The Spiritual Emptiness of the New Nationalists

Michael Brendan Dougherty has penned a thoughtful piece for The Week on those he calls the “new nationalists.” It’s a broad category that presumably encompasses not just nationalists in the United States and Europe, but also that loose confederation of reactionary, racists, and Internet trolls known as the alt-right. If anything unifies the new nationalists, according to Dougherty, it is their “biting critique of globalism,” that is, those “elites…[who are] committed to the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people” while also being for the further integration of a global political class.” One of the core problems the new nationalists have with the globalists is that the latter’s “goals are all promoted in an anti-democratic spirit.” However, when compared to the globalists, Dougherty finds “the new nationalists’ ambitions more inscrutable”; they “lack…a forward-driving vision[.]”

Maybe, or perhaps the simple truth is that the new nationalists neither desire nor need a unified ideology. They thrive on disaffection and any attempt to unify them under a single banner or set of transnational policy goals would erode the heterogeneity they strive for. Keeping democratic legitimacy alive is secondary to preserving national and cultural identity; the pushback against homogenizing trade deals and other international agreements emanates from the perennial desire to preserve “one’s way of life,” whatever that happens to be. The new nationalists, by and large, do not subscribe to the progressive view of history that animated the so-called “Washington Consensus” after 1989—the belief that integrated markets and legal cultures was the only way to go in a post-communist world. Sure, many believe in particular national progress, which may or may not come at the expense of others. But the idea of a glorious future shared-in all by all peoples in all places and for all time going forward is anathema.

In the end, Dougherty is concerned that he doesn’t see where the new nationalists are going, and maybe the new nationalists don’t even know themselves. That is probably true at the international level, but the international level really isn’t the focus of the new nationalists. The new nationalists may cheer each other on, but only because nationalist victories in the United Kingdom, then the United States, and maybe next in France, etc. are bad for globalism. This isn’t to say that the new nationalists don’t pick-and-choose favorites. Witness, for example, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The clash between “European” Ukraine and “Eurasian” Russia is a clash of competing and mutually exclusive nationalist visions. A victory for Ukraine is a loss for Russia and vice versa. When the Maidan broke out, perhaps there was some hope that the globalists would step-in to save Ukraine; perhaps that is why so many Western media sources are alarmed to find powerful nationalist (right wring) forces at the forefront of Ukraine’s battle against Russia. It’s “not supposed to be that way” in the globalist narrative peace, love, and internationally managed “self-determination.”

The critical problem with the new nationalists has little to do with the future and almost everything to do with the new-absence of an authentic spiritual center. In the U.S. and Europe, conservative Christians have rallied behind the new nationalists in the hopes of achieving certain concrete policy goals, but there is little evidence that most new nationalist organizations, political platforms, and candidates are meaningfully Christian. Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) have some say in the direction of certain right-wing political groups across the pond, particularly when it comes to social matters and remembering Europe’s Christian identity, but the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church prevents it from filling the moral void at the center of contemporary popular politics. In the U.S., which has never been Catholic, the Church has next-to-nothing to say except, embarrassingly, repeating a handful of mainly globalist platitudes dressed up with passages lifting from the Bible.

This does not mean that the new nationalists ought to remain walled-off from the tried and true social, political, and economic principles of the Catholic Church. Trade deals, and indeed economic policy as a whole, should be scrutinized in the light of what Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI taught. It is not enough to speak about the family being the foundation of any healthy society; policies must be enacted to ensure that a husband can support his wife and children; that corporations do not dictate the timing and nature of holidays; and that social structures are put in place to assist the least well-off. Dismantling international agreements and institutions that are deleterious to national life is only the first step toward orienting that life toward the common good. The new nationalists needn’t adopt a wholly uniform vision as applicable in the U.S. as it is in Ukraine, but they cannot be exempted from adhering to the Kingship of Christ. That the new nationalists may, in some parts of the world, be closer to abiding by that kingship than the globalists is certainly true; that does not justify, however, accepting half-measures.

Love and Activism

To call the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann “challenging” would be a gross understatement. In his brief but profound meditation on the upcoming liturgical season, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1969), pp. 25-26, Schmemann sets forth a powerful distinction between social activism and authentic Christian love.

In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of “social activism” with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a “social activist” the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract “humanity.” But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he is person. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The “social activist” has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the “common interest.” Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather skeptical about that abstract “humanity,” but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always “futuristic” in is approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now—the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward “this world” and they must fulfill them. This is the area of “social activism” which belongs entirely to “this world.” Christian love, however, aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivations as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love—this is the true mission of the Church.

The parable of the Last Judgement is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all men ultimately need this personal love—the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged. For “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me….”

