Unrequired Impressions on an Ecclesiastical Standoff

Nota Bene: What follows is off-the-cuff, unrefined, and unapologetically impressionistic. If you feel the need to get angry over anything below or tell me I am full of it, all I have to say is, “Tranquilo.”

I have, for the past few years, been effectively “retired” from web-logging. There is too much going on in my life to keep up with it and besides, “Catholic blogging” (for lack of a better term) has descended into grifterism. Gone are the halcyon days of the 00s-10s when both Catholic and Orthodox bloggers wrote serious pieces (and sometimes not-so-serious pieces) that both challenged each other’s particular stances while exhibiting genuine self-criticism. Sure, some folks were better at it than others, but almost all of them have moved on. Indeed, some have even left their previous confessions for new communions or, in one notable instance, abandoned Christianity altogether. Such is life. Although I am aware of several Catholic and Orthodox blogs that still exhibit a genuine desire to probe “things ecclesiastical” in a charitable, exacting, and critical manner or, in the alternative, present interesting tidbits of history, spirituality, and theology, I think the “glory days” are gone, or maybe just on hold.

All of that aside, the reason I have (temporarily) returned to this blog is because several people asked me to weigh-in on the recent “Mexican standoff” featuring Steve Skojec (1 Peter Five), Rod Dreher (American Conservative), and Edward Feser (academic and writer). I am not going to rehearse in depth their various arguments; you can find their writings easily enough. The short and the long of it is that Skojec, who has fancied himself a champion of traditional Catholicism for a number of years, has been undergoing a somewhat understandable, though sideways, “spiritual crisis” concerning the state of contemporary Catholicism. Having had a couple of those myself over the years, I cannot blame him. Nor do I blame Skojec for being public about it. It seems he is looking for reassurance, though it also seems he may be looking for it in all the wrong places. The online Catholic world of today is not the online Catholic (or, for that matter, Orthodox) world of a decade or two ago. Despite rabid disagreements, folks on both sides of the divide used to be fairly well-meaning, even if their advice failed to hit the mark. Today, online Catholicism in particularly is a terrain littered with hucksters, grifters, and triumphalists looking to advance various agendas to an unprecedented degree. Skojec seems to have left himself vulnerable to their machinations.

Of course, “agendaism” is not unique to Catholics. Consider Dreher: A former Catholic who went through a very public “spiritual crisis” that apparently brought him to Eastern Orthodoxy back in the mid-00s. Realizing that there was not enough public scandal in his own communion to keep-up the clicks, he has spent an inordinate amount of his post-Catholic career harping on Catholicism while also drawing from (plagiarizing?) Catholic thought in order to bolster his pop dystopian screeds. And so, it comes as little surprise that Dreher immediately piggybacked on Skojec’s crisis to retell, for the umpteenth time, his own. Concomitantly, Dreher has invited Skojec to look to Orthodoxy because, according to Dreher, it has all of these bells and whistles that Catholicism lacks. This is where Feser enters the fray. Regardless of what one thinks of Feser’s Thomas-heavy Catholic theology, he is correct that the Catholic tradition, broadly understood, is not lacking in the riches of the East. However, those riches are too often buried under the rubble of modernity, if not marginalized in favor of an attenuated Latinism that has become depressingly normative over the centuries.

All that said, the reason I was asked to comment on this is because it is something of a public record (though perhaps an increasingly obscure point of personal history) that I spent seven years in the Eastern Orthodox Church after returning to Christianity in my 20s before returning to the Catholic fold in 2011. Members of my extended family remain Eastern Orthodox and indeed my brother will likely be ordained to the diaconate in the coming year. I was married in the Orthodox Church and three of my four children received the sacraments of initiation there. Canonically, I have been and remain Greek Catholic, though I maintain strong ties to traditional Latin Catholicism. While I did experience some hostility toward Orthodoxy in the years after I left, all of that has abated. My “spiritual crisis,” if you will, did not become clear to me until years later. It was not a “crisis about Orthodoxy” so much as a crisis in myself, one that invited me to issue public condemnations of my prior confession in return for inordinate public support offered by Catholics who had been looking to get some digs in on their estranged Eastern brethren. I hope that is water under the bridge now. I have apologized for it. And if my apologies were not sufficient, please know I am issuing them again.

