The American Proposition after the Catholic Moment

Before I reply to the responses to my lead essay, I would like to thank the editors of Law & Liberty for the opportunity to discuss the legacy of Fr. John Courtney Murray. In addition, I want to thank my respondents: R. R. Reno, George Weigel, Rachel Lu, Geoffrey Vaughan, and Michael Pakaluk. It is hard to find a more capable, as well as intimidating, assemblage to speak on Murray’s legacy. They did not disappoint. I am grateful for their contributions, and I know that the readers must be as well.

Reply to Geoffrey Vaughan: On Institutions

Vaughan begins by noting that the political landscape of America is quite different from the time Murray published We Hold These Truths. Indeed, he is right, although perhaps not quite in the way he originally intended. American Catholics include a majority of the Supreme Court, the incoming President of the United States Joe Biden, and the presumed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. While the fate of the Senate is still yet to be determined, many prominent Catholic voices like that of Marco Rubio will remain. Murray likely had no idea that such a transformation could be possible in so short a time since the publication of his book.

Vaughan notes that the “Church always has a political problem.” At present, that problem appears to be that Catholics disagree amongst themselves about politics, as Rubio and the Catholic justices (except Sotomayor) are conservative and Biden, Pelosi, and Sotomayor are progressive. Americans are similarly divided, according to Vaughan, between the “Lockean” conservativism of ordinary people and the woke capitalism driving progressive social change. To apply the division of Catholic political leaders to these constituents, we find conservative Catholics defending the Anglo-American liberal tradition against the progressive Catholic capitulation to the new dogmas that criticize self-government at home and defend totalitarianism abroad. Vaughan adds to the latter category none other than Pope Francis himself. This is quite the political problem! The cause of the political problem, as Vaughan rightly notes, is not in the airy nostrums of “liberalism” but “in ourselves” because the human person continues to suffer from either original sin or, if baptized, from its effects. This is well said as it affects our politics and our institutions.

Vaughan singles out Catholic higher education for its failure to educate the faithful—for not showing them that the legitimate authority of the American republic rests in natural law. On my conclusion that Catholics needed new institutions, he laments, “we have lost almost all the institutions we once had” as Catholic universities are filled with faculty hostile to Church teachings. American prelates are not much better, as “Only a handful would dare lead anywhere other than in the direction the leftmost forces of the culture would take them.” In short, Vaughan understands the present political problem of American Catholicism to be the very institutions to which I appeal.

I have two points of disagreement. I do not regard Pope Francis as an agent of progressivism, although his posture toward China troubles me. Rather, Francis has a more pastoral than theological approach to the problems of modern life, making his statements harder to interpret as he leans more on exhortation than systematic thinking. After decades of philosopher-popes, the difference can feel quite jarring and unfortunately leads to confusion.

The second and more relevant issue is that of American Catholic institutions. To my knowledge, there has not been a satisfactory account of the bureaucratization of the Church in America, but the rise of risk management over the Gospel has proved to be the spiritual equivalent of penny-wise and pound-foolish. Diocesan lawyers seem keen on keeping the real estate but not the faith. Finally, the current Catholic university where I teach is theologically sound, but I understand most are not.

I should explain that the institutions I had in mind were not exclusively Catholic but rather ecumenical, and their role would be to engage in the work of teaching natural law foundations for government that offer a pluralistic society the basis for peace and religious liberty. As a Catholic, I would be happy if these institutions lead to a mass evangelization of the American people into the Church or at least a reconstitution of Catholic universities and dioceses, but my more immediate point was that American politics remains sufficiently diverse as to require the formation of a consensus on natural law principles about which people of various backgrounds can agree. Such institutions already exist, such as the First Liberty Institute, and there is a deep desire in America for trustworthy institutions that do not merely provide, as Yuval Levin puts it, mere platforms of performance but rather real sources of formation. There is simply no other way.

Reply to Lu: Finding a Consensus

Rachel Lu rightly seizes on Murray’s dedication to “find a way for Catholics to remain faithful citizens of modern states without rejecting any part of the Church’s tradition.” Indeed, she posits Murray’s aim arguably better than I did in my original essay. She discerns that I agree with Murray but find myself in a bind, since the consensus Murray wished to forge is dead. I referred to the consensus as “dead” not in the sense that consensus is impossible but that the one Murray envisioned was no longer possible. Murray’s vision was one of mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and well-intentioned secularists. In the ensuing decades, the religious composition of the country has changed. I pointed out that many of the changes are bad, such as the expansion of secularism and its re-composition as the “sectarian Liberalism” of current woke politics. Other changes are good, such as the increasing interest of evangelicals and the remaining liturgical Protestants in natural law, as well as the increasingly vocal patriotism of orthodox Jews. Hence, counting on the old, midcentury consensus was of no use, but there remains plenty of fertile ground for a new one.

