The Two Cities:
A History of Christian Politics
by andrew willard jones
emmaus road, 376 pages, $34.95
Writing authentic history that is also authentically Catholic has been a tricky business since Cardinal Baronius, if not since St. Augustine. How are we to reconcile the profound and definitive historical consequences of the Incarnation with the obvious fact that sin continues to permeate the Age of the Church? In the twentieth century, Warren H. Carroll’s A History of Christendom provided a triumphalist account that may fail to convince any but the converted; Christopher Dawson’s disparate works are stunning in their omnicompetence and world-historical connections, but short on explicit metaphysical conclusions. Andrew Willard Jones has now taken up the ambitious task of writing a Catholic political history for the twenty-first century. The material of the early chapters was streamed as a series of talks for the New Polity website in 2021, and at times the conversational tone and frequent repetition of this part of the book seem more appropriate for a lecture than for written argument. Nevertheless, The Two Cities offers a concise and accessible account that demands attention.
Jones’s argument challenges two fundamental contemporary assumptions. First, it rejects the traditional narrative of progressive teleology, in which centuries of rational enlightenment and humanistic values lead to our ever more perfect secular society. This is a political history in a self-consciously Augustinian frame, though perhaps Jones is more optimistic about politics than Augustine ever was. Jones tells a story of how human society has approached and receded from the City of God, and of the ways in which that progress and decline have shaped history. This Christian teleology may obscure the challenging particularities of the past in favor of a grand universal narrative, but it also presents a challenge of its own to how contemporary Christians—and especially Catholics—conceive of their political role and responsibilities.
Second, Jones asks us to reject the very concept of “religion” as a private concern: Salvation may be personal, but it is definitely not individual. The purpose of politics is therefore Augustinian rather than Aristotelian: more perfectly to know God and reflect his kingdom on earth. God has revealed this kingdom to us in progressive ages (Nature, Law, Grace), with each new dispensation subsuming that which came before, so that the whole of the human person, in his social as well as individual capacity, may be reconciled with him. Just as all of history is progressively gathered up in the kingdom, so our hierarchies here on earth—from parents to kings—cumulatively embody divine authority.
If such a formulation sounds oppressive, Jones argues, that is because our modern materialist conceptions—whether liberal, socialist, nationalist, or some combination thereof—can see politics only in terms of power, rather than in terms of their true purpose, the mediation of God’s love through society. This failure of imagination is hardly surprising, given the exploitation and abuse characteristic of the City of Man throughout history. But rather than rejecting that city in favor of the City of God, we have settled for the sinful essence of politics. Our attempts to fence it in with ideologies, constitutions, and rights have only ensnared us further in a hell of fallen nature—Eliot’s “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” The aspiration to perfection through divine grace at the heart of apostolic society and subsequent Christian polities is abandoned.
Jones’s ability to liberate himself and the reader from the shackles of modern left–right dichotomies and show an alternative way of understanding political history through a Catholic lens is remarkable and inspiring. This is not a “conservative” history in a political sense, certainly not a “Christian nationalist” one. (Jones emphatically rejects nationalism as a pagan tendency fatal to Christendom.) Though integralists may find much to celebrate here, the book is not an endorsement of the movement. Instead, it recognizes the diversity of political arrangements possible in a Christian society and rejects the authoritarian approach to Christian conformity that characterized the period following the Reformation through the nineteenth century—and, though Jones does not discuss it, Franco’s Spain in the twentieth.
Jones’s synthesis of the documents of the Second Vatican Council within the wider scope of Catholic tradition is careful and sympathetic—a welcome change from the blithe assertions, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the council ushered in an uncomplicated renewal of the Church’s mission. He acknowledges, for instance, the extent to which conciliar documents such as Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes appear to cede ground to essentially secular concepts (religious liberty, the perfectibility of man, and so on), ground that had been defended at great cost over the course of the Christian tradition. However, by relying on Lumen Gentium as the interpretive hermeneutic for the whole council, Jones insists on the integrity of the Church as a transformative and all-encompassing community that must ultimately convert the City of Man and bring it within herself.
Throughout, Jones’s arguments about the practical, political consequences of Catholicism and deviations from it—pagan, Arian, Protestant, socialist, and so on—are thought-provoking. The problem, strangely, comes with the historical analysis, which is often too flat; perhaps a better subtitle might be A Political Theology of Christian History. In order to preserve the holiness of the City of God, Jones presents the Church Militant as an idealized protagonist, despite the persistent and pervasive flaws of its members throughout history.