Returning to the main point, I cannot stress enough that the grass is not greener, regardless of where you sit on the East/West divide. (Oh, and before I continue, let me make note that “the East” is not monolithic, but since Oriental Orthodoxy is rarely contemplated as an escape route for Catholics and Orthodox, I am leaving it to the side here.) American Orthodoxy is a backwater. That is not an insult; it is empirical reality. Though most American Orthodox jurisdictions inflate their numbers, the truth is there are likely as many Orthodox in the United States as there are Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago. For some that is a bug, but for others it is a feature. American Orthodoxy does present itself as an enclave at times, historically ethnic but today increasingly ideological, that resists penetration from some unspecified horror known as “the West.” It often comes across as self-consciously exotic, even if many converts have infused it with bland, sometimes even pernicious, American religiosity. To put it another way, American Orthodoxy is a confederation of churches full of saints and sinners; devotion and destitution; liturgy and lies; holiness and hate; coherency and contradictions; etc. That is, it is not all that different from American Catholicism.

I would, of course, be remiss if I failed to mention that Orthodoxy does have certain advantages on average over Catholicism. The liturgy is pretty, if you are into that sort of thing. Most Orthodox clerics, though typically lacking the training and sophistication of Catholic priests, are disinclined to preach heresy on Sunday or put their own “spin” on the Gospel to make it “relevant.” At the same time, due to a certain insularity imposed by circumstance more than intent, Orthodox priests unwittingly perpetuate any number of harmful myths that only serve to exacerbate Catholic/Orthodox tensions. Even those “learned Orthodox” out there who have penned books claiming to “expose the errors” of Catholicism routinely miss the mark, and sometimes laughably so. As a Catholic turned Orthodox turned Catholic, I cannot tell you how mortifying it was for me to listen to Orthodox priests speak raw nonsense about the Catholic Church, including such disturbing delights as: Catholics believe everything the pope says is infallible; Catholics worship Mary; Transubstantiation is a scientific explanation of the Eucharist; Catholics can buy their way out of hell; Catholics reject theosis; Catholics reject icons; etc. Oh the list goes on and on and on…

None of this is to say that the Catholic Church is without its highs and lows. I doubt I need to repeat them here. As a Greek Catholic, I am painfully aware that in America especially, we are the redheaded stepchildren of Catholicism. (Hey, if we weren’t, there would be no Orthodox Church in America.) Because Catholicism is so much larger than Orthodoxy in America, its sins are magnified exponentially. Clergy sex abuse, financial scandals, doctrinal departures, politicization of the Faith, and so on and so forth, exist in both communions; it is typically the Catholic Church’s gross failures that draw widespread public attention. Nothing is more painful to a Catholic who has departed the “faith of his fathers” for Orthodoxy to come face to face with Orthodoxy’s moral failings. This is why, I suspect, individuals like Dreher have more than once turned a blind eye to them; it disrupts the narrative of “pure holiness” or “purer holiness” to find that sinners prowl about all of Christianity seeking the ruin of souls.

At the close of business, it is not for me to say where Skojec or any other Catholic experiencing some sort of crisis should go. I was admonished by a good friend yesterday for reading the whole affair cynically, and so I’ll try not to. Feser has given Skojec (and others) some fine advice and Dreher, ever the opportunist, is just doing what he does to make money (click, click, click). It makes little sense to me that a Catholic distressed over decentralization (synodality), birth control, divorce-and-remarriage, doctrinal imprecision, and the erosion of legality would embrace a communion that has no problem with any of those things. To accept Orthodoxy is to accept a very messy ecclesiology, at least by idealized Latin lights. Spiritually speaking, solace can be found with a prayer rope just as easily as it can be had with a rosary. St. Seraphim of Sarov taught many beautiful things, but so, too, did St. Francis of Assisi. As the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann observed, for the duration of the Church, there have always been more lukewarm Christians than otherwise. Fervency is fleeting, no matter which church doorstep one darkens.

The Stupidest Day

Many folks of mixed will are still busy opining on what transpired at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. I, only half-jokingly, referred to that entire 24-hour period as “the stupidest day in American history.” A friend of mine, Kevin, replied, “The stupidest day so far.”

I have not, admittedly, digested the full range of photos, videos, and first-hand accounts of what transpired in Washington, D.C. two days ago. No matter how convincing (or damning) a particular clip or anecdote may be, there are always those who will say that the entire debacle needs to be placed in its “proper context.” For instance, there are more than a few voices on social media saying what occurred “wasn’t that bad” compared to, say, the French Revolution or the storming of this-or-that government/royal building in the Middle East. Maybe, just maybe, what happened wasn’t “that bad” when compared to the wave of protests that rocked most of the United States during the summer months of 2020. Certainly, those protests, which are commonly (though perhaps not accurately) referred to in the collective as “Black Lives Matter protests,” resulted in more property damage than what occurred in D.C. The human toll was higher, too. Still, I am unconvinced that even those out-of-control escapades carried the same symbolic purchase that storming the Capitol and interrupting an active session of Congress did.

