Five Paragraphs in “Honor” of the Web-Log Being Back

During the few days this web-log was down, I had drafted several posts. Now I cannot find them (though I suspect I loaded them to one of the many cloud services I never thought I needed). Maybe that is for the best. Whenever I spend significant times pulling together posting material, I invariably lose steam. Moreover, the topics (which I will touch on below) probably do not demand their own treatment, at least not right now. Still, a few words shouldn’t hurt.

First, almost a year ago I gave a talk on Catholicism and race. Now I find out the philosopher/polemicist Ed Feser has penned a book on the subject for Ignatius Press. Naturally, I ordered a copy, but it has yet to arrive. Given Feser’s intellectual and political proclivities, the work is likely to be very informative or epically cringy. (It could be a mix of both, I suppose.) When I spoke on the topic, I relied heavily on Eric Voegelin’s The History of the Race Idea and Race and State, with only a handful of references to the Church’s magisterium. As time has ticked on, several folks offered me critiques of Voegelin’s work, which according to some is dated and maybe even “racist” (though I am not convinced). Where Voegelin is most helpful is tracing the development of race ideology; his examination of racialist politics is more timebound, but not entirely inapposite. When giving the talk, I had thought—naively—that no serious Catholic still accepted race categories as “natural.” It appears I was not paying attention since the reduction of human beings to biology alone is as acceptable to a disturbing number of Catholics as it is to other corners of the population uninhibited by Christian anthropology. I await Feser’s thoughts even if I am worried he lacks any appreciable understanding of what drives race-focused social movements like Black Lives Matter, and so forth.

Second, and sticking with the topic of race, I have been deep diving into the problem the Marxist social critic Adolph Reed, Jr. calls “race reductionism.” According to Reed, “[r]ace reductionism is ultimately a couple of things,” namely the “presumption that race as a category can explain social phenomena” and “that every grievance, injustice, beef that in any way affects a person of color, or a person of non-color, can be reduced to race, or can be reduced causally to race or to racism.” Those miffed at Reed accuse him of “class reductionism.” However, even a cursory glance at Reed’s works, including his recent book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, reveals his dynamic approach to socio-political problems. Reed takes race seriously, but it is not his idol—and for that he is castigated unfairly by those who should be most interested in aligning with him.

Third, if you enjoy the Dune serious, you should acquire the ongoing graphic-novel adaption of the original book. The second of three volumes came out last week. Although their vision of the novel differs at points from what was presented in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film, there are striking convergences as well.

Last, having recently finished Harnack’s monograph Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, I find myself down a Marcionite rabbit hole with Dieter T. Roth’s The Text of Marcion’s Gospel and Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion. These works, in addition to a collection of articles I have picked up, carry on—and in some substantial ways modify—Harnack’s sympathetic portrait of the second-century dissenter whose intellectual efforts, though lost to the sands of time, still offer, via scholarly reconstruction, a fascinating window into early Christianity and the formation of the Christian Biblical canon. Harnack’s appreciation of Marcion’s religiosity is more than a bit infectious. Recent popular attempts to rehabilitate Marcion and the so-called Marcionite Christian Church are less impressive. It is altogether easy to praise Marcion’s portrait of a loving, redeeming God; it is exponentially harder to accept Marcion’s theology and its brutally ascetical implications.

Weaponizing the Rosary

Much handwringing is underway over Daniel Penneton’s online piece at The Atlantic, “How Extremist Gun Culture Co-Opted the Rosary.” Having a sneaking suspicion that many of those decrying it have not read it, I would recommend they do so. In fact, I recommend anyone who is interested in contemporary American politics and Catholicism take a gander, not because Penneton gets it exactly right (he does not) nor because he exhibits knowledge of the rosary’s history (again, he does not), but because the phenomenon he touches upon is real: the degradation of an authentically spiritual devotion in the service of worldly politics.

Penneton stretches his thesis a tad too far by making direct links between “gun culture” (which is also real, by the way) and the rosary, though certainly there are those involved in the former who like to parade their beads around on social media as a weapon—and not a spiritual weapon. Martial imagery and metaphors have long accompanied the rosary devotion, though the war they pointed toward was a spiritual war against the devil, not a political war, especially a petty political war over the meaning of the Second Amendment or whether one can defend themselves in court as a “sovereign citizen.” This is not to say that there are not legitimate evils in society which at their root are spiritual. Such demons may only be driven out by prayer, repentance, and fasting; posting cringe-worthy selfies with the rosary-as-practical weapon wielded in the service of nothing accomplishes nothing.

