Several days ago I mentioned that Pater Edmund Waldstein’s 2014 talk, “The Politics of Nostalgia,” has been on my mind. Among the many excellent points Waldstein makes in the lecture, the most interesting to me is his refusal to submit to what one might call “nostalgia shaming” or the belief that a position is unreasonable, specious, or invalid because it is nostalgic. Waldstein, whose commitment to Catholic monarchism and integralism is well known, differs markedly from his fellow intellectual travelers insofar as he is neither a hopeless romantic nor a defeatist. Having a deep and intellectually serious attachment to the past, or principles which were still upheld int he past, is not the same as being indifferent to present realities. One of the most often heard — and ultimately unpersuasive — critiques of monarchism, integralism, and the restoration of Christendom is that they belong to the past. That they were all part of the past is a point no one disputes; that they must remain there forever is a bridge too far. People assume that, of course. But then again, people assume a lot of things are permanent which are not. That poor Egyptian, dialoguing millennia ago with his ba, likely didn’t see all that much on the human horizon given what his people had already accomplished.
One can only push this observation so far before they topple into senseless longing for a new “golden era” which may , by an act of sorcery, interrupt the sad course of human history. It is necessary to keep in mind that the conditions for right order cannot be established by wishful thinking alone. In fact, wishful thinking, more often than not, is the enemy of all worthy projects. Assuming, however, that the reestablishment of authentically Catholic states is, at best, a distant possibility, why raise the matter—and its attendant issues—at all? Why not accept the status quo, seek ways to work within and around it, and pray that maybe then, over the slow crawl of centuries, something “better” (relatively speaking) will emerge? Granted, such a course of action may not rid itself of the “nostalgia” stigma, but it does have the apparent benefit of looking practical. People often appreciate action over words, even if they don’t agree with its purpose or believe in its likelihood to succeed.
And that’s fine, but “doing something” for the sake of “doing something,” without recourse to principles and prudence, is not in and of itself virtuous. Maybe it is true that Catholics attached to ideas of the common good and right order spend too much time pondering texts and penning blogs, but better they do that than to give in to the “romanticism of activism” by attaching themselves to practical causes which are devoid of substantial merit. By engaging with ideas and, from there, promoting those ideas, such Catholics not only clarify proper social principles for the present generation, but raise important questions about the present liberal ordo which far too many of the faithful today accept as normative, even natural. If refreshing our understanding of authentic Catholic social, political, and moral principles disturbs us, it is likely because of how distant the “values” of the contemporary world are from those principles. We need to be unsettled; otherwise we risk dooming ourselves to complacency and perpetual inaction.
Some will insist that there is no “going back,” and to a certain extent they are right. The restoration of monarchism and integralism is not the same as inaugurating a historical repetition. The errors of the past, one prays, will be learned from, and new prudential challenges will require, on a pragmatic level, new thinking. To maintain, however, that there is no “going back” because liberal ideology is today triumphant should strike most as terribly naive, particularly given the events of the past 13 years. Catholic liberals, and by this I mean doctrinally conservative Catholics who accept economic and political liberalism, attempt regularly to bypass this reality by claiming that the problem isn’t with liberalism itself, only the failure of certain societies, or factions within our own society, to accept liberal tenets in their ostensibly “correct” form. With respect to the market, for instance, our present woes aren’t due to capitalism failing, but rather a false “crony capitalism” reigning triumphant. Maybe these Catholics are nostalgic, too; only their nostalgia is for an age and order which has neither existed nor found affirmation in the philosophical, theological, and magisterial patrimony of Holy Mother Church.
Others want to press ahead. A new generation of Catholics is emerging which believes, for various reasons, that the tenets of the Left present what Leo Strauss, in his critique of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, called a “horizon beyond liberalism.” For Struass this “horizon” was to be found in ancient and medieval philosophy. For a certain segment of today’s young Catholics, that “horizon” looks strangely like the social-justice narratives which were all the rage a generation or so ago. They won’t admit this of course; some like to claim they are “radical” even if what they are offering doesn’t seem particularly new. The packaging has changed, the contents remain the same. There’s more to be said on that topic, but that is for another time.