When flipping through the news channels on Wednesday, I heard words like “insurrection,” “sedition,” and “rebellion” spewed casually by a range of anchors, pundits, and everyday folks on the street. The two learned hosts of a law podcast I listen to ran through a host of U.S. statutes criminalizing such behavior while speculating which could be applied to not only those who breached the Capitol building, but President Donald Trump and his cohorts as well. At the same time, there were other voices, mainly from what might broadly be called the Right, which downplayed the whole affair. These were not, I should say, the voices of pure hacks who labeled the intrusion, violence, and destruction as a “false flag” operation staged by a consortium of “deep state” agents and Antifa. These voices were of those who, despite all the evidence, believe they cannot wholly abandon the spectacle of the last four years without sacrificing a piece of their political souls. These voices admit that something disruptive was afoot the other day, but at the close of business it really did not matter. The United States is still standing! The transition of power will occur! What is there to worry about, really?

Then there are those such as me who are left to wonder what this all means not just for the future of any particular political ideology in America, but the ways and means of the country itself. It is raw silliness to presume that Trump’s exit from the White House will reset the political field to where it was 10-20 years ago. “Trumpism,” meaning simply an admixture of the politics of resentment with fear mongering, posturing, and buffoonery, is here to stay for the immediate future. It could, I suppose, fade away in the coming years just as the so-called “Tea Party” movement faded. I doubt it. Already there are those at the local and national level looking to repeat what Trump did, namely turn politics into a pretty plaything for their own personal service while heaping the hopeless masses with unfulfillable promises. Why certain types of persons, specifically certain types of Catholics, find these promises so personally warming when the good Lord Jesus Christ has promised eternal life is a question worth considering, but I will leave that for another day.

Against Thanksgiving

Some people won’t like this, but I find no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, I know, according to Dale Ahlquist over at Catholic World Report, today is allegedly a “Catholic holiday” because the Patuxet Indian Squanto, who converted to Catholicism after being sold as a slave in Spain, arranged a harvest feast with the Plymouth invaders. From there Thanksgiving was born (or so they say). I imagine more than a few Catholics stormed the Bastille, too, but I see no reason why any should celebrate its commemoration. (I do think Catholics should celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, but I’ll save that matter for another time.) Thanksgiving has also become a day when Catholics (and other Christians) celebrate America’s “proud legacy” of religious freedom despite the fact that no such legacy actually exists. It took Catholics centuries to find pockets of toleration in America and once they thought they found it, what happened? Secularization set in and now bishops, priests, and laity alike gladly surrender to the Zeitgeist in order to prove they are “good citizens.”

An Antiochian Orthodox priest I was once acquainted with was told he had to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving. Vexed at the idea that he would be inadvertently celebrating a bunch of heretics killing indigenous people and stealing their land, he flipped his parish to the Julian Calendar for one day only so the Thanksgiving Thursday would align with the feast of St. Gregory Palamas. This year’s Julian Calendar feast is of another great saint, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. St. John pulled no punches during his lifetime, which in no small part explains why he reposed in exile. He admonished the wealthy of his day to first donate to the poor before buying a golden chalice or other ecclesial ornaments for the church. What, I wonder, would the Golden Mouth have to say to contemporary Christians who gorge themselves on sumptuous meals before passing out drunk in front a football game when thousands upon thousands of Native Americans wallow in squalor on barren reservations “furnished” to them by the Government of the United States?

As for religious freedom, is it not time for us to cease genuflecting before that stripped altar? What toleration is left in this country for authentic Christianity is quickly fading. In a generation or less it won’t exist at all. And then what shall we have to be thankful for? What celebrating will occur then? Hopefully the only celebrations that truly matter: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy. Instead of being thankful that we live in a country which legally slaughters babies, denies workers their just wages, and refuses to pay true reparations to the original inhabitants of this land, we can instead give thanks to God for Christ’s salvific death on the Cross and the hope of Eternal Life. Perhaps then we can take what meager material wealth we have left and spend it on bread for the homeless instead of beer for ourselves. Or maybe in lieu of griping about our “loved ones” and rolling our eyes at our in-laws, we can spend that time in prayer, asking our Lord to spare this country the wrath it deserves for its innumerable offenses against its only true head, Christ our King and Redeemer.