Some are curious about the origins of the phenomenon Panneton points to. Online culture can be, well, weird and Catholics are no exception to weirdness, particularly when they embrace it on Twitter and other social-media fora. How that is supposed to attract or edify is beyond me, but it happens nonetheless. What also happens to an embarrassing degree are (mostly young) males, lacking a compass for their (self-)repressed masculinity, promoting the rosary like it’s an actual broadsword that should be run through the gullets of heretics, schismatics, feminists, leftists, Muslims, Jews, and so on and so forth. Some of these folks cling to (neo-)integralism, which loosely aligns with their trite medieval vision of a well-functioning political order. Most appear attracted to more secularized alt-right postures, though as I have discussed elsewhere, these pathologies are not necessarily incompatible with integralism.

It is important to bare in mind that these cyber crusaders are an extreme minority of all Catholics, including Catholics who pray the rosary regularly. Although exact studies are lacking, again it appears that the online “rosary wielders” are primarily angry young man, sometimes derided as “incels” or “edgelords” by their social-media peers, who are grasping for a stature they never had and likely never will. Instead of huffing burn pit fumes like actual military service members, they spew quasi-Tolkienite tripe while giving nods to a romanticized past where men were men; women knew their place; families had a dozen children; and society run on “traditional moral values.” Many of these persons will grow out of this phase. Some will not. And of course, some will dabble in more extreme (and practically dangerous) online cultures.

Traditional Latin Catholics, who are more variegated than Penneton recognizes, often shoulder the brunt of these criticisms, though the are hardly to blame. A well-formed traditional Catholic should be able to distinguish between the rosary as a powerful spiritual weapon and the rosary as a blunt cultural instrument of little value. A so-called rosary crusade for the good of the Church and society is laudable; paying for violence against one’s enemies, real or imagined, is not. For those critical of Catholicism, online cosplaying with rosaries and images of crusader helmets and other such nonsense only feeds into their narrative that Catholics are dangerous, demented, and disloyal to American democracy.

A Note on David Bentley Hart Contra Integralism

I do not want to continue harping on (neo-)integralism, at least not for the moment. Having learned recently there is a critical book in the works, my suspicion is that I should await publication and fill in any “gaps” that may appear in the narrative. This is not to say that I will never mention integralism again. I simply do not want this web-log to become an anti-integralist hub in the way I once, modestly speaking, used it to promote integralism. (Those interested in the topic are free to comb the archives; I still stand by some of what I wrote.) Where integralism crosses over into public discourse, I may have a thing or two to say. I remain very interested in what the critics pen, though historically I have been unimpressed by anti-integralist screeds. Most miss the mark by failing to understand what integralism is, or at least what integralism is intended to be. These days, I am a tad more forgiving because integralism has casually blended with all sorts of noxious right-leaning ideologies and movements. Nobody is wrong necessarily to think of integralism as degraded Trumpism with incense.

It should surprise no soul to find out that David Bentley Hart is not a fan of integralism. He has some choice words for it in his recent book, Tradition and Apocalypse, and continues to berate it over at his Substack, Leaves in the Wind. Not wanting to interfere with Hart’s hustle, I won’t block-quote too much of the content he has tucked behind a paywall, but rather recommend his ongoing series regarding Christian politics (or, as he calls it, “Notes Toward the Definition of a Christian Political Sensibility”). Hart has touched on politics in the past, including bringing the ire of the Acton Institute down upon him for suggesting that early Christianity was communist.

According to Hart, integralism “is basically a neo-Falangist fascism.” Hart continues:

Predictably, [integralism] professes a special solicitude for the working class, for revered cultural institutions, and for the nuclear family, as all fascisms do. But this does not mean that labor, revered institutions, or families would be protected from state coercions under Integralist rule. These Integralists believe in nothing so fanatically as the duty of the “crown” to determine the licit forms of all civil associations. Nor is there any extremity of the state’s coercive powers—capital punishment not excepted—that they see as illegitimate for the suppression of heresy, blasphemy, sexual immorality, and other deviations from the sacral social order.

As I mentioned in my prior post, “[i]tegralism’s primary pathology is an obsession with power,” a feature that Hart also detects. Where I perhaps part ways with Hart is his seemingly dismissive attitude toward the “special solicitude” integralism (and fascism) ostensibly has for “the working class, for revered cultural institutions, and for the nuclear family[.]” This “solicitude” is not always insincere among fascists and indeed may always be very sincere, albeit poorly expressed. With respect to integralism, it is at its core a white, educated, upper-income movement with nothing approaching a faint echo of legitimate sympathy toward the working classes among its members. While integralists pay lip service to Catholic social teaching, economic encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno play almost no role in its socio-political imaginings. The raw exercise of authority is what matters.