Before proceeding, it is worth stressing Schmemann’s observation that social activism and Christian love “are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.” For today it is just as much a temptation to conflate activism and love as it is to privilege the latter at the almost complete expense of the former. Eyeing with suspicion any form of activism in this world, a growing number of Christians who feel disenfranchised or alienated by this world are starting to call for a retreat from this world. They look neither to the present nor the future, but rather inwardly at themselves, confusing love not with activism, but with cowardice. They no longer want to be a part of a world that treats them so poorly compared to yesteryear, and in a rather twisted fashion they cite Christians from earlier ages, including monastics, as their shining examples. Little do they seem to realize that when Christians would leave the world for the (literal or figurative) desert, they do so not to escape the responsibility for being “in the world but not of it,” but rather to draw closer to God while facing down the demons that constantly seek to ensnare men’s souls. Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who appear to have abandoned nearly every trace of authentic Christian love in favor of social activism. Romanticizing as they do ideologies and categories of thought long condemned as antithetical to Christianity, they strike a posture which they believe is amicable to a certain sector of secular politics. They are the heirs of a deeply embarrassing period in modern Christian history when the Gospel was distorted into a program for socio-political reform and Jesus lost his status as the Son of God and became a mere “revolutionary” in the most mundane sense of the word. These men do not love, for their treat their treat their enemies with nothing less than disdain, issuing calumnies as they see fit and replacing learned disputation with hyperbole, name-calling, and trolling. Whatever “good” they seek to advance is diminished by their self-conscious lack of character, and even if some of their ranks have their instincts in the right place, their refusal to sit in silence and listen to what Christ and His Holy Church teaches renders their witness empty.

To embrace love rather than activism requires a self-emptying modeled on that of our Lord Himself. Without abandoning the future (and surely not the “Kingdom which is to come”), Christians must do the “dirty work” of visiting the prisoners, tending to the sick, and feeding the hungry—those to whom “personal love has been denied.” This personal love, this Christian love, is immediate; it cannot be replaced or—Heaven forbid—“elevated” by a well-designed distributional scheme operated by bureaucrats. This truth is a hard challenge to those well-meaning Christians who, through the wisdom of the Church, are cognizant of the gross injustices of this world and know the true principles of the right social order which have been eroded by liberalism, consumerism, materialism, relativism, and indifferentism. As important as it is to combat the lies of this age, the sort that seek to make Christians feel at home with secular democracy and capitalism, it is exponentially more important to embrace those children of God who have not simply been left “on the margins” in a purely sociological sense, but in an eschatological sense. Christian love does not tend only to their temporal needs, but their eternal one as well.

The alt-right and the Austrian School

By now if there is anything people agree upon concerning the socio-political phenomenon known as the alt-right, it’s that it is nearly impossible to define precisely what the alt-right is and what it stands for. According to a news brief from The Economist, “[t]o the extent that the [alt-right] dabbles in economics it is highly protectionist.” In a piece from American Renaissance (a racialist commentary site), Jared Taylor explains the alt-right in purely racial terms; nothing it espouses can be divorced from its commitment to both promoting the idea of inherent racial differences and using those alleged differences as a basis for social policy. Given that, it is hard to imagine the alt-right being particularly favorable to the idea of the “free market” where everyone has a “free chance” at wealth maximization, especially if that “maximization” should appear to favor a non-white racial group (e.g., Jews). On the flipside, some alt-right proponents favor crafting social programs, including entitlement programs, in ways that expressly contemplate race with idea that certain groups require differentiated assistance. And then there are those who claim to be a part of the alt-right and see no immediate contradiction between their often vague and reactionary political commitments and the tenets of the so-called “Austrian School” of economics.

“Austrianism” is almost exclusively associated with libertarianism, an ideology which reduces government to two primary functions: providing basic physical protection for citizens and enforcing contracts. That this is the case may strike some as odd since “Austrian Economics” purports to be “value free”; it proclaims the “is,” not the “ought.” (This is in sharp contrast to neoclassical welfare economics which issues value judgments in terms of “efficiency,” either Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks.) For example, an “Austrian” might maintain, on the basis of economic theory, that raising minimum wages will invariably increase unemployment, but he cannot—or, rather, should not—say, on the basis of that theory, whether or not the minimum wage ought to be increased; that decision will depend on external value judgments, informed or otherwise.

The story of how “Austrianianism” and libertarianism became best friends is beyond the scope of this post, though the distortion of natural-law theory by the likes of Murray Rothbard had a great deal to do with it. Libertarians, not surprisingly, are less-than-enthused about the alt-right. For instance, the heterodox Catholic writer Jeffrey Tucker has taken pains to distinguish libertarianism from the alt-right, concluding that the former is an enemy in the eyes of the latter. He’s probably correct. But if so, why are certain segments of the alt-right impressed with “Austrianism”? Do they believe that its pretension to be “value free” makes it an attractive intellectual resource that can be molded and applied to their racialist ends? Or is it something else?

If I may be so bold as to speculate on what this “else” could be, let me suggest that it comes down to a mixture of ignorance and immaturity. Starting with immaturity first, while the alt-right does appeal to a long tradition of racialist, nationalist, and reactionary thinking, it often does so in confused and contradictory ways. Some alt-right adherents flock to the writings of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt for the same reason they claim to embrace Martin Heidegger: they were both Nazis. (Never mind of course that the most important installments of Schmitt’s corpus were penned before and after his brief period as a National Socialist; the same is arguably true of Heidegger as well.) Similarly, self-professed members of the alt-right will cite favorably counterrevolutionary writers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donoso Cortes while remaining at arm’s length from their adherence to Catholicism—an adherence which animates almost the whole of their thinking. What many aligned with the alt-right seem to be most concerned about is coming across as “edgy” or “unsettling”; they have no unified vision with a cohesive center. Because “Austrianism” is considered to be a heterodox school of economics that remains on the periphery of academia, it is ripe for appropriation by the alt-right. The fact that “Austrians” are fond of making iconoclastic claims about business cycle, the gold standard, and empirical research doesn’t hurt, either; it only contributes to their alt-right attractiveness.