A Thought on Integralism and Symphonia for Sunday

It has been nearly two years since Rod Dreher infected American religious discourse with The Benedict Option, an under-theorized mishmash of derivative ideas and conclusions meant to finance its author’s extravagant trips to foreign dinner tables. By spawning a litany of lesser-known “Options” in magazine articles and web-logs, Dreher managed to unwittingly play into liberalism’s hands. Liberalism is not concerned with the “right life” or the “best life” per se, but rather with the “right” or “best life” the individual defines for himself. And so the “Benedict Option” (whatever it means) becomes a choice among many, a mere possibility whose goodness is measured by the number of adherents rather than the substance of its claims. Luckily none of the other proposed “Options” ever gained much traction, perhaps because there is nothing more intellectually loathsome than to be a derivative idea of a derivative idea that, in and of itself, is not particularly impressive.

One other related consequence of Dreher’s drivel is the reduction of all things political to “Options” in the minds of contemporary American Christians, particularly Catholics. Take, for instance, the integralist revival inspired in no small part by The Josias and the earlier writings of its contributors. Both friends and foes of integralism have a tendency to treat it as an “Option,” a political posture that is worth adopting — at least in word — on a visceral basis alone. Integralism “sounds cool” to a certain type of 20/30-something Catholic disillusioned with American politics and its two main parties. Integralism seems “edgy,” and the willingness of integralists to callback to supposed “golden ages” in the distant past or more questionable eras of religious-political union in the last century has a polarizing effect that too many of these otherwise well-meaning Catholics revel in. This is contrary to one of if not the most central tenant of integralism, namely that integralists are doing nothing more or less than holding to the Catholic Church’s indefectible teachings. Integralists do not advance new doctrines or novel theological speculation; they merely adhere to the proper ordering of the spiritual and temporal powers.

On its face, that’s incredibly less “sexy” (or shocking) than saying that one longs for the days of the Inquisition or proudly hangs portrait’s of Franco and Salazar in their “study” (ok, fine, parents’ basement). By promoting a caricature of integralism, one that is more fit to be a Right Wing Death Squad t-shirt design than a topic of serious discussion, these unwitting integralists feed integralist’s critics with ample ammunition to gun-down the integralist thesis (or, rather, a certain degraded idea of the integralist thesis). That is unhelpful. For until the time comes that integralism, properly understood, is taken as neither a novelty nor a romantic hope, it will not only fail to gain traction in the wider Catholic Church, but few if any will begin the heavy lifting required to operationalize integralism in a socio-political environment beset by liberalism. To put it another way, for as long as integralism remains mired in useless discussions centered on some of its adherents’ silly social-media excesses and poor rhetorical choices, it will always have the appearance of an idea, of an “Option,” that can be freely chosen (or not) without serious intellectual and moral consequences. If that is all integralism truly is, then we need it not at all.

None of this is to say that integralism is beyond criticism or that integralists cannot disagree among themselves. One challenge to integralism that remains more hypothetical than realized at this stage is the Eastern Orthodox concept of symphonia. Leaving to the side for the moment any criticism of “symphonia in practice” as opposed to “symphonia as proposed,” symphonia does away with the hierarchical structure of the spiritual and temporal powers intrinsic to integralism in favor of an integrated model of ecclesiastical and secular authority. Under symphonia, temporal power is not directly subordinate to the spiritual, but rather interwoven with it. In the Byzantine, and later Russian Tsarist, iterations of symphonia, the emperor is vested with a coordinate role in protecting and promoting the true religion alongside the Church hierarchy (specifically the patriarch). Some argue that this is necessary insofar as the Christian East knows nothing of a central ecclesiastical authority figure in the way Western Christendom does with the papacy. While the bishops may, in theory, all be equal successors to the Apostles, it is the temporal ruler, the emperor, who binds them together and calls them forth with the dogmatic unity of the Church is threatened. Integralism, by symphonia’s lights, goes too far in subordinating the temporal power to the spiritual while also claiming indirect temporal authority to the spiritual power. This hierarchical structure makes the temporal the handmaid of the spiritual, an arrangement that is both theologically unsound and practical untenable.

Integralist adherents, mainly Latin Catholics, may wish to dismiss symphonia’s claims on the thin ground that it belongs to the Christian East, specifically the Eastern Orthodox, and therefore has no say in the doctrinal structure of the Catholic Church. Maybe. However, does not the Christian East no less than the Christian West belong by right to the Catholic Church, that is, the one Universal Church of Christ? Is it so clear at this stage that integralism has vanquished symphonia? Or do both models have room to exist within One Church? There is no space to answer those or a myriad of other questions here. Rather, they are brought up only to suggest that even if integralism should be conceptualized not as an “Option” but rather part and parcel of the Church’s historic social doctrine, then can it stand alone when an equally ancient and arguably more successful model (at least for a time) in symphonia is also available? For those inclined to dismiss symphonia out of hand, remember that without it there would be no Nicene Creed.

