A thought: How far is the average American Catholic willing to go to sacrifice the principles of the faith in exchange for some form — even a grotesque form — of socio-political relevance? That is to say, at what point does this Catholic decide that St. Thomas Aquinas and numerous other theologians of the Church were wrong to assert that if one loses a part of the Faith, they lose it all? For today the Catholic Faith, like much of anything in this world of moving parts and endless preference fulfillment, is not only “negotiable,” but malleable. This piece is outdated (or inconvenient), and so it can be cast aside. Another piece provides existential comfort, so it can stay and yet another works as a soapbox upon which to stand in the midst of the so-called “culture wars.” This is the reality of Christian living today; it is the reality of all living. Those who lack faith of any sort, whose horizon expands no further than to the Apple Store, cannot be blamed entirely for living lives which are subject to serious (or a-serious) revision at a moment’s notice. Fads change; tastes change; people change, and no one wants to be left clinging to an outmoded posture or cultural form unless clinging to some outmoded posture or cultural form is indeed what is most current at the time. Life becomes — to lift from Leo Strauss — little more than the joyless pursuit of joy; everything terminates in entertainment. Should not a Catholic find this gross spectacle of waste nauseating? One Catholic did. Writing nearly nine decades ago in his seminal work The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt saw that the apotheosis of liberalism is entertainment — a life without seriousness or grandeur or even much of a point. But today’s American Catholic wants to be a good liberal, meaning a good consumer who carries around a few moralizing positions in their side pocket (e.g., abortion, birth control, death penalty, etc.) and a wallet full of bank cards in the back. “Give me religious liberty or, absent that, give me a house in the suburbs, two cars, and a fantastic vacation package to Disney World.” Where have gone the gifts of counsel, understanding, and fortitude? They have been exchanged for a “lifestyle choice.” Господи Помилуй
Note: This suggested reading list on Catholic social teaching (CST) first appeared on the old Opus Publicum on December 3, 2013. It remains substantially unchanged, though I have added a few suggestions and modified some others. As most readers of this web-log know by now, I am a strong proponent of reading the Church’s social magisterium holistically rather than selectively. However, for the purposes of this list, I have focused on the Church’s pre-Vatican II teachings for the simple fact that they tend to be clearer and more direct than certain recent expressions of CST.
Some years back, before I became invested in Catholic social teaching and Christian integralism, there was a massive dustup involving IHS Press and the now-defunct Legion of St. Louis. The latter organization, as best as I can tell, was dedicated to traditional Catholic Action as expressed in the works of Fr. Denis Fahey. Fahey, for those unaware, was a politically active Holy Ghost Father who promoted the social doctrine of Christ the King in books and pamphlets which also took an extremely negative view of communists, freemasons, and rabbinic Judaism. In the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, Fahey became persona non grata for his alleged anti-Semitism and apparent support of anti-Zionist conspiracy theories. While not everything Fahey wrote about Jews and Judaism is defensible (an observation that could also be extended to the likes of Belloc and Chesterton as well), most of Fahey’s works are dedicated to exploring Catholic social doctrine and applying it to the modern world. What’s wrong with that?
The problem which seems to plague some of Fahey’s current followers is that they take his writings as a “package deal.” If Fahey (or any other writer on Catholic social teaching) believed this-or-that conspiracy claim about Judaism, then it is acceptable and safe for us to do so as well. That is, to say the least, sloppy thinking, the sort which contemporary Catholics dedicated to the Church’s authentic social magisterium ought to distance themselves from as quickly as possible. While charges of anti-Semitism are too often overblown, particularly when emanating from ideologically bent institutes like the Southern Poverty Law Center, they can deliver an immediate credibility death blow to even the most well-intentioned endeavors.
