Last month in The New York Times Michel Houellebecq, author of the unsettling socio-political satire Submission, remarked that “Islam is political because it describes the way in which society should be organized.” In other words, there is no such thing as apolitical Islam in the way some try to say there is an apolitical Christianity. Now that late-modernity has nearly exhausted its Christian cultural heritage, it has become commonplace for many Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, to pitch their religion as a private affair which can lead to certain internal spiritual (or, rather, psychological) changes which can have salutary externalities that are valuable to a “rightly ordered” liberal-democratic regime. Setting aside the rhetoric of “human dignity,” a deontological defense no reasonable person—religious or secular—takes seriously, are these not the terms on which religious freedom is defended? “Good Christians” who practice their religion “the right way” (i.e., privately and without running afoul society’s ever-shifting value set) make for “good citizens.” They’re nice; they set-up charities and volunteer at soup kitchens; they vote for safety nets and entitlement programs; and so on, and so forth. The last thing a “good Christian” should do is start barking about how society should be organized.
Islam doesn’t see it that way, or says Houllebecq (and a legion of other observers). It furnishes not only an internal spiritual posture but a transformative political ideal rivaled only by liberal-based ideologies that have been steadily losing normative appeal for half-a-century in most parts of the West. How long until Islam has no rival? Houllebecq appears to believe that Islam is incompatible with France’s republican values and may, at some point in the future, overtake them. Catholicism, on the other hand, stands no chance. According to Houllebecq, Catholicism lost out to France’s republican values and it’s not coming back. As he goes on to state, “Islam is easier” to grasp; Catholicism is “very exotic . . . more exotic to us than Islam.” To be able to make this observation in the early 21st Century shows just how disconnected French—and, really, European—civilization has become from its roots.
Some might opine that Houllebecq is playing the fatalist and we needn’t accept surrender as the only option left. In the United States matters are a bit different. Islam, at the moment, is less of an existential threat than militant secularism. For Europe, though, the Christian vision has been lost and secularism has not satisfied genuine spiritual and political longings. The institutional Catholic Church already lost out, and it is clearly in no position to reassert itself in any meaningful way. For France in particular there remains pockets of Catholic resistance in the form of traditional priests and orders which keep the Faith alive for those few souls who have not succumbed to indifference. This Catholicism is arguably political; it maintains a clear idea of how French society ought to be organized beginning with the home. Unfortunately, this Catholicism appears to be too late to make a difference, though one can hope that it still manages to save a soul or two.
The question facing Christians—particularly Catholics—in the U.S. is whether or not we will follow European Christianity’s lead and secularize into irrelevancy or hold true to the Faith? Are we still willing to speak of both Christ Crucified and His Kingship over society? Do we still have time to reject American-style liberalism or shall we surrender out of the misplaced hope that we might still scratch out a silent existence under the banner of religious freedom? Make no mistake about it: Catholicism, no less than Islam, is capable of describing the way in which society should be organized in the light of reason and revelation. The problem is that we have lost our voice. And on those rare occasions when we do speak, particularly through “official channels,” the only thing we seem capable of doing is dressing up passing secular causes in churchly vestments, as if the rest of society notices or cares.