This might have been a more appropriate name for Christopher Ferrara’s important 2012 book Liberty: the God that Failed.
The nineteenth-century Spanish reactionary Juan Donoso Cortes occupies an intriguing place
in the history of Reaction. His critique of liberalism is distinctly theological; he grounds all his social principles in Christian doctrine: the nature of the Trinity, its manifestations in creation, mankind’s collective Fall, and its collective redemption. In some ways, he anticipates the Christian communitarians and Radical Orthodoxy schools of our own time. Unlike them, he was tied to an actual, living traditional society, and he defends kings, hereditary aristocracies, Catholic establishment, and many other things that would cause today’s communitarians to faint from fear.
Throne & Altar reader William McEnaney has kindly sent me a copy of Dononso’s main work, his Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism. Bill works with Preserving Christian Publications, a small business that sells out-of-print pre-conciliar Catholic books. I would be pleased for such ventures to flourish and so am happy to offer this bit of free advertising. What follows will be an exploration of one key theme in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.
Writing in 1851, Donoso saw the great issue of his age as an ultimately theological battle between Catholicism and socialism. Catholicism had dignified both authority and obedience by locating the former’s source in God. Even the legitimate authority of fathers (as opposed to their mere primacy of age and power) is explicable primarily through the Trinitarian relation it reflects. Alongside the family and state, Catholicism fosters a vast network of associations, each embodying it its own way the fundamental law of unity-in-diversity rooted in the Trinitarian heart of Being. Socialism would destroy all of this, reducing the order of mankind to a vast and unitary yet illegitimate statist tyranny.
In the twentieth century, all of this would be explained in terms of the supposed Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. As you’ve often heard the story, the Left basically owns solidarity, and Catholics criticize Leftists only for neglecting the second principle of subsidiarity, a vague council to–all other things being equal–favor small and local agency. This is inadequate for a number of reasons. Donoso gets to the real heart of the matter. What’s wrong with socialism is not that it is solidarity unchecked; socialism is solidarity denied, misunderstood, reduced to a shadow of its true self. The socialist believes in solidarity too little, rather than too much.
I know he thinks that his watered-down, softened-up version of Catholicism is making it easier for us, but the real effect is quite the opposite, and this is easy to understand.
The whole body of this new scheme of manners, in support of the new scheme of politics, I consider as a strong and decisive proof of determined ambition and systematic hostility. I defy the most refining ingenuity to invent any other cause for the total departure of the Jacobin Republic from every one of the ideas and usages, religious, legal, moral, or social, of this civilized world, and for her tearing herself from its communion with such studied violence, but from a formed resolution of keeping no terms with that world. It has not been, as has been falsely and insidiously represented, that these miscreants had only broke with their old government. They made a schism with the whole universe, and that schism extended to almost everything, great and small. For one, I wish, since it is gone thus far, that the breach had been so complete as to make all intercourse impracticable…
My ideas and my principles led me, in this contest, to encounter France, not as a state, but as a faction. The vast territorial extent of that country, its immense population, its riches of production, its riches of commerce and convention, the whole aggregate mass of what in ordinary cases constitutes the force of a state, to me were but objects of secondary consideration. They might be balanced; and they have been often more than balanced. Great as these things are, they are not what make the faction formidable. It is the faction that makes them truly dreadful. That faction is the evil spirit that possesses the body of France, that informs it as a soul, that stamps upon its ambition, and upon all its pursuits, a characteristic mark, which strongly distinguishes them from the same general passions and the same general views in other men and in other communities. It is that spirit which inspires into them a new, pernicious, a desolating activity. Constituted as France was ten years ago, it was not in that France to shake, to shatter, and to overwhelm Europe in the manner that we behold…
As for me, I was always steadily of opinion that this disorder was not in its nature intermittent. I conceived that the contest, once begun, could not be laid down again, to be resumed at our discretion, but that our first struggle with this evil would also be our last. I never thought we could make peace with the system; because it was not for the sake of an object we pursued in rivalry with each other, but with the system itself that we were at war. As I understood the matter, we were at war, not with its conduct, but with its existence–convinced that its existence and its hostility were the same.
The faction is not local or territorial. It is a general evil. Where it least appears in action, it is still full of life. In its sleep it recruits its strength and prepares its exertion. Its sprit lies deep in the corruptions of our common nature. The social order which restrains it feeds it. It exists in every country in Europe, and among all orders of men in every country, who look up to France as to a common head. The center is there. The circumference is the world of Europe, wherever the race of Europe may be settled. Everywhere else the faction is militant; in France it is triumphant. In France is the bank of deposit and the bank of circulation of all the pernicious principles that are forming in every state. It will be a folly scarcely deserving of pity, and too mischievous for contempt, to think of restraining it in any other country whilst it is predominant there. War, instead of being the cause of its force, has suspended its operation. It has given a reprieve, at least, to the Christian world…
It is a dreadful truth, but it is a truth that cannot be concealed: in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors. They saw the thing right from the very beginning. Whatever were the first motives to the war among politicians, they saw that in its spirit, and for its objects, it was a civil war; and as such they pursued it. It is a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all. It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France…
– from Letters on a Regicide Peace
Edmund Burke was actually far from the contemptible “slow-and-steady path to surrender” advocate his twentieth-century admirers made him out to be.
