Principles of Catholic Morality X: the challenge of modernity and the contested legacy of Thomism

In the eighteenth century, the Church found itself faced with a new foe, which was to prove deadlier than paganism or Islam.  The destruction of the Catholic Church–first its social marginalization, and then its complete annihilation–has always been the first and overriding goal of the philosophes and their progeny, the liberals and socialists.  By definition, no peace is possible with people whose whole organizing purpose is your extermination.  Whenever the Church has foolishly offered concessions, she has been met by steepening demands and escalating attacks.  Although the philosophes were extremely second-rate as thinkers, they did form an ideology that powerfully appeals to mens’ baser instincts:  individualism, utilitarianism, libertinism.  Whoever wishes to cast off the holy bonds of community, tradition, and natural law finds in these a ready justification.

The Church would, of course, reject individualism in all its forms, and doing so would lead to significant developments in her understanding of both herself and the temporal order.  This began with the counter-revolutionaries.  Although derided by progressive (and even Burkean) historians, they were original in some important respects.  The focus of Louis de Bonald was quite new.  Rather than basing his system on a view of individual human flourishing or even of collective national flourishing, his concern is above all to defend a set of relations (power/minister/subject; father/mother/child; king/ministers/subjects) understood to be willed by God as the way His authority is communicated to Earth.  Individuals are less important than the roles they fill.  Society itself is important only as the sum of these relations.  Bonald was also an early proponent of the Catholic view of tradition as enabling reason, rather than substituting for it.  We cannot reason, he says, without language, and language is something we receive from our culture, which received it in the beginning from God Himself.  However, the fact that we owe the means of our reasoning to tradition doesn’t imply any cultural relativism.  Once we have linguistic reason, we apprehend objective truth with it.  The counter-revolutionary attack on individualism would come to fruition in Rene de la Tour du Pin’s vision of a Christian corporate state.  Every profession is organized corporately; all of them participate in the political process and are directed by authority toward the common good.  The counter-revolutionaries were to have an important effect on Pope Leo XIII and his denunciation of economic liberalism.

At the same time, the Church’s newly explicit anti-individualism was having a profound effect on her understanding of herself.  In Germany, Johann Adam Moehler was to apply the communitarian understanding to the Church.  The Church is not a mass of individuals, but a single corporate body–the body of Christ–with a collective soul, which is none other than the Holy Spirit.  Corporatism allows us to see the Church as the continuation of the Incarnation across space and time, visually organized through the hierarchy.  Another German, Karl Adam, would take this idea of spiritual corporatism and present it as Catholicism’s very spirit.  He convincingly argued that this idea makes sense of many Catholic doctrines that Protestants find inexplicable:  the sacraments, the ordained priesthood, the communion of saints, and indulgences.  The culmination of this corporatist ecclesiology was Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, a definitive statement of the Church’s self-understanding.

Meanwhile, in England, John Henry Newman was to defend the Church against the liberals’ claim that the appearance of mutability in the Church’s doctrine over time disproves her claim to authority.  If the Church is infallible, shouldn’t she say precisely the same thing at all times?  If her teaching is apostolic, shouldn’t it all be found in first-century writings?  Newman agreed that the Church should not contradict herself with time, but he saw Christianity as more than a set of explicit beliefs expanding outward only by logical deduction.  The Church is an organic community.  Like an organism, she can mature and change while maintaining her distinct nature; like an organism, there is an objective distinction between corruption and maturation along the lines of one’s nature.  The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was part of the Church from the beginning, implicit in her scriptures and rituals, but she had to “grow” intellectually before she could formulate it in an explicit dogma.  The “development of dogma” is really the process of the Church bringing to light the truths encoded in her rituals and other practices.  Christians prayed for the dead, for example, long before they had a dogma that made sense of that practice.  Here again, we see the Catholic view that obedience to tradition does not mean you ever have to shut off your brain.  If a traditionally established Christian practice doesn’t make sense given currently doctrines, this is an opportunity for deeper investigation of the Church’s hidden treasures, rather than to simply dismiss either the doctrines or the practice.

After World War II, the Church found herself confronted by a world dominated by two powers, both representing the Enlightenment, but different strands of it.  The United States represented the “moderate” tradition of Locke and the founding fathers:  deist and democratic, hostile to religious establishment put friendly to its private excercise, and with an idealism tempered by prudence.  The Soviet Union represented the fanatical, atheist, and totalitarian tradition of the Jacobins:  bloodthirsty, cruel, openly anti-religious and Satanic, unrestrained by humilty, tradition, or even basic human pity.  While the Church saw errors in both positions, she certainly could not be neutral between them.  An American world would be a challenge; a Soviet world certain death.  Thus the wise Pius XII through his entire weight behind the free world and against the godless communists.  Christian thinkers began to reevaluate the moderate Enlightenment with more sympathy.  Surely, if these Lockean liberals could be steadfast allies of Christianity against the Nazis and the communists, they can’t be all bad?

