Rebuilding a Fragile Political Order

Best known for his magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel firmly established himself as a Catholic public intellectual in 1987 with Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace. There Weigel argued that the purpose of Just War thinking is not to avoid war at all costs, but to work for the establishment and protection of a just order, which sometimes requires violent conflict. Not long after the book was written, the Soviet Union fell, opening up the possibility of such an order to large swathes of the globe. Moreover, under the pontificate of John Paul II, the Catholic Church seemed ready to provide the world with a moral compass and to undertake its conversion.

Thirty years after Tranquillitas Ordinis, much has changed. Weigel’s most recent book, which collects his essays from 2007 to 2017, is entitled The Fragility of Order. The essays attest to the ways in which, at the global, national, and ecclesiastical levels, Weigel has seen the order that he thought secure become undermined in unexpected ways. “Order is not self-maintaining,” he writes, but “an achievement, and it must be attained over and over again.”

The Fate of the American Proposition

In “Truths Still Held?” Weigel revisits, a half century after its publication, John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960). Father Murray (1904–1967) observed that one of America’s distinctive features was that our nationhood lay in “adherence to truths in the civic order,” not blood, common cultural history, or uniform religious conviction. Many of these foundational truths of the American Proposition came from Christianity.

Americans believed that their nation was under the judgment of God, who ruled as sovereign over nations and whose law, embedded in nature, provided the ground on which all just human laws would be based. They also held that governance is founded on the consent of the governed—a view Murray traced not to the Enlightenment, but to Middle Ages. Medieval social pluralism and limits on the authority of rulers were the norm of Western government, he argued, from which royal absolutism and the union of throne and altar were aberrations, not natural conclusions. Indeed, the American Proposition holds that the state is distinct from society and exists to serve it, not the other way around.

The American Proposition also held that “only a virtuous people can be free” and that democracy was therefore “a spiritual and moral enterprise.” As Murray put it: “Political freedom is endangered in its foundations as soon as the universal moral values, upon whose shared possession the self-discipline of a free society depends, are no longer vigorous enough to restrain the passions and shatter the selfish inertia of men.” He doubted that these propositions were still held in his own time; Weigel’s doubts about our present adherence to them are even greater. Postmodern skepticism, the judiciary’s usurpation of politics, the state’s encroachments on religious liberty, and the relegation of virtue to private life all bode ill for the American Proposition.

These concerns remain valid, but the doubt has only increased since the writing of that 2010 essay. Liberal politics are founded on a distinction between the foundational principles of society on which we all agree and the private convictions on which we disagree, but flourish only as they do not violate those foundational principles. A growing number of Americans, especially young people, find that we agree less and less about foundational principles and the goods toward which our society should be directed. We even disagree on more basic matters, like who is a man or a woman (or something else, if that is possible). For both progressive and conservative illiberals, the compromises necessary for liberal politics are no longer worth making. It is far easier to see our fellow citizens as enemies who must be opposed, and practical liberal politics as a futile exercise to be bypassed.

Postmoderns versus the New Francoists

This trend manifests itself in different ways on the political Left and Right. Activists at our colleges and universities are far more interested in working for justice than hearing arguments that might challenge their understanding of justice. They see religious liberty as a cloak for inflicting dignitary harms on the expressive rights of others. Free speech was once the tool by which the oppressed challenged their oppressors. Now, the cost of incorrect speech is too great to condone the advocacy of free expression for all. Voltaire is out; a militant campus version of Michel Foucault is in.

Illiberals on the Right arrive at similar conclusions by different means. Religious liberty for them is thinly cloaked relativism under which all religions are equally true (that is, equally false) and therefore worthy of the same protections. Free speech has brought us obscenity and other forms of vicious speech that only further harm society. Why must we hold back the fullness of our religious convictions from our laws and common life? Why shy from advocating confessional states? William F. Buckley, Jr., is out; Brent Bozell, who left National Review to become a partisan of Francisco Franco’s Spain, is in.

The Fragility of Order lacks a systematic counterargument against these variants of illiberalism, but such an argument is vitally necessary for Weigel’s project. Young people need to see that their faith should help them participate in the politics of their homeland, which still has goods worth conserving. They need to understand why confessional states like Louis IX’s France and Franco’s Spain are not the goal toward which we should aspire today—that our political tradition rejected religious coercion by the state for good reasons. They need to see their neighbor not as a political enemy with whom there can be no compromise, but as a fellow citizen toward whom they have duties of prudence and charity.

A Call to Engagement

The beginning of such a counterargument comes in Weigel’s most recent essays. He argues, in “A New Great Awakening” (2017), that politics and law cannot resolve what is, at its heart, a crisis over our understanding of what it means to be a human being. That crisis needs religious men and women engaged in public life, not retreating from it; men and women who recognize that the American Founding drew on more than just Enlightenment political thought and that “certain ideas essential to the democratic project . . .  find their deepest roots in Christianity.” He notes the historical myopia of the “Benedict Option,” since monasteries were deeply enmeshed in their local communities. Instead, he proposes the model of Gregory the Great, who in the 6th century became a monk but was called back to service as the Bishop of Rome, and thereby, at that time, to serve as its de facto civil leader. Cultural and social renewal, not withdrawal, should be the modus operandi.

Along with Gregory, Weigel points to St. Francis of Assisi as another model of religious engagement in our time. He argues that the way to counter contemporary Gnosticism is less by argument and more by demonstration: “The new paradigm must be in the Franciscan mode, with embodied witness coming first.” Given the recent exposure of deep corruption in the Catholic Church, the choice of Francis was more apt than Weigel could have known. Today’s Catholics must plod ahead in Franciscan humility, without the triumphalism they once enjoyed, without a winsome and winning John Paul II at the helm. Like St. Francis, they should not see corruption in the Church or in society as a reason for inaction or withdrawal, but should press on in the fight for a more perfect order in their societies, ecclesiastical and national.