Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Catholic University

Matthew Schmitz aptly describes “Biden’s Collegiate Catholicism” (April 2024) in two senses. First, Biden’s agenda takes its ideological cues from, and serves the class interests of, the “most formidable redoubts of Democratic power”: the universities. Second, Biden’s politics embody the “therapeutic rather than dogmatic” faith of America’s increasingly heterodox Catholic schools. The latter reflects how poorly Ex Corde Ecclesiae was received, as James F. Keating explained in “Who Killed the Catholic University?” (April 2023). The former indicates another change: the remaking of the American republic into an administrative state. This transformation required the replacement of classical, religious liberal arts colleges by modern, secular research universities.

Schmitz notes that the New Deal relied on a more sensible approach to immigration and sexual politics than those dictated by our current insane ideologies. It also relied on the new research universities. FDR’s “Brain Trust” was composed not of “college men,” but of university men: highly competent graduates whose scientific expertise informed, and legitimated, their bureaucratic rule.

By comparison to the men who accomplished Roosevelt’s revolution, today’s well-credentialed elites are dwarfs. The research university itself, rather than on the ascent, is in poor shape. Standards, substance, and public approval are all down. Far from professing to serve the American interest, universities now unambiguously work for the dissolution of person, nation, and church. Real reform remains remote.

Who still thinks we should defer to university-generated expertise, filtered through the federal bureaucracy, to navigate our public crises? Only the senior faction of the Democratic Party. Anyone hoping to recover some pro-worker, pro-family, and pro-nation elements from the legacy of the New Deal must consider how to do so while our institutions are not only thoroughly captured by the left, but deeply decadent.

Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos
wyoming catholic college
lander, wyoming

I take the point made by Matthew Schmitz on the tensions and contradictions of Biden’s biographical facts and self-representation. Certainly, the book on the relationship between the Biden presidency and American Catholicism would be more complicated to write. One of the points where I disagree is Schmitz’s assertion that “whereas John F. Kennedy encouraged Americans to view his Catholic faith as a private matter, Joe Biden has made his faith a defining element of his public identity.” I think Biden emphasized his Catholicism more during the 2020 campaign than in office.

This is a symptom of the pre-Nicene situation into which Western Christianity has fallen more than the narrow ideological parameters of the Democratic Party’s platform about abortion and gender. The absence of visible contacts between this presidency and the American bishops matches the episcopate’s sense of being in the wilderness; political power is no longer willing or able to guarantee the claims of Christianity. The religious pretenses and claims of the United States have been wiped away, something that Carl Trueman has also observed in his own way. One issue not mentioned in the piece is the growing distance between the Biden presidency and the pontificate of Francis. Their different relationships with the academy are revealing. Whereas Biden has maintained a close link to the academic establishment, Pope Francis has not, keeping his connection with the people unmediated. Maybe Schmitz would appreciate the pope’s work with what he calls the ethnic Catholic neighborhood.

Collegiate these days means elitist, hypocritical, and morally indifferentist, and not necessarily without reason. There is an identity crisis in Catholic colleges and universities. It appears on both ends of the Catholic ideological spectrum, but it is more cleverly camouflaged on the conservative-traditionalist side. Legitimate anxieties about orthodoxy have often turned into a denial of the impossibility of applying a pre-Vatican II theological order to the contemporary world.

Massimo Faggioli
villanova university
villanova, pennsylvania

Matthew Schmitz replies:

Massimo Faggioli has written perceptively on the challenges facing the Catholic university. In “A Wake-Up Call to Liberal Theologians” (Commonweal, May 16, 2018), Faggioli drew attention to the decline of academic theology at Catholic universities. As Faggioli observed, the process that began with the Land O’Lakes statement, which famously declared the independence of Catholic universities from ecclesiastical control, “also emancipated the Catholic Church from academic theology.” It created a situation in which academic theology no longer had reason to think ecclesially and found its influence on the Church diminishing.