This is where ignorance comes in. “Austrianism,” even prior to its full-on fusion with libertarianism, went hand-in-hand with liberalism, the sort which many who count themselves among the alt-right find weak, ineffectual, and effeminate. Many of the founding fathers of the “Austrian School,” including Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, were opponents of the sort of authoritarian, centralized governance structure typically promoted in alt-right circles. And, as noted, the alt-right tends to be protectionist—a position which “Austrianism” lends no support to. Finally, given the kneejerk anti-Jewish rhetoric that can be found throughout the alt-right, it is strange to see any alt-right followers hitch their wagons to an intellectual movement that owes much of its foundation and flowering to Jewish intellectuals.

All in all it is doubtful that “Austrianism” will ever grow deep roots into the alt-right. If anything, “Austrianism” will supply some one-liners alt-right polemicists (or trolls) can use against certain dominant trends in economic thinking and policy that they happen to not like. Because of its internal instability and intellectual casualness, it is also doubtful that the alt-right will ever produce anything resembling a stable and theoretically rich economic vision. Disaffection, not detailed reflection, is at the heart of their game; the sooner it is over, the better.

The Problem of Staying Orthodox – Postscript

Responses to my previous post, “The Problem of Staying Orthodox,” were far more positive than I anticipated, particularly on social media. That did not stop some people from accusing me of everything from racism to ignoring the problems in the Catholic Church, however. Others suggested that I was attempting to pitch Catholicism as a paradisiacal ecclesiastical unit that has somehow escaped the contradictions, compromises, and capitulations found in Orthodoxy. Nonsense. I am quite aware, for instance, how depressingly few Catholics follow the Church’s infallible teaching on contraception; and when it comes to the contemporary annulment process, it’s not noticeably different in practice from the Orthodox Church’s willingness to allow second and third marriages. Catholicism, by virtue of being at least four times larger than Orthodoxy, is beset by far more visible problems than the Orthodox Church. When a scandal breaks out in the Catholic Church, it’s featured in the New York Times; when an equally revolting scandal afflicts the Orthodox, it’s a shock when any major news outlet makes mention of it at all. The closest Orthodoxy comes to getting “bad press” in the West is when the Russian Church is accused of directing state policy on matters such as abortion, homosexuality, and domestic abuse. Perhaps this is why certain Orthodox, particularly those living in the West, are especially sensitive to criticism of their confession; they’re just not used to it. Catholics on the other hand have grown accustomed to priest sex-abuse jokes on late night television.

Among those Orthodox Christians who happened to agree with much of what I wrote, a few asked if I would have more to say on the topic of trying to persevere as an Orthodox Christian, particularly in the United States. Speaking as someone who opted not to remain Orthodox but rather return to the confessional haunt of his childhood (Greek Catholicism), I don’t feel fit to give advice. Still, I imagine that staying Orthodox can be just as challenging as staying Greek Catholic, albeit for very different reasons. Although both are minority churches forced to get by outside of their historic environments, the Orthodox are often able to define themselves by negation: “not Catholic”; “not Western”; “not rationalistic”; etc. Greek Catholics, though “not Western” in the limited sense that their liturgy, spirituality, and theology emerged in the geographic East, must strike a balancing act between being true to their authentic patrimony while not discarding certain irrevocable tenets of the Faith which their estranged Orthodox brethren need not worry about (e.g., Purgatory, Papal Primacy, and the Immaculate Conception). At the same time, Greek Catholics are often compelled to “compete” with their not-so-estranged Latin Catholic brethren who continue to their own liturgy, spirituality, and theology as normative for the Universal Church. Even today, more than 50 years after Orientalium ecclesiarium, Eastern Catholics in general, and Greek Catholics in particular, are largely thought of in terms of ritual differences rather than ecclesiastic integrity.

Comparatively, the Orthodox are free to steer clear of Latin Catholicism altogether under the guise of promoting “pure Orthodoxy.” The problem is that there is no such thing as “pure Orthodoxy,” especially at this stage in history. “Pure Orthodoxy” is often little more than ideologically charged Orthodoxy which lacks both a sense of history and a universal vision. In the hands of ex-Protestant converts, for example, “pure Orthodoxy” looks astonishingly like American Evangelicalism, only with less guitars and more icons. And for those who came to Orthodoxy out of cultural disaffection, spiritual confusion, or intellectual vapidity, “pure Orthodoxy” is frighteningly nationalistic, insular, and apocalyptic. Not everyone buys into “pure Orthodoxy,” of course. There are those who hold to Orthodoxy because it has the luxury of being both sacramental and (apparently) non-magisterial; messy doctrinal questions such as universalism can be bypassed with the claim that the issue has never been “dogmatically defined.” This form of Orthodoxy, not surprisingly, often comes accompanied with a strong antinomian streak.

These problems—and more—are worth exploring in depth, but probably not here. Nothing I have touched on so far gets into the fraught territory of how a number of women experience Orthodoxy and, in surprising numbers, feel alienated if not abused by its male-dominated, pseudo-monastic culture. Because Orthodoxy is often promoted as being “more masculine” than other forms of Christianity, it’s not surprising that women should find it so inhospitable. However, given that I am not a woman, I feel that I would be doing a disservice to this concern by trying to speculate too much. I have heard enough horror stories in my time to know that this concern is a very genuine one which the Orthodox Church would do well to confront head-on sooner rather than later.

