First Things - Religion and Public Life Donate to First Things
Login forgot password? | register Close

The American experiment.” I cringed whenever Richard John Neuhaus used that formulation. We live in a country, not an experiment. I seek to purify my soul so that I may be worthy of citizenship in the City of God. But in this temporal frame, I have never wanted to be anything other than an American, which is something concrete and durable, not elusive and experimental.

When I was a young child, my parents took me to New England. I was thrilled to stand on the bridge at Concord, where I experienced the paradoxical American feeling of solidarity in liberty, the “no” we say to whatever cabins our freedom—a “no” we say together. But there’s more to being an American than unity in freedom. We’re not just a country of freedom and equality. Our nation is a place, a history, and a people, not merely a creed and set of ideals, though they’re part of the mix, too.

As a young man I hitchhiked back and forth across the country. My experiences reinforced my sense of our crazy-quilt national character. There are generous souls, lost souls, and damaged, bitter ones. There are open, empty roads stretching across Nevada and Utah that make you feel as though God Almighty has created the world for you alone. And there are traffic jams on six-lane freeways. Do I criticize my country, lament her failings, and inveigh against her excesses? Yes, of course. But ask me if I affirm or reject America and I find myself baffled. “This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York island.” Even when America fails us and betrays us, she is us.

I feel the same way about our liberal tradition. It grows out of diffuse sources—the biblical story, the English trauma of a theologically motivated civil war, a tradition of Protestant dissent, our frontier culture, immigrant memories of oppression, and our more than two-century struggle, still ongoing, with the stain of slavery. Those sources have given birth to many philosophies, but they do not add up to a philosophy. They are tributaries to a way of life.

Our liberal tradition is too individualistic in theory, as Patrick Deneen points out in Why Liberalism Failed (though it’s often much less so in practice). These days liberalism makes war against nature (same-sex marriage, for example, and now transgenderism), as Michael Hanby has shown in some detail. Its universalism underwrites a post-national globalism that will destroy politics and usher in a technocratic empire. Compounding our problems, liberalism (left and right) too often wrongly imagines itself to be the fullest and final achievement of civilization, giving rise to an end-of-history triumphalism. This infuses liberalism with religious zeal and leads to heresy-hunting. In Adrian Vermeule’s evocative phrase, there is a liturgy of liberalism. It evokes the specter of oppression in order to renew loyalty to liberalism’s claim to be the last and only hope for humanity. This ritual demonization has become more and more prominent as our liberal tradition becomes decadent.

The American liberal tradition is in trouble. Its universalism always tends toward end-of-history triumphalism and liberalism as religion. And we possess only imperfect remedies to these dangers. But I’m no more opposed to liberalism than to America. It’s not my highest commitment. The Christian way of life is ultimate, not our liberal tradition, which is merely human, inevitably flawed, and defectible. Moreover, liberalism is just one of the expressions of political wisdom in America. There’s a Southern Stoic tradition, an Upper Midwestern collectivist tradition, and a Catholic confessional one, as well as the progressive neo-Puritan and Marxist strand that’s particularly prominent in university towns.

All true, yet liberalism is our dominant tradition. Last summer I was back in Concord. I made a pilgrimage to the gravesites of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Their legacies are mixed, but their voices are inside me. The contraceptive mandate, bakers and florists being fined, speech police patrolling universities—things are going awry, as we all sense. This means we need to sift and purify our inheritance, not reject or affirm it.

A Differentiated Liberalism

Man is often aggressive and cruel. The strong put their boots on the necks of the weak. And in the modern age, we’ve seen generations of ideologues cocksure of the beneficent truth of their moral and political beliefs. The liberal sentiment alive to these threats gives priority to a politics that limits power. It worries about the tendency of majorities to trample on dissent and dislikes the “improvers” who become enraptured by power and lay waste to imperfect humanity. This kind of liberalism, a liberalism of restraint, knows that some of the most important things in life—including questions of salvation—get perverted and poisoned when they are imposed by the sword. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

The liberalism of restraint desacralizes politics and cherishes privacy. It can be based in skepticism. David Hume was a liberal of this sort. But this brand of liberalism is nonetheless consistent with strong moral and theological convictions. The Baptist tradition of strict separation of church and state offers an example. Madison’s rationale for representative government and separation of powers expresses a liberalism of restraint as well, not because of skepticism or doubt about moral truth, but because of a keen awareness of original sin.