In another important essay, “Identity Crisis” (Commonweal, March 30, 2021), Faggioli described how the Catholic university has “embraced deconstruction of the neo-Scholastic hegemony since Vatican II so fully that it’s now suspicious of any Catholic institutionalism” and has been “too accommodating of the identity politics that have taken root since the 1960s.” Suspicion of Catholic institutionalism can be seen in the shift from hiring for Catholic belief to “hiring for mission,” and in the replacement of the idea of the Catholic university with that of a university “in the Catholic tradition.” Bishops have far less say over what professors at Catholic universities are allowed to say than do obscure administrators. Yet, as Faggioli has noted, “the fear of ecclesiastical tyranny is still much stronger than the fear of being put completely in the hands of technocrats.”

Liberal Catholics have a long history of questioning ecclesial authority and seeking noninstitutional ways of understanding the Church. Conservatives may be tempted to sneer at where this history has led, but ecclesial populism, which is increasingly prominent on the right, carries similar risks.

Pavlos Papadopoulos draws a distinction between “college men” and “university men,” the former being trained for republican citizenship, and the latter for management of an administrative and imperial state. In the United States, this form of rule has tended to depoliticize political questions, presenting them as properly solved by the application of expertise (here Faggioli’s observation about the “technocratic” nature of the university is relevant). Because man is a political animal, this depoliticization is dehumanizing.

Conservative Blasphemy

In “Suicide of the Radical Right” (April 2024), Matthew Rose sketches an example of where the political right goes wrong through the life of Dominique Venner. As a first-time reader of Rose, I am grateful to discover a writer contending with the blasphemies that can permeate conservative ideology.

One tenet of the “radical right,” as defined in Rose’s essay, is that humans need conflict. While Venner might not have considered “violence . . . an intrinsic good,” he believed it was a better alternative than a world without war. Like all compelling heresies, this idea strikes at something true—that man, in his fallen condition, will not be content with peace. I am not sure who committed the original sin or whether it occurred in a garden, but ever since that day, mankind has been bent on self-destruction. Dostoevsky’s underground man laughed at the idea that man would ever be satisfied with peace and prosperity. Walker Percy said, “The real question is seldom asked . . . Can man get along without war?” But where Venner thought this underscored man’s “heroic drive” and his desire to overcome obstacles, Dostoevsky and Percy thought just the opposite. The fact that man cannot survive without war highlights something terribly dark in his soul.

The blasphemy of the radical left is to deny human depravity; the radical right’s blasphemy is to enshrine this depravity as noble. The radical left believes it can build heaven on earth; the radical right would rather create their own wars before accepting whatever paltry utopia the left can contrive. The radical right longs for a return to the past, whether it be Venner’s veneration of Rome or the white supremacist’s plot to restore the glorious antebellum days, while the radical left forever dreams of a future with no more wars. Notably, neither cares much for the present. 

It is only through an eternal Love that the past and future, left and right, are redeemed into one. This is what Rose articulated through the writings of the Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac. We can have faith in the traditions of the past and hope for a better future, but without love, these become clashing—and destructive—cymbals. Love is not an abstraction, but an act requiring flesh and blood. Only through the mystery of the Incarnation, through the Word taking on human flesh, through Him mounting a hill and hanging on a tree for a particular and definite number of hours, can we know that God is Love.

“Only through time time is conquered,” T. S. Eliot said. Only through acts of love in the present moment can we conquer the blasphemies of every age.

Matthew Beringer
atlanta, georgia

My thanks to Matthew Rose for “Suicide of the Radical Right.” By addressing the death and philosophy of French thinker Dominique Venner, who followed Friedrich Nietzsche in placing the blame for the decline of the West at the feet of Christianity, he has intervened in a long polemic between Christians and modern pagans. The concerns of the radical right or the online vitalists are pressing ones: the desire for personal nobility, for a rich cultural inheritance, to belong to a people assured of its traditions and identity, and to live in a society where honor and shame are accorded appropriately. Rose recalled that a young Henri de Lubac responded to the same experience of war that turned Venner in a pro-fascist direction by providing the Christian response to the life-denying corruption of a managerial liberalism that collaborated with the Nazis. That response could only be one thing, a reexamination of the life-affirming word of the Gospel, which testified to him who declared “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