For those raised during the height of American Catholic culture, the present resurgence of sectarian Liberalism can feel like a disaster, but it is merely a return to normal for America.

As for my criticism of neo-integralists in the piece, Lu believes I am arguing against a straw man. It is unclear to me how. The straw man fallacy takes an argument, distorts it with exaggeration, and then argues against the distortion rather than the original argument. My reason for addressing neo-integralism was that its forebears were theological opponents of Murray. He regarded them as wanting to exterminate opposition to the Church, as Franco had in Spain. Neo-integralists are attempting to revive the theology of extermination and regard Franco as an example of Christian governance. I have shown as much elsewhere.

What Lu means, I suspect, is that I am exaggerating not the arguments but their relevance. She doubts the popularity of a future “Hapsburg Option” and posits that neo-integralists merely offer their “theoretical positions that help us to gain perspective on more practicable options.” She notes that the fault may lie with the “caustic style” of neo-integralists, who resort not so much to argumentation but to fallacies of their own.

I simply do not agree with Lu because the neo-integralists do not agree either. Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., and Alan Fimister argue that integralism is the perennial teaching of the Church. They defend state power to establish laws that would disenfranchise Jews and exercise coercive power over baptized persons living contrary to the Catholic faith. From what I can tell, the reason for the caustic style is to avoid making these claims too often, as they are unpopular today. I suspect the problem here is that much of the debate over neo-integralism occurs over social media or in academic settings. It does not feel like a mass movement, but it is not supposed to be one. It is meant to shift elite opinion among Catholics and bear fruit in a generation of leaders raised in it—what one neo-integralist has called “integration from within.” In short, the model is like that of John Rawls, who receives more than a few mentions among my responses: there are few “Rawlsian liberals” in the world, but these liberals end up in elite positions and publicize “justice as fairness” to the broader public. Neo-integralists seem to have the same model in mind.

Where Lu and I do very much agree is on how much of current conservative Catholic discourse constantly falls “through the cracks and ends up drowning in despair.” I said as much in 2018, and that despair is plainly visible in some of the responses to my original essay.

Reply to Pakaluk: Don’t Despair Over Sectarian Liberalism 

Of the responses, Michael Pakaluk’s is most symptomatic of the despair Lu mentions. “Nothing from Murray’s famous 1960 book endured even ten years,” he laments, elsewhere calling the project “stillborn.” Yet, somehow, the Supreme Court in Espinoza v. Montana was able to overturn the nefarious Blaine Amendments that, in Pakaluk’s view, required overturning to realize Murray’s vision. How is it possible that Murray’s stillborn child might still live? The answer is that, as a project, it is very much what Pakaluk calls it: “aspirational.”

Catholics of a certain age and from certain parts of the country grew up under the Catholic cultural high-water mark of mid-century America that Vaughan describes in his response. Murray was not one of those Catholics. Like many of his generation, he was raised in a country in which rank anti-Catholicism was not only acceptable but prestigious. When Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen took to the airwaves in 1930, he did so to fight against the anti-Catholic fervor stirred up by the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith. Murray was a young man when these events transpired, although he was not in the country for all of them.

For those raised during the height of American Catholic culture, the present resurgence of sectarian Liberalism can feel like a disaster, but it is merely a return to normal for America. As Philip Hamburger has shown, theological liberalism (what Murray calls “sectarian Liberalism”) has a long history in America and took particular aim at the Church. Murray remained cognizant of it, referring to it often in We Hold These Truths as well as before and after. In 1953, when he noted that sectarian Liberalism appeared to have abated, he was right. After all, this was the height of Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame football team. Then, sectarian Liberalism returned, as it had before. The very Third Plenary Council of 1884 from which Murray drew his “built better than they knew,” met at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was wrapping up a decade of terrorism and James G. Blaine had seen his amendments passed in several states. Murray was merely part of a long tradition of Catholic republicanism I have discussed elsewhere, meaning that his vision was not even his, but a generational alternative Catholics have promoted over state power used for sectarian purposes.