This brief sense of friendship between moderate liberalism and Christianity is the spirit of “the fifties”, which really lasted from 1945 to about 1965.  It was a time when people like Jacques Maritain, Arnold Toynbee, and Reinhold Niebuhr could find a large and receptive audience.  Maritain, the Catholic of this bunch, had been a Catholic communitarian during his days in Action Francaise.  He mistook the papal command to leave this organization as an order to help Catholicism get with the liberal program.  So Maritain spent the rest of his life trying to square the circle of imagining a spiritual community that is worldview-neutral.  Quite a waste, really.  The main statement of this incoherent vision is his Integral Humanism.  The key to Maritain’s new Christendom was community based on the natural law, which in the haze of the “fifties” Maritain imagined to be shared by Catholics, liberals, and even socialists.

Also during the fifties, an up-and-coming theologian named Has Urs von Balthasar wrote a spectacularly foolish book called Razing the Bastions:  On the Church in this Age.  Balthasar claimed that the Church’s separate organizations and her defenses against modernity were harmful and should be abandoned.  They just prevent fruitful “engagement” with the world and keep converts out.  Therefore, all the Church’s plausibility structures should be abandoned, and Catholics should immerse themselves in the hostile general culture.  Seriously, that’s the argument.  It’s as if a soldier were to say to his general that all their defenses against the invading army should be torn down, because they’re discouraging incoming defectors!  The Church, defended by the Holy Spirit from heresy but not from boneheaded stupidity, took Balthasar’s advice, and the results were what one would expect from unilateral disarmament.  Once the walls were breached, Maritain and Balthasar (when the latter wasn’t writing incomprehensible books on Christology) would both defend their city heroically, but it’s not clear that they ever realized their past errors.

Since Aeterni Patris, most orthodox Catholic intellectuals have been calling themselves Thomists, so the argument of how to respond to modernity has taken the form of a civil war between Thomists.  The Radical Orthodox theologian Tracey Rowland in the book Culture and the Thomist Tradition has characterized this conflict as a disagreement over how the Church is to understand culture.  The “Whig Thomists” see culture as a theologically neutral set of practices–such as speaking German vs. speaking French–and the Church must simply “translate” herself into the culture she finds herself immersed in.  Today, that culture is modernity, and the Church must reexpress herself in its idiom by chucking hellenistic philosophy and pre-democratic political sensibilities.  Third-world “inculturation” advocates certainly takes such opinions, but Rowland has in mind primarily American Catholic neoconservatives like Michael Novak, for whom the Church inculturing herself means specifically baptizing (i.e. capitulating to) democratic capitalism.

Neoconservatives are, of course, rather easy to dismiss, intellectually speaking.  A more serious set of “Whig Thomists” are the proponents of the New Natural Law, such as John Finnis and Robert George.  This group is convinced that Hume’s is/ought distinction is a serious blow to the original Thomist natural law theory, based on the Aristotelian notion of a normative human telos.  So they propose to replace human nature with a list of “goods of human flourishing”.  Of course, any such list could only be anchored in some normative human nature, so this move really buys them nothing.  What they do with it is worse.  Their fundamental principle is that these goods are effectively on a level and one may never act against any of them.  Thus trivial goods like “play” can impose moral obligations as weighty as serious goods like “religion” (this latter category being their only half-recognition that God may have something to do with human flourishing).  Saint Thomas himself never advocated such a moral system, which is not surprising, since it is absurd.  Despite their obviously flawed system, the new natural lawyers have been some of the ablest public defenders of Christian morality of late.

Against the Whig Thomists, Rowland points to the “postmodern Augustinian Thomists” who recognize that culture is not morally neutral, but always contains at least implied moral standards, and who identify liberal modernity as a culture/tradition at least partly antithetical to Christianity.  The best known proponent of this view is Alasdair MacIntyre.  A convert from Marxism, MacIntyre came to see that a tolerable ethics would need something like the Aristotelian sense of virtue and human excellence.  However, he thought Aristotle’s natural philosophy was obviously wrong (an opinion he later changed), so something other than an Aristotelian form would have to be found to supply this standard of virtue.  In his most famous book, After Virtue, MacIntyre suggests that virtues may be an emergent property of communities.  In modern bureaucratic organizations, only the final product, the output, matters.  Healthier communities have “practices” which are done for their own sake; it doesn’t just matter that such-and-such gets done, but that we do it.  To be able to excel at “practices”, a person must develop certain qualities, and these are the virtues.  Thus, someone can only really be virtuous in a certain type of community, and modernity/democratic capitalism isn’t it.  What’s more, we need narrative traditions to fully make sense of our lives and the virtues, a theme MacIntyre was to develop more fully in Whose Justice?  Which Rationality?  This book again identifies liberalism as a distinct tradition incompatible with Thomism.  The way to rejuvinate ethic life is not, MacIntyre believes, to replace the liberal state (he hasn’t seen that far, unfortunately), but to create small communities where the genuinely virtuous life can thrive.