The vitalists require a response today from the Church. Who will, to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, “carry the fire” of the true faith? Paul Kingsnorth’s post-apocalyptic The Wake deserves rereading if we are to understand vitalism’s appeal and the Christian response. Its narrator, Buccmaster, has just survived the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. He returns from a fishing trip to see his property burning, his wife dead, and all in the wake of having heard of his sons’ recent deaths in war against the invader. While readers will feel empathy for Buccmaster, his increasing desire to revitalize pagan worship reveals the vitalist journey as another manifestation of the pagan death drive. The pagans’ best aspirations can only be fulfilled by Christianity, which offers resurrection instead of annihilation.

Alex Taylor
university of dallas
irving, texas

Earthbound Politics

Archbishop Chaput’s brief critique of the theology of Cardinal Fernández in “Cardinal Fernández Misleads” (April 2024) seems to capture what many of us outside the Roman Catholic Church see as the real character of the Francis papacy: It is a form of liberal Protestantism in papal vestments. The notion of theology as from the people sounds very much like the old notion that religious dogma is nothing more than an expression of religious self-consciousness. Here it may well be the religious self-consciousness of a particular group (for Francis, the poor and the disadvantaged) rather than of individuals in general. But the result is probably very similar: Talk about God becomes really nothing more than talk about humanity writ large.

It is likely that the archbishop has to be careful in how he expresses himself with regard to the pope. As a Protestant, I feel no such restraint. A gospel that is nothing more than human concerns dressed up in religious language is no gospel at all. It does not rise above the immanent, and it cannot point to the transcendent. Any reader of the liberal Catholic press will know how little transcendence features in the opinions found therein. Earthbound politics in religious jargon is still nothing more than earthbound politics. True, there are occasional moments of orthodox clarity, such as the recent declaration Dignitas Infinita. But these seem to be exceptions to the general drift and not representative of the overall direction of present papal policy.

Yet as an orthodox Protestant, I take no pleasure in the theological disaster that has been unfolding in Rome over the last decade. Rome has status, money, and power that could, if her leadership so desires, be used to hold the line on key social and political issues. And all Christians potentially benefit from that. But to act with conviction, one must believe with conviction. And there lies the problem, as the archbishop has so helpfully indicated.

Carl R. Trueman
grove city college
grove city, pennsylvania

Mormons & Millennials

I would like to support the argument from “Against the Young” (April 2024) by Liel Leibovitz that the best way to persuade young men and women to become engaged in their faith communities is to offer them “a clear and compelling case for choosing right over wrong . . . a real, serious, meaningful, character-building challenge.” The missionary program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an example of how this can be effectively done.

There are currently over 65,000 young adult members of the church serving as full-time, unpaid missionaries around the world. Young men volunteer to serve two years once they graduate from high school and reach age eighteen. Young women who reach age nineteen serve for a year and a half. Many of them accept calls to proselytize in nations that require learning a foreign language. While the church pays for their transportation, they are supported from their own savings and family contributions. These missionaries come not only from the seven million church members in the United States and Canada but also from the ten million members in Latin America, Asia, Oceania, Europe, and Africa. Missionaries to the United States are drawn from Asia and Africa. This cross pollination of missionary work serves to create a web of international connections that unites church members.

The skills church members learn in missionary service benefit them for the rest of their lives. Many missionaries utilize their fluency in other languages in their future careers. They acquire valuable communication skills through articulating their faith to strangers. They are prepared for public service to their church, which unlike other denominations, depends entirely on part-time volunteers. Most of all, these lifelong missionaries know how to preach a sermon, how to lead in serving those in need, and how to teach their own children to take on the difficult but worthwhile tasks inspired by their faith in Christ.