With that said, I am going to close the book on this topic for now by repeating my hope for the emergence of what Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. has called “self-critical Orthodoxy.” This self-critical Orthodoxy must not be merely an academic exercise but rather an open and public discussion carried out in charity and truth. It will no doubt be painful, but that is what makes it so necessary.

The Problem of Staying Orthodox

Over at the old Opus Publicum site, I wrote a brief commentary on Steve Robinson’s Ancient Faith Radio podcast episode about his decision to stay in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here’s what I had to say.

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.

Despite frequent requests to do so, I have largely refrained from discussing publicly why I left the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2011 to rejoin Catholicism. My reasons for this are twofold. First, I have little-to-no interest whatsoever into turning my blog into a repository for Catholic/Orthodox polemics. Some years ago, when I opted to start writing critically on certain trends in the Orthodox Church, I found my combox flooded with angry rants, accusations, and all sorts of unedifying statements. Since then, people have either grown tired of fighting or, I hope, accepted the fact that my frank discussions of Orthodoxy are not intended to be triumphalistic. As I have maintained and still maintain, my love for the Eastern Orthodox Church runs deep; and though I cannot, in good conscience, profess adherence to Orthodoxy while it remains outside of communion with Rome, I do not wish ill on her or her followers. Like many Catholics, I hope and pray for the day when Catholics and Orthodox will come together, united by Christ in the Eucharist and professing the fullness of the Apostolic Faith.

Second, I don’t think my “conversion story” is all that interesting.

What is interesting, however, is reading and listening to others account for why they have decided to stay Orthodox despite the many difficulties they face in doing so. Orthodoxy, particularly in America, is often “sold” as a safe haven from the problems of (post)modernity; it also has the benefit of retaining a valid hierarchy and sacraments without the socio-cultural baggage associated with Catholicism. Liturgically speaking, Orthodoxy has a leg up on Catholicism and for those who don’t care for “pelvic matters,” its moral instruction is loose enough to allow for behaviors once condemned by all Christians, everywhere. On the flipside, American Orthodoxy is beset by poor oversight and leadership due to a limited resource pool for bishops; many of its priests lack the education and discipline to properly pastor a parish; a significant number of parishes, if not entire jurisdictions, remain ethnic ghettos or cultural centers; Orthodoxy’s “magisterium” extends no further than the church building’s front door; and the wave of conversions that have occurred since the 1990s has infected certain segments of American Orthodoxy with a Protestant mindset. Moreover, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and throughout the world, often lacks the capacity for self-criticism, resulting in alarming streaks of anti-intellectualism, chauvinism, and triumphalism.

While many who choose to remain Orthodox are cognizant of these realities, a noticeable number either are not or choose to ignore them. How long they can maintain this ignorance is an open question. For those who stay Orthodox with their eyes open, it seems that they have found a way to reconcile their faith with where they are at concretely. That is to say, instead of “escaping to Byzantium” or LARPing a Russian peasant from a Dostoevsky novel, they embrace Eastern Christianity within their decidedly Western context. Not content with pious myths about Orthodoxy’s “glorious past” or the belief that Greece or Russia represents a “Holy Mothership” where Orthodoxy flows free and pure, these Orthodox Christians recognize the contradictions, compromises, and capitulations found within their communion. In short, they know that the Orthodox Church is both a divine and all too human institution that must come to terms with its own past if it wishes to be anything more than a museum in the present.

At the same time, I suspect that more than a few Orthodox decide to remain where they are because the other options are less-than-appealing. For instance, I have conversed with several Orthodox Christians at length who have long considered uniting themselves with Rome only to be turned off by the ongoing and very public crisis which has gripped the Catholic Church for more than 50 years. While some were heartened by the liturgical decisions taken by Pope Benedict XVI, they view Francis’s pontificate with deep suspicion. Like many traditional Catholics, these Orthodox do not see Papa Frank as a beacon of humility, but rather an unhinged autocrat whose rhetorical excesses and meddling confirm their worst fears about the papacy. And though Orthodox converts to Catholicism are not, by the terms of canon law, Latin Catholics under the Church of Rome, the relative scarcity of Greek Catholic parishes in the West means that they will have to get by in a predominantly Latin environment. What this means is that outside of traditional or “reform of the reform” parishes, they will be exposed to banal (if not sacrilegious) liturgies, poor catechesis, and heterodoxy from pew to pulpit.

None of this is to say that I believe anyone should stay Orthodox; but I do understand and sympathize with many Orthodox Christians who believe they cannot “go Rome” at this time. One of the great failures of American Catholicism, starting in the 19th century, was its refusal to open its arms and embrace Eastern Christian emigres. Today, American Catholicism falters by refusing to reach out openly and honestly to the Orthodox while continuing to treat Eastern Catholics as second-class citizens. Although it’s impossible to know how many might leave Orthodoxy for Catholicism were conditions better, the sheer size and scope of the Catholic Church, coupled with her immense resources, would likely draw more than a few into her fold. In the meantime, for those committed to Orthodoxy, the road is rough and uncertain. What that means for American Orthodoxy’s demographic future remains to be seen.

The Right Form of Capitalism?