Rowland, as I said, is a member of the Radical Orthodoxy movement.  Although largely an Anglican movement, a major inspiration of this group is the mid-century Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac.  Lubac is best known for his attack on “extrinsicalism”, the idea that grace and nature are completely unrelated, so that the natural human order can get along just fine without God.  Lubac attributed this belief to his scholastic enemies, and he blamed it for the rise of secularism.  The cure, he thought, is to emphasize man’s natural desire for God.  The Radical Orthodoxy application of this is to say that no human activity is autonomous.  All should be ordered to God.  The danger they often understate is that the distinction between nature and grace may be lost.

The conciliar document Gaudium et spes more or less assumed that culture can be changed with as little effort or consequence as changing a set of clothes.  The results of this false assumption have been ruinous.  We are now coming to understand that a certain cultural context is important for the fostering of the Christian virtuous life.  Morality is not a private matter.

6 Responses

  1. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Fascism and National Socialism were the West’s last great hopes. If the Axis had won the war, the entire Christian ethical code (and thus the entire liberal and leftist ethical codes) would’ve been eradicated from the Western psyche and we would’ve been spared the degeneracy of the past half century. We would’ve undergone the necessary transvaluation of values and avoided the mess we are now in.

  2. P.S. Don’t you ever wonder why it was *so easy* for the Church and its intellectuals to capitulate to liberalism and democracy and multiculturalism? Maybe because there was never all that much fundamental difference between them?

  3. Hi Drieu,

    A couple of points:
    1) You and I both know that any survey of atheists and Catholics would find deviation from liberalism far more common among the latter. Liberalism is a really powerful force that every group has had trouble resisting. To the extent that there is any resistance at all, it is largely thanks to “fundamentalist” Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims.
    2) If what you’re saying is true, why do liberals continue to regard the Catholic Church as their greatest enemy. This commonality you speak of isn’t apparent to any liberal.

    So, while objectively, yes, the Church is doing a piss-poor job of fighting liberalism, she’s actually doing better than any other group or organization. This, of course, is nothing to be happy about.

  4. A propos of Drieu’s remarks, Henri de Lubac’s attack on “Extrinsicalism” has two sources.

    Firstly, he sought the recovery of an authentically Augustinian metaphysics, in which the “natural desire” for God is not a mere generalised wish for the transcendent, but an orientation of the intellect to God – “Fecisti nos ad te…” and “Nisi credederitis, non intellegitis – Unless you believe you will not understand…” Man was created for the Beatific Vision. This is something he shared with Blondel, Maréchal and others.

    Secondly, there was his visceral hatred for Maurras and l’Action Française. In the memorable exchange in 1910, in Blondel’s publication, L’Annales de philosophie chrétienne, between Maurras’s Jesuit defender, Descoqs and the Oratorian Laberthonnière, Descoqs, a follower of Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas had allowed the political sphere a wide degree of political autonomy and he was prepared to detach “political society” from “religious society.” Laberthonnière had retaliated by accusing Descoqs of being influenced by “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.” Laberthonnière also shrewdly accused Maurras of seeing the Church as shoring up society against “the anarchy he saw as inherent in Christianity itself.”

    So far as I know, this exchange has never appeared in English, which is astonishing, as it was what united such disparate thinkers as Blondel, Maréchal, the Dominicans, Chenu and Congar and the Jesuits, Lubac and Daniélou. It was a fundamental moment for the Nouvelle Théologie, much as Keble’s Assize Sermon had been for the Oxford Movement.

  5. “You and I both know that any survey of atheists and Catholics would find deviation from liberalism far more common among the latter.”

    You confuse correlation with causation here. Just because many atheists nowadays tend towards liberalism does not mean that atheism inevitably leads towards liberalism. Furthermore, I think this tendency can be easily explained by 1) the fact that most people don’t think deeply about politics or philosophy and simply determine their positions from mainstream perceptions and 2) the prominent Christian component in the American Right and 3) the fact that many intelligent people are scared away by Christian lunacy and thus gravitate towards liberalism because they believe it’s the only alternative, as per 1) and 2).

    I think if the Right managed to separate itself from Christian lunacy, we could recruit many of those intelligent people into our ranks, even if they were atheists. Unfortunately, most people only see things in black-and-white terms of Atheist/Agnostic Liberals vs. Christian Conservatives.

    “If what you’re saying is true, why do liberals continue to regard the Catholic Church as their greatest enemy. ”

    They don’t. They disagree with the Church on abortion and gay marriage and contraception, none of which are issues I feel strongly about. Liberals and the Church agree on just about everything else.

    “the Church is doing a piss-poor job of fighting liberalism, she’s actually doing better than any other group or organization.”

    Again, other than the issues I listed above, HOW is the Church fighting liberalism? None of those issues are even that important in the grand scheme of things.

  6. […] raises a great discussion issue on my last “Principles of Catholic Morality” post.  Since these posts haven’t been very popular–heaven knows why–some of you […]

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