Due to integralism’s easygoing mixing with Trumpism, QAnon Catholicism, and other detestable elements of the so-called alt-right, labor rights and unions are likely seen as an impediment to the “common good” (whatever that means). Race plays little-to-no role in integralist thought, though it is possible to find some adherents who will gin up conspiracy theories about racial politics or act as if racial divisions are either “natural” or in some sense “prudent” in order to maintain good social order. And of course class conflict is anathema; “class cooperation” under the watchful eye of a centralized power is needed. And even if integralism could devise an economic ordo that takes into account just wages and wider property distribution, the elites—that is, those white, educated, upper-income individuals (almost exclusively male) who promote integralism—must remain at the top of the hierarchy lest too much localized self-governance disrupt what is ultimately integralism’s final end, that is, an aesthetic state painted in the gaudy colors of romantic longing for an age that never existed.

Further Remarks on (Neo-)Integralist Pathologies

By way of follow up on my post from the other week, “Distributism vs. (Neo-)Integralism: Some Remarks,” I want to make mention of a handful of pathologies evident in the integralist or, rather, neo-integralist outlook. This list, which is admittedly impressionistic, is hardly exhaustive. Moreover, I am going to bypass drawing distinctions between integralism, which I still have some faith in as a spiritual-intellectual project, and neo-integralism, which is the dominant (and distorted) contemporary iteration of that “tradition of thought.” Although integralism is a Catholic tradition at its core, its influence and connections are detectable outside of strictly Catholic circles.

Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, is an integralist hero despite being a member of the Calvinist Hungarian Reformed Church. The charlatan pseudo-journalist Rod Dreher, who has made a living off appropriating Catholic intellectual currents while simultaneously crapping on the Catholic Church, is ostensibly an Eastern Orthodox Christian; his political idol, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is allegedly one, too. Dreher once locked horns with integralists online, but he has found common cause with them as of late due to his recent divorce (from reality). Various online pockets of far-right miscreants, the sort who thought storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was “cool” until the FBI got involved, express integralist sympathies at times even if they are not invested in smells n’ bells Catholicism.

Integralism’s primary pathology is an obsession with power. While integralists pay lip service to power being exercised in accordance with divine and natural law, few (if any) integralists are prepared to incorporate thick conceptions of either into their work. The closest they come is so-called “common good constitutionalism” which appears plastic enough to ordain a plethora of political arrangements without regard to right. Banal examples of common good constitutionalism in practice, such as having elemental rules of the road rather than chaos on the highways, does little to assuage skeptics’ fears that this integralist offshoot desires only basic background rules that allow a society to “flourish.” Such a conception of law is little different than the classical liberal legal order suggested by libertarian scholar Richard Epstein, whose Simple Rules for a Complex World is at least honest in its aims.

Why integralists are reticent to “fill in the blanks” on common-good constitutionalism or any other political-legal concept they promote is because it is important to them that it align with the wishes of a concrete (and at least mildly sympathetic) political authority. Integralists mortgaged their credibility during the Trump Administration by overtly or covertly embracing the “neo-Constantinian” justification for supporting a borderline madman unfit for office. Some in the integralist camp really believed that with a second Trump victory would come positions of power for themselves; the disappointment over his uncontestable defeat was bitter.

Another integralist pathology is tribalism. With their guru Adrian Vermeule leading from behind, integralists quickly circled their wagons online to ensure no “false thinking” weaved its way into their ranks. When brown-shirted thuggery on social media fails to work, integralists quickly dispatch their heads into the sand lest they acknowledge serious challenges to their sideways outlook. At times integralists will decry the downfall of academic freedom (or, really, their place at the discussion table since “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” is a sullied principle in their eyes), but they have a limited interest in real scholarly engagement. Even fellow Catholics who question the integralist project, particularly in light of post-Vatican II Church teaching, are often ignored or shouted down. And though integralism felt compelled in the early stages of its reemergence to connect deeply with Catholic social thought, few if any integralists bother these days.

All of this points to a third pathology in integralist thought, namely its irreconcilable endorsement of hyper ultramontanism with an empty anti-liberalism. Nary a word is mentioned concerning the sea change that occurred in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, particularly with respect to the relationship between church and state. For integralism to be coherent, the 19th and early 20th century socio-political encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI, and to a lesser extent Pius XII need to be in play. Yet integralists routinely reject what is called the “hermeneutic of rupture” approach to Vatican II in practice, though I know of no serious hermeneutical theory advanced by an integralists on this matter. Whether he considers himself an integralist or not, Thomas Pink surely comes the closest with his detailed analysis of Dignitatis Humanae and whether it represents a policy rather than a doctrinal change. Even if Pink’s assessment is correct, that does not paper over the fact that most integralists are wary to wade into hermeneutical waters lest their comedic fealty to whoever happens to be the pope is questioned.