Much has been made of Steve Bannon’s (President Donald Trump’s chief strategist) 2014 talk for a conference at the Vatican where, inter alia, he laid forth his vision of the crisis of the West, including the problems associated with both “crony capitalism” and “libertarian capitalism.” Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor, has already penned a sterling commentary on Bannon’s remarks and how they relate (or not) to Trump’s personal predilections. With respect to capitalism in particular, Posner concludes that Bannon and Trump hold divergent views; the former “thinks that faith should guide the capitalist but he does not know what it should tell the capitalist to do” while the latter “celebrates all the features of capitalism that moralists like Bannon detest: its glitz and superficiality, its Darwinian obsession with ‘winning,’ and its contempt for ‘losers.’”

While Bannon’s precise religious views are unclear, his critique of certain forms of capitalism is not dissimilar from those which emanate from the faith-based (and primarily Catholic-run) Acton Institute. In fact, during his Vatican talk, Bannon singled out Acton for being “a tremendous supporter of” what he calls “entrepreneur capitalism.” Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Bannon doesn’t define “entrepreneur capitalism” except by negation; it apparently relies neither on direct government support (cronyism) nor adherence to an ostensibly free market, stripped bare of regulation and taxation (libertarianism). What Bannon failed to realize, however, is that Acton, by and large, subscribes to the libertarian vision of capitalism, albeit one with occasional references to “the Judeo-Christian tradition” (whatever that means). In fact, in a November 2016 commentary on Bannon’s talk, Joseph Sunde of the Acton Institute expressed worry over how Bannon’s views would dovetail “with the protectionist priorities and nationalist blind spots of the alt-right and Trump’s stated policy agenda.” At the end of the day, Acton sees little-to-no room for government interventions into the market, even if such interventions are expressly contemplated by Catholic social teaching.

According to Posner, one of the problems with Bannon’s critique of “crony capitalism” (a problem that can also be associated with the general orientation of the Acton Institute) is that it “appeals to a mythical age of smallholder capitalism.” This is a common tactic employed by Actonites and other Christian free-market apologists: they decry the dominant form of capitalism we see today while positing the benefits of an alternative form which has never actually existed. Actonites heap praise upon the “benefits of capitalism” without acknowledging that whatever concrete benefits may have emerged came from the very form of “crony capitalism” they claim to despise. Even when they concede as much, they are quick to opine that such benefits would flow more abundantly if only “cronyism” was eliminated. But why can’t the opposite be true? Perhaps if “cronyism” ceased and “libertarianism” took root, the concrete benefits of capitalism that we have witnessed historically would dry up. Actonites, like Bannon, are guided more by a priori ideological commitments than empirical reality.

To be fair to Bannon, his pro-capitalist ideology is not entirely devoid of a religious understanding as evidenced by his belief that “if you look at the leaders of capitalism [in the past], when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West.” Posner refers to this as “religiously based smallholder capitalism.” Even though Bannon’s history might be a little shaky, his instincts are in the right place. Without religion, or more specifically Christianity, to shape and guide it, any economic system is bound to be captured by diabolical interests concerned with greed over justice. The market supplies much, but not its moral contour. This reality has been long recognized by the Catholic Church, especially in the great social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Regrettably, fewer and fewer Catholics living under the banner of capitalism are willing to recognize as much; they prefer instead to pledge allegiance to the apparent “hard findings” of “economic science” over-and-against the guidance of Holy Mother Church.

Four Years Ago (and Then Some)

Four years ago I awoke to the stunning news that Pope Benedict XVI would abdicate the Throne of St. Peter, unintentionally paving the way for Jorge Bergoglio to be elected as Pope Francis. At the time, it had only been two years since I returned to the Catholic Church after seven in Eastern Orthodoxy and four as a “weak atheist” (or “strong agnostic”—take your pick). While Benedict’s reign had very little to do with my decision, I certainly believed in 2011 that the Church was in (relatively) safe hands, particularly given the former pontiff’s decision to liberate the traditional Latin Mass from the exclusively ghetto existence it enjoyed following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae. My rather naïve belief at the time was that the Tridentine Mass would continue to spread and that within a generation, the New Mass itself would be organically reformed along traditional lines. Growing up as I did my own ghetto—an Eastern one—I was never that invested in the politics of the Latin Church. Since most Latin Catholics I met expressed genuine admiration for the beauty and solemnity of the Byzantine Rite, I reasoned that the second they were able to have access to the splendor of their own tradition again, they’d jump at it. Boy, was I wrong.

It had not occurred to me that 40 years of liturgical banality could have such a deleterious effect on Catholic consciousness, nor did I consider that the very same post-Vatican II prejudices about “the bad old days” which were alive and well in the 1980s and 90s had survived. Granted, an increasing number of Catholics I came across after 2011 freely admitted that “mistakes were made” after the Second Vatican Council, but very few outside of traditionalist circles were willing to pin the blame on the Council itself. Instead they wanted to keep faith with Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” (HoC), arguing that the problems in the Church were caused not by Vatican II, but by the “interpretation” and/or “application” of the conciliar documents. Having what I feel is a fairly good grasp of the law of noncontradiction, I could never bring myself to accept the HoC; it struck me as overly optimistic, if not absurd. If indeed the conciliar documents can be read in continuity with the traditional doctrines of the Church, then the burden of proving as much is on the proponents of HoC. It is little wonder then that those who champion HoC typically spend an inordinate amount of time tarring-and-feathering their critics as quasi-schismatics or crypto-Protestants; proving the HoC to be anything else other than a pleasant fiction is too difficult.