A different strand of liberalism emphasizes empowerment. In this view, liberty means self-government. Impediments to freedom need to be cleared away. In its classical phase, this strand of liberalism abolished premodern laws and social norms that limited freedom, especially economic freedom. Peasants were liberated from feudal constraints. Guilds were dethroned. This governmental activism included the confection of the limited liability corporation. More liberal laws of bankruptcy and patent protection were passed. The idea was to empower economic actors.

In its later, twentieth-century incarnations, this kind of liberalism emphasized redistribution and the empowerment of labor. The goal was to rebalance economic power in order to make the working class equal participants in modern industrial society. In more recent decades and into this century, concern has shifted toward “cultural redistribution.” This means empowering once-marginal populations, not just with economic resources but with moral and political assets. In this strand of liberalism, attacks on “cisgendered” white males should be understood as a form of progressive taxation, extracting social assets from those who are culturally dominant and redistributing them to those deemed culturally “undercapitalized.”

Unlike the liberalism of restraint, the liberalism of empowerment celebrates bold political action. During the French Revolution, the “enemies of the people” needed to be executed in order to accelerate the arrival of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Benjamin Disraeli’s expansion of the franchise and establishment of the first elements of the modern welfare state show that the liberalism of empowerment can appeal to modern conservatives. In our tradition, the liberalism of empowerment achieved canonical status in the struggle for civil rights and is being carried forward in feminism and the battle for gay rights.

Isaiah Berlin distinguished between negative and positive liberty. The former means being left alone, and it animates the liberalism of restraint. The latter means having the capacity for self-command, and this view of freedom justifies the liberalism of empowerment. Berlin regarded these two views of freedom as incompatible. But that’s not true, at least not for any actual political tradition.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty provides a classic defense of negative liberty and the liberalism of restraint. He believes that men should be free to live as they please, limited only by the principle that their private choices must not harm others. Mill also argues that the dominant social consensus is the greatest threat to negative liberty, not the state. The norms of culture penetrate every aspect of life, coercing us internally with the powerful tools of honor and shame, while the government has only the blunt instruments of law and outward coercion. Defending negative liberty, therefore, requires rolling back the power of the social consensus. This naturally leads to using political tools to achieve the cultural goal of making society more “diverse” and less “judgmental.” In short, Mill’s liberalism of restraint—we should have neither a government nor a culture that invades the privacy of our life choices—dovetails with a cultural liberalism of empowerment. People need to be empowered (positive liberty) to embrace the freedom to live as they choose (negative liberty). This is the agenda of the dictatorship of relativism, an ambitious and sometimes coercive cultural-political program dedicated to freedom.

No doubt Mill would reject political correctness. This would not betoken inconsistency on his part. Most of us want a combination of restraint and empowerment, privacy and collective action, recognition of limits and political ambition. Mill intuitively sought this combination. He tried to feather the clutch, urging empowerment toward the end of expanding the realm of private choice. We have our own ways of promoting a composite. Today’s emphasis on “upward mobility” offers an instance of the fusion of a liberalism of restraint and that of empowerment. Only the strictest libertarians in love with their theories say we should be satisfied with the status quo, confident that everyone has achieved the condition of life he deserves because his circumstances are the proper consequences of his free choices. Most of us want to give those who lag behind a “leg up,” which is to say, we want to devise interventions into their private lives that facilitate their empowerment. The real debate concerns how. Those who fear government overreach and its threats to liberty favor moral suasion and nongovernmental agencies. Those who anguish over lives diminished and autonomy lost are eager to use the plenary power of the modern state. Most of us are open to a combination of both.

It’s not surprising that our liberal tradition has these two dimensions—and often combines them. The West’s religious culture counsels a cautious, skeptical approach to public life. Our fallen condition ensures that power will be misused, and the transcendent nature of our ultimate end relativizes politics. The liberalism of restraint honors these truths. But our religious culture also tells us that man is capable of greater things, even supernatural ends. We are not made for bondage, not even—or especially not even—self-imposed bondage. As St. Paul teaches, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” As a consequence, in our culture the reformist zeal of the liberalism of empowerment is perennial and no less a part of our liberal tradition than the liberalism of restraint.