A Tiny Postscript to Yesterday’s Post

I confess I was both surprised and heartened by the positive reactions to yesterday’s post. Having not blogged regularly for approximately two years now, it is impossible to predict if anything posted will ever get read. In scanning Twitter, I noticed a few comments concerning the reaction of certain online traditional Catholic males toward fellow Catholic females who, apparently, lost their virginity prior to marriage. (I write “apparently” because I am not sure how these Catholic men know who is or is not a virgin unless these ladies are advertising it.) This led me down a social-media rabbit hole where I found, much to my chagrin, a great deal of “commentary” (loosely defined) on why a “touched” woman is unfit to be a true traditional Catholic wife.

Let me be clear: “touched” is a euphemism of my own design. The adjectives I encountered in my visits to the four corners of online trad-dom included, but were hardly limited to, “corrupt,” “spoiled,” “unclean,” and “immoral.” Not surprisingly, I found scant commentary on traditional Catholic males who lived “Augustinian” lifestyles prior to finding the Latin Mass and even less on what is likely a far more pervasive problem among that demographic, namely pornography. On what basis, I wonder, is a female who has engaged in a monogamous sexual relationship outside of marriage more dirty or foul than the male who makes not-infrequent visits to PornHub to peruse videos that would make Caligula blush? Say whatever you want about Christianity replacing the “Old Law”; traditional Catholicism has its own deeply engrained notions of “ritual purity” that happen to be targeted toward a single sex.

This is not to say that the “slut shaming” traditional Catholic male community found online approaches the matter on the basis of either authority or reason. Their negative reactions to non-virgin Catholic females is almost entirely visceral. These women are “forbidden fruit,” objects of both desire and derision. These attract attention, wittingly or not, because they offer the idea of access to something these males have never had, and yet most of these ladies are now committed to “withholding” said access until marriage. And so the traditional Catholic males, by and large, do not know what to do with that information. Why should they “pay” for something that was otherwise given away “for free”? Compound this sideways view of things with those general feelings of inadequacy so many inadequately socialized males committed to a religious minority are often encumbered with and what you have is a recipe for fruitless resentment.

Since I am disinclined from dispensing advice and find moralizing tedious, let me say that regardless of what gets spewed online, my sense is that at the close of business a lot of the online Catholic rhetoric is not reflective of the on-the-ground reality. There are far more traditional Catholic men than women, and converts-to-tradition are overwhelmingly male. To the extent these men want wives, they are going to have to expand their horizons beyond the Mary Margarets, Catherine Annes, and Ann Catherine Margaret Marys of their imaginations. I do not mean that men should pursue morally casual women (or vice versa). No one in their right mind wants to be wedded to someone who snatches an extra 100 when passing “Go” in Monopoly or believes the infield fly rule extends to the outfield during postseason baseball games.

What is “Convertitis” in Latin?

A traditional Catholic friend and writer recently lamented in private about the cabal of young-ish covert-to-traditionalism types who feel compelled to pontificate on “things [traditional] Catholic” on web-logs, online publications, and social media. He feels – rightly so – that these folks ought to put a lid on it, at least for the time being. I cannot say I disagree with him. Having been a convert myself at one time (to Eastern Orthodoxy) and young blogger (I started when I was 23), I understand the temptation to share every thought and feeling that springs forth from my being. I also get that with conversion comes a great deal of misplaced zealotry. Converts to traditional Catholicism (who may or may not have been nominal Catholics beforehand) revel in throwing stones at the so-called “Novus Ordo Church” while also taking potshots at other Christian confessions they deem “heretical” and/or “schismatic.” Converts to Orthodoxy are similar, though they typically spend their time going on about the supposed “laxity” of cradle Orthodox while ripping on Catholicism. (For those unaware, a vast majority of converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are former Protestants, most of whom cannot let go of their deep-rooted anti-Roman biases.)

Speaking for myself, there is very little that I wrote during my time as an Eastern Orthodox Christian that I stand by today. (Thank Heavens my old web-logs are but digital dust.) It was not until after I returned to Catholicism in 2011 that I finally gained some perspective on my Orthodox days. Here in 2019, it seems that too much time has passed for me to give that period a fair accounting. That is one reason why I now opt to tread lightly around Orthodoxy, qualifying my criticisms when warranted and doing my best to apply a hermeneutic of charity to the Orthodox despite the fact many (if not most) refuse to apply the same toward Catholicism (especially Greek Catholicism).