As Jones is a medievalist, we may concentrate on his assessment of the High Middle Ages, which he, not surprisingly, sees as a high point in Christian history—a conclusion to which this reviewer (also a medievalist) is not unsympathetic. But perhaps a truer Augustinian interpretation would recognize fundamental failures to conquer the City of Man in this period as in any other: High medieval Christendom was not the City of God. For example, Jones’s argument that “the Crusades gave us the notion that war ought not to be fanatical, suicidal, homicidal, or based on power and greed” is astonishingly wrong on every single count. Could they be presented with it, this conclusion would certainly surprise the unarmed Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians who were cut down during the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, or the Catholic men, women, and children killed at Béziers in 1209. True, these examples are worn-out tropes of anti-Catholic polemic, but they did happen. Despite what Jones claims, they were celebrated by the authors and actors of the crusading movement, including popes. It will not do to omit them in favor of a claim that the Crusades were the basis for “morality in war”: In fact, neither Gratian in the twelfth century nor Aquinas in the thirteenth mentions the Crusades in discussing just war.
Jones is correct to say that Christian theologians, from Augustine through Aquinas, shaped the concept of warfare as subject to moral constraint, distinguished in this respect from earlier pagan attitudes (though Thucydides’s framing of the Mytilenean debate and the Melian dialogue suggests that, once again, such sweeping claims must always be qualified). But Christian engagement with violence, even when necessary, can never perfect it. Likewise, St. Louis’s Christian kingdom of France, studied with verve by Jones in Before Church and State, offers regrettable examples of Jew-baiting and persecution, which we can condemn without succumbing to the temptation to indifferentism inherent in ideas of religious tolerance.
Jones nods to the fallibility of Christians, of course, and his critiques of certain aspects of the Church’s historical role, such as the “throne and altar” politics of the nineteenth-century, are insightful. His analysis is at its best as he traces the evolution of conceptions of the Church’s relationship to politics since the French Revolution (a story that accounts for half of the book). But when assessing Pope Leo XIII’s response to the rise of ideologies in the nineteenth century, for instance, he insists that “communities of true Christians are obviously more honest, more caring, more forgiving, more oriented toward each other’s good than communities based upon ideological or commercial principles.”
This is sure to raise eyebrows, even if “true Christians” carries much of the load of this claim. Could not “Christians” be replaced by “liberals” or “socialists” and the statement be equally defended by the ideology’s proponents? After all, the dismissive and clichéd response of partisans to the path of destruction wrought by ideologies is that the Jacobins or Soviets were not “true liberals” or “true communists.” Are we simply all ideologues now?
The difference, of course, is grace, which Jones rightly sees as fundamental to the City of God. But though Jones presents an attractive explanation of how immanent grace has worked through history, a closer look at many of the details would mar the neat picture. In his effort to contrast the visible City of God and the visible City of Man, he exaggerates the extent to which the former has been realized and, arguably, draws its borders too sharply. Chesterton, by contrast, recognizes in Roman opposition to Carthage the wider invisible activity of grace, which assists the better elements of human nature in struggling against the worse. Solzhenitsyn’s more subtle and deeply Christian observation—that the line between good and evil passes through every human heart—frequently feels absent from Jones’s historical account.
Jones’s appeal—implicit rather than explicit—to the Weltanschauung of the Middle Ages as normative may tempt the reader to a certain nostalgia, a nostalgia that Jones’s concluding chapter acknowledges is impossible. To give in to this temptation would be to fall into the same modern trap that Jones criticizes throughout the book: the search for salvation in systems and structures. Christian hierarchies in a Christian society are not, in themselves, a solution. A clearer view of the Middle Ages would confirm this. Looking at the great Christian figures of the thirteenth century alone, we find an age riven by sin, wherein Innocent III quietly rues the Fourth Crusade, Boniface VIII imprisons St. Celestine V, and St. Louis is succeeded by Philip the Fair. Repentance is always an option, but an option not always taken. Politics, like our salvation, is personal and therefore vulnerable to the abuse of our free will. So what would a political solution based on grace look like? Perhaps not much like a solution at all, but more like a ceaseless social striving, stumbling, and resurrecting toward God. There is no final victory before the Last Judgment, but the city presses forward anyway.
We have arrived back where we started in many ways: the Augustinian pilgrimage, but shaded in darker tones than Jones allows. The parallel between political and personal salvation persists: We must work out both with fear and trembling, constantly contrite and repentant. But true contrition requires an honest reckoning with the sins of the past.
Nevertheless, if one is able to return independently to the sources, in all their compromised complexity, without being scandalized, Jones makes a convincing case for the political consequences of the Church. He ends with a rousing call that should shake the Christian reader from acquiescence in the stagnant terms produced by materialistic assumptions about the ordering of society. He urges us instead to cooperate with divine grace in order to reform the Church and thus the world. The Two Cities is a thoughtful, imaginative, and necessary Christian critique of the futile and exhausted politics that have dogged us for centuries. The way out is less clear. Or perhaps it is so clear that we cannot see it for what it is: a humble reliance on the God of love, a patient working through our social and political progress and failures to make his city—temporally hopeless, but ultimately certain.
G. E. M. Lippiatt is a lecturer in history at the University of Exeter.
Image by Levan Ramishvili via Creative Commons. Image cropped.