Father Edmund Waldstein has posted some excellent writings explaining the pre-modern (classical and Christian) view of politcs and defending it from its ill-informed liberal detractors. I particularly recommend them to Orthosphere readers, even though I know by now you’ve all heard plenty of arguments against modern autonomy-worship, because Waldstein bases himself on an understanding of the common good that, although a part of our philosophical patrimony, has been all but forgotten. To sum it up
the human good is a participation in a higher, divine good. Thus our good exists not principally in our selves, but principally in the divine realm, and secondarily in ourselves. The divine good is more our own good than the good which exists in our own souls.
the community of men reflects God more than an individual man just as the universe reflects Him more perfectly than any one creature. Recall what I said about participation a moment ago: my own good exists more in the divine than in my individual existence; a corollary can now be seen: the common good, the order of the community, is more my good than any private good of mine. The common good of order or peace is common in fullest sense of the word: all the members of the community share it without it being divided or lessened by this sharing. Thus the common good is not merely a useful good; it is not merely the conditions that enable individuals to get what they want, it is the best good that individuals can have, it is that in which they find their happiness.
By the way, Waldstein is guided on this subject by the work of early twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Charles De Koninck, whose writings are one of those many Catholic intellectual resources that seem to have been thrown out and forgotten during the post-Vatican II deluge.
The question I ask is one of ideology, rather than ecclesiology. The heart of the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ present to us in the Eucharist. The heart of the Catholic belief system is a way of understanding this presence. Catholicism is not just whatever the reigning pope says, or even a mere aggregate of what past popes and councils have said. If Catholic belief were just a two-millennium long pile of arbitrary bureaucratic memos, there would be no coherence to it, and orthodox Catholics would have no ground for resistance when prelates at the highest level plot to undermine the faith, as they are now doing through the coming Extraordinary Synod for the Normalization of Adultery. No, the pronouncements of the Church, especially her creeds, are a wonderful witness to the Catholic faith, but the faith they witness precedes them. It derives from the ecclesial-sacramental system instituted, as we believe, by Christ Himself and as interpreted through a distinct Catholic perspective. This perspective is unitary, internally consistent, tightly interconnected, and rationally and imaginatively compelling.
What is the essence of this Catholic perspective? What is distinctive about it? I’ve just finished an essay trying to explain it in 15 pages, already a feat of condensation if I do say so myself. Let’s see if I can give the gist of it in one.
What do our Orthodox readers make of this?
Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.
The Istanbul talks were called to decide on the council, which the Orthodox have been preparing on and off since the 1960s, but the Ukraine crisis overshadowed their talks at the office of spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Don’t do it!
Today, the BICEP2 team announced the detection of what they claim is an imprint of long wavelength gravitational waves in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. If this holds up (a big if: lots of exciting discoveries don’t hold up when some neglected systematic error turns up), it will be the most important discovery in cosmology since the first evidence for dark energy, and for physics in general I would rate it more important than the detection of the Higgs boson.
We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Kasper’s gestures of compassion to the divorced and remarried. Indeed, we are all sinners, and these wise prelates know that the Lord’s table is no place to exclude those who refuse to submit to Jesus’ statements on remarriage. However, it should be remembered that selective mercy is often a greater cruelty to those who remain outside its graces. Let us not forget those other sensitive Christian souls who have for so long suffered judgement and exclusion from the Church. I refer, of course, to that other subset of unrepentant adulterers, the ones who haven’t abandoned their first families and civilly remarried.
Consider, if you will, the dilemma of a believing Catholic man who has found himself in a relationship with a mistress. Rosary-counting Catholics–more Pharisee than Christian!–would condemn this man for his sins of “lust”, but I know that many extramarital relationships involve genuine friendship, love, and spiritual fellowship. We acknowledge that the love in this man’s marriage has failed, and we have to feel the pain of the failure; we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love. Not to condemn them! To walk with them! And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation.
What do adulterers actually hear from us though, when they earnestly desire to participate fully in the life of the Church? Do we not presume to judge them? Do we not cruelly demand that they severe those extramarital attachments that bring them so much joy and comfort? Do we not hold the Lord hostage, saying that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist until they conform to our ideas of an acceptable level of monogamy? Yes, we acknowledge that it may not be practical for a man never to see his mistress again, but we insist that when he does spend time with her they should behave as brother and sister. But this is cruelly unrealistic! A man may have an intensely meaningful relationship with his mistress. Illegitimate children might be involved. Plus, she might be totally hot.