Not that faithful Catholics should cave to politically driven bullying. Although the Legion of St. Louis is no more (perhaps for the best), IHS Press—with its excellent catalog of classic and contemporary works on distributism, Catholic Action, and other social topics—continues on. Praise be. Unfortunately, there still exists a fringe culture of ostensible Catholics who continue to associate with organizations and movements which are unambiguously linked to not only anti-Semitism, but white supremacism, hyper-nationalism, and militarism as well. Such groups could be easily ignored if it wasn’t for the fact that their behavior is often used to tar-and-feather Catholics who know full well that racism and Church teaching are fundamentally incompatible.
On more than one occasion I have seen Catholics who are dedicated to third-way economic systems attacked by their neoliberal/libertarian critics as being associated with the so-called “Third Positionist” movement which loosely shares their social concerns while harboring a number of racialist and nationalist beliefs that are antithetical to Catholic doctrine. This type of uncharitable smearing is no different than the sort promoted by the Acton Institute’s Todd Flanders with regard to distributism—a movement he links to fascism in his “course” on distributist thought given each year at “Acton University.”
Catholics who are seriously committed to the Church’s social magisterium in an integral manner need to be prepared to deal with this and other types of nonsense. Neoliberal/libertarian Catholics have been driven back to the ropes in recent years and are now looking to swing back hard. While the main battle raging seems to be between the so-called “Radical Catholics” and the old-guard conservatives who once populated the pages of First Things, barking-mad libertarians and a newer generation intoxicated by socialist principles have also started to join in the fray. Integralism, in my estimation, provides a meaningful and doctrinally secure alternative to all of these factions, though its reemergence has—up to this point—been slow. Maybe that is a blessing in disguise. There is still considerable retrieval work to be done regarding classic Catholic social teaching. The foundation is not fully set, but it’s getting there.
Mattias A. Caro, writing over at Ethika Politika, calls on Catholics to detach themselves from the petty things of this world in order to better serve Christ the King. I couldn’t agree more. Quoting Pope Pius XI’s Quas Primas, Caro reminds readers that before Christ can reign in society, He must first reign in our hearts, minds, and wills. In most instances, Christ’s social reign begins in the home and then moves outward into the schools, workplaces, and seats of political authority. It is a pious practice for Latin Catholics to enthrone the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their homes, reciting this prayer nightly:
Last month in The New York Times Michel Houellebecq, author of the unsettling socio-political satire Submission, remarked that “Islam is political because it describes the way in which society should be organized.” In other words, there is no such thing as apolitical Islam in the way some try to say there is an apolitical Christianity. Now that late-modernity has nearly exhausted its Christian cultural heritage, it has become commonplace for many Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, to pitch their religion as a private affair which can lead to certain internal spiritual (or, rather, psychological) changes which can have salutary externalities that are valuable to a “rightly ordered” liberal-democratic regime. Setting aside the rhetoric of “human dignity,” a deontological defense no reasonable person—religious or secular—takes seriously, are these not the terms on which religious freedom is defended? “Good Christians” who practice their religion “the right way” (i.e., privately and without running afoul society’s ever-shifting value set) make for “good citizens.” They’re nice; they set-up charities and volunteer at soup kitchens; they vote for safety nets and entitlement programs; and so on, and so forth. The last thing a “good Christian” should do is start barking about how society should be organized.
I confess that I have not paid much mind to Ethika Politika’s ongoing series about what Protestants want from Catholics. In fact, my knee-jerk response to the series was, “Who cares?” If the series concerned what the Orthodox—Eastern or Oriental—want from Catholics (or vice versa), it would have been a different story, perhaps because I am biased toward Apostolic communions which have retained a valid episcopate and Eucharist. Anyway, I was intrigued by the title of today’s installment, “What I Want from Catholics: Occupy the Public Space,” by Susannah Black, an Anglican and editor at Solidarity Hall. After taking note of areas of common interest to Protestants and Catholics, including the unique opportunity the latter has to take advantage of Pope Francis’s public popularity in order to promote Christian social teachings and pro-life values, Black turns her attention to the Kingship of Christ. Here are some excerpts:
Web-logging about complex phenomena is always a fraught enterprise, particularly when no single blog post can hope to capture the density of religious and political life in Europe during the last century. Yesterday’s entry, “Comments on the Cross and the Sword in Ukraine,” may have left some readers with the (false) impression that the intersection of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) with national political life amounted to little more than the subservience of the UGCC to bald nationalistic interests. Nothing, I would argue, could be further from the truth. For while it is true that some segments of the UGCC became too involved in the affairs of Ukrainian nationalism at the expense of its God-ordained vocation, the sticky truth of the matter is that the UGCC, since the 18th Century at least, found itself placed in a complicated role of both forging a political living space for the faithful it served and putting itself in the service of saving souls.