While enduring the tribulations of sectarian Liberalism, Catholics must have an alternative vision that prioritizes religious liberty on natural law grounds. That vision cannot be explicitly sectarian itself, as many who would wish to join in it are not Catholic. Hence, Catholics must be part of and likely lead the formation of this new consensus. Pakaluk leaves us, as Lu anticipates, with nothing but despair.

Reply to Weigel: Taking Integralists Seriously

Without intending to, George Weigel further demonstrates Pakaluk’s historical troubles. While Pakaluk believes that Murray’s project had not survived the 1960s, Weigel points out that the project took on new earnestness in a period when the Church participated in the religious revival in America during the 1980s and was instrumental in defeating communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. This revival was not entirely Catholic, but it was one in which evangelical Protestants moved from a deep-seated prejudice against the Catholic Church into an ecumenical alliance for religious liberty that continues to this day. As I explained in my piece, evangelical Protestants have taken a greater interest in natural law arguments, and Reformed theologians are reclaiming Protestant natural law arguments from the early Reformation. As for Catholics themselves, they provided the spiritual leadership under Pope St. John Paul II.

Murray argued that the Church finds its confessional role in modern nation-states by evangelizing and educating citizens, who then select leaders that best approximate the moral character of leadership and stand for policies grounded in natural law.

Weigel recalls as part of this period that there was a sense in America of an arriving “Catholic moment” like that of the mid-century, but even more vital as the old religious leadership once headed by mainline Protestants might fall to Catholics. In collaboration with evangelical Protestants and other allies of goodwill, Catholics would work faithfully within the American constitutional system to overturn Roe v. Wade, defend traditional families, and preserve local civic institutions. That moment came and went, and many conservative Catholics have felt duped. Roe remains the law of the land, and now so is Obergefell v. Hodges, which as precedent now threatens to prevent religious groups from legally living out their missions. Hence one can see the appeal of the neo-integralist message that liberals rigged the system from the start.

For this reason, I remain engaged with the neo-integralist project if only to push hard against it. Many faithful Catholics attracted to neo-integralist critiques have rightly assessed that the Catholic moment was fleeting and prompted a progressive reaction now underway. Moreover, nearly two whole generations of American Catholics have been born after the end of the Cold War, and the last generation of American Catholics who might remember the frail, stooped John Paul II are now in their early 20s. For those born after 1989, the Catholic moment is not defined by the Church’s spiritual leadership of the Cold War, but either by 2001 or 2018, when clerical sexual misconduct brought an immense scandal to the Church the effects of which, I suspect, Church leaders refuse to admit. Such a vacuum in authentic Church leadership invites once-marginal figures to fill it, and without competition, they very well might succeed. I agree with Weigel about the critical importance of John Paul II and the renewed religious vision of the early 1980s. I agree that these events vindicated Murray, and even the present discontent was one Murray anticipated. I just do not agree that these conclusions are a sufficient justification for simply dismissing the neo-integralist critique.

Reply to Reno: Integralists as Provocateurs

Reno’s response has two parts. The first takes us through a whirlwind of historical claims about Americanism and indifferentism. The second takes me to task for my criticism of neo-integralism.

To reply to the first part, I will merely focus on the most important mistakes, regrettably leaving aside the remainder. The condemnation of Americanism in 1895 did not hold up, as the Church became more acquainted with both the entirety of the original case and the many serious shortcomings of early Catholic social teaching about the state. In 1938, Abbé Félix Klein, one of the chief defenders of Americanism in France during the 1890s, raised the old issue to Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who was not yet Pope Pius XII. In response, “with a broad smile, the future pope brushed the subject aside as a dead issue.” Such a response seems sensible enough, as by then Sheen, who was well acquainted with Pacelli and under direct instruction from Pope Pius XI, had been advocating for Americanism to the American faithful for nearly a decade. One reason is that, by 1938, many in the Vatican had learned that the Americanism condemned in 1895 was primarily an intentional, reactionary misinterpretation intended to curb the popularity of Archbishop John Ireland among the younger, social Catholics in France.

Murray was simply operating in this same Americanist milieu. Far from being the same as “indifferentism,” Americanism proved to be the only satisfactory alternative to the grievous failures of political Catholicism in Europe and South America. American Catholics like Ireland, Sheen, and Murray argued that the Church finds its confessional role in modern nation-states by evangelizing and educating citizens, who then select leaders that best approximate the moral character of leadership and stand for policies grounded in natural law. To that end, Murray argues in “The Issue of Church and State at Vatican Council II,” the Church possesses a “unique theological title” in “the mandate of Christ to preach His gospel and observe His commandments.” Murray warned that if the Church failed to assert this title and to affirm Church immunity from secular authority on ecclesial matters, then “the way is opened to indifferentism,” which Murray condemns. Murray warns, however, that if it should assert the title against secular authorities in order to subjugate them to Church power, the “Church would abdicate her transcendence” and would violate the autonomous authority of temporal power. Therefore, Reno is wrong to conflate Americanism and indifferentism and wrong that Murray advocated indifferentism. On the contrary, Murray opposed indifferentism and saw in his own work a way of preventing it.