As for the current batch of neophyte traditional Catholic commentators, they are mostly harmless despite being unoriginal, unimaginative, and uninspiring. Any person of sound mind who has read the works of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Michael Davies knows all they need to of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. What more is there to say? God bless those who have something constructive to offer, but they are few and far between, and most have a decade or more of post-graduate life experience behind them. I cannot see for the life of me what benefit accrues to a single soul to read another digital screed against the “revisionist-homosexualist-relativist-ecumenist” mafia that apparently controls the Catholic Church. And no, neither I nor anyone else should be privy to what this-or-that traditional Catholic is “giving up” for Lent. I assure you: not only is it trite, but no serious ascetic will be impressed. (On this point I must mention that the normative fasting practices for the Eastern Orthodox Church are exponentially more demanding than anything a Latin Catholic blogger has thought up.)

I could offer up some words of caution, but no one is going to listen. If they did, I might say something to the effect of, “Be careful what you write today; it will come back to bite you tomorrow.” Or, to put it another way, “What future law firm/hospital/accounting office/fast food restaurant that you plan on applying to is going to be impressed that Googling your name instantly yields a dozen blog posts and 1,000 Tweets about how the Jews control the United Nations?” Should the Catholic Church begin healing her many wounds, particularly the ongoing sex-abuse scandal, I assure you it will not be because you blogged about it. In fact, I can super-super, double-dog guarantee that ecclesiastical healing will not come about because you ripped your local pastor a new one on the Internet for some minor infraction of the 1962 Missale Romanums’s rubrics or you shot off 15 paragraphs about how the Divine Mercy Chaplet is a fraud.

Rather than write, let me suggest you read. While I concede that some of Archbishop Lefebvre’s works are rather dry, Michael Davies’s are not. After you finish his corpus, expand your horizons a bit and take a walk on the Eastern side. Pick up Fr. Aidan Nichols’s Rome and the Eastern Churches; it will cure you of the delusion that “to be Catholic” is “to be Latin.” While you are at it, get ahold of Fr. Robert Taft’s magisterial study, The Liturgy of the Hours East and West. It ought to dispel any notion that the “Roman liturgical crisis” began a mere 50 years ago. And for Heaven’s sake, acquaint yourself with the Church’s authentic social magisterium, both through the original papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Quas Primas, etc.) and secondary works like Fr. Cahill’s The Framework of a Christian State. By the time you finish all of that while pursuing additional works that come to light during the course of your studies, you should be old enough to realize you should not blog or write anything on the Internet.

 I hope to get there someday myself.

Bernard Harcourt on the Alt-Right

Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt is a provocative thinker who, in the course of his storied career, has managed to smash the “broken windows” theory of policing and exposed the internal contradictions of “neoliberal penality” in his excellent study, The Illusion of Free Markets. Harcourt is also known for his pro bono work on behalf of death row inmates, including Doyle Hamm, an inmate that Alabama attempted to brutally execute via lethal injection last year and failed. Part of Harcourt’s ongoing work at Columbia includes hosting a series of critical seminars with academics from around the globe, covering such topics as Nietzsche, Foucault, and uprisings. His latest venture, a 13-part series entitled “Critique & Praxis 13/13,” dealt in part with the so-called alt-right and similar surrounding movements. A video of the 2 ½ hour seminar, plus supporting readings and blog posts from contributors, is available here.

For the moment I want to look at Harcourt’s own analysis of the seminar, entitled “Neo-Fascist-White-Supremacy-Ultranationalist Counterrevolutionaries.” Harcourt struggles to develop a working catch-all definition for the alt-right, thus leading him to bifurcate the American and European iterations of this movement into two clumsily labeled categories: neo-fascist-white-supremacy-ultranationalist counterrevolutionaries (American) and neo-fascist-European-nativist-counterrevolutionaries (European). I do not expect either of these labels to catch on.

Regardless, Harcourt’s linguistic wrestling match unveils inadvertently the fact that the alt-right is hardly a uniform movement that is internally coherent. While there is something to be said that “white supremacy” could be the glue that holds the whole movement together, at least in the United States, one finds substantial divergences among the alt-right on questions ranging from economics to international relations. There is further difficulty to be found with applying a term like “fascist” or “fascistic” to the alt-right movement. For Harcourt, “fascist” post-1933 contains a genocidal element that was not present when fascism first came into being during the latter decades of the 19th century. Now it is impossible to speak of fascism without genocide, though no fascist movements after World War II have practiced genocide. (I would argue there have been no truly fascist movements until the last decade and even then they have not attained the requisite degree of political power and control to operationalize genocide (if they are even interested in it at all)). Why bring up genocide at all?