Liberalism Debased by Theory

At the end of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen writes, “The narrowing of our political horizons has rendered us incapable of considering that what we face today is not a set of discrete problems solvable by liberal tools but a systemic challenge arising from pervasive invisible ideology.” That ideology, he argues, is liberalism. I’m inclined to agree. Insofar as liberalism has become an ideology rather than a differentiated, even paradoxical tradition, we have become incapable of dealing sensibly with our social and political problems. The liberalism of restraint has calcified into a mechanical libertarianism, often allied with economic theories made into ideologies. (See Richard Spady, “Economics as Ideology,” April 2018). This captivity to theory prevents us from experimenting with political responses to the catastrophic collapse of marriage among the working and middle classes. Legislative initiatives are derided as “conservative social engineering.” Meanwhile, the liberalism of empowerment has become a neo-Puritanical political correctness. Children must be empowered to choose if they are boys or girls!

But liberalism need not be an ideology. In this respect, Alexis de Tocqueville was more liberal than John Stuart Mill, if we measure a man’s liberalism by his capacity to exercise wise judgment about how best to sustain a culture of freedom. Unlike Mill, Tocqueville recognized that the bonds of family loyalty and the claims of faith empower individuals, giving them a place to stand against the coercive currents of mass culture and helping them to fend off the intrusions of the modern state. Without these pre-political institutions, men become isolated individuals. Deracinated and atomized, we end up demanding our own tutelage, begging the state to exercise administrative control over the areas of life once ruled by family, local association, and religious communities. As Deneen points out, following Tocqueville, the relentless application of liberal theory produces illiberalism.

Liberal illiberalism is not hypothetical. In Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defense of the Marriage-Free State, Clare Chambers argues that liberal principles of liberty and equality require us to dismantle state-sponsored “marriage regimes” that give preference to marriage over other forms of intimate relationship. I’m sure her arguments are coherent. How can we give preference to male-female marriage if we want to treat every lifestyle choice equally—and if we want everyone to feel truly free to make his own intimate choices? The same can be said for religious belief and practice. How can a truly liberal society give the slightest preference to religion over irreligion? These are questions that arise naturally for anyone who reads Mill’s On Liberty.

I find Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Michael Hanby, and other critics of liberalism broadly persuasive. We’ve come to various dead ends, all of which suggest our liberal tradition has become overly theoretical. The Casey decision and its caricature of liberalism as the freedom to define the meaning of life is evidence of this decadence, as are the earlier Supreme Court decisions against school prayer and other broad, ecumenical preferences for religion over irreligion. Obergefell’s judicial seizure of marriage shows that many in our judicial elite are captive to liberal theory, a captivity explicit in Clare Chambers’s arguments. For her, even gay marriage sins against the truly liberal vision of freedom and equality.

Today, we’re getting the worst of liberalism, not the best. A liberalism of restraint tends toward a combination of cultural mediocrity for the many and great opportunity for the few. (This was already latent in Mill’s views of freedom, society, and self-culture.) It’s a bad sign for our liberal tradition that we have legalized marijuana, ubiquitous pornography, a demoralized working class, and with this descent, a corresponding ascent of a complacent oligarchy. The liberalism of empowerment tends toward a hectoring censoriousness and political coercion that suppresses dissent—for the sake of freedom. It’s a tendency very much in evidence right now. The most advanced sectors of our society, such as Silicon Valley and Hollywood, combine both excesses: The rich and successful think nothing of coercing, browbeating, and applying political pressure so that all can be empowered to be entirely free to pursue their experiments in living.

Recognizing this decadence does not make us “illiberal.” As John Henry Newman put the matter in the short speech he gave when he was invested as cardinal:

It must be borne in mind, that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence, which, as I have already noted, are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society. It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil.

Liberalism has done much good. But when it becomes a theory of the good, it must be resisted, for liberalism in theoretical form easily becomes an ideology that always obscures, and even denies, the truth that God alone is the highest good. Stating this truth with persistence will be our greatest contribution to reviving and renewing the best of our liberal tradition.