But I digress. Returning to that fateful day in 2013 when the Sovereign Pontiff announced his plans to step down, my initial reaction was a mixture of disappointment and sympathy. I sympathized with Benedict’s decision because the truth was that he had lived far longer than most of the men who had stood in the Shoes of the Fisherman and, more likely than not, he did not wish to see the Church fall into turmoil as it did during the closing, and largely ineffectual, years of John Paul II’s pontificate. Some warned that Benedict had set a “dangerous precedent,” but it was a warning that was lost on me. Other patriarchs and local church heads retired before death all of the time, especially when they were no longer physically or mentally fit to do the job. Why should the papacy be any different? Yes, the papal office carries unique authority over the Universal Church and, with that authority, greater responsibilities than those assigned to other bishops; but is that not itself an argument that popes should be especially circumspect about whether or not they have the strength to discharge their duties?

Here in 2017 I still don’t know what to think about papal abdication, even if I have some very strong ex post facto thoughts about Benedict’s choice—thoughts informed by what has occurred in the Church during the Francis’s unsettling reign. I confess that not a day goes by when I don’t hold the hope that he will announce his own resignation for the good of the Church. Whatever their faults, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI saw themselves as “great reformers” of the Catholic Church even if both allowed far too many reform-minded prelates and priests run roughshod over tradition. Still, as I have opined to numerous friends, I have little confidence that the next pope, regardless of his convictions, will be able to undo the damage wrought by Francis; that will take several generations, if not more. And then there is still the problem of the Second Vatican Council, though part of me still believes that its importance to the life of the Church will begin to fade as more and more of its champions move on to their eternal reward.

Knowing what I know now, would I have still chosen to make my way back to Catholicism six years ago? While there was a period where I could not answer that question honestly, particularly in light of my own personal struggles and failings, I am at full peace with the decision even if the decision itself has been anything but peaceful. To be clear, this peace comes not from some hubristic confidence in my own intellect nor as a byproduct of pro-Catholic, anti-Orthodox triumphalism. Rather, it is the unmerited peace that can only be felt through God’s grace and the assurance He gives to the weakest of his sheep that despite the capitulations, contradictions, and compromises which are prevalent in the Church today, she will never submit fully and that it is only by the light which she possesses, the Light of Christ, which can lead us out of the present darkness.

A Reply to Adam DeVille on Fatima

Let me begin by making two distinct but interrelated claims (at least for the purposes of this response).

First, I have the utmost respect for Adam DeVille, an associate professor at the University of St. Francis and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame Press 2011), a book I recommend to all who wish to gain a fuller understanding of the Catholic/Orthodox divide. His online resource, Eastern Christian Books, is a great asset to a bibliophile such as myself and his various opinion pieces, which typically cover issues related to ecclesiology and Eastern Christianity, are uniformly thoughtful, if not excellent.

Second, I have no love for Fatima hysteria.

And so I confess that I was deeply disappointed by DeVille’s recent web-log posting, “If She Was Silent, Why are Her Followers So Gruesomely Garrulous?” In it, DeVille heaps criticism upon the “avalanche of apocalyptic emoting about Fatima” that he predicts will take place this year, the centenary of Our Lady’s apparitions to three shepherd children in Portugal. His term for this? “Marian Mischief Making.” I like it. What I don’t like or, rather, what saddens me is to see DeVille rightly warn against falling into hysterics over the Fatima anniversary while apparently trying to deny that the apparitions occurred at all. He notes that in 1917, in the midst of the Great War, “everybody was claiming visions of some sort” (emphasis his). Well, sure, but so what?

There has probably never been any point in Christian history where the authentic visions, apparitions, and miracles approved by the Church did not occur side-by-side with false claims of visions, apparitions, and miracles, both within and beyond the boundaries of Christianity. (This is not to mention the innumerable demonic delusions that over occurred over the past 2,000 years, ranging from the visions of the false prophet Mohammed to the madcap religious awakening of Joseph Smith.) Moreover, following the East/West schism, both Catholics and Orthodox have claimed a range of divine interventions; are they all false because they were happening at the same time, perhaps even around some of the same global events? DeVille doesn’t say, which is too bad since it would be nice to know what his criterion for authenticity is.

DeVille’s next step is to posit a series of six questions which, surprisingly, read like a standard secularist (or, at the very least, non-Catholic/Orthodox) attack on any vision, apparition, or miracle. For example, DeVille questions why the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared only in 1917 rather than 1914, when she could have “attempt[ed] to avert the war” or “predict[] the rise of Hitler.” Similarly, DeVille is puzzled that Our Lady, being a Jewish woman, “was . . . apparently so anxious about as-yet unseen Russian dangers, but would see and say nothing about the impending Shoah?” Setting aside that these questions might strike some as almost blasphemous, why does DeVille believe he or anyone is entitled to ready-at-hand answers? Why not ask, “If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, why are there two creation accounts in Genesis? If the Gospels are true, why are there differing accounts of Christ’s temptation in the desert in Matthew and Luke?,” etc. Instead of taking the apparitions and the message of the Immaculate One for what they are, DeVille casts doubt on them because they don’t address his ex post facto concerns.

It gets worse from there. Not content to remain dissatisfied that Our Lady failed to predict everything from Truman defeating Dewey to the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series Championship, he tendentiously attempts to link Fatima to both Catholic hostility toward Russian Orthodoxy and “the mounting personality cult surrounding the papacy” which he traces to the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX. How much Catholic hostility there was toward the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917 is debatable, especially in Portugal which was both geographically and politically far removed from the historic tensions between the Russian state and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and, later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire). If one was going to look for a potentially fabricated, anti-Orthodox Marian miracle to occur in the early 20th century, wouldn’t one expect to find it in Poland or Galicia? As for the personality cult surrounding the papacy (something I have never been a fan of), the fact there was such a personality cult growing does not mean that Our Lady wouldn’t have something to say about the papal office, particularly since—like it or not—it holds the immediate reins of power over a vast majority of Catholics in the world.

