Against Indifferentism

Many regard John Courtney Murray as the theologian who gelded Catholicism’s self-confident claims and made the Roman Church safe for the liberal-dominated American scene. Thankfully, James Patterson does not perpetuate this misreading. He rightly emphasizes that Murray’s commendation of America’s religious indifferentism was historically informed, tentative, and prudential.

“Indifferentism” was coined by 19th-century Catholic theologians to describe the belief that it is of no consequence which religion dominates the public square. This view was roundly condemned at the time. By any fair description, America’s constitutional government manifests indifferentism, which was why the Vatican was anxious about the dangers of “Americanism.” In the mid-20th century, Murray succeeded in convincing many Catholics that indifferentism (or “pluralism,” to use the positive-sounding term for the same cultural-political phenomenon) need not always be in error. If limited to the political sphere and constrained by a shared moral culture, it could be consistent with Catholic social teaching.

His arguments to that end were based on three core convictions. The first concerned the liberty of the Church. As Murray understood, Christianity cannot be the state’s religion, the norm in classical antiquity. The Church is a polis with her own laws and walls and thus must be free to govern herself and promote the spiritual well-being of the faithful in accord with her own lights.

The necessity of free assent to the truths of the faith constituted Murray’s second fundamental principle. Christianity has always rejected the legitimacy of forced conversion. Coercion vainly imagines that the soul of man can be formed by worldly powers, when in truth only the individual will—and God’s will—can change the objects of our love. Murray frames this ancient regard for interior freedom in modern terms as “freedom of conscience.” (This is a concept I dislike, because it is too comprehensive and thus unworkable as a political right).

Murray draws his third conviction from classical political philosophy: The primary end of civic life is peace. According to the Augustinian tradition, peace has two sides. One is negative and minimal: the absence of conflict. The other peace is positive and comprehensive. In its fuller sense, peace achieves tranquillitas ordinis, the concord that settles upon a society when the body politic is properly ordered so that each element of society flourishes in accord with its nature.

It is not difficult to see that the American constitutional system, even in its less than perfect expressions, is congenial to the liberty of the Church and guards individual freedoms. Our indifferentism has discouraged government meddling in church affairs. And although the Constitution does not identify a “right of conscience” (thankfully), the Bill of Rights enumerates many protections of individual rights, and this gives us a great deal of freedom to act and speak in accord with our beliefs.

The rub comes with the third principle, that of peace. St. Augustine held that no earthly city could attain tranquillitas ordinis. Civic life in a fallen world is always convulsed by rancor, conflict, and division. But even St. Augustine recognized that attaining the negative peace of the absence of violence requires aiming at the positive peace of well-ordered concord. Put simply, men must be at least somewhat moral in order not to be entirely demonic.

Therein lies the problem with America’s indifferentism. In order to maintain even the minimum of negative peace, civil authority must seek to form men morally. And doing so requires taking a public and political interest in man’s true ends.

Thus, a regime such as our own, committed to procedural liberalism, is invariably implicated in larger questions, not the least of which is whether or not knowing and serving God is man’s highest end. We can never have a liberalism that is purely political and not metaphysical, as John Rawls so earnestly desired.

Murray knew this to be the case. He held that natural law informed the American founding, at least implicitly. As Patterson notes, Murray was not naïve. Had he lived to read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I’m sure he would have nodded in assent to many passages. But writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he thought there was enough civic virtue to sustain the peace of the community.

It was not surprising that Murray took this positive view. Throughout his life, Catholicism had flourished in America. In the early 20th century, the Church became a political force of consequence in urban machine politics. Church attendance, vocations, and revenue boomed after World War II. It was not hard to believe that the founders built “better than they knew.”

Sixty years after the publication of We Hold These Truths, it is hard to sustain Murray’s guarded optimism. Patterson seems to agree. He observes that the constellation of moral, religious, and political convictions that made mid-20th-century America relatively congenial to religious orthodoxies—Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish—no longer exists.