Liberalism Without Triumphalism

Throughout the modern era, there have been powerful critics of modernity’s self-complimenting conceits. Joseph Kleutgen’s nineteenth-century classic, Die Philosophie der Vorzeit, argues for the superiority of premodern over modern philosophy. In Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, Jacques Maritain diagnoses the modern era’s internal contradictions. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue follows in this tradition, as does Brad Gregory’s ambitious genealogy of modernity, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. In his review of Gregory’s book, Ephraim Radner offers a nuanced dissent from this tradition of dissent from modernity’s triumphalism, of which liberalism is a key element (“The Reformation Wrongly Blamed,” June/July 2012). “The story of modernity,” Radner writes, “is a story of Christian love’s ongoing embodiment, and this often in spite of and against official Christian practice.” In a paradoxical way, our liberal tradition serves the divine project, which seeks to raise up the human person in love. We cast aside this tradition at our peril. However, Radner’s affirmation is carefully hedged. He refuses liberal triumphalism, which stems from the modern conceit that our age is the consummation of all ages. Responding to letters regarding his review, he added, “I view the rise of liberal societies more as usefully compensatory, but also as a kind of divine rod, a Joab bringing with him a (misplaced) order for a failed David. But Israel endures him—he himself an Israelite—with ambivalent unease, realizing perhaps that there is still a long part of the story to be borne.”

A combination of solicitude and unease strikes me as exactly right. Our liberal tradition emerged out of the bloody failures of Christendom, and its achievements on behalf of human dignity should not be gainsaid. This tradition, for all its failures, is the best we have at present. But liberalism does not afford us a final or complete vision of our destiny. Our tradition draws upon our biblical heritage, but without a transcendent orientation. Its achievements are real, but “misplaced,” as Radner suggests.

We sense this “misplacement.” We know that the liberal tradition is not enough, not just insufficient for our supernatural destiny, but not enough for public life. Pope Paul VI spoke of building a “civilization of love.” That’s not something liberalism can do. The liberty at the center of liberalism lacks its proper end. For this reason, we feel in our bones that there is something ahead, which is why so many of us are restless. We sense, rightly, that liberalism is, at best, an interim tradition, a regent doctrine, as it were. It is a placeholder until the king returns.

Our awareness of liberalism’s inadequacy, our recognition that its role is that of regency, encourages us to seek something beyond its limits. We wish to have a glimpse of the king’s reign. The “pressing beyond” is not new. When I was young, I read Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The non-liberal left offered a bigger, world-historical frame of reference, something more ultimate and consequential than the liberal tradition in which I was raised. I realized that the Marxist promise of fulfillment is false. But it won’t do for liberals to recount the horrors of Stalin and Pol Pot. The non-liberal left offers a larger horizon for public life. However wrongheaded, that’s its legitimate appeal. Later, I discovered Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. They provided different and more trustworthy sources of vitality and depth. Today, people are reading about thirteenth-century France and wondering about how to restore the sacred to public life. (See “An Integralist Manifesto,” Edmund Waldstein’s review of Before Church and State, October 2017.) Instead of anguishing over “Catholic integralism,” we should welcome these imaginative explorations of what came before liberalism.

The “ambivalent unease” Radner speaks about and the impulse to press beyond the boundaries of the liberal tradition are unavoidable, not just for Christians, but for anyone who awakens to the larger metaphysical horizon of public life. It’s good that people reading First Things are also reading about Chesterton’s distributism, F. D. Maurice’s Christian socialism, Rushdoony’s Christian reconstructionism, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty, and the political arrangements of medieval Christendom. At its best, our liberal tradition recognizes the relative poverty of its regency. Aware that it is not final, it gives free rein to our political imaginations. But that freedom now seems elusive. That’s another sign of the decadence of liberalism. Things are in a bad way when the ambivalent unease we rightly feel about the ongoing reign of the regent is cast as disloyalty and castigated as “illiberalism.”

Final Thought

I reread John Gray’s little book Liberalism while preparing this month’s Public Square. In the postscript to his second edition (1994), he makes an arresting observation: “The Soviet collapse and the Chinese project of market reform do not, as contemporary classical liberal thinkers and I myself once supposed, augur the global spread of Western-style civil societies: they exemplify the global reach of market institutions—a very different matter.” Far from the triumph of liberalism, the end of communism suggests its relative decline. “The ruin of Soviet Marxism was, after all, the failure of a universalist Western ideology, of a species of the Enlightenment project; it was not the end, but the resumption of history, in forms as little likely to be liberal as they are to be ever again Marxist.”

The liberalism that participates in end-of-history, deliverance-of-reason, and state-of-nature universalism is a close cousin of Marxism. John Rawls, like Karl Marx, dreamed of the end of politics, which is another way of saying the end of history. Karl Marx, of course, envisioned an implausible withering away of the state in a socialist utopia, but Rawls and other liberal theorists live in the same mental world. In the Rawlsian scheme, we will come up with the procedural rules of justice that will be final and complete, a liberal utopia that keeps at bay the public contestations of religious and other substantive views of human fulfillment.