Raymond Takashi Swenson
richland, washington

Liel Leibovitz’s essay “Against the Young” is a much-needed corrective. There are too many well-funded and ineffective “youth outreach” programs, plaguing both our churches and conservative politics. Leibovitz is right that the young do “suck,” insofar as they must be formed in virtue, and not indulged. But let’s not let the graybeards off the hook, either.

We are now seeing, in both religion and politics, the effects of pragmatic approaches developed in very different times. The Baby Boomers embraced dramatic liberalizing reforms, which have now ossified into dogma. They oversaw foundational changes to liturgy, which are now manifest across denominations. The charitable interpretation is that these reforms were appropriate responses to real challenges of the age. But that age no longer exists.

Our country has changed rapidly in recent decades. Millennials and Generation Z have come of age navigating extreme disruption and disorder. Culturally, every mooring tradition is undermined and considered suspect. Economically, prospects are tempered by debt, outsourcing, and over-financialization. And all these anxieties are exacerbated by a Big Tech industry seeking to exploit every adolescent weakness.

As a result, young people certainly do not need the desperate attempts at relevance offered by your typical youth outreach program. They also do not want it. They want order, tradition, and transcendence. There are religious and political movements that are growing among younger generations, but they explicitly reject the postwar consensus built by the very leaders who now lament how gray their ranks have become. 

The Latin Mass and new right youth are just two trends I could highlight. If the adults in charge are serious about reaching the young, then they should ask themselves why there is a rejection of their philosophical paradigm. Leibovitz is right that the youth need to be led, not coddled. But we should also be against the old who lead them astray.

Emile Doak
middletown, virginia

Liel Leibovitz replies:

I am grateful to Emile Doak for his very astute reminder: Let us rail against the coddled young, but let us not be quick to forgive the simpering old their sins of spinelessness and lack of resolve. And as Raymond Takashi Swenson correctly notes, if we’re looking for examples of young Americans rising up to the occasion, showing what true grit and conviction looks like, we’ve few better ones than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Regressive Progress

A quick brava to Mary Harrington for her elegantly written, eminently reasonable “Normophobia” (April 2024). I especially liked her use—and her hijacking—of that magic word “phobia.” Derived from the Greek word phobos, meaning fear, it has a clinical ring that puts a medical costume on anything today’s cultural left needs to demonize. “Phobia” is the Swiss Army Knife of political deceit, and it comes with a vaguely scientific perfume. It is used to neutralize critics of gay adoptions, puberty blockers, Hamas, and Iranian terrorism. Homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia explain their medieval pathologies and have the added value of intimidating any resistance.

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote that “a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.” In that light, the word “normophobia” is as precise as the word “progress” is duplicitous in capturing the cultural left’s hatred of anything settled, permanent, or natural in the business of being human. That includes the traditional family. Pieper went on to note that the “common element” in so many of today’s political struggles “is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.”

Harrington deserves a medal for simply speaking the truth.

Francis X. Maier
yardley, pennsylvania

Unwitting Accomplices

Everyday Freedom” (April 2024) is correct in delineating probability of success as one of the four pillars of jus ad bellum to be considered by the belligerent nation before waging war. Yet R. R. Reno has incorrectly applied this principle to the war in Ukraine. 

The absence of such probability in no way indicts as unjust, or “feckless,” the leadership of the defending nation. It is a fortiori when the victim has demonstrated resilience, success against the odds, and the likelihood of atrocities should the unjust aggressor prevail. 

Nations, like men, have a God-given mandate to execute justice and guard the weak under their jurisdiction. Given the history of Ukraine under Russian domination, there should be no reason to discourage Ukraine’s incipient courage by inferences that tactical losses erode the moral justification upon which their cause rests.

In following misapplied moral principles, we could find ourselves as the unwitting intellectual accomplices to unutterable atrocities. By misapplying the principles upon which their resolve rests, we may very well erode the resolve of an entire nation. Ukrainian resilience gives our own sons and daughters a template by which to persevere in their improbable task of overcoming the godless who are knocking at our own gates.

Jason Charron
carnegie, pennsylvania

Image by Mike Beales, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.