Anton Shekhovtsov’s chapter, “By Cross and Sword: ‘Clerical Fascism’ in Interwar Western Ukraine,” published in the illuminating, albeit imperfect, volume Clerical Fascism in Interwar Europe (Routledge 2008), adds needed depth to understanding the role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in building the Ukrainian state, or at least an iteration of the Ukrainian state which did not survive the Second World War. The term “clerical fascism,” as Shekhovstov notes at the outset, is problematic, though he manages to settle on the following working definition: “[A]n authoritarian socio-political current, which emerges within clergy holding nationalist views, legitimizing and supporting fascisticised politics as a means of creating a state, in which religion’s authority, once forfeit, is expected to be revived, bringing order and earthly salvation to the nation.” Whether this definition—which Shekhovstov refers to as a “heuristic construction”—properly encompasses the full range of Greek Catholic clerical involvement in early 20th C. Ukrainian political life is questionable. Even more questionable is whether it can be meaningfully applied to other religious and national contexts, though that query can be dealt with at another time. Even if Shekhovstov’s definition holds for some aspect of 1920s/30s Ukrainian national realities, it is not immediately clear what should be thought of such realities today.
The “Options” phenomenon is quite out of control, and even Rod Dreher, progenitor of the so-called Benedict Option, seems to recognize it. In a recent American Conservative blog post, “Benedict and the Omnibus of Options,” Dreher attempts to defend “his option” (which he ultimately credits to Alasdair MacIntyre) against the plethora of others floating around out there. Devastated though I was to see no mention of my own comprehensive list of “Options” in Dreher’s post, that devastation quickly gave way to confusion over what exactly the Benedict Option is other than a call for Christians to retreat, set-up shop away from the world at large, and wait for the present storm to blow over. If that is what the Benedict Option is at its core, then it is an option set-up for a select few persons who have the means to relocate from their current jobs and find (or invent) new ones. Not everyone writes for a mainline conservative magazine after all, and very few these days have the agrarian or artisan chops to make it in one of the communities Dreher idealizes as embodying the Benedict Option.
Symphonia, as a theological-political concept, is practically dead in our times. Maybe, just maybe, a few glimmers exist in contemporary Russia, though a large body of critics, including political scientists and churchmen, think otherwise. What may look something like symphonia at first blush is merely a (post)modern form of caesaropapism, with the Russian Orthodox Church serving as the handmaid of the Russian state. The Moscow Patriarchate’s “Russian World” ecclesial ideology fits snugly with secular Russia’s larger international ambitions—ambitions that have made themselves violently felt in places like Georgia and Ukraine over the past several years. In other parts of the so-called Orthodox world nothing like sympahonia exists. It certainly does not exist in the Middle East nor in Greece, where the state finds its future crushed on the heel of the European Union while the Orthodox Church remains almost powerless to provide firm moral guidance under seemingly impossible conditions. Integralism, which has become a rallying cry for a small (but dedicated) band of Catholics, is certainly not dead, but it remains, at best, a theory and, at worst, a concept without teeth. There are more than a few of those floating around right now. May we forever be spared the suggestion of a coming “Integralist Option” or, for the symphonia crowd, a “Justinian Option.”