To speak of genocide in the context of the alt-right adds a horrifyingly sinister angle to the entire movement even if its goals do not (yet?) appear so “lofty” (if that is the right word for it). In the American context, the alt-right is far more reactionary than it is constructive, and if President Donald Trump is the movement’s de facto (if not de jure) leader, then it is a troubled movement indeed. Trump appears to have as much use for the alt-right as he does for any other potential base of support. If it helps keep him in power, good; if it does not, life goes on. Harcourt, like many on the Left, reads more into Trump’s hamfisted grip on presidential power than it deserves.

While there are several other points in Harcourt’s piece worth considering, I think a word is in order concerning Harcourt’s citation to Leo Strauss. The passage Harcourt quotes is from Strauss’s controversial Persecution and the Art of Writing where, among other things, Strauss presents his esoteric/exoteric hermeneutic. For Strauss, only very capable and learned men, particularly philosophers, avail themselves of esotericism, not for the purpose of changing a society’s opinions, customs, and political life, but to conceal the disrupting, if not revolutionary, character of their thought. The exoteric teaching is almost invariably conventional; the esoteric teaching is almost invariably heretical. It would be a bridge too far, I think, to extend Strauss’s hermeneutic to the alt-right, particularly the American alt-right whose writings Harcourt acknowledges are “boorish” and “crass.”

Silent Integralists

One of the main problems with integralism, specifically the refreshed concept of integralism now gaining traction in certain sectors of Anglophone Catholicism, is that so few claiming to be integralists seem to know what it means. This is unfortunate insofar as it allows critics of integralism, that is, those who reject any political form that is not essentially liberalism to denounce, dismiss, and degrade integralists as romantic, backwards-looking monarchists incapable of practically managing a GameStop store. Some enjoy calling themselves “integralists” in the same ways teenagers who have never held a job like calling themselves “socialists”; it seems edgy and different, but requires no real commitment. Others like the idea of integralism as a form of “anti-liberalism” which is not socialism per se, but beyond that they have no interest deepening their understanding of integralism or promoting it as a future-viable alternative to the liberal status quo.

Then there are those I would call “silent integralists” or “substantive integralists.” These are Catholics who may or may not have heard of integralism, but still espouse its core tenet that the spiritual has priority over the temporal. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the fraternity he established, the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), is a prime example. Lefebvre no doubt knew the term integralist (or integrist), but to the best of my knowledge he never availed himself of it. He didn’t need to. Lefebvre and his followers never shied away from the social rights of Christ the King or the unique and privileged position the Catholic Church ought to be afforded in society. Moreover, unlike some contemporary integralists, Lefebvre believed there was an inextricably link between the doctrine of Christ’s Kingship and the traditional Roman liturgy. For Lefebvre, it was the old Mass that embodied the fulness of the Faith, and it was the traditional celebrations of the Roman Calendar which affirmed holistically Christ’s tripartite office as Priest, Prophet, and King.

Another example would be the saintly leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. Metropolitan Andrei’s role extended far beyond being the spiritual leader of his Catholic communion; he was essential to the development of Galician society and the stalled formation of an independent Ukrainian state. Indeed, from the time Galicia came under Austrian rule up through World War I, the UGCC was integral in nation-building along authentically Catholic lines. There was to be no liberal separation of church and state, but rather an authentic Ukrainian Church, in communion with Rome, that guided the people and encouraged the formation of Catholic lay groups. Even today, as Ukraine finds itself in the midst of war and civil turmoil, the UGCC remains a prophetic voice that embraces both catholicity and particularity. It may not avail itself of the term “integralism,” but there can be no doubt that it has had and continues to have an integral role in contemporary Ukraine.

In the United States, matters remain dire. The American Church is once again embroiled in a massive sexual abuse scandal and the Vatican, thus far, has done little to instill confidence in the faithful that this tragedy will be thoroughly addressed. Critics of integralism claim, wrongly, that the type of “theocratic” arrangement integralists long for would leave the door open to future abuses by effectively placing the Church above the law. While such claims are silly, particularly in light of historic ecclesiastical legislation which stripped clerics of all privileges of their state in matters of gross sexual immorality, popular fear of being seen as aiding or abetting rapist clerics has the power to freeze integralism in its tracks. Who, after all, wants to be associated with a socio-political form that may be seen as making current woes worse?

Even if the time is not ripe for anything like an “integralist moment,” certainly Catholics of all stripes can take the present state of both the Church and society as a reason to explore the rich tapestry of Catholic social teaching. It is only through a firm understanding of that teaching that integralism can, in any sense, be “operationalized” into a viable political form. Integralists, to date at least, have given little mind to practical problems, ranging from economics to the contours of a sensible legal system. There is also the practical question of organization and advocacy, what was historically known as Catholic Action. It would seem that integralists have a long way to go on that front—a long way to go beyond Twitter.

