage with those who are not Catholic, I can testify that you don’t need to have non-Catholics on the faculty of a Catholic university to dialogue with non-Catholics.
♦ This fall, St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto launched the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, named after the great French Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson, who taught there after World War II. Three hundred students applied for forty spots. This tells us something we ought not to forget: The collapse of the humanities into theory and politics has created a vacuum. Given the opportunity, students stampede into serious courses that cover real books and grapple with timeless questions, of which questions of faith are of course prominent. Kudos to David Mulroney, the president and vice-chancellor of St. Michael’s, and Randy Boyagoda, principal and vice-president of St. Michael’s (and First Things contributor). Something else not to forget: Good leadership matters.
♦ Composer and Catholic James MacMillan writing in a recent issue of Standpoint:
In the 1970s many well-intentioned types thought that such “folk” music and pop culture derivatives would appeal to teenagers and young people and get them more involved in the Church, when the exact opposite has happened. It is now thought that these trendy experiments in music and liturgy have contributed to the increasing risible irrelevance of liberal Christianity, and that liturgy as social engineering has repulsed many. Like most ideas shaped by 1960s Marxist ideology it has proved an utter failure. Its greatest tragedy is the willful, disingenuous, de-poeticisation of Catholic worship. The Church has simply aped the secular West’s obsession with “accessibility”, “inclusiveness”, “democracy”, and anti-elitism, resulting in the triumph of bad taste, banality and a deflation of the sense of the sacred in the life of the church.
♦ The remedy for ruination is not complicated. Ditch the guitars, and return to ancient plainchant. Toss the vestments that look like cut-rate costumes for the Ballets Russes—already a caricature when they were adopted by liturgical progressives in the 1970s—and put on something dignified. Celebrate ad orientem.
♦ Let me repeat: Celebrate ad orientem. It’s the single most important change a parish can make to raise worship upward, directing our worship toward God. We don’t build community by looking at each other. It comes when we’re shoulder to shoulder, seeking a higher end.
♦ Tinneke Beeckman reflects on striking polling results: Nearly 70 percent of her fellow Belgians believe that “religion is doing more harm than good.” She speculates that priest sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, which in Belgium were combined with episcopal negligence, have something to do with this bitter assessment. That’s compounded by the “shrinking lack of leadership after the scandals.” It’s hard to see Christianity making a positive difference in society when Christian leaders go silent in the hope that nobody will notice them, allowing them to escape criticism. And then of course there’s Islam and terrorism. That’s not likely to inspire positive thoughts about religious zeal. But Beeckman zeroes in on a false view of Christian humility and charity, which she thinks the Catholic Church promotes. (The title of her column is “Charity is not Self-Denial.”) Pope Francis, she writes, “presented a plan for refugees and migration. He believes that the personal safety and dignity of migrants must take priority over national security.” The problem is not that the pontiff urges concern for human dignity. It’s that he “advocates an open-ended policy” that makes “the integration of migrants of secondary importance.” In short, Pope Francis is backing a program that sees “migration as a forerunner of the divine city without borders.” This is well and good for the Church, but it turns the spiritual virtue of charity into the political vice of collective self-destruction. So the ordinary Belgian is caught between two religious forces that aim at overthrowing his society: Islamism on the one hand, and a sentimental, self-repudiating, self-negating Catholicism on the other.
♦ My friend Robert T. Miller thinks I’m out of my mind to say that our economy has become less regulated over the last two generations. He points to the reams of regulations that have been issued in recent decades. But this confuses quantity with consequence. The Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 separated commercial from investment banking. The act was relatively terse but draconian. It prevented Wall Street from using the largest source of available capital (bank deposits) to make markets. As an analogy, consider a simple law that makes it illegal to go out at night. Such a regulation makes it unnecessary to regulate bars, restaurants, evening parking, nighttime traffic, and many other activities. Glass–Steagall was repealed in 1999. Yes, the subsequent body of regulation is vast and intrusive. But the limits those rules place on the freedom of those who deploy capital are minimal compared to Glass–Steagall. The same goes for free trade agreements and other liberalizations of the global economy.
♦ In 2016 and 2017, the New Criterion ran ten essays on populism, one in each issue. It was prescient of editor Roger Kimball to commission the interventions. There’s no doubt that populism—or whatever we want to call the voter unrest that is sweeping through the West—is an important political and cultural reality. As Roger Scruton put it in his contribution to the series, there’s a strong impulse abroad that seeks to recover the “we” in public life. I think that’s exactly right. The essays will be published in book form by Encounter Press under the title Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism. Strongly recommended.
♦ Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the author of The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, published by the Catholic University of America Press. He came to First Things for an evening in October to discuss his book—or I should say, to be interrogated by me—before a standing-room-only audience. He was more than up to the challenge. The Light of Christ is an intellectually rigorous and theologically deep introduction to the central teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s the perfect book for anyone who wants to deepen their Catholicism, or for those thinking of entering the Church. Again, strongly recommended.
♦ I recommend George Weigel’s latest as well. Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II is a series of linked vignettes. George Weigel is a wonderful storyteller. I wrote a review for the British magazine Standpoint that mused about the unique circumstances that brought together the great Polish pope and his most effective expositor. A book to enjoy.
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