When liberalism’s claim to establish a non-religious basis for civic life dominates rather than leavens our political deliberations, the civic consensus becomes hostile, not just to Catholic doctrine, but to natural law as well.

To a degree unprecedented in American history, our ruling class is not just unchurched; it is largely ignorant of basic Christian teaching. I’d venture that less than 20 percent of Ivy League graduates under age 40 have any idea what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

Patterson takes swipes at “neo-integralists.” I am more sympathetic. The gravamen of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed and Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy, as well as the various provocations penned by self-described “integralists,” is that our post-Christian society did not “just happen.” In one way or another, these critics of liberalism point out that societies dominated by liberalism engage in soulcraft, and they do so in ways that can deform us rather than orient us toward tranquillitas ordinis.

The critics of liberalism arguably stand on solid ground. From the outset of the modern era, liberal theorists have recognized that they must offer an account of man’s final end. Hobbes stipulated that our final end is physical survival. Locke offers a more winsome vision—our final end is to be free to pursue our personal interests without interference. Bentham’s final end is more ambitious—ever-greater utility.

The streams of influence that shape America are biblical and classical, as well as liberal. Our society is not purely Hobbesean, Lockean, or Benthamite. But to a greater and greater degree over recent decades, educational institutions, popular culture, and the social consensus form men to adopt these ends as their highest ambitions. This pedagogy aims to solidify a liberal tranquillitas. For when we convince young people that not dying or being rich are more important than defending their honor or attaining sanctity, they become “moral” in the liberal sense—more tolerant, more accepting, more inclusive, less violent, less judgmental, less concerned about honor, less particular about truth, less disruptively religious. Insofar as we seek physical survival, the security of rights, and an increase of utility above all else, our sentiments reinforce the indifferentism of our regime.

As I read them, the “neo-integralists” and other critics of liberalism’s overly dominant role in the 21st-century West seek to recover the enduring truth of the Church’s earlier condemnations of “indifferentism.” Society cannot be indifferent to man’s final end. One way or another, we must order our common life in accord with a consensus about what makes men happy. When liberalism’s claim to establish a non-religious basis for civic life dominates rather than leavens our political deliberations, the civic consensus becomes hostile, not just to Catholic doctrine, but to natural law as well.

I do not harbor hopes of establishing a Catholic monarchy in the United States, nor do I wish to alter our commendable tradition of religious liberty. Patterson correctly points out that we must “forge a new consensus.” But he is wrong to imagine the “neo-integralists” are hostile to this endeavor. Writers such as Sohrab Ahmari are essentially correct. If we fail to propose man’s true end—and do so with serious intent to frame our laws accordingly—then public debate will be dominated by assertions of false ends, which I range under the this-worldly gods of health, wealth, and pleasure.

Patterson misreads Adrian Vermeule’s proposal of an “Empire of Guadalupe.” It was made in the spirit of provocation. If we find his notions rebarbative or impractical, then what is our plan for restoring to public life a vigorous, politically serious account of man’s true end? Answering that question will require more than the vague gestures (“make common cause,” “formation of new institutions,” “deployment of the right spiritual leaders”) with which Patterson ends.

In the spirit of answering rather than dismissing Vermeule and other integralists, I’ll end with a non-ironic modest proposal. Catholics ought to seek alliances that allow us to reverse the last 75 years of extreme anti-establishment jurisprudence. Our goal should be to restore ecumenical prayer to public schools and require biblical literacy for high school graduates. These measures are entirely consistent with our best constitutional traditions—they were common practice three generations ago. In small but real ways these modest measures will re-integrate man’s final end into civic life.

We can’t restore the mid-20th century American culture that Murray thought workable for Catholics (and other religious believers). But we can work toward a better future, one that, however jealous of America’s traditions of religious freedom, does not make indifferentism into our culture’s spiritual ideal.