There can be no serious doubt that Pope Francis is not an integralist, yet the ultramontane integralists rabidly defend him in their usual thuggish manner. The papacy, like Catholicism itself, has instrumental value for integralists. It represents a seat of seemingly unlimited power, one that has the benefit of lying beyond human convention. It is a “model” of sorts for them, albeit a poor one. Cast in a Schmittian light (such as what the former Nazi penned in Roman Catholicism and Political Form), the papacy is uninfected structurally with liberalism. (No words of comfort are offered on whether papal policies can be infected with liberalism.) This is perhaps why integralists are not bothered by papal blessings for liturgical deforms and doctrinal distortions; if they come from the top, they must be defended as good.

David Bentley Hart Is Not a Marcionite

Far be it for me to get too embroiled in one of many online fisticuffs over the works of David Bentley Hart, the recent fallout over Tradition and Apocalypse is as baffling as it is ridiculous. Tradition, which at its core is a critique of Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, also features what I have elsewhere dubbed an “iconoclastic critical-historical reading of the Fall narrative.” This, along with some of Hart’s earlier remarks on various Old Testament lessons, has prompted some mental midgets to accuse Hart of—wait for it…—Marcionism!

Marcionism, in the popular polemical lexicon, is an empty-headed rejection of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) that was vanquished successfully in the early centuries of Christianity. Marcion of Sinope, that deeply religious man who promoted what he believed to be the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in a large portion of the Pauline corpus and an edited version of St. Luke’s Gospel, is the ancient villain; his contemporary disciple is apparently Hart. Others who are either accidentally or intentionally ignorant of the Old Testament are sometimes accused of Marcionism as well. Indeed, I have heard at least one Orthodox cleric chide his co-religionists for being de facto Marcionites. Perhaps he has a point, though what I think this priest is actually lamenting has less to do with an ancient heresy and more to do with general ignorance of the Scriptures.

The problem with accusing Hart or almost anyone of Marcionism, particularly when the concern is that a person either rejects the Old Testament or, in reading it, submits it to a critical-historical interpretation, is that it ignores Marcion’s own views. Marcion did not deny the historicity of the Old Testament; he believed it to be literally true. In his groundbreaking monograph Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, Adolf von Harnack goes to great lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Marcion took the Old Testament books seriously with nary a thought given to the possibility that they were distorted through alterations and interpolations as Marcion believed much of the New Testament had been. Moreover, Harnack also reveals that despite his low view of the judgmental “creator-god” of the Old Testament and his inferiority to the merciful “alien-god” of the New, the Old Testament remained a source of instruction.

Hart, by his own lights at least, falls into the orthodox Christian exegetical tradition where allegory and typology can have their say. These abominable interpretive twins were anathema to Marcion. Equally critical is the fact that Hart has never posited two deities, and despite accepting the findings of critical-historical scholarship concerning the origins of certain Old Testament narratives, he makes clear in Tradition that these stories are not without theological value. If anything, Hart appears much more interested in where these narratives, regardless of their “empirical” origins, fit within the story of salvation history rather than casting them aside as irrelevant myths that need not occupy serious Christians.

It is all but impossible to be a Marcionite in any legitimate sense without accepting Marcion’s unqualified belief that the creator-god of the Old Testament is not the alien-god of the New, that is, the merciful and loving Father of Jesus Christ. Although there will always be limits to what we can confidently believe about Marcion’s true thoughts, enough remnants of his intellectual work remain in the extant writings of his most rabid theological opponents for us to be sure that Marcionism had nothing to do with a radical rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some might opine that this is all beside the point. Hart is dangerous, unorthodox, misleading, corrupting, vile, and so on and so forth; it matters not if he is truly a Marcionite. Maybe. If Hart were a Marcionite, presumably he would stay in line with the movement’s namesake by telling all with ears to hear about the higher alien-god of the New Testament, the one who remained hidden from human history until he revealed himself exclusively through the Gospel preached by St. Paul and kept, following some precise excisions and emendations, in Luke. A rhetoric of love, mercy, and peace would likely flow from Hart’s fingertips, not vitriolic dismissals carrying enough scorn to make the creator-god blush.

Hart, like most of his followers and critics, remains thoroughly Christian, however.