Gray is right. The failure of communism does not mean the triumph of the modern, secular West. Marxism itself is a pure product of the West, an entirely modern secular project, which is why the terrible crimes of communism leave most Western intellectuals untroubled, and Marxism retains its allure. Marxism’s failure—which is very real—is a failure of secular modernity in the West.

I do not want our American way of life to fail. I don’t think readers of First Things want our tradition to fail. That means we need to restore to liberalism its Christian and premodern sources, making it less of an “ism.” We need to reframe our liberal tradition in terms of the biblical narrative, the common law, and classical sources. We need to insist upon practical arrangements, legal precedents, and political policies that promote ordered liberty, not liberal theories.

Here, I find myself agreeing with Mark Henrie:

The traditionalist conservative’s kind words about medievalism indicate that he is attracted to forms of communal solidarity, loyalty and friendship, leisure, honor and nobility, and religious “enchantment” that seem to be presently unavailable. As Tocqueville helps us to understand, this list is not idiosyncratic, but rather corresponds in its particulars to the deficits universally engendered by the modern regime.

In my view, we need to be tutored by this kind of nostalgia and other adventures of political imagination rooted in our history. It will help us as we get about the business of remediating the defects of our liberal cultural and political order—not to overthrow it, but to humanize and sustain it.

Our Common Project

I have had many discussions with readers of First Things, some of whom are good friends and many of whom I rely upon for counsel and guidance. These conversations have convinced me that I made a mistake in publishing “Non Possumus,” a review of Kidnapped by the Vatican? The review raises perplexing, technical theological questions and brings the vexed matter of religious and secular authority into sharp focus. But featuring it in our pages could not help but give the impression that I intend to lead First Things in a new direction that undermines our commitment to the vital conversation between Christians and Jews. That is not the case. I regret that my decision to publish the review brought unnecessary anguish to my friends and to readers who care so deeply about our common project.

while we’re at it

♦ For decades, the Catholic Church in China has been divided. The Chinese government allows only certified religious groups to operate, and certification requires acquiescence to government control. This has led to the evolution of two institutional forms of Catholicism in China. One, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, is under Communist party supervision and appoints its own bishops. The so-called underground Church, which is harassed and sometimes persecuted by the Chinese government, maintains a hierarch of bishops approved by Rome.

The emergence of parallel churches in China has been a matter of grave concern to Roman officials for decades. It poses the danger of a long-term, internal split among Chinese Catholics. Vatican diplomacy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked to repair the breach, with some success. In recent years, Rome has given approval, after the fact, to the Communist party–controlled episcopal appointments in the Patriotic Church. Benedict XVI invited some government-appointed bishops along with underground bishops to a 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. (The Chinese Communist party refused to allow any of the bishops to attend.)

Pope Francis inherited this state of affairs, which can be characterized as a slightly warmed cold war between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist party. It seems he wants to find a solution. Apparently, this pontificate is willing to concede to the Communist party a role in the appointment of bishops. This will allow underground Catholics to emerge and join with the Patriotic Church. In some regions, achieving this goal will require the resignation of underground bishops. This may impose significant spiritual costs, undercutting generations of faithful witness against the totalitarianism of the Communist government. In many large cities, however, the distinction between the two forms of Catholicism is already blurred—like so much else in the formerly ideologically rigid Chinese system. The changes in those places will be less dramatic.

The Vatican is right to seek to unify the Chinese Church. The concession to the Chinese government, however, marks a significant reversal of Catholic ecclesiological priorities. For nearly two centuries, the Church has worked to gain full control of her internal life. The goal has been to constitute the Church as a spiritual commonwealth, answerable to the apostolic tradition alone, not secular power. The Church’s Code of Canon Law states: “In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” The pope has the power to set aside this stricture, it seems, if he judges it necessary to promote the spiritual interests of the Church. Perhaps in China it will be found necessary. I have my doubts. Throughout history, the Church has been damaged by her subservience to worldly powers. To return the Church to her condition in Europe before the French Revolution, when secular governments had a say in episcopal appointments, is perilous—especially if the cold, utilitarian masters of the Communist party in China turn out to be less attentive to the gospel than decadent European monarchs were.


♦ Marvia Malik used to be a boy. Now he fashions himself a woman and has been disowned by his family. In March, a private TV broadcaster in Pakistan, Kohenoor, installed Malik as a news anchor. This small episode is another sign that the American culture wars are becoming international.


