Rod Dreher’s post at The American Conservative, Ghosts of Colson & Neuhaus, is exceptionally interesting. It summarizes the discussions at a recent seminar hosted by First Things editor Rusty Reno, including both Catholics and non-Catholics, on the state of the culture, and more particularly on the state of the American Catholic Church. Much of the focus was on the current generation of students. There’s a lot here, but one issue stood out for me: the real debate within American Catholicism.
As one of the participants at the seminar argued, there really is not, despite the media, a major debate between “liberal” and “conservative” American Catholics. There is indeed a political debate between liberals and conservatives, but it does not map on to any important debate within the American Church. “Liberal” Catholics are Catholics on their way out the door. Their children will be either non-Catholic or else serious Catholic believers. “Liberal” Catholicism is like “liberal” Protestantism: a way station to something else. At best, it will survive as a cultural inflection; it has no chance of being a living faith.
The deeper and more fascinating debate is between those who think that American Catholicism is compatible with this country’s political regime, and the “radicals” who deny it. The accommodationists, to call them that, trace back to Fr John Courtney Murray and nowadays include people like Robert George and George Weigel. The radicals include Alistair Macintyre and others less well known to me. The accommodationists think that there is a lot wrong, to be sure, with American culture and politics, and that the problems may have begun as long ago as the Progressive Era; but they also think institutional reform is both necessary and (still) possible. They want to reinvigorate core institutions of American civil society like the family, the Church, and other voluntary associations.
The accommodationists can point to a period like the 1940s and 1950s to show that American society can be, not just tolerant, but even receptive, to Catholicism. They would probably distinguish between two kinds of American liberalism – the classical liberalism of the Founders, and the liberalism of the present. The former regarded government as, essentially, a scaffolding or a set of neutral procedures, allowing citizens to pursue their private projects peaceably within an agreed-upon framework. The latter kind of liberalism posits that the State exists to pursue certain substantive goods. Both forms of liberalism rest on a conception of the sovereignty of the individual, but the latter form assumes that the State must play a more active role in bringing about the conditions in which individual choice can flourish. Since that form of liberalism regards the family and the Church as inimical to the sovereignty of the individual, it is inimical to Catholicism. But the earlier, historic kind of liberalism is not hostile to such institutions, and indeed draws sustenance from them. (This, of course, was Tocqueville’s argument.) Thus, for the accommodationists, the task ahead for American Catholics seems to be to restore the pristine form of liberalism to American politics.
The radicals regard the 1940s and 50s not as “ordinary time” but as an exceptional and ephemeral truce between Catholicism and American liberalism. They see today’s form of liberalism as the natural or organic outgrowth of classical liberalism, not as an aberration from it. Thus, the antagonism between Catholicism and American liberalism has always been there, even if at times it has been latent. For the radicals, the fundamental flaw in American liberalism has existed since the Founding: liberalism has a false anthropology. It assumes an atomistic conception of the individual, who extricates himself or herself from loneliness and reaches society through a series of bargains. We are not made for society; we construct it. We are not naturally altruistic; we are utterly self-seeking. We are not natively good, nor do we even have natural propensities towards the good. We are incorrigibly evil, but with cleverly devised institutions, we can sometimes produce good effects from evil causes. Political outcomes, like market ones, are guided by an invisible hand, which transubstantiates private vice into public virtue. In essence, the radical Catholics think that American liberalism is founded on a Calvinist, and hence false, conception of human nature. For them, such liberalism both starts and ends in what Burke called “the dust and powder of individuality” which sooner or later is “dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”
There are problems for each side of the Catholic debate. The radicals will have to explain more clearly how the liberalism of the present is continuous with, indeed grows out of, the classical liberalism of the early Republic. They will have to demonstrate the historical and conceptual linkages between the Calvinist and consumerist conceptions of human nature, and how the one eventually developed into the other.
The radicals will also have to explain how the American Catholic Church of the 1950s and 60s achieved such rapport with American society. Ancient, metaphysical, hierarchical, dogmatic, and other-worldly as it was, it nevertheless exerted a powerful influence over a society that was self-consciously modern, pragmatic, tolerant, democratic and secular – an influence far greater than that exercised by the American Church of the present. The Church may have been like a gorgeous if barnacled Spanish galleon, cast ashore by careless waves on some cold New England beach; but however incongruously, it fitted the landscape. Was that “ordinary time,” or is this?
The accommodationists will have to explain why things went wrong and how they can be corrected. Given the stupendous efforts that have been made in the “culture wars” of the past forty years to recapture American culture or even just to hold the line against its further deterioration, they will have to show how, in much less promising circumstances, further efforts will bring tangible improvements.
Unquestionably, this is a serious and important debate – one that calls the ultimate assumptions of the American regime into question. Many of us are shocked and depressed by the current state of America – its hardness of heart to the most vulnerable; its contempt for the poor; its violence abroad and at home; its corrupt sexual morality; its increasing intolerance and persecutory zeal (with ourselves as targets); and so on. But for these debating Catholics, the question is whether the American situation is curable, by some kind of reform program; or incurable, inherently tending to self-destruction.
The parties to the Catholic debate are thinking foundationally – a sure sign that we are in crisis. They are asking: Do we continue to engage the legal and political system? Or do we break off and try to create sheltered communities of our own, like the hidden church under the Roman Empire? What can we learn from the adaptive strategies of other religious minorities (a particularly interesting observation in Dreher’s posting came from an Orthodox Jew)? Is America a disappointing friend, or is it an enemy? If it’s an enemy, how do we deal with it?