The New French (and American) Catholic Right

Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor and political observer who seems to irritate all ideological comers, has a new piece in The New York Review of Books, “Two Roads for the New French Right.” As some may recall, Lilla has chronicled the French Right in the magazine before, as I discussed previously here. While Lilla is anything but a writer of the Right, he has gained himself both high praise (from conservatives) and ire (from liberals) for his 2017 book, The Once and Future Liberal. It is difficult to shake the feeling that Lilla is a tad bit envious of the Right, particularly as it is manifesting itself across the pond. The Right, or the various political movements and parties that represent the Right, may not represent a coherent body of thought, but it is offering some ways ahead that provide a way past the neoliberal consensus that emerged after 1989 and which, surprisingly enough, provides a voice once again to religious (primarily Christian) conservatives.

Instead of focusing on Lilla’s piece in detail, I want to highlight some of Lilla’s remarks concerning Catholic involvement in the New French Right, particularly younger writers. Here is Lilla:

This past summer I spent some time reading and meeting these young writers in Paris and discovered more of an ecosystem than a cohesive, disciplined movement. Still, it was striking how serious they are and how they differ from American conservatives. They share two convictions: that a robust conservatism is the only coherent alternative to what they call the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of our time, and that resources for such a conservatism can be found on both sides of the traditional left–right divide. More surprising still, they are all fans of Bernie Sanders.

 

The intellectual ecumenism of these writers is apparent in their articles, which come peppered with references to George Orwell, the mystical writer-activist Simone Weil, the nineteenth-century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, the young Marx, the ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, and especially the politically leftist, culturally conservative American historian Christopher Lasch, whose bons mots“uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots”get repeated like mantras. They predictably reject the European Union, same-sex marriage, and mass immigration. But they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).

Lilla could have gone further had he wanted in distinguishing these French Catholics from their (distant) American brethren. Setting aside those conservative Catholics who still embrace some form of liberalism (say Actonites and old-guard First Things types), it is true that there is a growing wing of Catholics, many on the younger side, who are at least suspicious of liberalism, if not openly hostile toward it. The difficulty with some of these folks is that they trade a stale brand of liberalism for the “fresher” form that looks unsurprisingly like the carefree, commitment-free, and ultimately thought-free variant of socialism children pick up on when they go off to Ivy League schools. The end result of this “movement,” so far at least, has been…well…nothing much at all. These IPA-sipping socialists have yet to put together a sustained platform and most of their efforts thus far have ended with infighting (perhaps brought on by outside ridicule).

Then there are the even more-to-the-Right American Catholics who, openly or not, identify with some variant of integralism, be it the “big tent” sort associated with The Josias or the slightly more narrow forms found in various segments of traditional Catholicism. The Josias probably comes to the closest to (unwittingly?) following New French Right Catholics insofar as many of its writers embrace some form of “intellectual ecumenism” or, to put it another way, have no problem marching toward the Promised Land with the “spoils of Egypt” lifted from decidedly non-Catholic intellectual environs. Some remain skeptical of this project, not the least because for much of the past 50-60 years, Catholics who take seriously the social kingship of Christ and the indirect temporal authority of the Church have found themselves living in an intellectual ghetto where a certain form of manualism was their only bulwark against the more pernicious aspects of late modernity.

Returning to the Catholics of the New French Right, Lilla finds their numbers populated with environmentalists and “alter-feminists” who reject the capitalist-compromised form of feminism that remains all the rage. Lilla is clearly impressed by all of this even while keeping his critical distance. He’s right to highlight a disorderliness in the thinking of these French Catholics, but that is not the same as a dismissal. There is much to be said for what Lilla calls “thinking big in little magazines.” As Lilla remarks, “Modern history has taught us that ideas promoted by obscure intellectuals writing in little magazines have a way of escaping the often benign intentions of their champions.” Yes, there is a sinister ring to Lilla’s words, but he’s not wrong.

Of course, I find nothing at all sinister in the thought and work of these French Catholics, nor do I find anything sinister about integralism (regardless of what the critics say). Integralism remains, at best, a highly marginal movement within Anglophone Catholicism and some of its most visible intellectual representatives may not actually be integralists at all. More fruitful than going on about who is or is not a “true integralist” is asking, “How do I live as a Catholic in public life?” There is a place for ideas, even big ideas built out of disparate parts, but there should be greater space given for considering, and then acting upon, what it would mean to be Catholic while, say, practicing law, teaching in schools, laboring in a factory, and so on and so forth. Lilla acknowledges in his piece that French Catholics have already begun to do that, albeit perhaps in some eccentric ways reminiscent of the early days of the defunct Catholic journal Caelum et Terra.

Maybe the Americans can catch up again.