The ultimate problem with DeVille’s critique of Fatima is that it attempts to explain (or, really, explain away) the things of God with the things of this world. I agree wholeheartedly with DeVille that far too many Catholics place far too much stock in Fatima and the meaning of the Blessed Virgin’s three secrets. At the same time, I support honoring the Fatima apparitions no less than I support remembering Our Lady’s apparitions at Lourdes, her appearance at Blacherna in the 10th century, or her numerous miraculous icons. As a Catholic, it is a great joy to me that Christ continually sends His Blessed Mother into the world to warn, console, and—when need be—rebuke us. Mary comes not, as DeVille opines, with “narcissistic and repetitive demands” but rather with concern for our salvation and the salvation of the world burning in her Immaculate Heart. Although the hysteria and apocalyptic ravings surrounding Fatima can sometimes obscure this love, they cannot destroy it. I hope in the end that DeVille would agree with that much.

A Needless Distinction?

There is no sense in giving Emma-Kate Symons’s hyperbolic, over-the-top Washington Post op-ed too much attention. Riddled with factual errors and mischaracterizations, it is another in a long line of newspaper, magazine, and web-log pieces which, intentionally or not, attempt to conflate American politics with Catholic ecclesiastical politics. Give Symons some credit, however. Realizing no doubt that her anti-“far right” rant, which singles out Cardinal Raymond Burke, won’t stand on its own, she opts to reach back into the complicated history of the European Catholic Church in the 1930s and 40s in order to suggest, nay, declare a historic link between Catholicism and fascism. Given that, Symons “reasons,” Pope Francis, and indeed all Catholics of good will, must be on guard against “the virulently anti-Islam (“capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity”), migrant-phobic,  Donald Trump-defending, Vladimir Putin-excusing Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.” If only!

The truth of the matter is that though conservative to the core, Cardinal Burke barely represents anything close to “far right” or fascist. If anything, he is a continuation of the conservatism on sexuality and life issues found during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which explains why he has applauded Vladimir Putin and Russia for instituting laws intended to protect the integrity of the family. Granted, Burke’s outspokenness on Francis’s reform agenda is atypical for a Prince of the Church, but that’ because most hierarchs have taken to cravenly falling in line behind anything the Pope wishes. Whether she agrees with his views or not, Burke’s open criticisms of Francis should hearten Symon insofar as they represent a rebuke to the Pontiff’s authoritarian tendencies. And yet, in the end, Symon ironically longs for Francis to wield his authoritarian power to thwart an ostensibly authoritarian/neo-fascist Burke.

Despite all of the political turmoil currently afflicting the Catholic Church, it is safe to say that there is no concentrated movement within her walls to roll back the clock to a period before the controversial Vatican II documents Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate which, inter alia, let loose a wave of religious indifferentism that continues to drown souls to this very day. Instead, the Church continues to do everything it can to “play nice” with non-Catholic (even non-Christian) religions, particularly in the United States. Cardinal Burke, as a staunch defender of libertas religionis (rather than libertas ecclesiae), has no problem showing his liberal side out of a perhaps well-intentioned though ultimately misguided attempt to protect the rights of Catholics to be Catholics in an increasingly hostile, secularized environment. Perhaps the Trump Presidency will ease hostilities for a time, though judging by Symon’s piece, any Catholic who has something positive to say about the current administration and its policies is likely to be in the Left’s crosshairs going forward.

Still, to his credit, Cardinal Burke, along with a few other brave prelates and priests, have spoken out about the renewed threat to Christianity from Islam, both in the West and Middle East. However, such statements usually come packaged with a distinction between “radical Islam” and “real Islam,” the latter being seen as relatively peaceful and capable of “getting along” with Western liberal values. Scant attention is paid to how “real Islam,” that is, the normative Islam that has reigned supreme in the Middle East for 1,000 years has relentlessly turned Christianity into a river of blood. The price for “peace” in the region has often been Christians being relegated to second-class status (or worse), their institutions of learning closed, and their hierarchs reduced to puppets. So yes, Cardinal Burke is quite correct: “capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity.”

Most Catholics living in the West don’t see it that way, or at least not yet. While there are now heightened fears over terrorism due to the recent attacks in the United States and Europe, the dominant belief remains that if only “radical Islam” can be distinguished from “real Islam” in advance, then everything will be fine. Those Muslims adhering to “real Islam” will—so the story goes—embrace libertas religionis, too, and perhaps even lock arms with Christians to keep the forces of secularism at bay while upholding “traditional values.” This is the liberal Catholic dream—a dream that anyone with eyes to see knows won’t come true. More unsettling still are those few Catholics who have no interest in the false promises of liberalism and, perhaps out of an inferiority complex, see in Islam, including “radical Islam,” an anti-liberal force that ought to be admired. But addressing that problem will have to wait for another day.