♦ On a recent trip to the Bay Area, I went to church at the Berkeley parish of St. Joseph the Worker. The priest celebrated ad orientem, which as I’ve noted many times in these pages accentuates the sacrificial character of the Mass and gives the entire service a stronger vertical thrust. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei, along with a few other elements of the service, were sung in Latin with the natural dignity of plainchant. The congregants received the sacrament on their knees at the altar rail. All of this took place in a more than one-hundred-year-old building with modest iconography of a traditional sort. I was reminded yet again that liturgical transcendence is readily accessible. There was nothing revanchist about the service at St. Joseph the Worker, nothing archaeological, nothing remotely alien to the experience of Catholics raised on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, the worship was elevated by the fact that the liturgy was not unnecessarily puerile and complacent. I tip my hat to Fr. Kenneth Nobrega, the priest-in-charge at St. Joseph the Worker.


♦ My experience at St. Joseph the Worker was heightened, perhaps, by the fact that the celebrant was Fr. Raphael Okitafumba. Ten years ago, I supervised his master’s degree thesis when he was a student at Creighton University. He returned to his native Congo, where he was ordained. He came back to the United States a few years ago, sent by his bishop to do a doctoral degree at the Graduate Theological Union, which he completed recently. Hats off to him, too.


♦ Victor Davis Hanson, writing in a City Journal special issue on the future of work:

For the past four decades, I have split my time between teaching classics and writing, and working on a farm. I cannot say that either world is nobler than the other. But I did learn that small farmers and farm laborers complained much less about their often-unenviable lots than did academics about their comparatively enviable compensation and generous time off. Working outdoors, often alone, with one’s hands encourages a tragic acceptance of nature and its limitations. Talking and writing indoors with like kind promote a more therapeutic sense that life can be changed through discourse and argument.

♦ I would go further and say that those who work outdoors must grapple with the recalcitrant realities of the natural world, and this work reminds them of their finitude. The world, however beautiful and awesome, is not always pliable. The sun scorches at midday. It’s hard to gain footing in muddy, rain-soaked soil. This can weary and frustrate us, but for the working man these circumstances don’t lead to resentment. The world is what it is. By contrast, today’s intellectuals picture most of life as invented. We speak of the “social construction of reality.” Postmodern theories insist that our desires and feelings are conjured by political forces. This encourages us to translate life’s inevitable frustrations into conspiracies against our happiness. Did you get turned down for a job? Patriarchy’s at fault—or reverse discrimination. This goes a long way toward explaining our sour political climate, which tends to become more bitter the more educated people are. At Google, employees anguish over inequities in ways unimaginable among workmen on a construction site.


♦ Elena Attfield came into the Catholic Church recently. What attracted her? The Church’s hard-edged teachings, especially the rejection of error. “If it hadn’t been like that, I probably wouldn’t have converted.” She was particularly engaged by the Catholic claim extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “no salvation outside the Church”: “I thought, if the Church is teaching such a big thing, I need to be sure it isn’t true.” In the course of making sure that Catholicism couldn’t possibly sustain such a strong claim, she became less sure and eventually came to think that, in fact, the Church is right. That launched her on a very different trajectory of conviction. So much for the idea that the first step in evangelization is to “meet people where they are.” Sometimes, leading with bold, challenging truths sparks the spiritual imagination and gets us going in the right direction.


♦ In the Public Square, I reject the modern conceit that our age is fundamentally different, new in a world-historical way. This is part of our tradition—we fashion ourselves a novus ordo seculorum, a unique society free from the past and all its failings. The 1960s saw an exaggerated form of this already exaggerated tradition of interpreting our age as a new revelation. It wasn’t just bearded campus activists who talked this way. Progressive theologians declared the decade a “kairos moment,” drawing on the Greek word for time to suggest the in-breaking of something transcendent. It was seen as a moment of new liberations and new revelations. The wheel of history was making a decisive turn. We should not underestimate the hangover caused by this infatuation. In my view, Baby Boomers are heavily invested in images of disruption and disjuncture. This is why they’re unperturbed by the fact that our educational institutions largely fail to transmit the Western tradition to the younger generation. Why worry about what came before the kairos moment? Of what use is the world before Woodstock, Stonewall, and Roe? The same mentality feeds into the “spirit of Vatican II” frame of mind, which draws harsh distinctions between the pre-conciliar era—a time of very bad theology and a “fortress church”—and the years since the Council, which get cast as the Church’s “second Pentecost.” It’s ridiculous that this way of thinking endures into the twenty-first century.


