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A Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment 
by jean-luc marion
university of chicago press, 120 pages, $27.99

The manifest nihilism of our present moment and our headlong plunge toward a posthuman, post-political future is proving to be quite a stimulus to Catholic thought. The apparent rapprochement between post-conciliar Catholicism and liberal modernity seems to be falsified by events. The disintegration of the prevailing world order demands new reflection on Christian existence among the ruins. 

Jean-Luc Marion’s slender new volume, A Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment, is a welcome entry into the fray. Author of profound studies in philosophy and philosophical theology, Marion is not known as an apologist or a political commentator. But more surprising than the fact of his intervention is the audacity of his central provocation: that despite appearances, this moment of disintegration and collapse may yet prove to be the dawning of a Catholic moment. Making deft use of Justin Martyr's defense of Christian faith in ancient Rome, Marion reprises the great apologist's claim that Christians are to the secular city “the most useful of men.”  The Church nurtures a communion transcending politics, and only this release from the increasingly impotent mania of the political makes possible the restoration of the universal within a crumbling human society. 

Marion seeks simultaneously to justify the Church’s continued existence in French society and indicate a way forward. He charts a course between the “French heresies” of progressivism and integralism, which he regards as a fantasy. For him, the so-called “crisis of the church”—measured by sociological criteria—is really a reflection of the hopeless decadence of broader society. He focuses particularly on France, but his central point—the contrast between “crisis” and “decadence”—could be extended more broadly. A society becomes decadent “when the political power appears as an impotent fraud and it can’t help but tell people that this is so by making them pay the ever greater price of its failure.” The defining marks of decadence are powerlessness and paralysis, the incapacity to make a decision that would inaugurate true reform. As citizens, Christians are by no means immune (or exonerated) from today’s decadence, and yet the Church is founded by Christ and ever reforming itself in response to his call.

Against the backdrop of modern decadence, the Church appears, counterintuitively, as “the only society that is not ‘in crisis’ because it can practice freely its ‘true crisis’ by deciding over and over again for Christ.” Echoing Augustine, Marion argues that the Church makes possible a communion that is truly universal and therefore more than political. This prevents the sacralization of politics on either secular or integralist terms. It also allows Christians to remain loyal to the always imperfect city of man, for in contrast to progressive reformers who rage against the limits of what can be done, believers are not susceptible to this crisis mentality. For these reasons, Christians “furnish society with its best citizens from the point of view even of the interests of the city of men.” 

Thus Marion argues against France’s paradoxically religious ideology of laïcité, which has effectively become a blank check for the expulsion of Catholicism from public space, while praising the 1905 law mandating separation of church and state as an expression of the perennial teaching of the Church—and as a perennial contrast with Islam. The proper separation of political power and spiritual authority is a uniquely Christian achievement that alone can prevent us from making the state absolute; actuate the more-than-political communion necessary for real political community; and manifest the universality necessary for the realization of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. “In order to become brothers, it is necessary to come from a father, from a common father who universally precedes each son.” The attempt to manufacture this brotherhood on our own concludes in terror.

True, but one wonders if this is adequate to the demands of the moment. Marion’s argument has some limitations, the most important of which flow from the primacy of the phenomenological method in his philosophy. It is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to formulate an adequate social and political theory from a phenomenological analysis of experience. Arriving at a fully social and political vision will either require the addition of political, metaphysical, and theological elements extrinsic to the phenomenological method, or the final theory will omit indispensable considerations—like the natures of things.

In Marion’s book, theology seems at times like an extraneous, even pious add-on to his philosophical method, while his political and ecclesial analysis turns disappointingly sociological at crucial junctures. His concluding treatment of power and authority, which he calls “un-power” and which moderns universally conflate, is important. It can help us rescue these concepts from their political captivity. Yet it remains partial. He does not consider how a proper understanding of authority, rooted in a Trinitarian metaphysic, might transform the meaning of power itself. He appears to take for granted the modern equation of power and force, and that modern political theory is the science of power—which implies a juridical or administrative state indifferent to nature, truth, and ultimate goods. Despite Marion’s political pessimism and unique style, it is questionable whether his conception of political order differs essentially from Murray’s or Maritain’s. 

The central problem is that Marion sidesteps the question of what politics owes to reality. He does not grapple with the question of whether political order should somehow bear the order of creation or partake in some way of the kingship of Christ. In championing “separation,” which he likens to the American First Amendment, Marion does not entertain the historical possibility that it was the desacralization of political order that led to making politics absolute. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in late modernity politics is sacralized as the science of power becomes the first philosophy. Conversely, Marion doesn’t consider that a properly sacralized politics rooted in metaphysical reflection needn’t necessarily conflate political power and spiritual authority, and that it could avoid idolatry and absolutism by relativizing politics within a supra-political order. 

Marion is rightly suspicious of the political temptations that can easily accrue to such a theological vision, especially under conditions of social disintegration and hopelessness. Yet  what Marion dismisses as “nostalgia” and integralist fantasy may have a necessary and renewing function as a kind of Augustinian memoria of the true city. Its practical impossibility is beside the point, or rather precisely the point. For in memoria and longing, the true city is manifest in its absence. Our longing might, indeed, be the very form that “life in the Spirit” takes in us, enabling the Christian’s “partial contribution” to the justice of the earthly city. 

Marion is wrong to disavow metaphysics, without which it is difficult to give much cognitive content to the notion of “universality.” His definition is vague: “Everything that transcends the specific conflicts among groups, the contradictory interests, the ideologies, and identities, everything that puts the unity of the nation in danger.” This studied metaphysical restraint contrasts with how the Church stands virtually alone in defending universal human nature, indeed the principle of reality itself, from fierce biotechnical and ideological assault. Marion’s vision of universality seems long on caritas and short on veritate, when in the present moment it is precisely the Church’s defense of human nature and reality that needs to be infused with metaphysical depth—and confidence. 

Marion offers a genuinely speculative attempt, as Hegel says, to “comprehend one’s own time in thought”—in contrast both to the progressives, who exchange thinking for pastoralism and sociologism, and the integralists, who conflate thinking with archaeology. This is a welcome philosophical antidote to the relentlessly political character of contemporary Catholic thought on both the left and the right. His maxim, “Politics, yes, but never first,” is surely correct; for the nihilism of our political order is not at root a political problem. And it cannot ultimately be overcome by political means, by embracing the Polish or Hungarian models, however preferable these regimes may be to the rapidly decaying West. “The Church can change the face of the world only by remaining itself. But it can remain itself only by changing itself (allowing itself to be changed) from generation to generation in accord with the call that it constantly receives.” This is an important and indispensable insight. Yet defending the truth of creation and human nature is included in this call, and to answer it we will have to go beyond Marion. 

Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.

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