Heaven Forbid

Given that every traditional argument for becoming a Catholic comes accompanied with an asterisk, I have suspended all efforts to kick-up any dirt over somebody choosing to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. What I mean is, it is difficult to expect a non-Catholic to easily embrace the “surety of Catholicism” and the “importance of the Papacy” during an unprecedented period of doctrinal chaos. Though it may be fashionable to look back into history and hold that today’s crisis “isn’t as bad” as the era of Arianism or the reign of Iconoclasm, the hard fact of the matter is that those tragic periods in Church history dealt primary with one central dogmatic issue (and then a host of peripheral theological ones). This time out, everything under the sun seems to be on the discussion table, with Catholic prelates all over the world sowing error on everything ranging from “same-sex marriage” to the historicity of the Resurrection. Maybe this could all be accounted for and endured if the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Francis, took affirmative steps to combat these problems, but he hasn’t—and nobody expects him to. Indeed, a mass of evidence has already accumulated that he knowingly contributes to the present crisis under a grossly distorted concept of “mercy.” Catholics of good will everywhere should, of course, give thanks to God that the Church still has good shepherds in her midst, but only after recognizing that those shepherds are few and far between. The hard reality today is that most Catholics are still lost in the wilderness.

As I have opined before, the Orthodox Church, by and large, has more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Catholicism does. (I should note here that it appears that all of the Eastern Catholic churches, by and large, have more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Latin Catholicism does.) What I have meant—and still mean—by this is that on any given Sunday, one is less likely to hear raw nonsense, if not objective heresy, preached from the pulpit in an Orthodox temple compared to a Catholic parish. Although I have witnessed many an Orthodox priest struggle to mutter an intelligible homily, what often makes it out of their mouths are simple, everyday reminders of what the Gospel message means coupled with a bit of history (depending on the liturgical day). Maybe it’s not “profound,” and certainly at times the Orthodox fall prey to clouding up basic points with useless mystical jargon and ahistorical declarations, but all of that is much easier to swallow than a cleric who begins his sermon with, “Today’s reading concerns what the author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Jesus . . .”

This is not to say that Orthodoxy—particularly American Orthodoxy—is not without its troubles. Just the other week, the Greek Orthodox Church presented pro-abortion, pro-homosexualist New York Governor Andrew Cuomo with the “[Patriarch] Athenagoras Human Rights Award.” Why? Because he helped the Greeks get the permits necessary to rebuild St. Nicholas Church, which was destroyed on 9/11. As most should know by now, the Greek Orthodox in America, much like their estranged Catholic brethren, have a long history of cozying up to Democratic politicians. Maybe this was all fine and well during the days when “Democrat” meant “New Deal” and “New Deal” meant social safety nets and industrial restraints intended to help laborers and the under-privileged, but those days are long behind us. No less than many average American Catholics, the Greek Orthodox seem content with the “privately opposed/publicly accepting” dichotomy on most pressing moral issues and cannot be bothered to take a stand against the rising tide of secularism in America.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those Orthodox who seem to align politically with certain traditionalist Catholics in believing Donald Trump and the alt-right will save them. Most of these poor souls are infected with “Russophilia” and believe, contrary to all available evidence, that “Holy Russia 2.0” is upon us. (If anybody needs a sobering account of why “Holy Russia 1.0” was not all that and a bag of chips, please see about purchasing a copy of the late Metropolitan Evlogy’s two-volume memoirs from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.) For them, Kirill of Moscow is Pope, Vladimir Putin is Tsar, and the only crucial political issue of the day is, “How can we appease Russia?” Now, granted, many of these Orthodox have their instincts in the right place. There is, after all, no benefit in following Hillary Clinton’s plan of picking a war with Russia so that jihadists can control Syria, nor can any Christian be blamed for being leery of the Democratic Party after what it has done to help raze Middle Eastern Christianity over the past eight years. Still, it is unsettling how easily a noticeable segment of American Orthodoxy can have its political orientation steered by romanticism.

All of this is to say that while the choice to choose Orthodoxy over Catholicism makes sense on a certain level, particularly as far as “basic orthodoxy” is concerned, those wishing to acquire a “total package” of “pure Christianity” with an unbreakable moral compass may wish to take a few steps back. As confused as Catholic thinking is today on a great many issues, no one can seriously contend that the Catholic Church has not spoken—and spoken forcefully—on matters such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, just war, just wages, and so on and so forth. While Orthodoxy has exhibited moral clarity in the past, its confederate-style makeup coupled with (uncanonical?) jurisdictional overlap has created something of a free-for-all when it comes to moral choices. For instance, if a couple doesn’t care for what Fr. Barsanuphius has to say about the pill and rubbers, Fr. Panteleimon down the street can put their consciences at ease.

At the political level (the lowest level?), American Orthodoxy is weak—so weak as to be almost nonexistent. And that’s fine. Those faithful bands of Catholics truly dedicated to what the Church teaches regarding the common good are also weak numerically and materially. The vast majority of Christians living today, regardless of confessional adherence, have made their peace with liberalism; they have no use for a Gospel that still speaks literally of living in the world and not being of it. Orthodoxy, for all of its apparent “other-worldliness,” is just as susceptible to secularism as Catholicism. What is still unclear is that if Orthodoxy, in its modern American iteration, has the capacity to step outside of these times, to find that horizon beyond liberalism, and then push forth with the Great Commission in hand. Or, in the end, will its seemingly most faithful adherents retreat from the moment of decision to dwell in figurative caves where they might cry out to the sky to be saved from the absolute corruption into which they have been thrown? And will the Catholics join them? Heaven forbid.