There is much more to say, but for the sake of brevity, I will conclude my reply to the first part of Reno’s response by noting that a serious look at the common ground between Alasdair MacIntyre and Murray would make for an excellent piece in First Things.

The second part of Reno’s response was quite revelatory, but before mentioning why, I should clear up a few misunderstandings. I am always surprised that any critique of neo-integralism must always be a “swipe.” It would seem no criticism of neo-integralism is permissible, and this approach to public discussion has kept neo-integralists stuck in an online intellectual ghetto, repeating to each other the same critiques of liberalism for almost five years. Besides, my discussion, though critical, was important to explain Murray’s motives. Murray was concerned about the Church continuing to invoke an authority of “extermination,” or Church-sanctioned political coercion of religious minorities. Integralists of his time defended the existence and exercise of Church temporal power, and neo-integralists today wish to revive those claims.

I did not mention Patrick Deneen in my original essay on Murray, but I have always had some sympathy with his 2017 book Why Liberalism Failed (my opinion on Ryszard Legutko is more mixed). I said as much in another essay (linked in my lead), where I agree that liberals confess their own dogma. Also, Reno mentions Thomas Hobbes as a liberal thinker, but Hobbes is also a foundational thinker for Carl Schmitt, a favorite political theorist of neo-integralists on account of his deep hostility for liberal parliamentarianism, among other things. Either the inclusion of Hobbes as a liberal was a mistake or another example of how neo-integralists are more liberal than they think.

The startling revelation is how Reno decides to defend Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule’s “Empire of Guadalupe” as merely operating in the spirit of “provocation.” In his effort to defend neo-integralists, he cannot bring himself to defend their arguments except as mere provocations and not as serious claims about the nature of Catholic political thought. I cannot know if this is true, as Reno offers no evidence. If it is, however, then he is mounting the Jon Stewart defense of “clown-nose-on, clown-nose-off,” which is a comedic variation on the motte-and-bailey defense. Back when Stewart was still hosting The Daily Show, he would advance strong political positions as though he were an editorial journalist, and he would predictably experience criticism. Upon receiving criticism, however, Stewart would retreat to mocking his critics as getting worked up over a comedian on a two-bit cable channel. The trouble with Reno’s Jon Stewart defense is that, for it to be true, neo-integralism must be fundamentally unserious. It is just an act. The real Empire of Guadalupe was the friends and enemies we distinguished along the way.

Therefore, it would seem that it is Reno who is dismissing Vermeule and the other neo-integralists as mere provocateurs. I take Vermeule to mean what he says, hence why I attempt to argue with him here and elsewhere. I believe that this is the right way to proceed, since Crean and Fimister indicate that integralism is a serious project. In fact, Reno also dismisses these two sober authors of Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy so completely that he ignored them in his response to me, perhaps because there is no clown nose red enough to make its contents funny. Crean and Fimister do not seem to be provocateurs in the least but very genuine proponents of the view that only the baptized should receive the rights of citizenship.

If Reno defends provocation, then I do not understand why he would be so unhappy with what he calls my “vague gestures” as a way of engaging with the current problems facing American Catholicism, since he seems fine with similarly vague gestures among neo-integralists. One might even consider Reno’s characterization of my essay’s conclusion a “swipe,” but in the spirit of answering rather than dismissing Reno, I wish to demonstrate that the institutions to which I am referring are already very real and making a difference. For example, the First Liberty Institute—where I am a research fellow—successfully defended the preservation of the Bladensburg Cross in the 2019 Supreme Court decision The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. While it is hard to know for certain, the outcome of the case was probably the first crack in the wall of separation of church and state erected in Lemon v. Kurtzman. As during the Civil Rights Movement, winning federal cases is necessary but not sufficient to make a difference. For that reason, First Liberty has taken cases from Muslims, Jews, and Christians and represents an institution organized for the common cause in preserving religious liberty and every summer holds a program to educate those who might be the right spiritual leaders for the defense of public religious practice. I hope this addresses the greater need for specificity and maybe even encourages Reno and others to join the cause.