Consider also the utter perversity of the fact that if this man were to abandon his wife and children to poverty and fatherlessness and “marry” his mistress, he would be welcomed with open arms in the Church of Pope Francis the Merciful. Is it not bizarre that we accept a man who breaks all of his marital vows but not a man who only breaks one of them?
What should the Church do in such situations? It cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Moses. The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this command of fidelity in its pastoral action concerning adulterers. It is always the case that those in mortal sin are called to spiritual communion with the Church even though they can’t receive sacramental communion. But if one, why not the other? Some maintain that non-participation in communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament. The question that is posed in response is: is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others? Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?
Now, it is true, alas, that the Church cannot disregard the biblical teaching that cheating on one’s spouse is sinful. However, while doctrine teaches us what is true in the abstract, it doesn’t judge concrete particulars. Thus, just as we now know that although sodomy is abstractly speaking always a mortal sin, every particular homosexual relationship is wonderful and deserving of civil affirmation, we can say that although adultery is wrong in the abstract, human beings are not abstractions, and we may not judge any particular extramarital dalliance. We shall not presume to tell the husband with a wandering eye whom he may and may not love! Look, the same bible that teaches us about the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say to the married man who’s on the side proudly banging his secretary “Bravo“.
Yes, we may say that monogamy is ideal, so long as we don’t proudly imply that open marriages among our sincere Christian brothers and sisters are therefore inferior. Nor may we imagine that a man’s sexual desire for his wife is somehow more wholesome than a desire for some random other woman. That would be to encourage the sin of pride in those who happen to be attracted to their spouses, an inclination that is not in itself praiseworthy.
Acceptance of adultery means compassion toward everyone: the cheater, the mistress,…, um, yeah, everyone.
Please excuse me while I argue with myself.
1. The Bible was written for the simple people of that time and used images and metaphors because that’s what people could understand. We’re smarter, so we can discard that now.
You’re no smarter than the people who first listened to Moses. If they needed images and metaphors, you need them too.
2. It’s all lies! Silly fables! Let’s just have done with it.
Even if this weren’t the word of God we’re talking about, that would be a silly thing to say. Sure, it seems next to impossible that all the world’s animals really descend from those on the Ark. Still, a story like the Flood, shared by peoples all over the world, has got to be more than just the product of some random storyteller’s imagination. Perhaps there was some event that all peoples vaguely remember. My suspicion is that every legend has some basis in fact. But even if you don’t believe this, it’s pretty remarkable that this story is so widely shared. If we assume nothing like what it describes ever happened, then it means either that lots of peoples independently keep recreating this story, or else this story has some sort of special appeal that it transmits quickly from people to people, even when they’re not much interested in other aspects of each others’ culture. Either way, we have the sense that this story is some kind of given, an archetype not manufactured but discovered, a truth of the human imagination if not of natural history. It is certainly worth getting to the bottom of.
3. It’s all well and good to say that Genesis is really giving us symbols of spiritual truths, but to be credible as anything but face-saving in the face of scientific disproof, you’d better be able to say exactly what the symbolism is, and why it had to be related in this way rather than plainly and literally.
If I could tell you exactly what the symbols say, then there wouldn’t have been any need for them, and they would ipso facto not have been necessary. Symbols are not code for literal propositions; they exist to express truths and connections that can’t be expressed with literal propositions.
4. But the only reason you’re looking to chuck the literal–in the modern sense of that word–meaning is that you’re embarrassed by it. The authority of the Bible doesn’t lead you to these weird interpretations, just the fact that you don’t believe what the Bible is telling you. That means that, whatever you may tell yourself, there actually are authorities that trump the Bible for you. Why not be honest with yourself? If you can’t salvage your faith, at least preserve your honesty.
That’s mean. Especially since I’ve already expressed my hunch that there is some historical kernel to all of this. I don’t pretend to have any general principles to offer, but a guideline is to notice when scripture is expressing the inexpressible. For example, Genesis begins with God about to impose form on the Earth, and the chaos of formlessness is represented (as it is for pretty much all peoples) by the primordial waters. Now, in reality, formlessness is one thing that the human mind can’t truly conceive, because the way to think about anything is precisely to extract the form. All our ideas about space, time, mass, and energy are formal aspects of material being. And even after God forms the world, the primordial waters remain as a sign of whatever lies beyond the realm of intelligibility, a beyond about which, by its very “nature”, we can say nothing direct. I suspect that all peoples retain this intuition that beyond the realm of order is a vast chaos, not a mere absence of being, but something active, always ready to crash in on the ordered realm, dissolving form and identity, destroying and renewing. Thus the resonance of the story of the Ark, since indeed the ordered realm is conceived as itself a sort of Ark surrounded by the primordial waters.
Could it be true, that some physical, psychological, or social force of chaos once overwhelmed humanity? If so, it could only properly be remembered by myth.