♦ Which is why it’s a great service to the Church (and to intellectual sanity more generally) that the great figures of Vatican I Catholicism are being translated. Kleutgen’s mid-nineteenth-century classic, Philosophie der Vorzeit, will be available from St. Augustine’s Press later this year under the English title, Pre-Modern Philosophy Defended. The first volume of Matthais Scheeben’s Handbuch der katholishen Dogmatik, a work of extraordinary clarity and historical depth, will be published in translation by Emmaus Academic this fall.


♦ I’ve drawn attention to the ways in which twentieth-century liberal Protestantism repackaged faithlessness as the fulfillment of faith. A friend passed along an illustration. It comes from Rudolf Bultmann’s 1952 essay on demythologization:

Radical demythologization is the parallel to the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of justification apart from works of the law by faith alone. Or rather, it is its consistent application in the sphere of knowledge. Just as the doctrine of justification, it destroys all man’s false security and all false longing for security, whether that security rests on his good behavior or on his validating knowledge. The man who will believe in God as his God must know that he has nothing in his hand in which he might believe, that he is, as it were, up in the air, and can demand no proof for the truth of the word addressing him. For the ground and object of faith are identical. Only he finds security who lets all security go, who—to speak with Luther—is prepared to go into the inner darkness.

In other words, the authentic Christian is someone who refuses the false security of biblical authority and church teaching. 


♦ Pope Francis can play the same chords. He derides the Pharisees and doctors of the law. These are theologians and church leaders who view the Christian life as grounded in authoritative teaching. But friendship with Christ is not something greater, which the tradition surely affirms. The end of the church’s authority is to bring us to an ever greater abiding in Christ. Pope Francis sometimes makes it sound as though the Church’s authority is something else, something that works against deeper life in Christ.


♦ During a recent discussion, a participant insisted that we need a “conservative revolution.” I objected, “That’s a contradiction. Conservatism is opposed to revolutions of any sort, including so-called conservative revolutions.” His retort, “Well, it’s our only choice in the face of authoritarian liberalism.” The exchange demoralized me. “Authoritarian liberalism” is as much an oxymoron as “conservative revolution.” Yet the term rings true these days. As I’ve noted, the dictatorship of relativism can be understood as obligatory liberalism. In these circumstances, which are increasingly our circumstances, the notion of conservative revolution becomes weirdly plausible. That’s another sign of the cultural and political decadence of our moment.


♦ It was at the same discussion that a retired European diplomat observed, “The foreign offices of European nations are now subsidiaries of commercial interest and human rights bureaucracies.”


♦ There’s a movement afoot to remedy the anti-architectural monstrosity in New York currently known as Penn Station by rebuilding the original McKim, Mead & White structure, a design widely thought to be McKim’s highest achievement and one of the great public buildings of the last century. Its destruction in the early 1960s aroused public outcry and sparked the historic preservation movement. There are profound administrative impediments, though that’s true for any large-scale civic project in New York (as the difficult process of rebuilding the World Trade Center site after 9/11 showed). But it can be done, and it’s being urged by Rebuild Penn Station, an initiative of the National Civic Art Society. As Michael Lewis observes in a recent issue of the New Criterion, the real impediment is cultural:

In the end, the principal obstacle confronting Rebuild Penn Station is neither administrative nor financial but psychological. Our society is reluctant to acknowledge that there is any realm in which our predecessors were more capable or accomplished than we are. To architects it would be a confession of failure to admit that they are not in a position to create something at least as beautiful and efficient as Charles McKim did. Such a confession, like all confessions, could be good for the soul.

♦ Steve Francis and Mike Mulcahy would like to form a Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) group in Traverse City, Michigan. To join, get contact francis4elkrapids@gmail.com or mike.mulcahy7@gmail.com.

Further south in Michigan, in Grand Rapids, Derrick Kooistra is forming a ROFTERS group. You can reach him at 616-862-0920 or derrickkooistra@gmail.com.

Milwaukie, Oregon is near Portland. Phil Digregorio is starting a ROFTERS group there. Contact him at 971-409-0641 or phild57@msn.com.


♦ I need to make an important correction. If you want to join the ROFTERS group in Sydney, Australia, the address to get in touch with group leader Patrice Daley is rofterssydney@gmail.com.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.